Man at His Best

The Politics Of Fashion

How Singapore's fashion retail scene find resonance in its political climate.

BY Shane Tan | Apr 21, 2017 | Culture


It’s clear that fashion reflects our times—economically, socially and politically. So, what does Singapore’s relationship with fashion say about Singapore politically?

Let’s start with shopping, one of our great national pastimes. We have over a hundred malls on our island nation, one for about every 53,000 people. While we might not set trends in the same way that other cities do, Singapore is, without question, a shopping capital.

Singapore’s numerous malls, however, are finding it hard to stay afloat, and a big reason for this is that they are too similar. New malls have been sprouting up in the heartlands, but they often offer the same range of shops, especially big, recognisable brands, because Singaporeans find comfort in them—they connote quality, prestige and status—despite the emergence of independent and local designers.

In an article by The Middle Ground asking if shopping malls in Singapore are too cookie-cutter, Yeo Xue Ting, a 21-year-old undergraduate, said: “It’s good that established brands can be found in neighbourhood or heartland malls too, because it means I don’t have to travel all the way to town to do my shopping.”

In political and civic life, Singaporeans have a similarly high level of trust in our institutions: Singapore was ranked fifth among all countries surveyed in the 2016 Edelman Trust Barometer Index. Trust in Singapore’s institutions had been slipping for three consecutive years from 82 percent in 2013 to 70 percent in 2015, but has since rebounded to 74 percent, according to the data.

This is in stark contrast with many Western nations who are seeing a significant decline in trust in public institutions and a wave of anti-establishment sentiment, which, in turn, has led to a sense of disillusionment with democracy. In 1995, the World Values Survey asked Americans how important it was for them to live in a democracy. On a scale of one to 10, 72 percent of citizens born before World War II assigned living in a democracy the highest possible value of 10. That favourable sentiment is no longer shared by subsequent generations. Just slightly over half of Americans born in the post-war boom placed maximum importance on living in a democracy, and less than 30 percent of those born after the ’80s did.

There is no current consensus on the relationship between economic growth and political freedom or democracy, but Singapore, a nation that developed without political liberalisation in the same model as Western democracy, stands out as an alternative to the view that economic development comes with political liberty and freedom—a commonly-held belief in the US and many Western countries.

Samuel Huntington, the political scientist most well-known for The Clash of Civilisations, famously argued that modernisation means increased political engagement and mobilisation, but modernisation doesn’t always go hand in hand with political development. In fact, disorder is the result when political mobilisation outpaces political institution building.

Singapore’s political order is maintained through this institutionalised fear of disorder, along with a complacency for comfort. This fear is reflected in a sort of stasis that Singapore sees in its relationship with fashion, and with politics.

In an article by The Straits Times, six leaders in the arts, fashion and retail industry used the words “homogenous”, “safe” and “scripted” to describe shopping in Singapore. When asked why malls in Singapore carry the same brands, Karthik Abirajan, a university student interviewed by The Middle Ground, said: “I guess maybe they’re making profits, so they’re happy not to change. If there’s appeal for the same brands, then why change? Just stick to the game plan I guess.”

In politics, Singapore’s climate of fear is created by its strong state capacity, and kept in place by “calibrated coercion,” a term coined by Cherian George, a Singaporean writer and academic.

Donald Emmerson, an expert on Southeast Asia, once shared a story that exemplifies this fear of disorder and chaos. While travelling in a cab, Emmerson’s driver set off the in-built speeding alarm. Emmerson jokingly told the driver that he could unplug the system, to which the driver responded that if he were to do so, all other taxi drivers would follow suit, and mass chaos would reign in the streets of Singapore.

Many Singaporeans would be able to identify with this encounter, and we would have experienced this line of reasoning—especially from authority figures—barring us from doing something because, according to the powers that be, if we do, it will set a bad precedent that could trigger an undesirable chain reaction and, therefore, no one should be allowed to at all.

In looking at how Singapore can move forward, many of the ideas to resuscitate Singapore’s fashion retail scene find resonance in our political climate as well.

For example, several retail experts have suggested that malls need to loosen up and not be afraid to rock the boat, embrace change and have some imagination. Malls return to staple big-name brands again and again because landlords see a safe track record of profits generated from them.

Malls also have the same “polished, corporate look,” as hotelier-restaurateur Loh Lik Peng calls it, and the short-lease terms and the requirement that tenants put down a large rental deposit discourages them from taking any risks in diverging from the uniform look that landlords encourage tenants to have. All of this creates a generic brand of glossy sameness and homogeneity—from the shops to the façade of malls.

Likewise, it’s a chicken and egg situation that makes it difficult for Singapore to imagine change politically, because Singapore has never experienced such an upheaval before and, since we’ve enjoyed economic prosperity and growth, we are happy to maintain the status quo.

As Singapore continues to mature and grow into its own identity, perhaps it won’t feel the need to gloss over everything with a sleek, shiny façade in an overt display of economic progress and prowess. Instead, we should learn to embrace the beauty of imagination and start to see the value in the diversity of creativity, intelligent thought and leadership.

This article was first published in the print edition of Esquire Singapore, April 2017.