“Uniquely Singaporean” Comics: The Quest for Identity

Part 1 – Defining the Singaporean

Singaporeans are fortunate. We enjoy access to a wide array of food, consumer products and entertainment contents from all over the world. Yet the ubiquitous presence and mainstream popularity of cultural imports largely overshadows original contents produced by local independent creators: According to recent studies conducted by National Institute of Education and National Library, most types of comics enjoyed by Singaporean readers are Japanese manga, Korean Webtoon and American superhero comics 1. Local literature by comparison, especially printed publications, remains a niche genre enjoyed by a very small pool of mostly post-graduate degree holders in their 30s and 40s 2. 

Despite the pervasiveness of mainstream foreign entertainment, readers are also demanding for more “relatable” (but also free) content closer to our lived social-cultural realities. But beyond cliched visual icons such as cute anthropomorphic food, ageing hawkers, HDB 3 flats, and CMIO 4 characters speaking Singlish, what makes local comics “uniquely Singaporean”? In this series, we shall examine the various types of comics produced in Singapore, and how they relate to our identities and experiences.

But why the obsession with identity and why is it even relevant? For sure it seems like a necessity for national education, but at times such repetitive discussions may seem pedantic or even narcissistic: Why is it that we are constantly bothered with the pressure of being seen as unique, original, the centre of everything and perhaps the best?  In Who Needs Identity? (1996), cultural historian Stuart Hall offers two ways to look at identity as a social phenomenon: The first is a need for “identification”, where a group of people becomes united as a community based on shared common characteristics that also distinguish from other groups. The second is a continuous process of “becoming”, where ideologies and stories are revisited, redefined and reinforced in never-ending attempts at soul-searching 5.  The obsession with identity is prevalent in diaspora communities similar but not limited to Singapore.  As a young multicultural and multiethnic immigrant nation, we desire to find common roots and essential characteristics that unites us despite our differences. Yet at the same time, we also reexamine and refresh our historical narratives and social images occasionally to keep ahead with the world in flux. Fundamentally, the nation’s need to project its worth among bigger players in the complex global geo-political arena, coupled with historical trauma and collective anxiety with threats and instability, gives rise to the never-ending ideological quest of being and becoming Singaporean. 

A number of comics dealing with local themes and contents demonstrate a combination of both the process of being and becoming. Our shared archetypal kiasu-ness (Fig. 1), our ubiquitous obsession with food (Fig. 2), and the constant reiteration of the founding myth (Figs. 3 & 4) are some of the most recognizable and thematic elements in popular works.

Fig. 1. Mr. Kiasu created by Johnny Lau in the 90s is perhaps the most iconic of the typical Singaporean caricature. The series is also lauded as one of the most financially successful creations that garnered mass-market approval. Images from https://news.nestia.com/detail/-/269147

Fig. 2. Evangeline Neo, Chinese Food and Japanese Food and Being Frank (2013), images from http://evacomics.blogspot.com/2013/11/chinese-food-and-japanese-food.html, http://evacomics.blogspot.com/2013/10/being-frank.html

Evacomics, a popular comic strip series that gained a massive online following, offers shrewd observations and witty social commentary that compares and contrasts Singapore with other cultures. Alongside other aspects, a lot of Eva’s comic strips examine cultural differences through the topic of food.

Fig. 3. Joseph Tay, Sang Nila Utama: The Prince Who Founded the Lion City (2012), in Inquiring Into Our World, 4A. Image from https://mustsharenews.com/sang-nila-utama/.

A tongue-in-cheek comic reimagining of the popular legend behind the discovery of lion city, featured in a primary four Social Studies textbook. The protagonist’s Rob Liefeld-esque muscular physique became an online sensation when it was rediscovered 6 years after its creation, and sparked a slew of sexualised fanarts.

Fig. 4. Ray Toh, The Story of Sang Nila Utama (2018). An interesting stylistic contrast to Tay’s rendition although similarly dressed. Note the differences in panel layouts that place less emphasis on the display of physique as per Tay’s superhero convention. Image and more pages from the artist’s blog: http://torei.blogspot.com/2018/09/blog-post.html

Stylistically speaking, Singaporean comics are diverse due to the wide variety of influences and inspirations that artists draw from. It is therefore difficult to recognise at first sight if a comic is Singaporean as they present a wide gamut of both eastern and western aesthetic conventions, ranging from Japanese manga, Hong Kong manhua, Chinese Lianhuahua, Korean webtoon, to American superhero comic books, European cartoons, and indie graphic novels. This diversity is also partly due to the lack of major publishing houses and adequate market demands dictating styles and formats of publications. As most local comics are produced as personal projects or one-off commissions rather than a centralised IP owned by corporations, almost all Singaporean comics can be considered indie. While this may appear to be “unsustainable” through the market lens, there is also a great degree of creative freedom where creators are not just satisfying mass-market consumer escapism, but telling stories that are authentic and closer to personal and social concerns of every Singaporean.

In subsequent chapters, we will survey the various thematic and stylistic aspects of comics classified as “Uniquely Singaporean”, and examine the following:

  • How archetypal Singaporean characters are portrayed
  • How Singaporean social attitudes and values permeates even through fantasies
  • How local histories and mythologies are intertwined 
  • How the personal conflict with the social

References:

1 Loh, C. E., & Sun, B. (2021) Reading Habits of Singapore Teenagers. Singapore: National Institute of Education, Nanyang Technological University.

2 Lee, Adeline & Foo, Renee. (2019). 2018 National Reading Habits Study On Adults. 10.13140/Rg.2.2.29978.80328. 

3 HDB flats are public housing constructed by the Housing and Development Board (HDB). 

4 Acronyms for Chinese, Malay, Indian and Others racial categories, widely used in public visual representations.

5 Hall, S. (2011). Introduction: who needs ‘identity’?. In S. Hall, & P. du Gay (Eds.), Questions of cultural identity (pp. 1-17). SAGE Publications Ltd, https://dx.doi.org/10.4135/9781446221907.n1

Related Posts

Leave a comment