“Uniquely Singaporean” Comics:
The Quest for Identity
Part 2 – Archetypes and social commentaries
The predecessor of all modern comics came from caricatures and cartoons in humour magazines and newspapers at the beginning of the 20th century, when the masses became more politically concerned and were hungry for entertainment. As compared to writings, cartoons are able to maximise viewer engagement due to the use of humour, which makes serious or boring issues more lighthearted and enjoyable. In Singapore, where strict censorship laws and media regulation discourage satirisation of political figures and sensitive contents, cartoonists instead focus on social-cultural commentaries by creating archetypal characters in everyday situations. 1
Cartoons and comic strips dealing with Singaporean-specific topics in the mainstream media and public spaces adhere closely to national agendas. One notable example is the works of cartoonist Lee Chee Chew, creator of the long-running strip Punchline: Chee Chew’s Take in The Straits Times. The strips tackle a wide range of topics from public health, education, transportation, HDB living, family lives, etc, poking fun at undesirable social behaviours that are not in-line with national interest (Fig. 1). Lee has also been commissioned by government agencies to produce public information comics for various campaigns (Fig, 2). Lee’s strips do not have a cast of main characters. Instead they feature many widely recognisable archetypes such as the elderly Chinese men (Ah Pek), the middle-aged women (Auntie), and costumed minorities in the four dominant racial categories. Despite their mostly didactical agenda, Lee’s mastery of humour has made these government directives less imposing and more pleasurable to read. Apparently, the use of comics in government instructionals are quite unique to Singapore. Recently, a team of researchers from Nanyang Technological University and University of Florida wrote a paper on why they are effective. 2
Figure 1. Strips from 2020 Chee Chew’s Take condemning the behaviours of those who flouts Covid-19 regulations by showing public disapproval in the last panel, or satirising offenders with exaggeration.
Figure 2. Posters commissioned by the National Environment Agency in 2003 and 2005. Retrieved from National Archives of Singapore: https://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/posters/record-details/32bca7bd-115c-11e3-83d5-0050568939ad
Perhaps the most famous Singaporean stereotype is Mr Kiasu, created in the 1990s by Johnny Lau with co-authors James Suresh, Lim Yu Cheng and Eric Chong. The characters each embodies a different Singaporean stereotype: Kiasu epitomises the fear of losing out, his cousin ‘Kiasi’ (tr. afraid to die) is obsessed with cleanliness, his girlfriend ‘Ai Sui’ (tr. loves beauty) is a shopaholic, and his friend Yau Qwee (tr. hungry ghost) loves food. The series features short gag strips as well as longer story arcs that often parodies famous movies such as Jurassic Park, Titanic, and Mission Impossible. Its humour mainly lies in figurative exaggerations and portrayals of absurd situations, while also presenting national traits such as kiasu and kiasi as innovative ways to solve bizarre but mundane problems (Fig. 3). Like many Singaporeans, the characters are also quite obsessed with money (Fig. 4). Unlike Lee Chee Chew’s editorial cartoons which condemn similar kiasu and kiasi behaviours as public nuisance, Mr Kiasu’s antics evokes laughable outcomes, rarely causes public harm, and are interpreted as dumb or pitiful rather than uncivilized and deplorable, making him a rather goofy and lovable character.
Figure 3. Volume 5 of Mr. Kiasu parodies Mission Impossible: Kiasu and Kiasi breaking into a government facility to erase their minor offence record for spitting in public, so as to avoid a small fine.
Figure 4. Various gag strips in Everything Also Talk Money (1997) highlighting the widespread obsession with wealth embedded in the Singaporean psyche. Interestingly, this volume was published during the Asian financial crisis.
Identities can also be constructed via comparing and contrasting the self with a perceived “other”. 3 Evacomics, a popular online comic strip by Evangeline Neo since 2007, highlights the peculiarities of Singaporean culture by comparing how Singaporeans would react differently from people from other countries in a given situation. The series documented Neo’s personal experiences of having lived in Japan and the United States, highlighting culture shocks that are both fascinating and frustrating at times (Fig. 4). The series appeals to the common Singaporeans psyche in two ways: the desire to travel to experience other cultures, and the kiasu habit of constantly comparing the self with others. Under Neo’s shrewd observations, the ugly side of Singaporean behaviour becomes obvious when compared to how Japanese people behave in public spaces, but occasionally Neo also expresses gratitude towards the positives aspects of Singapore (Fig. 5)
Figure 4. Clinic Opening Hours and Drinking Sake in Japan presents personal experience of adapting to new foreign customs and conditions.
Figure 5. Various strips from Eva, Kopi and Macha 1.0 (2014), highlighting both inferior and superior aspects of Singapore.
This chapter highlighted three works circulated via different modes: newspaper, comic books and social media. We examined Lee Chee Chew’s depiction of the standard Singaporean in alignment with national agenda, Jonny Lau’s popularisation of the vernacular Singaporean stereotypes, and Neo’s comparison of Singaporean with others. At the same time, social media has given rise to more politically charged and adult-oriented satire such as A Good Citizen and SemiSerious, as well as serious narratives that discuss social issues and provide useful tips, such as Robert the Otter and The Woke Salary Man. These works do not pander to cliched Singaporean icons for the sake of nationalistic identification or export-worthy exoticisation, but are created with the needs of Singaporean audiences in mind, making them truly relatable and authentic. The short, episodic cartoon or comic strip format also enables creators to respond timely to new events, while retaining reader’s interest and engagement.
In the next chapter, we take a look at comic books with fantastical settings. Unlike comic strips, which address social issues in a rather explicit manner, comic book’s fictional nature and fantastic themes often render them as escapes from reality. Yet through deeper excavations into the symbolic aspect of the texts, and by investigating the authors’ intentions and stylistic choices, issues relating to national identity can be brought to light.
1 Lim, Cheng Tju (1997). Singapore Political Cartooning. Southeast Asian Journal of Social Science, 25(1), 125–150. http://www.jstor.org/stable/24492454
2 Matwick, K., & Matwick, K. (2022). Comics and humor as a mode of government communication on public hygiene posters in Singapore. Discourse, Context & Media, 46. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.dcm.2022.100590
3 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