Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Bipolar Singapore Beauty Trips on 'Singlish' Slip

My latest piece for Asia Sentinel, on the implications of the Ris Low saga, has just been posted online:

When 19-year-old student Ris Low stepped forward to receive the Miss Singapore World crown in the Island ballroom of the Shangri-la Hotel back in July, she was blissfully unaware that it would turn out to be a garland of thorns.

Having made it through the rigors of the evening-wear round, the nervous tension of the bikini parade and the feared Q&A with the judges, Low's biggest ordeal was yet to come.

In strait-laced, technocratic Singapore, beauty pageants rarely make the headlines but Low came to public attention after a video interview in which she demonstrated her beauty rather than her brains started circulating on the internet.

Low's great hope – "to show the world that beauty has its own purpose and that not all beautiful people are bimbotic" – was thus sadly undermined from the start.

Once the sacrificial celebrity lamb had been exposed, it wasn't long before the online hordes were dragging her off to the slaughter. Bloggers and internet forum denizens pilloried Low for her strong Singaporean accent, her use of Singlish diction and her strange preference for long pauses before answering basic questions.

In a country where the government has long championed the use of proper English and criticized the creole spoken by the vast majority of the people, surely such a woman was the wrong choice to represent Singapore at the Miss World pageant in South Africa, they said.

Would Low's selection as Singapore's belle not send out the wrong message to the youth of Singapore about the importance of good English and cast doubt upon the quality of the city-state's highly-regarded education system?

Always happy to cover a story that endorses a key government policy, it wasn't too long before Singapore's state-owned media cottoned on and the Ris Low saga became a truly national issue, condemning stories about the dangers of another housing bubble and the latest losses at sovereign wealth fund GIC to the limbo of the middle pages.

Unfortunately for Low, in August, the government's Good English Movement had decided to focus its energies this year on improving the grammar and pronunciation of Singapore's youth, and so she was easily cast in the role of the linguistic anti-hero.

Although she had been exposed to the invective of the anonymous online commentariat and the quasi-professorial disdain of the government-backed press, Low still had her crown, her ticket to South Africa and some remaining semblance of dignity.

But, with Singapore's newspapers unwilling or unable to dig up any dirt on the powerful (government politicians, the dominant state-owned enterprises and establishment entertainers), they tend to send their muck-rakers after the meek and hapless. Low was now firmly in their sights.

As well their vital statistics, when submitting their entry forms, the Miss Singapore World contestants had been asked to declare any criminal convictions. Low had made no such declaration.

However, My Paper, one of Singapore's shallow but nasty tabloids, soon revealed that Low had been sentenced to two years' probation in May for credit card fraud after going on an S$8,000 lingerie, jewelry and fine dining spending spree with cards taken from patients at a clinic where she worked.

If bad diction and youth-speak had been a concern, then the revelation of the credit card fraud sealed the beauty queen's fate. Unlike with many other controversial socio-political issues, for once no government minister proffered the verdict of the all-knowing state.

But Lee Bee Wah, an MP from the ruling People's Action Party, did speak out, noting that credit card theft was a "very serious offence" and highlighting the importance of "honesty and integrity".

With her back against the wall, Low made a final and desperate plea for forgiveness, insisting in an interview that her crime had been committed in a "moment of folly" and that she had been suffering from bi-polar disorder.

Alas, the gushing last-stand was to no avail and the organizers of the pageant showed Low the level of clemency practiced by Singapore's government in capital punishment cases: none.

Dethroned but defiant, Low says she will be back to fight another round and has already embroiled herself in an unseemly spat with runner-up Claire Lee, who could yet replace her on the stage in South Africa.

Having been briefly dragged up beyond the mediocrity of everyday existence by the fickle beast that is 21st Century fame, Low's future in the beauty pageant industry looks uncertain to say the least.

The government does run a Yellow Ribbon campaign that offers a second chance to those less serious ex-offenders who have not been led to the hangman's noose.

But, sadly for Low, Singapore does not currently have any equivalent of the Siberian prison service's "Miss Spring" contest when female convicts get to strut their stuff in the hope that a good showing can win them a reprieve.

Though her wounds were partly self-inflicted, Low's harsh treatment reveals the divide in Singapore between the foreign-educated, westernized elite and the vast majority of people who use Singlish - a mix of English, Malay and Chinese words and grammar - to communicate with each other on a daily basis.

The government has long insisted that a failure to jettison the local dialect in favor of standard English will jeopardize Singapore's position as a hub for multinational companies and retard the nation's economic development.

But, at a time when the nations of the Southeast Asian archipelago are fighting it out over ownership of their shared cultural heritage (Indonesia is claiming batik and the pendet dance, while Malaysia is claiming chili crab and laksa), perhaps Singapore should be staking more of a claim for its most eminent cultural contribution: Singlish, lah.


  1. Great story. I visit Singapore often and I feel there are two national treasures: the food and Singlish. Singaporeans should embrace both.

  2. I agree - although Malaysia has been trying to claim ownership over many of the classic local dishes (which in reality are of shared heritage).

  3. Yes, I feel there has been over coverage of this saga. But hey, the masses revel in trviality, myself included.

    When we can't influence major political decisions, how else are we to entertain ourselves?

    Check out my take on Ris!

  4. i still think the final nail was that she lied about the organizer knew her conviction when she joined the pageant. that illustrated both her integrity and stupidity.

    Would she not think that the organizer would rebutted her statement? Why didnt she consulted the organizer before spurring that out.

    In addition, she pinned her credit card fraud to Bipolar disorder, to which others had stated bipolar disorder led to mood swings. a credit card fruad is a planned move, not something affected by mood swings.

    As for her English, yes i would laugh at it, but it shouldnt affect her crown. Ultimately this is a beauty pageant, not spelling bees

  5. vinyarb - surely if people spent less time focusing on such trivia, they'd have more time to try to influence political decisions?

  6. We are urgently in need of KlDNEY donors for the sum of $500,000.00 USD,(3 CRORE INDIA RUPEES) All donors are to reply via Email only: sk500968@gmail.com