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Visualising Local Identities:

Post-war Graphic Design in Singapore.

L. K. CHAN*

*University of New South Wales School of Design Studies PO Box 259 Paddington NSW 2021
AUSTRALIA, l.chan@unsw.edu.au

Abstract: The history of graphic design in a pluralist and relatively young society like Singapore is unconventional:
the existence of a distinctive graphic identity or style is yet to be developed, although paradoxically the collective
visual cultures of its three main ethnic communities - Chinese, Malay and Indian - span centuries of civilisation. Since
achieving nationhood in 1965 the choice of English as the language for education, science and technology, and trade
presents a problematic for Singapore which professes ‘Asian values’ but simultaneously, is wary of undesirable
‘Western’ influences especially upon the younger generation. Contemporary graphic design in Singapore shares
similarities with major cultural centres such as New York, London and Sydney; it has its share of a visual language
characteristic of a global consumer society. However, this paper aims to demonstrate that the post-war era offered a
brief but significant opportunity for self-expression of cultural, political and racial identities for the people of
Singapore during the transition from British rule to self independence in 1965. This paper examines graphic design
and Singapore in the context of national experience particularly during the 1950s and 1960s, and argues that post-war
regional and domestic political and socio-cultural issues which confronted the island state precipitated the
consciousness of identity and nationhood. This research is based on visual analysis of archival print-based materials
complemented by document analysis of historical records and government policy. This paper demonstrates that
graphic design in Singapore during the 1950s and 1960s contributed to the production and consumption of knowledge
about identity, nationality and race within the socio-cultural and political contexts of the era.
Key words: Graphic communication, national experience, post-war Singaporean identity

1. Introduction
The history of modern Singapore is about the social-cultural and political experience of itinerant workers and
immigrants from China, India, Malaya and Indonesia who were attracted to the island because of its strategic
trading location between East Asia and the West. Colonisation by foreign powers began in 1819 when Singapore
became an entrepot of the Straits Settlements, part of the British empire, and the island remained under British
Military Administration until 1946 in the post-war period. Self-government was attained in 1959, followed by the
union with Malaya in 1963 to form the independent nation of Malaysia. The union was brief and on 9 August
1965 the island state separated from the Federation of Malaysia as a consequence of unresolved disagreement in
political governance and ideology, and became a sovereign, democratic and independent nation. The Republic of
Singapore was formed on 22 December 1965, and is a member of the Commonwealth of Nations since 1965.
The island of Singapore - 14 miles from north to south, and 22 miles from east to west - is located in South
East Asia bounded by the Malay peninsula to the north, the Indonesian archipelago to the south and west, and
Kalimantan, Sarawak, Sabah and Brunei to the east. As a prosperous, multi-racial, Chinese-dominated, and
secular nation, Singapore lies within a neighbourhood with the largest Muslim population in the region. Racial
harmony is recognised by the Singaporean government as one of the most pertinent issues for security and
survival in the region, and it has been influential in the development of the nation’s identity, ideology and policy.
Moreover, most of the natural environment and space on the island has been developed for state and commercial
use, public and private housing, public amenities, light industries and recreation; Singapore’s only natural
resources are its citizens.
Three inter-related social constructs are significant to the post-war development of ideology, identity and
nationhood in Singapore and they form the basis of many government policies which influence the nation’s
collective psyche: multi-racialism, bilingualism and ‘shared values’. This ensemble of social meanings and
relations is presented to the individual citizen as an image and definition of Singaporean society, and may well act
as a set of guidelines for the model citizen. This paper focuses on the Chinese immigrants during post-war
Singapore by analysing contemporary print designs from the era which reflected the experience of the diaspora
and its various manifestations of social, cultural and political identity. In contrast to the social construction of
identity by the state in the post-war nation-building process, the production and consumption of graphic designs
by the Chinese diaspora offered a different perspective of the Singaporean experience and the communication of a
sense of belonging.

2. National Identity and Graphic Representation


The graphic image has been significant as an instrument for mass communication in politics, particularly in the
representation of nationalism and national identity. Nationalism is based on feelings of identifying and belonging
to a group which subscribes to a common set of ideals, goals and values, represented as the ‘nation’. The nation is
in fact an ‘imagined community’ since there is no single culture which is common for all members in a society
residing within the boundaries of the state, and yet in the minds and aspirations of each lives the image of a
common belonging [1]. The use of imagery in the process of defining and depicting the formation of nations and
nationalism has its precedence at the turn of the century particularly during the period leading to and after World
War 1, and the practice continues to the present day albeit in multiple modes of mediation. Central to this
relationship between imagery and the social construction of the nation is ‘(t)he notion of a modern nation is an
abstract concept arising from particular historical circumstances, and one where human agency and imagination
play an important role’ [2].
2.1 The State and Nation
In the ideology of nationalism, the state can deny the former colonial order and withdraw from the culture of
the past in its attempts to conjure romantic myths about ‘folk heritage’ and national traditions. Indeed states
actively manufacture cultures as part of the wider construction of a nation-state and national identity. In the
context of newly independent Singapore, the culture of the ‘selective’ past is a central concern of the state in its
attempts to unify, manage and rule the newly franchised populace. The state relies mostly on historical and
cultural symbols to rally citizenry in a collective ritual of nation building and national unification. The impact of
the visual splendor of state ceremonies is just to jiggle the collective memory in reminding its citizenry of some
things or historical events which need to be remembered. Thus the collective memory of a ‘National Day’
celebrates the liberation from colonial rule and cements people into new efforts of social and economic
reconstruction. More often than not, such state rituals seek to transform loyalty to the previous authoritative order
into allegiance to the new order. Since 1959 the People Action Party
(PAP) has governed Singapore, and the PAP graphic identity has not
changed at all during the period. The graphic symbolises the ideology of
the party and labour origins of the party: the red lightning represents
action, the blue circle stands for solidarity and the white background
refers to purity (Figure 1). The symbol has been identified as a part of the
national history of modern Singapore.
In post-1965 Singapore, graphic design is employed by the
government and private enterprise to promote the identity and ideology of
the nation albeit for different reasons - the communicating and
reinforcing of institutional policies in the case of the former, and
government compliance plus access to wider markets for the latter. Local
Singaporeans experience this communication process in the public
environment via the spatial display of images in electronic and print
media such as government campaign graphics and commercial Fig 1. Election poster, 1957 © People
Action Party, Singapore.
advertisements in magazines and newspapers as well as the internet and
television. Public campaigns are also communicated by the display of posters and banners in prominent
designated spaces which are encountered by locals as well as visitors, for example train stations, bus shelters, and
tourist precincts. Campaign graphics which are aimed specifically at the domestic ethnic populations can be seen
at local community centres, police stations and public housing areas. The Local Environment Act prohibits the
attachment and display of non-authorised graphic designs in the public environment, particularly state-owned
spaces. Official displays of graphic designs embrace the ideals of multi-racialism, bi-lingualism and ‘Shared
Values’. In 1991 a government White Paper defined a set of values - ‘Shared Values’ - which drew on the different
cultural heritages of the island state in an attempt to define the characteristics of the Singaporean identity [3].
2.2 The Chinese Diaspora
The Chinese language comprises a dozen or so dialects and their regional variations, each with a specific
system of pronunciation. The variation can be so pronounced that it is not unusual for a dialect to be rendered
unintelligible to a non-speaker. Speakers of different dialects can communicate with each other in writing as the
script is the same. The Chinese immigrants who settled in Malaysia and Singapore during the nineteenth and early
part of the twentieth century come from various provinces in southern China. The socio-economic distribution of
the various dialect groups was determined by the types of specialised occupation and trade offered by each group,
access to clan associations which provided support for fellow immigrants from similar provinces in China, and
economic opportunities [4]. The geographical distribution of the Chinese diaspora in South East Asia is also
characterised by the patterns of settlement by dialect groups in specific locations, for example the dominant
dialect group, the Hokkien, which is well represented in present-day Singapore. Ethnic Chinese make up 76.7 per
cent of Singapore’s multi-racial population of close to 3.2 million, and the majority are from a Hokkien
background [5].
National identity concerns a vast majority of South East Asian Chinese who have to contend with a fluid
mixture of changing identities based on cultural, political and legal perspectives. For the diaspora the concept of
Chinese identity can viewed from the perspectives of culture, nationality, location, history, ethnicity, political and
class [6]. Of principal concern are three identities with which the Chinese diaspora in South East Asia negotiate
according to appropriate circumstances – national, cultural and ethnic.
Singapore inherited a social stratification of its population into Chinese-Malay-Indian categories from British
rule since the early nineteenth century. Since independence in 1965 Singapore has enshrined this multi-racial
character of its society as a national ideology. In multi-racial Singapore, all citizens negotiate a
national/cultural/ethnic identity. The national identity legitimises the rights of the person as a citizen of the state,
and is for public and official use. The cultural identity is much broader and includes the history, traditions and
values belonging to the individual and community. Ethnic identity is used for determining racial origins in official
census.

3. Representation and the Diaspora Experience


During the early decades of the twentieth century in Singapore, education and access to imported and local
Chinese publications provided the connection for the diaspora to the motherland. Teachers, writers and editors
with mainland training became the cultural and political interface between China and the diaspora in South East
Asia. Textbooks were imported from China, and instilled Chinese culture and history in the locals, while Chinese
newspapers with a focus on news and events from the mainland bridged the gap between the itinerant Chinese and
news from home.
3.1 Lessons from the Motherland
In Singapore, the dialect of the Chinese community represents the mother tongue which can also differ from
the language of education, administration and commerce. British colonial policy played a determining role in the
direction of education and language in Hong Kong, Malaya and Singapore. In Hong Kong the British provided
employment opportunities for the local Chinese and the use of the Cantonese dialect in education as a result of
rising Chinese nationalism as a political force, and changes in the British attitude towards the colonies [7]. From
the mid-nineteenth century till 1920 British policy in Malaya and Singapore funded education in English and
Malay schools only, but failed to recognise the social and educational consequences as a result of the lax attitude
to education, and consequently the Chinese were left to provide for their own schools [8]. Early Chinese
education in Malaya and Singapore was based on models from China as qualified teachers were recruited from the
mainland. Lessons were conducted using textbooks imported from China with stories and images which were
relevant to the local Chinese populations within a historical and cultural context. For the local reader in tropical
Singapore during the pre-war era, textual and graphic references to the winter flowering plum blossom in Beijing
would be merely symbolic as the opportunity for real experience of the subject was negligible. In 1920, political
action by Chinese Singaporean students in response to the Japanese invasion of China led to the introduction of
stricter control by the British administration on Chinese education. In 1955 an integrative approach to education
in the different ethnic communities was introduced in Singapore. It proposed the principal of a national curricula
and equal treatment for all vernacular education among several recommendations. Since achieving independence
in 1965, Singapore has continued with a bilingual education system which is considered necessary to balance
Asian values and Western pragmatism.
3.2 Pre-war Chinese Publications in Singapore
Most of the Chinese publications about South East Asia during the period 1900-1946 were written by
mainland Chinese writers and scholars for a readership in China. The interest in writings on South East Asia can
be attributed to the growing interest in foreign countries, events and culture among Chinese scholars as well as the
inspiration of Chinese travellers who were enroute to Europe to recount the experiences of the diaspora in the
region. On a practical note, the literary interest in South East Asia can be viewed as a practical way of shoring up
capital from the diaspora to fund revolutionary political factions in China, and for the development of
infrastructure and education in China [9]. It was inevitable that the Chinese writers in South East Asia aligned
themselves closely with the intellectual, social and political concerns of the mainland during this period. Chinese
daily newspapers and monthly magazines of the era include Nanyang Siang Pau, Sin Chew Jit Poh and Sin Kuo
Min Jit Poh which featured editorials, literary reviews and news compiled and written by immigrant staff from the
mainland. Similarly the illustrations and advertisements of the period also featured designs which were influenced
by the prevailing graphic styles emanating from Shanghai.
3.3 Post-war Chinese Publications in Singapore
The number of Chinese publications in Singapore and Malaya
grew dramatically during the 1950s and 1960s. This can be
attributed partly to the intense period of growing consciousness in
the South East Asian Chinese diaspora of the political events which
were unfolding in the region after World War II – the revolutionary
changes in China, the gradual independence of the former British
colonies of Singapore and Malaya, the partition of British India,
and the growth of nationalism in Dutch occupied Indonesia. Some
Fig 2. Heian Zhi Nien (The Dark Years) by
of the experiences which were written during this period related to Si Ma Chunying. Cover design, published
by Xinjiapo Guolian Chuban Gongsi,
personal accounts of suffering during the Japanese Occupation in undated © National Library of Singapore.
Singapore. The publication, Heian Zhi Nien (The Dark Years) by Si
Ma Chunying includes cartoons with commentary on the Japanese Occupation, and features a cover design with
illustrations and typographic designs influenced by contemporary designs from the mainland (Figure 2).
This intense period of political consciousness paralleled the added pressure on the Chinese in Singapore to
make the ultimate decision to remain in the adopted country or to take up the Chinese nationalists’ call to fight for
the motherland. For the Chinese who decided to remain in Singapore, living and surviving in the new homeland
added further complexity in the need to choose between Chinese and English for the education which would best
equipped the offsprings for their future. English language training was perceived as providing better and more
prestigious job opportunities in the future, whereas a Chinese language education would retain cultural ties with
the motherland. The strongest supporters of the Chinese language in education came from the intellectuals and
scholars who maintained that a ‘local’ Chinese education would nurture a Chinese-Singaporean culture adapted to
the local milieu. The fate of Chinese publications was tied to the continuing survival of the Chinese language and
education system. To a certain extant, this binary relationship has been and will continue to be influenced by the
political, economic and socio-cultural trends in Singapore.
The literary supplements of the newspapers were opportunity outlets for young writers and artists, with the
promotion of competitions for language and literature. This is particularly significant for Chinese newspapers,
literary supplements and magazines which grew profusely during 1920 and 1959. After the war many of the
weekly magazines were modelled on similar but older magazines from Shanghai. The Chinese newspaper
Nanyang Siang Pao produced a weekly magazine, Xing Qi Liu Zhou Kan (Saturday Review) which was inspired
by the famous Shanghai magazine, Li Bai Liu (Saturday). The cover design
of the launch issue of Xing Qi Liu Zhou Kan features an illustration of
multi-racial Singaporeans relaxing in a local park with distinctive clothing
in the local modern context (Figure 3). The political events in China
affected the supply of imported Chinese magazines into Singapore and the
local Chinese magazines were purposefully produced to fill the gap by
supplying Chinese Singaporean readers with news on local events, culture,
sports, short stories, cartoons and entertainment with photographic images.
Although modelled on Chinese equivalents and aimed primarily at the
middle-class urban Chinese, the content of magazines encouraged the sense
of a local Chinese culture.

Fig 3. Xing Qi Liu Zhou Kan


4. Representing Identity (Saturday Review). Launch issue,
published by Nanyang Baoshe, 3
Cultural diacritica can provide the most immediate form of codifying September 1949 © National Library
of Singapore.
the sense of ‘belonging’ to a community, nation or race, and the associated
iconography can be developed to emphasise identity at its various levels - ethnic, cultural, socio-economic and
political. In its most rudimentary form cultural diacritic may include distinctive visual elements such as costume,
flora, or architectural forms to denote a specific cultural group, although this can amount to the generalisation and
stereotyping of characteristics. An analysis of the image in terms of the socio-cultural, political, ethnographic and
historical contexts is essential in reading and meaning making process since text and images are used in graphic
representations which create ‘meaningful situations of use’ for the intended audience [10].
4.1 Chinese Identity and Local Culture
A significant feature of many of the post-war cover designs of Chinese magazines and books is the inclusion
of elements which are representative of the local and vernacular culture, for example the Malay language and
pictorial forms from the natural environment. In a period during which the political situation in China was
instable, coupled with the decision of many Chinese immigrants to remain in Singapore, the cover designs of the
locally produced magazines and books reflected the changing nature of the editorials and features in the
publications, a move towards material which focused on local content and interest. Articles promoting Singapore,
Malayan, and western culture were introduced to the local Chinese readers for example, the history of the
Malayan rubber industry, Stamford Raffles and the founding of Singapore, new scientific knowledge, strange
happenings in the world and travelogues. Complemented by cover designs and illustrations which described the
local natural and built environment, the editorials presented a sense of the local Singaporean culture as distinct
from that on the Chinese mainland, and an awareness and appreciation for the indigenous (Malayan) and western
(British) cultures.
The post-war period was also a time when Chinese artists and designers looked towards the local environment
for inspiration and ideas for cover designs and illustrations to complement nanyang (south sea) fiction which was
based on local stories and experiences. With their training background from China, the artists, designers and
writers looked to their local experiences for creative expressions. This is manifested in the borrowing of the
vernacular language (Malay) and a visual language based on local forms. The cover design of a collection of
stories published in 1952, Ganbang Zhi Chun (Spring in the Kampong), depicts a woodcut illustration of a Malay
kampong or village (Figure 4). The illustration shows the influence of a
graphic style and method popular with similar designs for publications
inspired by the May Fourth Movement in China - stylised woodcut
treatment of a realist subject matter [11]. The use of the term, ganbang, in
the title of the publication typifies the introduction of Malay concepts and
words into the Chinese vocabulary by phonetic translation, and in this case,
graphically supported by the illustration of a traditional Malay village
complete with the local architectural forms.
The use of the local vernacular in Chinese graphic communication is
also illustrated by the cover design of an issue of Xiaoshuo Yuebao (Fiction
Monthly), a collection of ‘colourful’ Malayan stories (Figure 5). The
illustration shows a group of local Chinese engaged in the sale, preparation
and consumption of durian, a tropical fruit, at a roadside stall. The scene
Fig 4. Ganbang Zhi Chun (Spring in
records a national past-time and the popularity of the local fruit enjoyed by the Kampong) by Ding Bing et al.
Cover design, published by Nanfang
the ethnic communities in Malaysia and Singapore. A Chinese male Wanbao, 1952 © National Library
of Singapore.
customer in a modern Western suit and tie squats next to the vendor and
consumes the freshly opened fruit. The vendor, clothed in typical singlet
and short trousers for the tropical climate, concentrates on opening the spiky
fruit cautiously for the customer. A wealthy Chinese female customer
dressed in the combination of a Malay blouse, baju, and wrap-around cloth,
sarong, looks on with interest and contemplates her purchase. The scene is
completed by a banner defining the space with Chinese characters
proclaiming, ‘Guaranteed eating! Genuine jungle durians. Come, come.
Good buy!’ The Chinese characters, shanba, and liulian, are phonetic
translations of the local vernacular for sampah (jungle) and durian. The
local cultural experience is conveyed to the Chinese reader by the phonetic
adaptation of the vernacular language, and the narrative of the scenario
replete with graphic coda.
Fig 5. Xiaoshuo Huebao (Fiction
Monthly) edited by Tang Qisheng.
Cover design, published by
5. Conclusion Xiaoshuo Yuebaoshe, undated ©
National Library of Singapore.
In the modern era, graphic design has been instrumental as tools for the
ruling elites in political and cultural schemes to construct identity and ideology for nation states [12].
Contemporary official graphic design in Singapore communicates the national identity and ideology of the island
state: multi-racialism, bilingualism and ‘Shared Values’; the graphics are a subtle reminder that the Chinese
diaspora in the modern nation state continue to negotiate a fluid national/cultural/ethnic identity. In contrast, post-
war regional, political and socio-cultural issues which confronted the island state precipitated the consciousness of
identity and nationhood for the Chinese diaspora in Singapore. Consequently, the graphic design of the post-war
Singapore offer a brief glimpse of the production and consumption of knowledge about ‘Chineseness’ and
national identity within the socio-cultural and political contexts of the era.
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