TEACHING POP CULTURE Q: Does your involvement in the music scene kind of help you to teach popular culture? Yes, definitely. It's giving me an appreciation of how important understanding of popular culture is to understanding identity, and memory and history. When I first started playing music in Singapore, I mean, I was a teenager, I guess at the tail end of the nineties. The music scene was very different then. The English rock music was getting a bit of a temporary resurgence at that point. There was a lot of radio air play for local bands like Concave Scream, The Stoned Revivals, Shereen's Closet. So, the scene was quite active at that time, both in terms of mainstream acts and the underground gigs. A lot of young people were into live music and there was a big DIY ethos and a lot of people were proactively creating a live music scene themselves. There was a colourful collection of active subcultures - punks, skinheads, ska rudeboys, metalheads. The local music scene had it's own magazines like Big-0 and venues like the Fat Frog cafe and the Guiness Theatre at the substation. That whole music scene, was a big part of my teenage years, and my experience of living in and finding my place in Singapore at the time. I guess very little of that exists today apart from maybe National Library copies of some of the magazines and maybe some of the local albums. I am sure most teenagers today will know nothing about that period, just as we knew nothing about the experiences of people perhaps a decade older than us. I can appreciate how quickly these experiences slip away from posterity and how important it is to share stories. When I learn about or teach popular culture I remember that there have been many different Singapores experienced by individuals who experience and embody not just their generation, but their class, gender, and ethnicity differently.
SUSTAINING POP CULTURE Q: Any reasons why it never sustained? The lack of sub culture in the music scene compared to the nineties. Do you see the differences? Tastes have changed and many of these previously popular genres are not very popular today. Playing live music is also perhaps not as popular a pastime as it used to be, currently. Another factor l guess would be increased access to music and new technology. Before music streaming, if you wanted to find new music you went to a physical record shop and actually listen to what was recommended on display. Bands would also create their own demo tapes and people would make mixtapes and send them around and that's how you learnt about new music. All of that obviously changed with music streaming. Music streaming has given new bands a huge platform to a listening public and it has given consumers seemingly limitless access to choice. But the tyranny of endless choices has also changed the way people produce and consume music and the material and lived culture surrounding it. l think the idea of listening to a full demo album from an unsigned band, or sharing personally made music compilations would be regarded as rather quaint by a lot people today.
POP CULTURE IN SINGAPORE Q: There seems to be a perception that Singapore doesn't really have a popular culture. What will be your take on that?
As long as you have a public that shares culture or consumes entertainment, you'll have some sort of popular culture, even in a Stalinist totalitarian regime. Singapore has had a rich and diverse sphere of popular culture for most of its history. Perhaps that perception that you are talking about has arisen because people feel that Singapore does not have any popular culture that is interesting or worthy of study. Part of that perception might have been the result of the fact that Singapore's history has been addressed from the lens of politics and economics rather than through the social, the cultural and the everyday. Recently though there has been renewed interest amongst the public for the history of everyday life and the social memories of ordinary people. As public resources and materials expand, I think more people will come to realise that the value of Singapore's popular culture. Despite the fact that academics have been looking at social history in Singapore for some time now, there still aren't that many resources on popular culture so a lot still needs to be written.
SINGAPORE HISTORY Q: Do you have any word of advice for history majors doing research on Singapore history? Pick a topic that you are interested in. Obviously you have to balance out what is doable in terms of your sources and your own capabilities. You don't want to pick a passion project that will require you to draw on foreign language skills that you don't possess at the time of submitting a proposal. But in trying to pick something that you think is achievable and doable so that you'll do a good thesis in, don't neglect your own interests. You have to balance both things out. For most honours students, your thesis semester will probably be the last chance that you will have to research a topic of your choosing within a solid block of time, and to make a contribution to human knowledge. So it goes without saying that if you pursue a topic that you are interested in, this experience will be so much more fulfilling. Q: What about the difficulty in looking for original sources and working with them? For instance, language barriers? Well, you need to think about these issues when you are conceptualising the research. If you plan your research in such a way that it is dependent on these vernacular sources that you don't have access to, or the capability understand, then you are in trouble. So you need to plan and conceptualise the project and scope your project with your limitations in mind. You can also address some of these limitations in your writing. Your markers do not expect you to have the time or resources to conduct overseas archival research or fill all the gaps in your research. Q: Alright, thank you very much Dr Solomon!
Wong Li An | firstname.lastname@example.org
With a beautiful chestnut coating, gentle smile and a tender gaze, Ah Meng is best remembered for her breakfasts with visitors in the Singapore Zoo.1 For two and a half decades, she inspired popular imagination through books, merchandises and campaigns. Endearing herself to zoo keepers, visitors and Singaporeans alike, Ah Meng was purportedly the second most wellSingaporean resident after known Singapore’s first prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew.2 An advertisement even claimed that she was more recognisable overseas than Sir Stamford Raffles.3 So how did she become the most iconic animal in the Singapore Zoo of the twentieth century? Sumatran orangutan from A Indonesia, Ah Meng was illegally smuggled into Singapore and kept by a Chinese family as a household pet until she was discovered by a veterinarian.4 Ah Meng was turned in to the Primary Production Department, which in turn gave her to the zoo in November 1971 at the age of six.5 Her name “Ah Meng” (阿明) which means bright and luminous in Mandarin.6 In every twist and turn of Ah Meng’s life, she was as much an accidental icon as she was a sculpted one. In the early years of the Zoo’s operation, the zoo made many attempts to promote several other ‘pioneer animals’ such as ‘Komali the Elephant’ and
‘Congo the Hippopotamus’ as zoo mascots.7 However, while they were anthropomorphised in zoo publications and newsletters, they have never been able to emulate Ah Meng’s charisma. There were two reasons why. Firstly, Orangutans were playful and intelligent creatures which made them very popular amongst visitors.8 Ah Meng was no exception. Secondly, Ah Meng had a unique personality that appealed to onlookers and reporters alike.9 She was the second brightest star after Susie the Orangutan, which made her the most suitable candidate for publicity campaigns after Susie “died from toxaemia” during childbirth.10 Then Singapore Zoo director Bernard Harrison commented that Ah Meng had a photogenic appearance combined with the makings of a publicity shoot model.11 This propelled her to the status of a mascot.12 Ah Meng’s big break finally came with the “Breakfast with Ah Meng” initiative in 1982. Although the programme was unprofitable for its first two years, “Breakfast with Ah Meng” eventually catapulted Ah Meng into the international spotlight after it was publicised by the foreign media.13 As a result, the Singapore Zoo was given a prominent place “on the world map” as a top ten zoo in the world.14 Attracted by the novelty of having breakfast with a friendly orangutan, visitors flocked to the Singapore Zoo. In 1986 alone, 16,591 visitors attended the breakfast.15 By 1989, the number of visitors has swelled to 54,376.16 As of 2002, it is estimated that
some 66,000 of visitors have attended ‘Breakfast with the Orangutans’.17 This proved to be a godsend to the Singapore Zoo which was so desperate to improve its financial position that it had to rely upon public donations to support its activities.18 The success of the “Breakfast with Ah Meng” programme reflected a paradigm shift in the way that the Singapore Zoo operated. No longer a mere modern zoo that presents itself as the centre of science and conservation, the Singapore Zoo is now a site where public memory, nostalgia and pop culture meet.19 This was evident in Ah Meng’s carefully crafted image of friendliness and motherliness, where the Zoo controlled what she did and how she was perceived. To begin with, the Singapore Zoo’s concerted efforts to portray Ah Meng as a celebrity figure made this orangutan a valuable tourist icon for Singapore. As Ah Meng’s reputation grew overseas, influential people such as pop star Michael Jackson, actress Elizabeth Taylor and Prince Edward of Britain clamoured to meet her.20 Ah Meng also appeared in 28 documentaries and held interviews with 274 writers.21 Ah Meng reputedly drew in an hourly wage of $10,000 at the peak of her career.22 At the same time, Ah Meng’s celebrity status also appealed to an entire “generation of Singaporeans, who are now in their thirties and forties.”23 Just as people today ‘keep up with the Kardashians’, Singaporeans kept up with Ah Meng’s life in great detail. Readers of The Straits Times in the 80s could recall the scandalous news of her love affairs with different orangutans and the sensation news of her childbirths.24 In other words, Ah Meng became not just a static icon but an icon whose image has transformed over time, allowing her to remain fresh and relevant.
Starting from her earliest liaisons with Rodney, a Sumatran Orangutan and Zabu, a Borean Orangutan, the family life of Ah Meng was dutifully recorded by the English press.25 For instance, a 1990 article talked about the birth of Ah Meng’s third baby girl.26 Meanwhile, another 1975 article announced the birth of her son Hsing Hsing, “the second Orangutan to be born at the zoo”.27 Ah Meng’s extended family including children and grandchildren were covered in the press, spanning over three decades of journalism. Further public interest in Ah Meng was stimulated by anecdotes of her antics which depict her playfulness and stubbornness. These stories show the other side of Ah Meng, and portray a multifaceted and nuanced picture of her personality. An often-repeated story in the media was Ah Meng’s climb to a 25-metres tree in MacRitchie Reservoir while filming for the Singapore Tourism Board.28 She refused to come down for days.29 Zookeepers had to cut down neighbouring trees to prevent Ah Meng from grasping nearby branches and escaping.30 Ah Meng finally fell down on day three and broke her arms.31 Notwithstanding, Ah Meng’s celebrity status was not merely a means to the zoo’s profiteering end. Far from a mere moneymaking sideshow, Ah Meng was an ambassador of environmental conservation. In order to capture the hearts and minds of children, Zoo partnered with the Ministry of Education to organise school excursions for nearly three decades.32 These outdoor classrooms often communicate need to save chimpanzees from extinction in the wild.33 As an ambassador for conservation awareness, Ah Meng represents the plight of her peers who had been affected by logging and
smuggling. The Sumatran orangutan was an intermediary between the complex world of politics, conservation and social issues and the simple, effervescent idealism of a child. For example, children were allowed to take photographs with Ah Meng. Through Ah Meng’s friendliness and warmth, children were better able to sympathize with the plight of orangutans in the wild. Clarissa Cheng, the writer of the online blog ‘SOS: Save the Chimpanzees’, wrote that Ah Meng had not only occupied ‘a special place in [her] heart’, but had also inspired her to dedicate her blog to the saving of Chimpanzees.34 Building upon Ah Meng’s image as an environmental icon were a series of children books published in the 1990s and 2000s. My Cousin Ah Meng by Kathy and Peter Creamer, for example, used emotional language and dramatic narratives to bring out their moralising message.35 In their fictional autobiography, Ah Meng witnesses the death of her mother from habitat destruction.36 In another children’s book, “A Walk through the Zoo” by Julia Goulding, Ah Meng and her family was prominently featured in one page.37 Using that visual as a rallying point, Goulding warned her readers about the repercussions of logging on orangutan habitat.38 Citing “less than five thousand orangutans” in the wild, Golding contrasted it with the picture of Ah Meng’s family to suggest that not only an entire species, but a family unit that was under
threat.39 This enhanced her emotive message about the repercussions of logging on orangutan habitat while bringing home the urgent need to protect orangutans. Ah Meng’s significance as both a celebrity and national icon is best reflected in a series of Care-for-Nature stamps released by the Singapore post office.40 Four stamps in total were created in 2006 to commemorate Ah Meng and her family’s legacy.41 As stamps are great sources for disseminating “messages which governments seek to convey…to the world”, they elevated Ah Meng from a popular symbol into a state symbol, acknowledging that she had not just appealed to a large segment of the population, but to the entire nation.42 Lastly, her status as a national icon is cemented through a brass statue that the Zoo had erected after her death.43 The statue creates a sense of officialdom as visitors stroll down the gallery. The honour of having a monument created in one’s name is extended only a few in Singapore, namely founding fathers like Stamford Raffles and Straits Chinese Community Leaders Tan Kah Kee like who had contributed to the nation’s success.44 When she died in 2008, 4000 people came to the zoo to attend her wake.45 Ah Meng was so ingrained in public memory that when her granddaughter Ishta, was identified as her successor, many Singaporeans objected against the move.46 Ms Choo Yuen Mei, for instance,
Wong Li An is Year 3 student who majors in History. She is interested in great man history, biographies, autobiographies, narrative crafting, public speeches and any histories related to Singapore.
sent a letter to the Straits Times, stating that Ah Meng is ‘irreplaceable’. Choo believed that the Singapore icon ‘should be remembered and immortalised as itself’.46 Karpal, Singh. Naked Ape, Naked Boss: Bernard Harrison: The man behind the Singapore Zoo & the world’s first night safari. Singapore: Marshall Cavendish, 2014, p. 125. 2 Sharp, Ilsa. The First 21 years: The Singapore Zoological Gardens. Singapore: Singapore Zoological Gardens, 1994, p. 75. 3 Sharp, The First 21 years, p. 75. 4 Lusher, Adam. “Ah Meng, world’s most famous orangutan, dies.” The Telegraph. 09 February 2008. 5 Tay, Stacey. “Ah Meng’s Amorous Liasions.” The Straits Times. 12 June 1989. 6 Thow, Chun Meng. “Why Ah Meng is a national icon.” The Straits Times. 24 June 2006. 7 “Do you know?” Zoo-M. A Close Up Look at the Wonderful World of the Singapore Zoological Gardens, 2. 1 (October 1974), p. 16 8 Harrison, Bernard. “The Playful Orang-Utan: Zoo like Outs May Be His Last Refuge from Extinction.” Zoo-M. A Close Up Look at the Wonderful World of the Singapore Zoological Gardens, 2. 1 (October 1974), p. 6 9 Ibid. 10 Singh. Naked Ape, Naked Boss, p. 125. 11 Ibid. 12 Ibid, p. 125-126. 13 Ibid. 14 Ibid, p. 133. 15 Sharp, The First 21 Years, p. 75 16 Ibid. 17 Ibid. 18 Ong, Swee Law. “Singapore’s Zoo – What lies ahead?” [Speech] Zoo-M. A Close Up Look at the Wonderful World of the Singapore Zoological Gardens, 2. 1 (1 October 1974), p. 5 19 Keulartz, Jozef. “Ethics of the Zoo”. Oxford Research Encyclopaedias: Environmental Science. Web. February 2017. DOI: 10.1093/acrefore/9780199389414.013.162 20 Lusher, Adam. “Ah Meng, world’s most famous orangutan, dies.” The Telegraph. 09 February 2008. 21 Ibid. 22 Ibid. 23 Karpal, Naked Ape, Naked Boss, p. 126. 24 Tay, Stacey. “Ah Meng’s Amorous Liasions.” The Straits Times. 12 June 1989. 25 Ibid. 26 “Baby Girl for Ah Meng”. The Straits Times. 11 July 1990. 27 “The Proud Mom.” The Straits Times. 22 July 1975. 28 Sharp, First 21 years, p. 76. 29 Ibid. 1
Ibid. Ibid. 32 Ong, Swee Law. “The Zoo is Three Years Old”. [speech] “Zoo-M. A Close Up Look at the Wonderful World of the Singapore Zoological Gardens, 10. 1 (5 January 1978), p. 20. 33 Ibid. 34 Chang, Clarissa. “Tribute to Ah Meng”. SOS: Save The Orangutans. [blog] Retrieved from https://blogs.ntu.edu.sg/hp331-2015-03/tribute-toah-meng/ 35 Creamer, Peter and Kathy Creamer. My Cousin Ah Meng. Singapore: Singapore Zoological Gardens, 1998. 36 Ibid. 37 Goulding, Julia. “Orangutans” A Walk Through the Zoo. (Singapore: Longman Publishers, 1986), p. 25. 38 Ibid. 39 Ibid. 40 Singapore Heritage Board. “Care-for-Nature stamps and Singapore-Japan joint issue stamps”. Roots. Last updated, 03 July 2018. https://roots.sg/learn/collections/listing/1103948 41 Tian_stamps [web name] “Orang Utan Ah Meng Stamps Singapore philatelic Collector’s Sheet.” Carousell. Last Accessed 8 September 2017. Retrieved from https://media.karousell.com/media/photos/produc ts/2017/04/02/orang_utan_ah_meng_stamps_singa pore_philatelic_collectors_sheet_1491107569_777bf 004.jpg 42 Reid, Donald., M. The Symbolism of Postage Stamps: A Source for the Historian. Journal of Contemporary History. Vol. 19 (1 April 1948), pp 223. 43 Swales, Nigel. “Statue of Ah Meng, Singapore Zoo.” [photograph] Wikicommons. 25 May 2014. Retrieved from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Statue_of _Ah_Meng,_Singapore_Zoo_-_20140525.jpg 44 JohnLim99. [Screenname] “Tan Kah Kee Head Statue at Nan Chiau High School”. [photograph] Wikicommons. Retrieved from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Tan_Kah _Kee_Head_Statue_at_Nan_Chiau_High_School,_Sing apore.jpg 45 Tay, Tiffany Fumiko. Granddaughter of late Ah Meng named the new face of the Zoo. The Straits Times. 26 February 2016. 46 Choo, Yuen Mei. “No need for replacement Ah Meng.” The Straits Times. 1 March 2016.
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