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Mon, Feb 25, 2013
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The politics of fashion
by Ong Soh Chin

Depending on which report you read, between 1,000 and 5,000 people turned up at Hong Lim Park last Saturday to express their disapproval of the Population White Paper's projected estimate of 6.9 million people by 2030.

I wasn't at the rally but I could tell, from online videos and photographs, that emotions ran high that day. For the first time in my recent memory, I actually saw placards in Singapore, for goodness' sake! And not just one, but many. Some sported witty wordplays, such as "We want to be heard, not herded" or "We hate 6.9, we love 69". Others were less elegantly constructed and most certainly detrimental to the sanity of all copyeditors and grammarians.

But the loudest statement to me came from one young man whose dressing was textbook punk rocker lite.

Instead of a spiky hairdo, he combed down his jagged fringe politely on a side part and, instead of sporting body piercings, he chose to unleash aggression through his clothes by wearing a leather jacket studded with dangerous-looking spikes.

On the back of the jacket was a slogan: "Defiance: Let's cut ourself (sic) free from authority".

While many of his fellow protesters had turned up, more mundanely, in T-shirts and shorts, Punk Boy was sending out a clear visual signal, a fashion shorthand, if you like, on his socio-political leanings, without having to say a word.

The punk rock movement started in the West - in particular, in London and New York - as a raw and stripped down musical reaction against the bloated excesses of the prevailing rock scene of the mid-1970s. Bands such as The Clash and the Malcolm McLaren-managed Sex Pistols thumbed their noses (very loudly) at the status quo.

Eventually, the musical genre became an entire sub-culture, spilling into the realm of fashion with McLaren's consort, Vivienne Westwood, as its grand couturier; and into anti-authoritarian, anti-establishment politics.

At Hong Lim Park, Punk Boy was wearing his heart literally on his sleeve. What gave his outfit a disconcerting stain, however, was the placard he brandished. "Singapore for Singaporeans," it said. Indeed, Punk Boy himself was caught on camera shouting those very same words.

That slogan mirrored the nationalist proclamations traditionally associated with far right neo-nazi movements in the West, and sent a shiver down my spine. Over time, the punk movement sprouted several offshoots, one of which was the Oi! movement, largely associated with violent white supremacist groups.

I am not saying he shared those sentiments. In fact, faced with flak on the Internet, he has posted that "my sign simply stands for putting Singaporeans first and not to lose our national sense of identity".

One assumes therefore that he was misguided and ignorant about the visual code he was sending out. I doubt he knew the implications of his words, coupled with his choice of clothes.

His online defence, after all, somewhat confusingly added: "It doesn't matter whether I am a punk or not in relation to this protest. I've been to many punk/ska/metal/Oi! gigs before I even knew about black hole a few years back. I may not belong to the local punk community, it doesn't bother me. I'm still a punk."

If he had held that placard while wearing a T-shirt and shorts, the message would, perhaps, have come across as less threatening. The words would have fitted in with the crowd's general feeling of unhappiness at being displaced in their country by an increasing number of strangers.

But then again, if you boil everything down to its pure essence, how different is that feeling really from that of racist and xenophobic skinheads? They, too, are disenfranchised people, angry at the lack of opportunities and who choose to vent their anger at immigrants they perceive to be taking over their country's economy and their jobs.

But that is fodder for another column in another section of the paper.

Back to Punk Boy. To his credit, he signed off on his note, "Stop fighting over something that was not meant to be fought over and focus on the real issue at hand. Peace and love to all."

But he made me wonder if there are many others like him who, perhaps innocently and naively, take on the mantle of seemingly worthy causes the way one dons the latest fashions.

In an increasingly fraught world where, thanks to the Internet, everything is dissected to minutiae and mothballed histories can be hauled up, I find it incredulous sometimes how shallow one's grasp of issues can be.

Then again, the Internet has also made it that much easier to misrepresent everything.

What cannot be denied, however, is the power of visual codes. Ask any woman who puts on a power suit, red lipstick and towering heels to make sure she stands out confidently in a boardroom meeting.

Or the school principals who decide they want to update their school identities by tweaking their students' uniforms, as was the case with Stamford Primary last month.

It is easy to stir emotions, not only with evocative symbols and visual cues; but also with evocative words and slogans.

As Singapore experiences a blossoming of its political and social awareness, it is natural to feel a heady sense of liberation.

But this new freedom must also come with a deeper awareness and understanding that is more meaningful than just throwing on a leather jacket, carrying a placard or even showing up at protest rallies.

Fashion can be political. But politics should never be regarded as merely fashionable.

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