Plaza | Singapura (or How to Stop Worrying and Love the Mall)

By Ng Yi-Sheng

In his second piece for GRC, Ng Yi-Sheng goes shopping. Analysing our stratified relationships with malls—whether loved or reviled, avoided or embraced so you can dry your sweat in sub-zero-air-con, he puts this questionable symbol of the Singaporean public on display.

Gone Shopping (film still), Wee Li Lin, 2007. Image courtesy of Bobbing Buoy Films.

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If you’re an artsy/activisty person in Singapore, you’ll have realised by now that it’s pretty fashionable to despise shopping malls. They’re monuments to consumerism, owned by late capitalist megacorps like CapitaLand, Far East Organisation, and CDL. They give us the illusion of variety of choice, while driving actual mom & pop shops out of business. And no matter how many miniature trees they plant inside their walls, they’re basically destroying the climate and our organic relationship to the tropics with their ubiquitous air-conditioning.

This is why we rejoiced when Pan Jie wrote that hilariously shady RiceMedia article, “Diary Of A Man Forced By His Boss To Visit The New Funan Mall”. This is why we rolled our eyes when Lee Hsien Loong proclaimed Changi Jewel an embodiment of how Singaporeans not only have the creativity and daring to re-invent ourselves, but also the passion and the competence to turn dreams into reality. This is why we smirk when we hear how another mall’s tenants are closing shop, how another mall’s been flooded or had a ceiling collapse due to shoddy infrastructure and planning. Good, we think. They had it coming. Let the tyranny of mall culture die.

But I wanna be contrarian for a second. Remember how at the end of my last blog post, I said we need to look at Singapore’s existing public squares; the places where people actually do find community today?

That’s shopping malls, baby. If we’re thinking of where the broadest spectrum of the Singapore population chooses to spend its free time, then it’s in MBS, Ion Orchard, VivoCity, plus the dozens of neighbourhood malls that have sprung up to serve the heartlands’ hunger for cosmopolitanism.

But, you might protest, these are privately owned spaces. The only reason the public’s being invited in is for the purposes of extracting their disposable income. There’s even a private security force on standby to throw you out if don’t follow prescribed behaviour.

True, true. Nevertheless, this is where vast numbers of the public choose to assemble, rather than public parks, community centres, and museums. This is where you’re most likely to run into old friends, old schoolmates, with whom you have nothing in common.

This isn’t real equality. There’s still social stratification at work. Low-income foreign workers go to Lucky Plaza and Golden Mile; tai-tais frequent Mandarin Gallery. Racial stratification too: look at People’s Park, Mustafa Centre, Tanjong Katong Complex.

But public squares have never been about equality. And they’ve never been perfectly democratic. They’re sites where casual social interactions in a community are possible.

The difference between a shopping mall and a town square is actually historically rather fuzzy. Merriam-Webster reminds us that the word “mall” originally referred to a tree-lined street, such as Pall Mall in London or the National Mall in Washington DC. Wikipedia’s entry on the Town Square offers up synonyms for the term: not only “civic center” but “market square”. Historically, it’s recorded that the Roman Forum originally functioned as a marketplace before transitioning into a more political centre. And if we’re looking at traditional city planning in our part of the world, we should consider how the square/maidan/alun-alun was traditionally adjacent to the market/bazaar/pasar. Where might the average denizen of the city have felt more at home?

Mind you, it’s arguable that there’s a distinction between the classic marketplace and the shopping mall. The problems of late capitalist oligopoly and opulence are much less evident at wet markets, hawker centres, pasar malam—all public spaces with long social histories, where citizens still mingle.

But the very names of Singapore’s shopping malls reveal how they aspire to the status of public squares: Forum, City Square Mall, Plaza Singapura. And once again: the greatest masses of people prefer to inhabit shopping malls.

So I think we’ve gotta ask ourselves: do we disdain malls because of their macroeconomic/environmental impact, or because we just think they’re kinda basic? If it’s the latter, then we have some soul-searching to do—disliking something because most of your countryfolk love it is elitist and classist as hell.

What this means for us artsy/activist people is this. If we truly want to speak to a wide spectrum of the Singapore population—not just those who’re already at the centre of our culture—then we have to engage with malls.

Gone Shopping (film still), Wee Li Lin, 2007. Image courtesy of Bobbing Buoy Films.

Which we’ve been doing already, of course! We’ve let them inspire us, in works like Wee Lilin’s film Gone Shopping (2007) and Michael Chiang’s play Beauty Box (1984). We’ve made homes for ourselves in them, from the establishment of W!ld Rice’s headquarters and theatre in Funan Centre in 2019, to the building of the Esplanade as both an arts centre and a mall in 2002, to the opening of 5th Passage gallery in Parkway Parade Shopping Centre in 1992—a space for challenging, politically resistant art in the midst of consumerism.

None of which is to say you’re obligated to start loving malls. One can deliberately choose to embrace the public’s love for shopping while disrupting the capitalist system, as with Post-Museum’s Really Really Free Markets, established 2009. Or else one can flee the pasar altogether, heading to the countryside, as with the originally setup of The Artists Village, housed in a Sembawang kampung in 1988.

Still, I think there’s a central truth embedded in here about what the people of this country love. Not the green majesty of the Botanic Gardens or the aristocratic silence of a National Museum. No: we like noise, variety, finger food and cinema and hype; maybe even the sparkle of a Christmas light-up, the sprinkle of a giant fountain, a nightly laser-show.

We are creatures of spectacle. That too is an aesthetic value. Why despise that?

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