Miss Universe Singapore beauty pageant dress is an ugly part of a national itch to plant instant trees

Sense And Nonsense by Tan Bah Bah

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Ms Zahra Khanum, Miss Universe Singapore 2018, Photo : Instagram

Why do you think we keep coming up with cringe-inducing designs and, at least in the early stages of our development, LOL awful colour preferences for our HDB blocks? The answer is partly lack of sophistication (poor taste) or tiada apa attitudes of most Singaporeans, partly playing safe not to displease your paymasters in design conceptualisation and decision and partly harbouring a national itch to plant instant identity trees.

Design by a tourist post-card selection committee comes to mind when you first lay your eyes on the pageant dress theme for Miss Universe Singapore. It is as if everyone has been handed a note asking him or her to include: Merlion, (White Elephant) Garden By The Bay, Singapore Flyover, Marina Bay Sands, Changi Airport, Esplanade, lumped into one happy motif. “We are a fun, fun, fun place. And don’t forget we also hold conferences, yea.” Oh yea.

Fair enough if you are designing a poster. This was a “national” dress which begs the question: . Whatever happened to the people and the cultures that pageant winner Zahra Khanum will be representing? She is a real person and not a poster or a national flag. When she walks onto the stage, is she going to talk about just these buildings, Kim Jung Un and Donald Trump? Or, a long shot, very long shot, will she be saying how proud she is of Joseph Schooling or Kevin Kwan? What will foreigners learn about Singapore?

Meme by Kamal Dollah

I can understand the thinking of those who are given the job of producing something to specification. Whatever you want, I will give it to you. Bread and butter work. If you pay me peanuts, I will give you peanuts.

If you pay me a bit more, like Pierre Balmain or Ian Batey was, I’ll come up with winners. Singapore Airlines spent big and flew high and far with the Singapore Girl concept and dress and a world-class PR campaign.

Some would describe the Miss Universe pageant dress as kitsch. The dictionary defines kitsch as art, objects, or design considered to be in poor taste because of excessive garishness. It certainly is all of these.

I would place the dress in the same category as some of the festive lightups in Chinatown and Little India. Garish.

If it is sophistication we are talking about, I would defend this year’s Christmas lightup in Orchard Road which is at another level altogether. I happen to think having the Disney theme is a very good pro-family move. And the designs are very attractive, with the lights well-coordinated. Whatever others may think, it is finally the people, the masses, thronging the road now till the end of Christmas who will show their stamp of approval. This is still a secular nation, the last time I checked. So two cheers to the Singapore Tourism Board and the Orchard Road merchants and businesses. You are not beholden to any group. Don’t let the Scrooges and Grinches spoil the fun and impose their narrow-mindedness on others. ’Tis the season of goodwill, to be generous and inclusive.

More seriously, good design should have three goals.

First, does it serve a genuine long-term purpose? If it is just a one-off I’m not going to be responsible for what happens next year thing, then, the wrong people have been handed the responsibility of holding, for example, the Miss Universe Singapore pageant. Let other better people do the job.

Second, is the design up to par? In the case of the beauty pageant dress, many members of the public say it is not. I am one of them. Those artifices shown in the background are like instant trees. They have not grown organically into the Singapore psyche or landscape like the Raffles Hotel or the Botanic Garden, which is a world heritage. Either or both would represent Singapore more effectively. And if we want a world face, Joseph Schooling can be considered. He is a gold-medal Olympian.

There are other ways to remind the world that Donald Trump and Kim Jung Un chose Singapore for their historic summit. A beauty pageant dress is not one of them.

Thirdly, will the design show creative progress or be part of a journey of progress? Take a simple example. In the early years of public housing, HDB blocks used to come in weird colours, often a mishmash of bright pink, blue and yellow. They were an eyesore on the architectural landscape. In sharp contrast, private condominiums had tasteful pastel shades – beige, white, green lined by earthy brown. These were excellent middle-class tastes which showed up the gap between lower-income housing and private housing in a very visible manner.

The HDB has made leaps of progress in their design and colour preferences since. Today, the colour schemes of its blocks are second to none.

Design will always be controversial.

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington DC honouring (with names engraved) service members of the U.S. armed forces who died or were unaccounted for in the Vietnam War was a simple V-shaped granite wall, one side pointing to the Lincoln Memorial and the other to the Washington Monument. It was an unconventional and non-traditional design for a war memorial. But it withstood the controversy and is now an integral part of the DC heritage.

Daring to be different is not the same as even thinking that the public can be taken for granted. Poor taste is poor taste. Bad design is bad design.

Tan Bah Bah is a former senior leader writer with The Straits Times. He was also managing editor of a local magazine publishing company.