Pierre Balmain inadvertently created a national icon when he designed a kebaya in batik print to accompany a snug wrap skirt meant to be the sarong. The sartorial splendour of the sarong kebaya uniform, further accentuated by its hourglass shape and three-quarter sleeves, was an instant hit with the public, thanks to its femininity and fulfilment for the previous lack of ‘national identity’. My paper will explore the discursive construction of the Singapore girl in the light of a changing misogynistic backdrop.
The motivation for my research is to find the place of women as cultural bearers to national identity. Thus, my writing is inspired by Chin and Mohd Daud’s study of works on Southeast Asian women as a site of their investigation into gender, identities and nationalism. (2018) In particular, I will be extending their theory on a few main themes. Firstly, the place of women in a patriarchal society in their immortalised representations through history. Secondly, how femininities reflected in the discourses of womanhood are prominently centred in national narratives. Lastly, as the Singapore girl engages in the narratives of a nation-state, she becomes a representation of Singapore to the world.
The primary source of data I will be using is advertisements produced by SIA from the 1970s and 2018. The reason why I chose these points in time is that they can highlight the changes in the role of the Singapore girl and occur during points in history that the notion of gender equality has changed.
Previous research on the advertisements or more broadly SIA’s branding focuses on the product differentiation strategies of SIA, the importance of internal communication and training founded on strong corporate values, and the dimensions of different marketing and branding strategies SIA used to achieve success. (Chan, 2000; Wang, 2016)
The authors were mostly interested in how to replicate the branding success of SIA and develop better theories that powerfully generalises across diverse business contexts. On most occasions, the link to Singapore’s broader socio-political situation or other social issues is only mentioned passingly. There is no close attention to the combination of different semiotic resources, which are used or orchestrated by the advertiser to construct narratives in the advertisement. This is the gap my study intends to fill.
Furthermore, SIA’s TV advertisements is not a static campaign that has remained the same since the birth fo the Singapore girl 50 years ago. But it traces the evolving narratives of Singaporean women and branding philosophies in different TV commercials from the 1970s to 2018.
The main methodological framework I will be using is mystification in critical discourse analysis proposed by O’Halloran. (2005) This refers to the purposeful of sometimes unintentional removal of some discourse elements, which can result in vagueness in the attribution of responsibilities, power or ideology. For example, the concealing of the Singapore girl’s verbal expressions reduces her role to a mere visual image. Subsumed under the main framework, I use multimodal content analysis to find features of an effective advertisement. In the original study, the researchers analysed temporal patterns from multimedia content of advertisement videos, including auditory, visual and textual components and study their roles and synergies in the success of an advertisement. (Vedula, et al., 2017) For this paper, I will be looking into narratives elements that made the commercials memorable and reflect the status of women in that time, as well as deliberate obscurity of story elements. This will enable me to draw connections between the representations of the Singapore girl and real Singapore women in particular periods.
The Past | 1970s
The development of SIA as a national carrier in the 1970s came soon after independence, where there was a lack of an organic national identity. This provided fertile ground for the creation of the Singapore Girl, an icon capable not only of projecting a uniquely Singaporean image to the outside world but also of unifying the multicultural makeup of the nation-state.
The Women’s charter was just passed in the 1960s, designed to improve and protect the rights of females in Singapore. This was huge for the status of women, as it provided a safeguard for women disadvantaged against men.
By 1970, the government had created more jobs than men alone could fill, so it encouraged women to take up careers in traditionally male-dominated fields. Despite the economic reality, the government still held archaic views of women’s roles. Speeches of several ministers espoused traditional gender roles. Speaking at a home economics exhibition in 1970, Minister for Education Ong Pang Boon made it very clear that homemaking was the responsibility of women. (Ng, 2018)
The Beginning of the Singapore Girl
In the 1970s advertisement, the girls are seen getting ready for their flight by putting on their makeup. They don’t have a particular travel destination or obvious purpose in their actions. Their conversation is unknown to the audience, making their identities more of an unknown. Here we can see how mystification plays a role in the iconisation of the Singapore girl. By concealing her identity and key information, it adds to the mystery and how the Singapore girl can be intriguing. fascination with the unknown
The consistent use of close-ups shots on the ladies faces places their visual identity in the foreground while putting the other merits of SIA such as superior hardware or global connections in the background.
Today | 2018
In many ways, the life of Singaporean women is better today than it has ever been even though there is still room for improvement. Women make up almost half of the workforce, but they are also earning 20 per cent less than their male counterparts. The traditional family narrative still puts women as the main caregiver of the family, doing many more times of unpaid work than men do. In 2018, SIA recently underwent their branding exercise, their first major makeover in over a decade. This came after feedback from customers, from consultants to make the Singapore Girl more contemporary and modern like other airline crew.
Making every journey personal
The Singapore girl is seen taking care of passengers’ needs, from a serving a soothing cup of hot tea to helping a young child colour. She is able to preemptively determine their needs, as seen in how she turns down the lights for a couple watching movies before being asked to. There is also an element of surprise and delight as she delivers a birthday cake. Compared to earlier advertisements, there is a strong link to Singapore Airlines’ superior onboard product. The advertisement uses mostly wider shots, allowing us to see her interact with her environment as an agent of change. The Singapore girl finally has a purpose, and that is to serve and go beyond what is expected of her. The higher-level type of actions requires careful thought, above just standing there and looking pretty.
Yet, there are still important elements of Singapore Airlines that are not featured in this advertisement. Male stewards make up 40% of cabin crew and occupy many high-ranking positions such as an inflight supervisor. However, there is no trace of them at all in the advertisements.
The 2018 advertisement highlights how the Singapore girl is not just a national symbol but also an outward projection to others. None of the passengers appears to be ethnically Chinese, despite that being the majority race in Singapore. Hence it could be inferred that the Singapore girl is serving foreigners. As a national symbol, the Singapore girl serves not only to integrate individual identities but also to connect Singapore to the global economy. Foreigners may have taken several flights on SIA but never visit Singapore, making their experience on the plane the sole point of contact to form their impressions of the nation. The representations of the Singapore girl portrays an image of professionalism, high standards of warmth, yet subservient to the white foreigners.
Across the advertisements, some commonalities have not changed through the 50 years of the Singapore girl. First of all, is the bright and accommodating smile of the stewardesses in every scene. Being a flight stewardess is one of the most emotionally performative jobs, as they are forced to maintain their serenity throughout a flight no matter the demands of passengers. On a deeper level, this also reflects on the role of women in domestic settings and conventional workplaces. Women are expected to be not just competent in their jobs but also attuned to the emotional needs of the people around them. Take for example Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign where she was urged by her advisors to show more humour and heart on top of her capabilities. As the gendered representations of the Singapore girl remain, her enduring smile will be a part of the emotional work she takes on.
Secondly, the identity of the girl continues to be mystified, creating an air of untouchability around her. The Girl cannot be separated into just her uniform or a particular person, making her identity fluid and ageless through the years. This draws similarities to how females have been repeatedly involved in nation-building as nominal symbols of a nation, despite their perspective and voices being written out of history (Chin & Mohd Daud, 2018) The historical narratives of Singapore often talk about the founding fathers of the nations, while less is known of the women who helped shape the nation’s destiny like Hajjah Fatimah or Checha Davies. By concealing identifying features, the Singapore girl is reduced to an icon for the eyes of the nation.
While there is effort to change and reflect the modern Singapore girl, deep down the same gendered representations still, remain. This is likely because the concept of the Singapore Girl has been embedded too deeply into the public mind and there has yet to be a suitable substitute that can replace such a unique living and breathing icon.
Next, the Singapore girl has idealised the notion the Singaporean women. Especially in the earlier times when being top in the service industry is something to aspire towards. It has also privileged the majority Chinese and a certain look through its representation through history
Lastly, the construction of a national identity especially in this case is not just to unify citizens but also as a show to the foreign eye.
My research will contribute to the wider academic discussion of Singapore’s national identity, in particular how icons are shaped and influence the wider narrative. Further studies could be done to find how class and race differentiation could contribute to how people identify with icons.
SIA is an important emblem, like the Singapore flag and national anthem, and plays a critical role in creating our sense of national identity, post-independence. There is rich symbolism behind this emotion because of the strong association with the Singapore story. With the airline’s development mirroring Singapore’s nation-building journey from third world to first, Singaporeans take pride in the success of SIA as it speaks well of Singapore as a whole. The Singapore girl may not be a real Singapore woman but she is a reflection of Singapore culture and shared values. It is only by acknowledging our own subconscious biases, that we can continue to empower the women in our lives.