Tuesday, 20 January 2015

Singapore Discovery Centre: Feedback loops and desired outcomes


Ah, the Singapore Discovery Centre, that mind-melty goosepimple-inducing centre of national propaganda story! One marvels that its architects have exercised restraint in not making it a giant merlion shaped building. Once upon a time it might have become a historical-oriented military museum, but it was eventually turned into more open-ended museum of "Singaporean-ness", and perhaps that is why it seems to employ an unusual way of describing itself.

A military force always has a clear common purpose, as set out by its commander, binding all of its forces together. So when attempting to describe an army or civil defence force, you would not describe what it is or who it is, but instead you would describe its desired outcome and how it will manage to achieve this outcome, which is a very peculiar sort of self-description. Being a fan of cultural mistranslations, I actually think the charm of SDC for me is that it is not very nuanced in how it attempts to be didactic, as its rhetoric is so overwhelmingly goal-centric as to be somewhat blithely transparent.


This is an exhibit description best kept inside the brief for the exhibition design, but NO WORRIES WE CAN JUST REPRINT IT HERE just in case you needed to know what was the aim of this exhibit. Singaporeans will be used to this. (If we describe it as a showcase of Singapore as a creative city, will the showcase become even more successful at being a showcase of Singapore as a creative city - OR WILL SINGAPORE EVEN BECOME MORE CREATIVE? Who knows where it ends??)


Merlion with knowingly askew glance, gritted teeth in embarrassment for not being sure if its authentic or not. The poor thing, a whole song and dance routine dedicated to its cautious ambivalence for existing.

Here follow a couple screencaps of an interactive describing a fantastical future scenario:


Children, we're now in the future.







Problem: this bunch of Singaporeans have run out of food. They want you to get them some.


Uh-oh! If you don't solve the maze puzzle, everyone will starve! Well then, they should have been more resourceful and not depended on other people to bring them food! Now what other story does this sound like? Hmm...


Sounds like something your parents might say to you, instead of the tagline of a museum exhibit. The beauty of this place is that it was not made for tourists. It was just made for Singaporeans. By the way, it costs 10 buckaroos for the tourists to come in whereas its free for Singaporeans (Sorry George). Just sayin'.




Here begins an endless barrage of little red dot quotes, first inspired by Habibie's denigrating description of Singapore as nothing more than a "little red dot" (as it is commonly depicted on maps, as it is too small to be perceived at some scales), a description which has since been co-opted by many Singaporeans as a point of pride - that a little red dot can do so much. It seems fine at first, but by the time you get downstairs and see all of the quotes of so many little children writing terrifyingly trite well-wishing things about little red dots that all sound like they're about to go into some end-of-year autograph book to Singapore, you'll be running for dear life through the corridors.




Ugh ugh ugh nooooooooooooooo


ALAMAK? Recharging? I'm afraid that now we won't ever know what the Singabot was for...


Naturally, in such a place, there must be a section dedicated to military simulation games. I think these games probably would be good if there were more people, but at the time of our visit we were probably the only two visitors present in the entire centre, so....


This is another game in which you figure how out to deploy the right ministry for the right task. I know, its total fun for the whole family.


Choose your own disaster and all...


SO MANY WORDS HELP TL;DR. There is some seriously outdated exhibit design going on here.

Finally there's a great crisis simulation theatre where they run a couple of films about a fictional MRT bomb attack. Cue the innocent (and strategically racially diverse) children's plaintive cries of "but why do they bomb us?" Well, you tell me. Oh wait too busy tugging at the heartstrings bllppppbbbpp


"Oh, Happy Days..."


But no! A wild bomb attack in the MRT!


People escaping the MRT...


The Civil defence response...


Everything is terrible...


And finally on that bombshell:

P1083900 P1083890

P1083888 P1083909

P1083901 P1083883

I want to tell you more about the other exhibits but I'm now too tired to explain any further. Also, at the end of our trip a very kindly old man came to ask the Singaporean (ie. me) for feedback on how to improve the SDC, and I told the man it was fine as it is. (Note: do not use a kindly old man as your feedback officer if you want to collect any honestly brutal feedback). As we left George asked me why I hadn't told him how I honestly feel about the SDC.

But I think this strange feedback loop is part of Singapore's infuriatingly goal-oriented culture. The thing is that it isn't the visitor's role to improve the SDC - I want to see it as it is, and I've come to see what they say about Singapore, and I want no part of this terrifying feedback loop of messages, and this heavy-handed approach to shaping and attaining the "desired outcomes" for this exhibit. I think that the day when we can finally elevate ourselves beyond this looped form of describing our Singaporeanness, then Singapore will truly come into its own.

Singapore Discovery Centre is at 510 Upper Jurong Rd, Singapore 638365, and is open from 9am to 6pm from Tuesday to Sunday. Free admission for Singaporeans and PRs.

Monochrome Beijing



Another quirk of China’s pollution problem: this scene at one of Beijing’s strangely monochromatic subway stations (which seem to present entirely in only grey and black and gunmetal). I realise how strange it looked after I came home and went through the images; it was as if the colour had been edited out from the rest of the image - the only colour you see as you ascend to the surface on the escalators coming from this series of advertisements, touting face masks to protect you from pollution whilst keeping you... er... fashionable? I'm not quite sure - the visual language of the posters is strangely subtle and minimal, something I am not accustomed to. To me its simplicity almost makes it parodic, like as if it were the slap-bang work of some (ahem) 'speculative' designer quickly slapping together a few gradients, petals and stock images, dreaming up a quick sketch of an alternative post-apocalyptic universe in which some terrible pollution appears plagues the city forever and the city is unrelentingly grey and sapped of colour forever and the protective facemask becomes everyday wear. But I'm overthinking it. I think that was what initially turned me off Beijing the first time I visited it briefly was that it was just so shockingly colourless and the pollution was so bad that I couldn't see buildings into the distance anymore; it makes me angry that there would be people and businesses with such selfishness and thoughtlessness for the environment that the sum of the pollution they were all pumping out was clearly afflicting and damaging the health of so many people and other living things. This time around I was glad to see that the city still had some good days when the pollution lifted for a brief spell, and the streets could be full of colour.

The Keywords of Beijing


Air China does a regular route from London to Singapore with a fairly long stopover in Beijing, so on our recent trip to Singapore we decided to stop over in Beijing. Get ready for the grimness! As we entered Beijing, we were greeted by the cheerful illuminated signs welcoming us to our 72 hour visa-free transit. STAY 72 HOURS GAIN 3000 YEARS! It was somewhat unclear whether we were really gaining 3000 years of culture - or about to age 3000 years from 72 hours of pollution.


At the airport they had a reminder to their exiting Chinese citizens that they "represent the image of China once they step out of the country's doors"....


We obtained Airport Express passes, which claimed to be “Linking the Green Land to the Blue Sky”...


... which as was to be expected, was neither very green, nor very blue, but at least not as bad as we had expected, considering we arrived the day after the "airpocalypse" of 15 Jan. It appears that after international media picked up the news about pollution hitting over 600 PSI (which is so ridiculous I cannot even describe it), they must have immediately turned off all the bacon factories or something like that.


I was very amused by signage which sometimes didn't come as carefully phrased exhortations or call-to-actions, but instead in the form of lists of words, such as this list of Core Societal Values (社会主义核心价值观). Over these temporary hoardings they could have put any other extraneous decorative image, but instead (and without explanation) there was a list of words such as Prosperity! Democracy! Civilisation! Harmony!...


Outside some attractions such as the Yonghegong monastery, there were also other lists of values. This one reads: Freedom! Equality! Impartiality! Law! Patriotism! Commitment! Honesty! Kindness!


Another smattering of floating words on another advert frequently seen on the subway for 中国梦-地铁梦 (The Chinese Dream / The Rail Dream)... Power! China! Highspeed progress! Subway!...

Besides these keyword lists of Beijing, there was a series of fire prevention posters which featured a blue sky, two turtle doves soaring alongside messages of the dangers of fire - all rather shonkily photoshopped together.


Small independent reporting device
Alerts you to fires in middle of night


Theft-prevention window grills should have openings
Allowing for more escape routes during a fire


“Little Sun” heaters may combust
Keep a safe distance from them


During a fire saving lives comes first
Don’t go back for valuables and money


My favourite of the lot had to be this one, which involved a rather pixelated computer and phone if you look at it up close, whereas the vector lines of the sign are crisp and clear.


Devices should be charged with suitable batteries
Once charged immediately disconnect


One more sign I really liked was this illustration of the stoic visage of a hardworking worker in a helmet, gazing handsomely into the distance.

And one last oddity from Nanluoguxiang in Gulou - a formidable looking sandwich:


"Malaga fort nuclear powered submarines"

(Thanks to Biin for taking us around on our ONE NIGHT IN BEIJING!)