Traditionally, Singapore hasn’t been kind to vandals.
In 1994, it landed four strokes of the cane on Michael Fay’s naked bum, provoking then US President Bill Clinton to denounce the punishment. In 2010, Swiss expat Oliver Fricker was given three strokes for infiltrating the train depot and spraying graffiti onto the trains.
And just today, Facebook feeds were flooded with news that the authorities have arrested a 25-year-old woman, dubbed ‘Sticker Lady’, for allegedly painting the tongue-in-cheek words “My Grandfather Road” on some roads in Singapore.
(Check out her blog at: skl0.tumblr.com)
The Singlish phrase is a reference to how the country is over-regulated by the ruling People’s Action Party and its founding patriarch Lee Kuan Yew.
Besides the graffiti on the roads, the woman is also suspected for pasting a series of humorous stickers (hence the moniker) around the island. Photos of those stickers have gone viral on social networks.
If she’s convicted of vandalism, she could be fined up to S$2,000 (US$1,550), jailed up to three years, or both. Fortunately, as a woman, she won’t be caned, unlike what some reports have claimed.
But as much as this Sticker Lady is breaking the law, she’s different from Michael Fay and Oliver Fricker.
She’s doing street art, that is, any form of art that is found in public space. Her works are playful, witty, and satirical. And while her pieces deface public property, that wasn’t her only intent.
Granted, no verdict has been dished out yet, but I cannot emphasize enough the importance of the authority’s decision on Singapore’s status as a global city with entrepreneurial street cred. After all, there’s a strong link between freedom, culture, creativity, and entrepreneurship.
City planners understand one thing very well: To attract the world’s most talented people, you’ve got to offer them the best living standards, not just in terms of how having comfortable penthouses or low tax rates, but also in terms of having a vibrant cultural life and arts scene. You’ve also got to give them an environment that allows them to break rules and challenge convention.
I’m not plucking this out of thin air; prominent businessmen and politicians at last year’s World Entrepreneurship Forum have said the same thing. The correlation between innovation and culture is also evident in this ranking of the world’s startup ecosystems, with Silicon Valley, New York City, and London taking the top three spots.
The Singapore government acknowledges this too, pouring billions to turn the island state into a renaissance city. The new, magnificent ArtScience Museum, a mantle piece of the statuesque Marina Bay Sands resort and casino, has even hosted exhibitions by groundbreaking artists like Andy Warhol and Vincent Van Gogh.
Yet the irony is that when a young woman tries to push the boundaries of art in our backyard, she gets arrested.
So, I’m hoping that for the sake of Singapore’s entrepreneurial future, Sticker Lady will avoid jail time. Give her a small fine, sure, but also give her a special license and the space to do more street art without the fear of censorship.
No doubt her works are critical of the government, but hasn’t its politicians been preaching about opening up public discourse?
For all we know, she could become Singapore’s version of Banksy, a well-known street artist whose works are protected by the British government. His pieces sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars in auctions, and his documentary film has even received an Oscar nomination in 2010.
Other street artists are also starting to gain recognition amongst the mainstream crowd in the West. They work on commissioned pieces, run exhibitions, and become celebrated icons.
(Read: 50 beautiful graffiti artworks)
Which means that individuals like Sticker Lady could very well become one of Singapore’s linchpins.
Linchpins are, by author and entrepreneur Seth Godin’s definition, individuals who are indispensable in society because of their ability to create art, which, broadly defined, is a new way of fostering human connections.
Linchpins are the exact opposite of rule-abiding cogs in the corporate machine, who go about their daily lives doing boring work they themselves despise.
Linchpins, with their capacity to follow their passion, make great entrepreneurs.
Steve Jobs was one. He is known for shunning focus groups and forecasting demand by creating a device he would use. As such, he was able to predict that people would want smartphones without a physical keypad, leading to the success of the iPhone.
Sticker Lady, too, has delighted many by doing something refreshing and unprecedented in Singapore.
She did not need to ask permission. People love it so much that soon after her arrest, an online petition was started to demand that she receives a light sentence.
Her capacity to create unexpected value through street art is something that should be celebrated, not condemned.
The Singapore government has an opportunity to do something unprecedented here.
They could mess it up, or, they could take advantage of the situation, lighting the path towards making Singapore a capital of culture and everything else.
“The people who truly deface our neighbourhoods are the companies that scrawl their giant slogans across buildings and buses trying to make us feel inadequate unless we buy their stuff. They expect to be able to shout their message in your face from every available surface, but you’re never allowed to answer back”. — English graffiti artist and political activist ‘Banksy’.