Bei Le Ng, ‘The Singapore Girl: Decolonisation in the Visualisation of the Feminine Other’

Colonialism and femininity have always intimately intertwined. Edward Said’s Orientalism draws our attention to the characterisation and feminisation of the Orient as integral to the epistemic construction of Empire. Writing on how early literary works would draw upon the ‘passive, seminal, feminine […] and even supine East’, (Said 1979) Said sets the feminine Orient in direct opposition with the active, masculine West. Beyond the literary, Orientalism manifests in visual elements as well. In Eugene Delacroix’s The Women of Algiers, the supine, sensual ‘native women’ look invitingly upon the viewer, their bodies indexing the romanticisation of the Orient. Colonialism’s visualisation of the native woman perceives the native woman as a product of pleasure to be exploited alongside the other resources. However, at a deeper level, the configuration of the colonised as feminine (or at the very least, emasculated) and the coloniser as masculine plays heavily on the trope of domination and exploitation in that the femininity is subjugated by the masculine. As such, the act of colonisation in itself is a field heavily steeped in power—in who decides the hierarchies and epistemic field of which the coloniser and colonised situates themselves. Turning it on its head, therefore, I propose that decolonisation can be understood as the shifting of the locus of power away from the hands of the colonisers and into the hands of the ‘native’. With this I challenge the term ‘decolonisation’—which I find problematic since it assumes a process that reaches a definite end point of ‘decolonised’. The example I present demonstrates how ‘decolonisation’ is not the removal of all traces of ‘colonisation’, but the transition from ‘colonised’ to ‘decolonisation’, is underpinned by the transition of narrative power from the colonisers to the ex-colonised. 

I will discuss how the semiotics of femininity can index a nation’s positionality in their process of decolonisation. Just as colonialism etches itself in the imagery of subordinated women, I argue that decolonisation similarly embeds itself in the female body through the way femininity is seen and how it moves. I focus on the figure of the Singapore Girl, the airline stewardess of the national carrier Singapore Airlines that has attained pop cultural iconicity in Singapore and beyond. The Singapore Girl was a creation by Batey Ads in 1972 for the purposes of advertising the new national carrier, though she has been regularly criticised for hrt orientalist slant and one-sided representation of Singaporean Women (Straits Times 1986). Nonetheless, that was precisely what Australian adman Ian Batey intended. He described her as having the ‘natural looks of most young Asian women’ (Batey 2003: 120), and intended for her to display her ‘natural femininity, natural grace and warmth’ (ibid), qualities which he associated with her ‘Asian Heritage’. The visual of the Singapore Girl in her Sarong Kebaya (a form of traditional malay dress) also characterised this figure as an Asian icon with her ‘distinctive Asian womanhood in distinctly foreign countries’ (Teo 1987). This transformed her into a ‘symbol of Asian hospitality’ (Singapore Airlines n.d), where it ‘assert[ed] Malayan identity and hospitality’ (Roots, n.d). 

The Singapore Girl can index these hierarchies of power because she is simultaneously imagined and signified by national and international forces that come together to shape the heterogenous semiotic ideology that surrounds her. Vicki Vantoch (2013) has conducted a similar analysis on how society’s idealised womanhood is imbued in the figure of the airline stewardess. In The Jet Sex (2013), Vantoch writes on how in the post WWII years ‘the airline stewardess became an American icon. Heralded as the apotheosis of postwar womanhood, the stewardess was popularly dubbed the “typical all-american girl”’ (2013: 27). In the same vein, the Singapore Girl embodies what the Singapore nation idealises in Singapore womanhood, which, in the discursiveness of her femininity, further indexes the nation’s positionality in the decolonisation process. However, in view of this we must recognise that the Singapore Girl is not simply shaped by what the nation reflexively imagines themselves to be, but is also constructed by the international, and, initially, predominantly Western clientele. They imbue the Singapore Girl with her exotic desirability. The Singapore Girl’s femininity, in the push and pull of national and international idealisations, demonstrates a breakthrough from the colonisation/decolonisation dichotomy as we study the shifting power dynamics shaping the image of the Singapore Girl from the West back into the East; and by corollary, the shift of a nation’s positionality in her self-perception of her relation to her colonial past.

The Singapore Girl of the 1970s

Half the World & More (Singapore Airlines 2012).

The Singapore Girl depicted in the late 1970s is clad in her sarong kebaya regardless of the different climates and parts of the world where she goes—retaining her ‘native self’ even as she has situated herself internationally, which further reinforces the exotic charm that she exudes. Wendy Chapkis characterised the Singapore Girl as ‘exotic cloth wrapped around an undemanding oriental gentleness’ (1986: 57). Her ethereal quality is reinforced as the Singapore Girl runs across the snow in her sarong kebaya, which is arguably impractical, and  it’s precisely this juxtaposition that lends to our imagination of her. 

The youthful femininity of the Singapore Girl is also realised in the opening scene, as three Singapore Girl figures dance with glee amongst the waves. The entire imagery of exotic beaches, young girls, and idyllic joy harkens to the mysticism and simplicity that stereotypes the Orient. The imagery of the feminine Orient is reinforced further in the emphasis on the smile of the Singapore Girl (‘make me share your gentle smile’ ), which exudes feminine warmth and care, further feeds into stereotypes of the gentle servile native woman. Even the jingle in and of itself  – ‘Singapore Girl, you are a great way to fly’ – characterises the Singapore Girl as a commodity to be consumed and enjoyed onboard Singapore Airlines. This epistemically creates the power imbalance of consumer and product, which feeds into the coloniser/colonised rhetoric. The strong exotic slant of the Singapore Girl was what adman Batey intended. 

In The 1970s, Singapore Airlines’ clientele would have largely catered to a Westernised, more wealthy audience where this imagination of the Orient would still have appealed. As a newly industrialised country seeking to increase its capacity as an exports-oriented industry, the positioning of the Singapore Girl with her exoticism that appealed to the eye of the Occident indexes the position of Singapore in the process of decolonisation. Both the economic and political positionality of Singapore was beneath the economies of the U.S. or the U.K. The colonial imagery, therefore, plays forth as an advertising tool to draw in the largely western clientele, while it indexes the relative reliance of the country on these markets economically and politically. 

The Singapore Girl of the Early 1980s

All Around the World – Singapore Twist (Singapore Airlines 2012).

The Singapore Girl of the early 1980s continued to be characterised by her soft-focus Oriental charm, though there is a tangible shift towards appealing to a local audience. She was portrayed as mysterious while she met and avoided the gaze of the viewer, feeding the trope of the exotic Orient. However, by the mid 1980s, the Singapore Girl was seen as interacting with the community more. The decision to divert from previous iterations of the Singapore Girl advertisements filmed overseas and situate the Singapore Girl back in Singapore – for her to ‘come home’ (Straits Times 1988) – demonstrated the idea of returning to her ‘Asian roots’. Her involvement in the activities of the community, attending a Malay Wedding, listening to an Indian fortune teller, further presented the increased engagement with ‘Asian traditions’. As such, this depiction of the Singapore Girl, while still bearing much of its exotic appeal, strove to localise this exoticism and transpose it to a traditional familiarity. 

Studying her portrayal in the 1980s draws stronger links to the local cultural context as there was more effort to sell her in tandem with the Singaporean identity to appeal to local sales (New Nation 1976). By the 1980s, Singapore’s GDP growth rate was one of the fastest in the world, and the increasingly wealthy country meant that local Singaporean consumers were now consumers of the Singapore Girl. This influenced greater Singaporean-ness reflected in her portrayal. Moreover, with the increased economic and political independence of the nation, and as time creates greater distance between the Singapore Girl and her colonial past, there is a greater epistemic and visual assertion of her independence, and, by corollary, the nation.

Singapore Girl in the early 2000s

Singapore Girl Jazz (Singapore Airlines 2012).

In the advertisement entitled ‘Singapore Girl Jazz’, filmed in the early 2000s, there is a further detachment from the Singapore Girl as a marketed product with greater inclusion of places to which Singapore Airlines flies. This demonstrates a further detachment from colonialist visualisations of her. This advertisement was distinct due to its more cosmopolitan slant—the Singapore Girl traverses through Sydney, Paris, Singapore and other cities, moving away from the exotic landscapes of temples as in the 1970s or “local culture” as with the 1980s.  Nevertheless, the cosmopolitan Singapore Girl retains a desirable quality to her. As the jazz singer croons ‘Wherever in the world I go / Singapore Girl / You are a Great Way to Fly’, the swanky jazz music and the dreamy cinematography still, inadvertently, allude to the exotic desirability of the Singapore Girl.  

With its continued detachment from Orientalist imagery, it indexes the lessening appeal of the exotic East in light of a post-colonial world as well as the rising positionality of Singapore in the global economic and political arena. Singapore Airlines was gaining its footing in the global aerospace industry, in tandem with Singapore’s gradual rise in the global economy as one of the four ‘“Asian Tigers’ alongside Hong Kong, South Korea and Taiwan for their rapidly high growth rates from 1960s to 1990s (Cite?). Beginning January 2001, Singapore was elected into a non-permanent seat in the UN Security Council, reflecting the country’s growing diplomatic and political weight in world affairs. With greater political and economic weight, the country moves deeper into her independence and sovereignty and is, therefore, ‘decolonised’ in the sense that it removes itself even further from the colonial economic and political baggage of its early days, the Orientalist ‘soft focus’ exoticism employed heavily in The Singapore Girl’s early days became a lesser part of her portrayal. As power shifts back into the hands of the decolonised to create their own narrative, the narrative and creation of the Singaporean Girl as an iconic object also shifts to appeal to the gaze of the Singaporean ‘native’—presenting her as cosmopolitan,forward-looking, while indexing the ambitions of the country. 

The Singapore Girl of the present is very detached from the Orientalist pop iconicity it enjoyed in the past. Notably, advertisements centred on the charm of the Singapore Girl have not been released in the past decade. However, with the ‘decolonisation’ of the Singapore Girl comes atension that as Singapore moves ahead as an independent nation, the charm and appeal of the Singapore Girl is embedded into our national psyche. In a twisted form of Said’s Orientalism, the Orient, in itself, creates the imaginary landscapes that it fashions itself after. In a Channel 4 documentary, viewers were brought behind the scenes to look at Singapore Airlines’ new training regime. In the video, entitled ‘Does Singapore Airlines Have the Most Intense Cabin Crew Training in the World?’, Foo Juat Fung, Assistant Manager of Cabin Crew Training, remarks on how airline stewardesses ‘will have deportment classes to make sure they walk right. They will have grooming classes to make sure they look right’ (Channel 4 2019 ). This is part of a training regime aiming to deliver maximum customer satisfaction, as Singapore Airlines received second place in Skytrax’s World Best Airline Awards (World Airline Awards 2022). If the Singapore Girl’s customer service and her Oriental charm are congruent ideals, it illustrates how there is an inherent desire for the “charm” of the Singapore Girl to persist despite this charm’s connection to the Orientalist tropes in colonial narratives. There, somehow, lies an uncanny tension whereby the Singapore Girl becomes the vessel where Singapore’s post-colonial identity is asserted and, simultaneously, bears forms and mannerisms of coloniality from which  the Singaporean state is distancing itself. As Singaporeans move ahead as an independent nation, the charm and appeal of the Singapore Girl has been embedded into our psyche with regards to the appeal and iconicity of the airlines. In a twisted form of Said’s Orientalism, the Orient in itself creates the imaginary landscapes that it fashions itself after.  Instead of viewing them as opposing contradictions, it may do well to recognise how indexed meanings can coexist and be selectively recognised at will. 

Given the conflicting and overlapping signification by both the national and the international embedded in the Singapore Girl, the Singapore Girl provides a prime example as to how decolonisation is not the jump between colonised and un-colonised, but a messy process of meaning-making and symbol-creation as a nation that moves from colonised to decolonised. Singaporeans can love the Singapore girl as iconic of their national airline, while recognising the Orientalist tropes that she embodies as well. To a certain extent, the many conflicting and overlapping iconic identities the Singapore Girl negotiates—as national icon, as an exotic good to be desired, as an air stewardess onboard an airline—reflects the intersectionality between economy, society and politics in decolonisation. 

The Singapore Girl of 2023 is very detached from the pop cultural iconicity it enjoyed in the past. In fact, Singapore Girl-centred advertisements have not been released in the past decade. While the femininity of the Singapore Girl may no longer be the forefront of what defines her today, the changing configurations of femininity of the Singapore Girl embody a country’s evolving expectations of itself, the decolonisation process, and perhaps  a ‘taking-back’ of the Singapore Girl’s narrative by Singaporeans as an assertion of her and the country’s independence.  If anything, Singaporeans have claimed the Singapore Girl as an ultimate assertion of post-colonial identity, that despite her colonial roots, the Singapore Girl is very much a Singaporean Girl. 

Bei Le Ng is a second-year HSPS student at Emmanuel College, University of Cambridge, with a great enthusiasm for Anthropology and Politics. Having been raised in Singapore and remembering the fond memories her national carrier had given her, she sometimes likes to over-analyse their advertisements in her free time.


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