By Yong Jia Yu
Looking to the right: when the other co-chairs of the Covid-19 multi-ministry task force did so to Finance Minister Lawrence Wong, that iconic five second clip soon found itself replicated and used in many different contexts. But why did something so simple resonate with so many? Perhaps we inferred the experience of being “arrowed” — local parlance for being selected, often against one’s wishes — by friends or group members, finding that very relatable.
That is an example of a meme — an idea that spreads quickly among people within the same culture — proliferating across Singapore’s Internet. You’ve definitely seen them around on social media, be they merely trying to give you a laugh or carrying a more loaded intent.
So, what types of memes are out there? And what are the impacts of these online memes on our offline society?
Dank memes from the ground up
For simplicity, we can classify Singaporean memes into two types: the satirical and the official. As befits their name, satirical memes are produced by “unofficial” meme pages, which may bear the names of organisations but do not represent them in any official capacity. You wouldn’t expect a page called “Memedef” to represent the Ministry of Defence, for instance, but they’ve been diligently creating memes about national service and the Singapore Armed Forces which many servicemen enjoy.
Similarly, an Instagram account popular among Singaporean women, @yourgirlfriendiswhosia posts memes relating the female experience, such as dating, beauty and health. So, between these two juggernauts of memes on social media, and the plethora of school meme pages freely available, what ties them together? All of them represent the shared experiences within a community. Augmented by their unofficial status, they are free to provide a more informal look into the people and societies they satirise.
Are “official” memes cringier?
Organisations – be they corporations, ministries or larger meme pages that advertise extensively – also produce memes. However, their content usually carries a more loaded message, trying to spur some action from viewers to benefit said organisation, thus decreasing relatability. Negative examples may come to mind first, such as the Health Promotion Board accidentally using Pepe the Frog – a meme that had gained alt-right connotations in the United States – in one of their videos, ultimately having to edit it out. In their worst form, memes are used to “trendjack”, where organisations allude to social trends but with the loaded intent of promoting themselves. For instance, telco circles.life tried to hop on the bandwagon of racial harmony amid a spike in racial discrimination cases, by claiming their post was “designed by a Filipino, copywritten by a Malay, approved by a Chinese”. However, this turned out to be a very unpopular move among Internet users who lambasted the post for being insensitive and reinforcing racial hierarchy.
So if memes can get so controversial, would it be better to just forego them altogether? Not quite. Take for example SGAG, Singapore’s first meme page founded in 2011. Even though the Internet’s memes moved with the times, SGAG was still using outdated meme templates from the 2000s and 2010s — including the ubiquitous Impact font — as late as 2017 (see below). However, that same year, SGAG started creating its own hand-drawn memes, signalling a diversification of their content, and they have moved beyond using the same few templates from the early 2010s. While the sponsored posts are still here today, SGAG has returned to relatability, be it in terms of updating their meme templates with the times or relating common experiences among Singaporeans.
Pushing the envelope further with their memes would be the Instagram page for the Ministry of Sustainability and the Environment, and TikTok videos from Bukit Merah West Neighbourhood Police Centre. Be it taking small actions to help the environment, or keeping yourself safe from crime, they insert their message into meme templates already widespread on the Internet, while preserving the humour originally derived from the meme. As such, these organisations are able to get their message across to a wider, younger, Internet audience: by being relatable.
So how do memes affect us in real life?
As a very potent means of communication in this digital era, memes have the potential to steer our society: anything from conversations to sentiments are fair game.
Such societal change is most prominently seen when contrasted against our OB markers, particularly regarding race and religion. Overseas, we see the impact of memes used by the 2019 Christchurch shooter to promote his massacre and manifesto. A 16-year-old Singaporean would be inspired in turn by him to plot attacks against two mosques, before his arrest in November 2020.
Similarly, Nanyang Junior College’s unofficial meme page was also embroiled in such controversy, after posting a meme parodying a Nike advertisement to “commemorate 9/11”. Although the meme page administrators had created the meme in good fun, they apologised by admitting they had “crossed the line”.
Conversely, memes can also inspire positive social change. Satirical memes reflect on current events such as the hall vacancy allocation issues in Nanyang Technological University (NTU) spreading the word on crises and calling for a more farsighted look at school policies. Meme pages helped to promote a petition advocating for NTU to reconsider their housing capacity, increasing its visibility and reach on social media.
However, for issues which we as a nation are still trying to grasp, some memes can overstep boundaries. One example is Singaporean swimmer Joseph Schooling’s unfortunate exit from the 2021 Tokyo Olympics. The memes ranged from sympathetic to sarcastic, with the former cheering him on and defending him from insults, and the latter pointing out how Schooling might not be able to defer his National Service obligations for much longer among other criticisms.
While Singapore – and Schooling – still reels from the news, our memes will raise the question of where Internet humour goes too far. We can all agree, for instance, that blaming Schooling for his performance is unwarranted, but what about pointing out the elephant in the room that he will need to serve the nation? Perhaps each individual Internet user has their own answer to that. Those who believe Schooling starting his National Service to be an inevitable reality of living in Singapore may be more justified from such memes, than those who would use it to mock or blame Schooling. Still, there are surely appropriate ways to support Schooling through memes, which thankfully the Internet community has shown us.
Singaporean memes are also a platform for us to observe political conversation and participation. During the 2020 General Elections (GE2020) political debate, Workers’ Party (WP) candidate Jamus Lim’s speeches became a meme, especially his quote on “warming the cockles of his heart”. This spurred people to support him and the WP, against his political opponents from the People’s Action Party (PAP), Singapore Democratic Party and Progress Singapore Party at the debate. Lim’s performance being augmented by social media may have been one of many factors leading to a WP victory in Sengkang GRC where he was contesting.
Conversely, gaffes during speeches spread faster and further, including PAP candidate Heng Swee Keat’s “East Coast Plan” and Reform Party candidate Charles Yeo’s Mandarin speech. Both would get satirised – in jest, or harshly – by online memes critiquing the former’s hesitant speech and the latter’s poor command of Mandarin. Both politicians would also subsequently respond to the massive amount of attention they’d get on social media, with Heng explaining the much-repeated East Coast Plan and Yeo accepting his new status as an online meme.
In the GE2020 that took place largely online due to Covid-19 safe distancing restrictions, memes provided either a force multiplier to earn votes or decreased reputation and vote counts come polling day. With the increased importance of young voters who are generally savvier with Internet culture than older voters, memes that spread simple and strong political messaging will play an important role in electoral politics in the future.
One last meme to round off this article: we might remember Marina Bay Sands being mislabeled as Chattanooga, Tennessee by an American Facebook user. Soon everyone was parodying the error. Unofficial or official, many social media accounts and Internet users had fun with it, even if there was some umbrage at perceived ignorance and insensitivity at first.
Perhaps this is exactly what Singapore’s meme scene —and the world’s, at large — should remember. Regardless of the medium or the template, the intent or lack thereof, Internet memes were originally created for our enjoyment. And though memes have gone far in addressing many issues both online and offline, it’s always nice to return to the humour that they started from.