the changing symbolism of the Singapore lions | Oct 14, 2004
Joel Kahn gave a seminar presentation yesterday at the Asia Research Institute, in which he showed a short video clip from the P.Ramlee film Labu dan Labi. The film opens its brief establishing segment with a shot of Singapore's Victoria Theatre clocktower, a common image in P. Ramlee films of "the big city". The next shot, if I recall correctly, is of the Nolli lions at the entrance to the Nicoll Highway, followed by a few shots of traffic on the highway itself. Interesting: these lions are now a clear symbol of the Singapore state, and in particular of its military (they now rest at the officer training school). But in 1962, when the film was made, they were a symbol of the big city, Singapore in particular perhaps, but still the "big city" with all its perils and rewards. An example of Singapore's public art serving very specific, very different roles over time.
Kahn's argument was that there were alternative images or stories of Malayness still around during P. Ramlee's time. He reads one of the film's characters, Haji Bakhil, as a negative stereotype of this alternative Malayness - the entrepreneur, a city-dweller, immigrant from Sumatra probably, very business-minded and dedicated to a particularly public reformist but activist Islam.