30 Pop Culture Icons Of Singapore
Singapore may be small and our culture does get influenced by other larger countries like America or Korea. However, we still have many things of our own which represent Popular Culture, or Pop Culture, in Singapore. These are images or ideas that make people think “aha! Singapore!” just by looking at them.
OK, maybe not like that. Still, here’s a warts-and-all look at 30 Singaporean pop culture icons, each of them a part of our national identity. How many of these do you recognise?
1. Ah Meng
The poster girl of our zoo and tourism industry, Ah Meng, a female Sumatran Orangutan, has appeared in over 30 travel films. Ah Meng has been visited by numerous celebrities, including Michael Jackson and Elizabeth Taylor.
At the height of her popularity, Ah Meng commanded appearance fees of USD $2,275 per hour! Sadly, she passed away on 8 February 2008, at the ripe old age of 95 orangutan years old. RIP, Ah Meng.
2. Captain SMRT / SMRT Man
A little-known yet nationally reviled local superhero. Captain SMRT, or SMRT Man, has the virtually useless superpower of thanking commuters for taking the bus or train. He also lectures them on public transport etiquette.
Although he’s been around since 2007, you’ve probably never heard of him because he somehow fails to show up whenever there’s a breakdown.
Wait – what if Captain SMRT is actually a supervillain in disguise? That would explain everything! DAMN YOU CAPTAIN SMRT!
3. Fast Fry & Steam Marinate
Once upon a time, a young boy from a faraway galaxy arrived on Earth in his spaceship. Being unlike any other child on Earth, he was constantly ridiculed. On his travels, he met another boy who had mysteriously developed steam powers after falling into a geyser.
The two became good friends, and decided to promote McDonald’s Chicken McCrispy as “Fast Fry & Steam Marinate – Crusaders for Better Tasting Chicken!” The end.
Oh wait, their story is intriguing because after much success they mysteriously disappeared. Did KFC strike a deal with them? Did the crusaders decide to pack up and go back to their galaxy? Nobody knows. Perhaps we can add their disappearance to our list of biggest unsolved cases in Singapore history.
4. Growing Up
Here’s a rare local drama that left most audiences with an overwhelmingly positive impression. Running for a total of 6 seasons, Growing Up revolved around the life of the fictional Tay family, showcasing how their lives changed from the 60s to the early 80s.
This award winning drama showed an authentic slice of family life in early Singapore, complete with period costumes and sets. The family themselves was memorable – and for many, relatable – from the stern father figure of Charlie Tay (Lim Kay Tong), to the rebellious and hotheaded Gary (Andrew Seow).
5. Our Army
Few things are more recognisable to a Singaporean male than the idea of compulsory National Service. From stories and songs to magazines and movies, who can forget the idea of the blur sotong Recruit? Or the tough as nails PT instructor – “Sar-gent” – whose grandmother can run faster than you?
The 1996 comedy movie Army Daze (based on the 1987 theatre play) showcased this side of life, grossing SGD $1,600,000 in the local box office, among the highest for any made in Singapore film.
In more recent years, Jack Neo’s 2-part comedy movie Ah Boys To Men has spawned a sequel, a spin-off (Ah Boys To Frogmen), a 2014 musical, and catapulted its actors to stardom.
6. Bookworm Club
80s kids will remember the Bookworm Club and its cast of racially diverse yet oddly stereotypical characters. “Smarty” was really smart, “Sam Seng” was a ruffian, and “Dollah” was a soccer player.
Many primary school students became members of the Bookworm Club – they even had a membership card – and attended special club events, becoming the envy of all the uncool kids at recess.
7. Our Police
Our police force is respected and admired unlike any other country in the world, perhaps because they’re so efficient. Who still remembers when your parents used to scare you by saying the police would come catch you?
Today, our Police force is mostly showcased in action-drama serials on MediaCorp’s Channel 5 or Channel 8, such as in…
Triple Nine, starring the hunky James Lye, babelicious Wong Li Lin, and good-natured Lim Yu Beng. Ran for 4 seasons…
C.L.I.F. (Courage, Loyalty, Integrity, Fairness), starring the hunky Qi Yuwu, babelicious Joanne Peh, and good-natured Elvin Ng. It spawned 2 sequels…
Mata Mata, starring the hunky George Young, babelicious Daniella Sya, and good-natured Jason Godfrey…
And HBO’s Serangoon Road, starring the hunky Don Hany, babelicious Pamela Chee, and good-natured Alaric Tay. I sense a pattern here.
8. Captain Green
Here’s another one for the 80s kids. As the mascot for Singapore’s first “Clean & Green Week” in November 1990, the National Environment Agency chose Captain Green to be a frog. Being an amphibian, Captain Green was sensitive to environmental changes.
Captain Green morphed – or is that evolved? – into a superhero in 1997. He became the “Defender of the Environment”, starring in the “Adventures with Captain Green” comic. Now all we need is a team-up between Captain Green and Captain Planet.
9. Jenny Quantum
Jenny Quantum was Singapore’s first major superhero. Unfortunately, popularity was not one of her superpowers and this is the first time most Singaporeans will see her. She was the star of DC’s Wildstorm universe comic “The Authority” and was created by writer Mark Millar and artist Frank Quitely.
As the leader of The Authority, the Wildstorm universe’s most powerful superhero team, Jenny Quantum has the power to manipulate reality on – you guessed it – the quantum level.
Born on 1st January 2000 at the stroke of midnight in a Singapore hospital, Jenny Quantum is recognised as a “Century Baby” and the “Spirit of the 21st Century”. Which also means she is incredibly powerful and not to be messed with.
The comic doesn’t say which hospital Jenny Quantum was born in, so we assume it’s KK Hospital. The comic does say that the hospital was destroyed shortly thereafter, likely because supervillains hate children.
10. Liang Po Po
The endearingly bumbling Liang Po Po, or Granny Neo, is the most well known character played by comedian Jack Neo, way back in his good old cross-dressing days.
The 85-year-old Liang Po Po was so ingrained in the public consciousness that Jack Neo produced Liang Po Po: The Movie in 1999 based on the titular granny. It grossed SGD $3.03 million at the box office.
11. Lyo The Lion Cub & Merly The Merlion
Lyo The Lion Cub & Merly The Merlion were the official mascots for the first ever Youth Olympic Games held in Singapore in 2010. Members of the public were invited to name the mascots, and the eventual winning entries were Sean Pang Yi Wei (Lyo) and Tung Chi Jun (Merly).
Lyo symbolises the fun-loving, boundless enthusiasm of youth and the zeal for excellence. Merly symbolised a respect for our fellow man, active participation in community building, and hope for a sustainable future.
Not that anybody knew. Betcha didn’t know till I told you! (Neither did I).
12. Masters Of The Sea
Masters Of The Sea was an English drama serial that aired in 1994, famous for its wildly inaccurate take on a historical setting.
Fortunately, one of the show’s saving graces was the breakthrough role of then little-known Singaporean actor Ng Chin Han, who has since gone on to star in multiple Hollywood films including The Dark Knight, 2012, Contagion, and Captain America: The Winter Soldier.
The significance of Masters Of The Sea can perhaps be distilled down to a single line uttered by Margaret Chan’s character, Peranakan matriarch Madam Tan Geok Neo. “I will crush you like a cockroach.” Go on, spread some love and say it to a friend.
13. The Merlion
This half lion, half fish creature was designed by Alec Fraser-Brunner in 1964, and has since become our national mascot. No fewer than 7 Merlion statues dot our tiny island.
The Merlion is a beast of many moods. Here we have a shot of our Merlion partying with the best of us. Quite hip for a 50-year-old.
No funny business in bed. The Merlion is watching.
“Welcome to Singapore, Cap — wait, what’s that behind you?” Source
14. Mr Kiasu
Created by cartoonist Johnny Lau in 1990, Mr Kiasu is a series of 8 comic books lampooning the kiasu-ness of the average Singaporean. Mr Kiasu wanted discounts everywhere, tried all the free samples, was first in any queue, and was generally terrified of losing out. Sound familiar?
Mr Kiasu and his friends were incredibly popular, spawning a toy line from McDonald’s, a radio show, t-shirts, a watch, bumper stickers, and even a sitcom starring Chew Chor Meng as Mr Kiasu.
The brand went international and in 2007, Oxford Dictionary added the word “Kiasu” to the English dictionary, immortalising Singaporean Kiasuness in the annals of world history.
15. Phua Chu Kang
Who comes to mind when you think of a contractor with a facial mole and a fondness for bright yellow boots?
Use your blain. It’s Phua Chu Kang of PCK Pte Ltd, all round Ah Beng and local contractor. Don’t play play – this guy is the best in Singapore, JB, and some say Batam!
Gurmit Singh played the iconic curly-haired character in his own sitcom for 10 years, which also spawned a Malaysian spin off, PCK Sdn Bhd.
Phua Chu Kang’s first appearance was in the variety show Gurmit’s World in 1994. He then started popping up all over the place – in other Singapore sitcoms, in the SARS prevention video “PCK Sar-vivor Rap”, and as an ambassador for the Singapore Kindness Movement’s “A Happy Journey Starts Like That”. He also showed up as a contestant in Leg 10 of the Amazing Race 3.
16. Russell Lee
The ghost that haunts your nightmares has a name: Russell Lee.
Russell Lee is the pen-name of the writer behind the best-selling “True Singapore Ghost Stories” horror series. He’s released 23 books since 1989, each with a specific theme.
The enigmatic Russell Lee always appears in public dressed completely in black, with his entire face and body covered. There has never been any photograph of his true face, nor any details of his personal life.
Some have questioned if Russell Lee even exists, and conspiracy theorists often discuss the unmasking of Russell Lee. When he’s not writing, Russell Lee’s hobbies include ghost-hunting, striking dramatic poses in graveyards, and signing children’s books.
If the international community has 9GAG and 4CHAN, then Singapore has SGAG. Every day, users upload funny, current, and uniquely Singaporean internet memes.
Like during the Singapore haze…
The internet loves cats, so here’s one. Bedok Lepak Cat would take your likes, but “relac 1 corner” comes first. SGAG creates and curates really humorous content that locals can relate to.
18. Sharity Elephant
The mascot of the Community Chest charity in Singapore since 1984, Sharity Elephant is all about caring and sharing.
Born on 1st October (Children’s Day), Sharity Elephant was bullied for the perfectly harmless crime of being pink instead of gray. His parents took him away to Sharityland, a land of caring, sharing, and happiness, where Sharity Elephant was finally accepted in all his pink glory.
Sharity Elephant got a makeover in 2012 with a slightly more fashionable hairstyle, and no longer carries his trademark heart.
He celebrated his new-found hipness by dancing Gangnam style at NYP.
19. Singa The Courtesy Lion
Since 1982, Singa The Courtesy Lion has been encouraging Singaporeans to be more kind and gracious towards each other as part of the National Courtesy Campaign. He’s been featured on t-shirts, stickers, badges, keychains, thumbdrives, and even a board game.
Singa The Courtesy Lion featured prominently in the 2010 to 2011 toy line and exhibition Project Singa. Last year, Singa The Courtesy Lion resigned after an illustrious 30-year career, saying it was “just too tired to continue facing an increasingly angry and disagreeable society”.
Ironically, the resignation letter provoked a harsh reaction from the public. Singa has not been spotted since.
20. Smiley Squirrel
Smiley Squirrel was introduced in 1970 by POSB Bank, encouraging children to save money. Originally a brown squirrel wearing a blue coat, Smiley Squirrel updated his look to a sleek blue and yellow in 2008 when DBS launched the “People’s Bank” campaign.
Sure, people can associate squirrels with saving nuts for winter, and saving money is a good habit, but not when interest rates are practically ‘nut-thing’.
The big 3 of sports in Singapore include: Table Tennis, Soccer, and Swimming. Of the 3, the 1 event we as a nation pin most of our medal-winning hopes on is Swimming. Our soccer teams just aren’t as great as they used to be.
Remember Ang Peng Siong, Joscelin Yeo, Nicolette Teo, Tao Li, Quah Zheng Wen or Rainer Ng? No surprise that swimming has made its way into Singapore pop culture, mostly via TV dramas. After all, what’s better than good-looking people heating up the screen in various states of undress?
The Champion was a Channel 8 idol drama which aired in 2004, starring hot young actors and actresses like Toro, Qi Yuwu, Julian Hee, Jeanette Aw, Felicia Chin and Joyce Zhao.
Despite lasting only 1 season, The Champion gained notoriety for pushing the boundaries on how much skin could be shown on national television. It’s also notable for the scene where Fiona Xie ran down Orchard Road in her bikini, later immortalised in the Jack & Rai song, Fiona.
And there was the 2010 Channel 8 drama, No Limits, commemorating the Youth Olympics, starring Felicia Chin again, but joined this time by Tracy Lee, Elvin Ng and Dai Yangtian. No Limits lasted only 1 season as well.
Both swimming teams in The Champion and No Limits were named “Flying Fish”, in tribute to one of the first idol dramas about Swimming shown in Singapore, the 1983 show Little Flying Fish.
And for the ladies, there was Polo Boys, which also aired in 2010, starring Adrian Pang, Michelle Chia and Nat Ho, along with several other good looking dudes wearing very little on screen.
However, the popularity of Swimming has waned ever since the Singapore Table Tennis team started winning medals.
22. Teamy The Productivity Bee
Productivity seems to be the new buzzword these days. But the idea for increased productivity has been around since 1982, when the industrious Teamy The Productivity Bee was selected to be the National Productivity Board mascot, and the face of its productivity campaign.
Though aimed at working adults, Teamy The Productivity Bee appealed to children as well, with his catchy jingle:
“Good, better, best,
never let it rest.
If it’s good, make it better,
if it’s better, make it best!”
Besides being a team player, Teamy also had his sting removed because he was friendly, and carried a light bulb that represented creativity. Sadly, Teamy Bee retired in 1999.
23. The Little Nyonya
The award winning 2008 drama serial The Little Nyonya won international acclaim for its authentic depiction of the Peranakan culture and lifestyle. The story spans over 70 years, starting in the 1930s and ending in 2000, and revolves around 4 generations of a Peranakan family.
The titular Little Nyonya refers to 2 characters, both played by Jeanette Aw – Juxiang, a strong-willed deaf-mute servant in a wealthy family, and her daughter Yueniang, another strong-willed young lady.
24. The Mr Brown Show
The Mr Brown Show is a satirical Singapore blog created by Lee Kin Mun, aka Mr Brown, in 2005. The Mr Brown Show produces funny podcasts and videos on a regular basis, typically lampooning recent political announcements, or other pop culture events.
Among the most popular podcasts include the 2006 Bak Chor Mee Stall podcasts, as well as satires of our 2011 elections. Till today, he still holds his place as one of the very top bloggers in Singapore, as is affectionately known as the Blogfather of Singapore.
Fans of The Mr Brown Show sometimes produce their own images or videos based on the podcasts, such as this sketch of the “Pacific Lim”podcast. Check out our local jaegers!
25. The Noose
Since 2007, the long-running comedy series The Noose – now into its 7th season in 2014 – has given us many memorable characters in increasingly hilarious situations.
A parody of news programmes with fictional reports based on real news, The Noose was nominated for an Emmy in 2011.
Breakout characters played by Michelle Chong include the ditzy President of the Singapore “Aspergers” Club, whose last name changes with every appearance, Barbarella…
The always polite and helpful domestic maid Leticia Bongnino, who’s had run-ins with Ministers…
And the unflappable B. B. See. Remember when the Noose team met the News team?
26. Under One Roof
Long before your time, there was a sitcom called Under One Roof. Revolving around the Tan family and their neighbours, the first ever Singaporean sitcom became incredibly popular. It kicked off in 1995 and ran for 7 seasons over 9 years, even becoming the first Singaporean show to be dubbed in a foreign language (French).
Under One Roof was best known for its opening jingle:
“Moses Lim is Tan Ah Teck,
Nicholas Lee is Ronnie,
Andrew Lim is Paul,
and Koh Chieng Mun is Dolly.
Vernetta Lopez is Denise!”
The show frequently ended with Mr Tan telling one of his underappreciated and seemingly irrelevant stories, beginning with “Long before your time…”
The show was such a big hit that KL-based actor Zaibo, who played Yusof on the show, was offered free cab rides several times by cabbies who were fans. Even today, the actors still have people coming up and saying, “Hey, aren’t you ___!”
27. Vanda Miss Joaquim
The Vanda Miss Joaquim, a hybrid orchid known for its resilience and ability to bloom year-round, is the national flower of Singapore.
Chosen in 1981 to represent Singapore’s uniqueness, multiculturalism, determination, and vibrant life, the Vanda Miss Joaquim has been an enduring cultural icon for over 20 years. It even has several roads named after it, such as Vanda Crescent and Vanda Drive.
The Vanda Miss Joaquim has appeared in paintings, t-shirts, necklaces, stencils, bags, greeting cards, earrings, and stamps. You know you’ve made it when your national flower is featured in designs for the Google doodle logo.
28. VR Man
James Lye reappears on this list as Singaporean superhero, VR Man!
His gritty origin story goes like this. In 1998, an accident grants computer engineer Alex Foo the power to project and solidify virtual reality objects. Limited only by his imagination and a weakness to strobe lights, Alex decides to use his powers for good and becomes…VR Man.
VR Man also wears a mysterious Solidifier device, which grants him superhuman strength, speed, invulnerability, and the ability to shoot neon lasers in true 90s style.
While the concept was promising, the actual execution of the show was terrible, with plenty of eye-rolling lameness. This so-bad-it’s-good ripoff of both Batman and Green Lantern only lasted 1 season.
Today, the creators of VR Man mostly try to pretend it never happened.
29. Water Wally
Launched in 2005 as the mascot for the Public Utilities Board (PUB) in Singapore, Water Wally encourages water conservation and water management. A “Where’s Wally?” teaser campaign during its launch was incredibly popular, with several Wally inflatables mysteriously disappearing in public.
The 2009 cartoon “The Adventures of Water Wally” was popular with both children and adults. Last year, however, Water Wally lost a few friends when he got a little too chummy with unsuspecting young Singaporeans.
30. Yam Ah Mee
The unlikely breakout star of the 2011 Singapore General Elections, Mr. Yam Ah Mee shot to fame as the Returning Officer announcing the elections results. Singaporeans everywhere were tickled by his monotonous, nasal voice and calm, expressionless demeanour – perhaps believing him to be a cyborg.
Yam Ah Mee devotees wasted no time creating Facebook fan pages even as the results were being announced, garnering 30,000 likes within less than 24 hours. Music videos and remixes of Yam Ah Mee went viral, most featuring his signature phrase, “Pursuant to Section 49, Sub-Section 7 E, Paragraph A of the Parliamentary Elections Act, I declare…”.
Mr. Yam Ah Mee himself got in on the act, spoofing himself at several events. In March 2013, he resigned as the Chief Executive Director of the People’s Association (PA) to pursue another career.
Our pop culture heroes
Looking at this list, Singaporean pop culture seems to have quite a lot of superheroes, mascots, and comedy shows. Perhaps our next big thing should be a superhero comedy?
Think I’m missing anything about pop culture in Singapore? Let me know!