Allegories of Punishment: Tales of Crime and Precarity in Singapore

“Low crime doesn’t mean no crime.” This hackneyed slogan, plastered across bus-stops and other public spaces, effectively captures the Singapore state’s attitude towards law enforcement.

Across the compact, well-patrolled island, there appears to be little room for lawlessness to fester. This year, Singapore once again emerged top in the Global Law and Order Index, making it the safest country in the world for at least the fifth time around.[1] This low crime rate has been attributed in large part to good governance and draconian laws. In spite of international criticism,[2] public surveys report that Singaporeans generally have a high regard for the police force.[3] Recent moves to tighten surveillance[4] and expand legal regulations on “public order and safety” have also received favourable responses from the public.[5]

The dominant consensus in Singapore, echoed across mainstream media and official narratives, views lawbreakers as threats to the greater good of society.[6] Yet in 2016, two independent local films—A Yellow Bird and Apprentice—brought to the surface different views of society, crime and those who commit it. Replete with scenes of jungles, prison cells and execution chambers, the films are meditations on the grim social conditions and grinding struggles faced by these vilified law-breakers, who happen to be poorer and more precarious individuals, often rendered invisible in the affluent city-state.

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