Samantha Lo vs. the Vandalism Act

~ By Ng Yi Sheng ~

Comic courtesy of Cartoon Press

25 year-old Samantha Lo (aka SKL0) has broken the law. It doesn’t matter that she’s brought a smile to our faces with her witty sticker and graffiti projects. If you look at the wording of the Vandalism Act of 1966, you’ll find that the legality of her actions just isn’t up for debate.

Here’s what’s forbidden in the case of private and public property (unless you’ve got prior permission):

a)… (i) writing, drawing, painting, marking or inscribing on any public property or private property any word, slogan, caricature, drawing, mark, symbol or other thing;

(ii) affixing, posting up or displaying on any public property or private property any poster, placard, advertisement, bill, notice, paper or other document; or

(iii) hanging, suspending, hoisting, affixing or displaying on or from any public property or private property any flag, bunting, standard, banner or the like with any word, slogan, caricature, drawing, mark, symbol or other thing; or

(b) stealing, destroying or damaging any public property.

This is why Lo’s getting charged even for pasting up removable stickers on traffic lights. As you can see from a)(ii), it’s illegal even to scotch-tape an ad for your lost dog on an HDB wall.

So why is Lo getting so much sympathy? It’s not just because she’s an artist. Nor is it just because she’s a young, educated, Chinese woman. (Due to our prejudices, this is the class of people we most expect to protect from, rather than accuse of criminal behaviour.)

No, what’s really compelling about this case is how different it is from the two high-profile cases of vandalism in Singapore’s history. Let’s review:

1) The Michael Fay Incident, 1994. An 18 year-old American schoolboy named Michael Fay was arrested for fifty counts of vandalism, including a series of attacks on cars in HDB estates conducted with hot tar, paint remover and hatchets. He was sentenced to four months in prison, a fine of S$3,500 and six strokes of the cane.

2) MRT graffiti incident, 2010. 33 year-old Oliver Fricker from Switzerland cut through the fence of an SMRT Changi train depot. He spray painted two MRT carriages with the words "McKoy Banos”, the tag of an international graffiti artist duo who has left their mark on trains all over the world. He was arrested and sentenced to five months in jail and three strokes of the cane, on charges of trespassing and vandalism. (SMRT staff failed to report the act for two days, because they assumed the colourful graffiti was part of an ad campaign.)

You’ll notice that both these cases were tinged with the idea of invasion: they were cases of foreigners venturing into the heartland and the public transport system to commit acts of destruction (in Fricker’s case, to the wire fence and SMRT’s reputation). The average Singaporean was hardly going to complain about arrests here.

Photo credit: David Chein

Lo’s work, on the other hand, was immediately understandable as an act of reclamation. She was a Singaporean citizen transforming sterile public spaces by making them more idiosyncratically Singaporean, via the use of Singlish. It was if the traffic lights and roads she marked were being taken back from the Singapore government and returned to the Singaporean people. They were now “our grandfather objects”, as the artist might have said – landmarks we had every right to inherit and call our own.

(It definitely helped that the designs for her work were done up in official-looking fonts, quite unlike prototypical American-style graffiti tags. Her “My Grandfather Building” piece is an exception to this, and I would argue that it’s her weakest piece.)

Lo’s work is important because it’s finally teaching Singaporeans how and why unlicensed graffiti can be a good thing – how it doesn’t necessarily destroy or devalue public space, but can instead make it more meaningful. So yes, she broke the law, according to the Vandalism Act. But in the process, she’s managed to show us that it really isn’t a very good law.

This shouldn’t be surprising to us. It’s an antique piece of legislation, hardly amended over half a century, making no allowance for the creative, risk-taking city-state that we (and I’m including the government here) want to become.  I’d even argue that to a certain extent, we’ve already become that creative place. After all, Lo felt safe enough to blog about her works. She’s of a generation that didn’t grow up in fear, and that’s a wonderful thing.

I’ve signed the petition to reduce her criminal charges, because I like her work, and I like what she represents. But letting her off easy is not the ultimate aim we should be going for.

What we need to do is to change the law.  We don’t need a complete repeal, of course. But the idea that someone like Lo should be locked up or caned for brightening up a space is crazy. Fines or community service should be akperfectly good deterrent in themselves.

In the near future, someone else is going to be caught painting or otherwise marking public property as part of an art project. The artist might be a man or a woman, a citizen or a foreigner; the work might be good or bad.  But it’s almost certainly not going to result in as much of sympathy as Lo’s experienced. A petition won’t save this person – only a change of laws would.

I’m therefore calling for a redress of the Vandalism Act. I want there to be some differentiation between wantonly destructive acts and creative acts, and I want punishment to be proportionate to crimes committed.

We’re already a more progressive Singapore than we used to be. Draconian laws will only drive us backwards.