A lot of what’s happened in the world lately has made me examine the concept of “unconscious bias” more deeply and I realise that this is a phenomenon that permeates almost every part of our lives. While some may consider subconscious judgments unavoidable, I do think that being aware that we could hold prejudices and misconceptions could help alleviate the effects of “unconscious bias”.
Take the recent glossy advertorials that have been adorning our streets of late. In these shiny posters, the Singapore Police Force is trying to portray the archetype of the “hero” enforcing justice by force if necessary. While this message may be well intended, it does have the unwitting repercussion of reinforcing certain stereotypes that do more harm than good.
In these images, the hero is always a man brandishing a gun that is bigger than his arm. Are all heroes men? What about women? Can’t they perform heroic acts too? After all, aren’t mothers the biggest protectors in nature? Why then isn’t the image of “hero” seen in a woman in these posters? Besides, why are all the baddies male as well? Don’t females commit crimes too? This subliminal messaging clearly displays a sexist stereotype. If we really want the police force to be effective, shouldn’t the accurate message of the fact that both men and women can be heroes and also criminals be portrayed?
Secondly, Why does a hero need to have guns and in particular, such big guns? It might be just me but in these posters, the police look more like bullies than heroes. Do we need guns to have authority? Or is it the police force’s subconscious way of saying: “Behave or we will shoot you?”
In my mind, the police are people that we should respect. While they serve the public and keep our streets safe, they should also be approachable and friendly. While we respect their authority, we should not fear them. Yet, these posters seem to suggest that they ought to be feared.
In the UK, the street cop do not carry guns. All they carry are batons and let’s remember, the streets in the UK are a lot more dangerous than the streets of sedate Singapore. Why are such huge guns needed in Singapore then? Further, why are the police sending the message that such guns are needed? Is that not counterproductive? If Singapore is so safe, why is there a need to “bring out the big guns” so to speak?
The posters make me feel suffocated, not safe or protected. Unless Singapore is a fascist state or trying to portray the image of one, there is simply no need for such dramatic posters.
Also, do we want to attract the type of candidates that are joining the force because they think they can have the opportunity to work with serious ammunition? Surely, that is not the right type of candidate to attract? We want police officers with an innate sense of justice, balance and fair play; candidates who are measured and calm. Why then such a trigger-happy poster? Firing big guns is not cool. Such guns are only used in extreme circumstances and only when absolutely necessary. There is, therefore, no need to make guns seem like they are cool and glamorous.
These kinds of advertising create the possibility of attracting immature candidates who may not be joining the police force for the correct reasons. I wonder if this kind of false bravado created an atmosphere that allowed the tragedy of Benjamin Lim to happen? Were the police too keen to “play hero” that they were too heavy-handed with a teenager? If the image of the police was that of quiet balanced authority, perhaps the need to rush in forcefully would have been ameliorated and that senseless tragedy would never have occurred.
I don’t know the answers but I do think we need to be more mindful of subtleties. Given that the police force would likely have a healthy advertising budget, they should perhaps employ more thought on what message it is that they are trying to send.