Proud to be “SingapoLian”: A Scrutiny on the Rise of “Ah Lian” Culture in Singapore



According to local sociologist Chua Beng Huat, “Ah Lians” are, for the English-speaking middle-class, caricatures of female youths who are working class or otherwise failures in the competitive education system and market economy in the 1980s (10). The perception of “Ah Lians” then evolves to become less of a manifestation of class differences and more of the opposite of self-appointed sophisticated English-speaking cosmopolitans by choice. This paper will examine the intriguing transformation of “Ah Lian” culture from a subculture with negative connotations to an endearing identity to associate with for Singaporeans. The favourable shift in the perception of “Ah Lian” culture stems primarily from the fact that people begin to find it cool to “play” at being working class. This, in turn, leads to the blurring of class differences as more and more non-working class people start to embrace “Ah Lian” culture. Complemented with a diminishing association with crime, “Ah Lian” culture is endowed with new meanings played up by the media. It is hoped that through this analysis we will discover the influence “Ah Lian” culture exerts on the mainstream society with its dramatic rise in popularity and also unravel the complication of proclaiming “Ah Lian” culture as a truly Singaporean phenomenon.  

“Ah Lian” culture was primarily a subculture before the masses catch on with it. The culture was perceived as a working class culture that offered alternatives to mainstream culture. According to Albert Cohen, distinction from mainstream culture is brought about by the symbolic use of style (1). And style, as Michael Brake elucidates, encompasses the image, demeanour and argot of members of a subculture (12). The image of an “Ah Lian” is effectively epitomized by the adjective “loud”. She stereotypically dresses in neon colours and loves to wear chunky platform shoes. “Ah Lians” hanker after designer brands yet there is a seeming randomness in their choice of clothes so much so that it seems to involve some haphazard mixing-and-matching. Their gaudy dress sense evinces a desire to attract attention. They do not actually seem to care if the attention they receive is positive or negative. They are just comfortable being in the limelight. The preferred lingo of an “Ah Lian” is Singlish, the Singapore brew of local languages, dialects and English. It is made up of a smattering of English words, many of which are mispronounced and strung together in unrecognizable fashion, and mixed with words from other local languages (Soh 117). Although foreigners cannot make much sense out of it, Singlish is music to the ears for many heartlanders, especially “Ah Lians”.

The article “SingapoLIANS & proud of it!” in the August 2004 issue of Her World extols the existence of “Ah Lians” in Singapore. The article notes that “Ah Lian” culture is prevalent nowadays and people readily associate themselves with it. The stigma accompanying the title of “Ah Lian” has waned. Six artistes interviewed for this special feature all claim to be “Ah Lians” to varying extent. The shift in public perception of “Ah Lians” is dramatic. And this drastic change is brought about as people begin to feel that “Ah Lian” culture is cool. This shift in public mindset coincides with the opening up of the Singaporean society.

“Ah Lians” were regarded as wayward, uncouth and unaccepted by the masses in the past. In the article “It's hard work being an Ah Lian” (The Straits Times), Sherlin Ho, an actress who plays an “Ah Lian” in local movie Street Angels comments, “If people call us Ah Lians, that means we have succeeded because our characters in the movie are all bad girls.” The association of “Ah Lians” with girl-gangs was strong in the past. “Ah Lians” was a synonym for wayward girls. But nowadays the association with gangsterism has diminished and Singaporean youths have seemingly embraced “Ah Lian” culture. This change is brought about as gangsterism is simply not prevalent anymore. We no longer see “Ah Lians” brawling on the streets. There is a reservation of judgment by Singaporeans when we see people dressed in an “Ah Lian” fashion because the connection with crime has faded. The increasing popularity of tattooing and hair dying among youths is also explained by the same reason. Tattooing and the dying of hair were, like “Ah Lian” culture, previously associated with gangsterism. But people have come to realize that not everyone who dresses outlandishly is a gangster. Likewise not everyone who sports a tattoo or has coloured hair is a mobster. Subcultures begin to be judged less through tinted lenses. The onslaught of “Ah Lian” culture occurs at a time when the society is seemingly more accepting to subcultures. The favourable shift in the perception of the culture stems primarily from its diminishing association with crime. People then start to catch on with “Ah Lian” culture as the culture is endowed with new meanings.

In the article “No need scared, we all buay pai, leh (not bad, what)” (The Straits Times), Caroline Soh, a 20-year-old youth and a self-perceived “Ah Lian”, claims she likes bright coloured clothes, funny boots, big pants and big T-shirts. Her unusual dress sense attracts unwanted curiosity from others but that does not bother her.  Using the preferred lingo of “Ah Lians”- Singlish, she proclaims, “I'm not scared people see. I am young, I am adventurous. I like to try new things and wear my kind of clothes. So what?” Sumiko Tan, a local columnist, urges everyone to learn from “Ah Lians” one important message: “Life is too short to waste being self-conscious or bothering about what others think of you” in an article titled “Confessions of an ...” (The Straits Times). “Ah Lian” is painted as a go-getter in both articles; someone knows what she wants and she gets it. So long as the clothes catch “Ah Lians’” fancy, they will just go ahead and buy them. “Ah Lians” may end up looking a little strange but they do not mind sticking out like a sore thumb. They do not mind being dismissed as gaudy by others. They do not find any need in feeling embarrassed about donning what their heart desire. But we also discern from Caroline’s interview that “Ah Lians” actually enjoy basking in the limelight. As Joanne Entwistle asserts in The Fashioned Body, dress is used to articulate a sense of “uniqueness” and express a difference from others (138). There is a desire among “Ah Lians” to try new things and be different from the crowd. “Ah Lians” dress the way they choose because they are young and daring. They can afford to adventure on their dressing. “Ah Lians” know that they are perceived as weird by others but they are at ease with themselves. They are comfortable in their own skin.

Local artiste Kym Ng echoes the idea of “Ah Lians” being an unabashed bunch of people in “SingapoLIANS & proud of it!” She annunciates, “I am proud to be a Lian because Lians are fun people. They are carefree and fearless. Most important, they are not pretentious.” “Ah Lians” are extolled for their forthrightness. Their desire to display their true selves to others is so overpowering that they seem to be unrestrained by norms as epitomized by the word “fearless” Kym Ng has used. This liberty they seemingly enjoy entices people to want to join them.

This leads me to opine that one reason why people are increasingly attracted to “Ah Lian” culture is that people realize “Ah Lians” dress the way they dress to “make a statement in this age of heightened self-consciousness” (Davis 3), rather than solely to attract attention. They are apparently protesting against the norm as they strut about abashedly thronged in their gaudy costumes. By ditching conformity, “Ah Lians” seem to be predicating that the taste of the masses does not equate to good taste, conversely, the taste of “Ah Lians” is not the equivalent of bad taste. The notion of good taste is challenged by “Ah Lians” and it is legitimate. This is because there is no such thing known as “genuine good taste” (Bourdieu 56). “Legitimate good taste” is nothing more than the “taste of one particular class – the ruling class” (Gronow 11). In spite of advices about understated sophistication and discrete chic from fashion gurus, “Ah Lians” continue to sport trendy fashion very conspicuously. Ah Lians embrace the look of looking like a “walking advertisement billboard”. Janice Wong explains in “SingapoLIANS & proud of it!” that the preference for clothes with more monograms stems from the motto, “Got cash, must flash!” “Ah Lians” want to display their pecuniary strength outwardly. Wong writes that “I figured that since I was paying so much for the brand, I might as well make the most of my hard-earned salary and pick the one[clothes] with the biggest logo.” The showy dress sense of “Ah Lians” can be attributed to their working class background. When they spend their limited amount of money on clothes, they wish to derive the most amount of attention from donning them. And they seem to have faith in their own taste and stand by their choice of clothes. Their expression of self serves as a challenge to the norm. It seems to question that mainstream culture is in no way superior to working class culture. And this questioning of the norm is apparently caught on by others. “Ah Lians” manage to shed the label of being tasteless and become endued with the new label of having character.

“Ah Lians’” gaudy dress sense was originally perceived to be the result of poor taste due to their working class background. However, the “working class” taste begins to be popularized when people from the mainstream see “Ah Lians” enjoying the limelight everywhere they go. Donning designer wear according to the advices of fashion gurus does not allow one to stand out from the crowd. Discrete chic is the dress sense of the middle class (people from the mainstream) and it is not exciting. People begin to find it appealing to “play” at being working class because dressing outlandishly seems to get them more attention than plainly following fashion trends. It becomes cool for people to don their apparels conspicuously as they get to outshine the rest. Slowly, people from mainstream culture begin to adopt “Ah Lians’” spirit of “be loud”.

It has to be noted that media influence plays a large part in perpetuating the rise of “Ah Lian” culture. According to Chua, the frequent portraying of “Ah Lians” in popular culture such as magazines and television programmes has caused people to take to “Ah Lian” culture. “Ah Lians” are portrayed as cute, frank and unpretentious working class folks in programmes like Phua Chu Kang, Ah Girl and City Beat. These programmes paint glowing pictures of “Ah Lians” and emphasize their endearing qualities. In particular, popular sitcom “Ah Girl” portrays its protagonist Ah Girl, an “Ah Lian”, as dim-witted but likeable mobile phone sales girl. Ah Girl likes to dress in skimpy, brightly-coloured outfits and high platform shoes to pull in male customers. In spite of her “loud” dress sense and “Ah Lian” antics, she is popular among co-workers and customers. Ah Girl is also optimistic, carefree and happy with her life. The roaring success these programmes enjoy in terms of viewership seems to point to the fact that viewers enjoy watching the antics of “Ah Lians”, albeit on the goggle box. By highlighting the positives of “Ah Lians” and the apparent happiness they enjoy, such programmes help in endearing “Ah Lians” to the masses. Being working-class seems to be fun to the audience. Desirable qualities, such as jocundity and geniality, which are associated with on-screen “Ah Lians” also appeal to the masses. This compounds the attractiveness of “Ah Lian” culture so much that even the young English-speaking middle class is attracted as well (Chua 11).

Besides enjoying plentiful airtime on national television, “Ah Lian” becomes a popular “cult” figure to associate with. Celebrities start claiming that they are “Ah Lians” to varying extent. Local singer Stefanie Sun reveals in infotainment show Glam that she was an “Ah Lian” during her school days because she thought it was cool. Janice Wong, a journalist from Streats, proclaims that she is now still a Lian at heart despite being a working professional in “SingapoLIANS & proud of it!” (Her World 121). Sumiko Tan also claims that she has a bit of that “Ah Lian” quality in her and that is something she feels proud of, not ashamed of (The Straits Times). According to Chua, local celebrities declare themselves to be “Lian” because they wish to make known their working-class background (88). These celebrities are propelled into the glamorous media industry despite their humble backgrounds. It becomes cool to be associated with “Ah Lian” culture among celebrities because the working-class origins of the culture seem to endear these well known personalities to common folks. It then becomes fashionable to be branded as “Ah Lian” among the masses as well since people see their idols and celebrities declaring themselves as one.

On top of becoming a fashionable icon to associate with, “Ah Lian” also becomes entwined with Singaporean identity. People espouse “Ah Lian” culture as it is identified as a true-blue “heartlander” spirit. The antics of an “Ah Lian” are appropriated to become a marker of “Singaporeaness”.  Actress Tan Kheng Hua, for one, suggests that there is an “Ah Lian” in all of us. She joins in the celebration of “Ah Lian” because she feels that “we all are that at heart, which is why in Singapore the Ah Beng and the Ah Lian will always have a very important place” (The Straits Times). Again, “Ah Lian” culture has been appropriated by media personalities, this time to become an identity marker that stands for being Singaporean (Chua 11). “Ah Lian” culture is extended from a working-class culture to become a common Singaporean culture as its appeal increases. The masses accept this appropriation because the local origin of “Ah Lian” culture seems to attest it being a true Singaporean identity. The acts of speaking Singlish and dressing outlandishly come to represent a distinctive “local” identity. People equate “Ah Lian” culture to Singaporean culture because they can identify themselves with it. It is important to acknowledge at this point that the common group identity of Singaporeans is actually rather unclear in the first place. There is some ambivalence among Singaporeans as to whether to think of themselves as members of ethnic groups or as Singaporeans (qtd. in Appold 26). Thus we can deduce that the act of speaking Singlish (which is derived from mixing the four languages and dialects spoken in Singapore) makes “Ah Lian” culture an obvious rallying point for Singaporeans of different races, contributing to the widespread acceptance of “Ah Lian” culture as an identity marker.

On the other hand, it is mind-boggling to note that the garments of “Ah Lians” are in fact pared down derivatives of the highly-eclectic styles of urban Japanese youth mediated by Hong Kong and Taiwan fashion practices (Chua 88). “Ah Lians” import fashion elements from other countries, then appropriate them into their own distinctive dress sense. This explains the seeming randomness in “Ah Lians’” choice of clothes because the assembling of the look involves some mixing-and-matching of fashion elements from diverse countries. Although the argot of “Ah Lians”- Singlish is a local identity-proffering practice, it is evident that foreign elements play a large part in the derivation of “Ah Lian” culture. This raises the question of whether it is right to extol “Ah Lian” culture as a truly Singaporean identity. It seems like the existence of multiple identities arising from Singapore’s embracing of globalization seems to be hampering the emergence of a common Singaporean identity (Appold 23). This may have led to Singaporeans feeling confused about our own identities so much so that we are piecing elements from a myriad of foreign cultures together and then claim that identity to be ours. Singaporeans may have become too dependent upon the outside world to provide an identity for us. It becomes apparent that the title of global citizens may be a euphemism for Singaporeans. The question of are Singaporeans killing off our own identity as we embrace globalization arises.

“Proud to be ‘SingapoLian’” has become a fashionable declaration everyone rushes to make. This is miles away from the situation a decade ago when everyone shunned the label of “Ah Lian”. The stigma has since faded and positive traits are attributed to “Ah Lian” culture. “Ah Lians” in the 80s dressed as outlandishly as “Ah Lians” of the present. But people only catch on with “Ah Lian” culture now because positive attributes are played up, with much help from the media. The popularity of the culture leads to ordinary people to start proclaiming themselves to be “Lian” to varying extent, following the trend set by celebrities. “Ah Lian” culture’s drastic transformation from a manifestation of class differences to the hallmark of “Singaporeaness” is explained by the fact that people find it cool to “play” at being working class. And as the popularity of the culture spirals, class differences naturally start to diminish. Speaking Singlish and dressing garishly become trendy and as more and more people embrace “Ah Lian’s” antics, they become a marker of the Singaporean identity instead. While the traits of “Ah Lians” do seem endearing to the masses, claiming that “Ah Lian” culture is part of Singaporean culture seems to be rather misguided.

Works Cited

Appold, Stephen John.Socio-cultural exchange and Singaporean identities.” Exploring Socio-Cultural Exchange and New Identities in Asia : proceedings of NUS-JSPS Workshop, 25-26 November 2002, Singapore.  Singapore: Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, National University of Singapore, 2002. 17-48.

Bourdieu, Pierre. Distinction : a social critique of the judgment of taste. London: Routledge, 1989

Brake, Mike. Comparative youth culture : the sociology of youth cultures and youth subcultures in America, Britain, and Canada. London; Boston: Routledge & K. Paul, 1985.

Chua, Beng Huat. Life is not complete without shopping : consumption culture in Singapore. Singapore: Singapore University Press, 2003.

Cohen, Albert K. The Sociology of the Deviant Act; Anomie Theory and Beyond ASR 1965

Davis, Fred. Fashion, Culture and Identity. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.

Gronow, Jukka. The sociology of taste. New York: Routledge, 1997.

“I'm Ah Huay, my hubby's Ah Beng.” The Straits Times 7 December 1997

Soh, Gim Chuan. Slices of Singapore. Singapore: Soh Gim Chuan, 2003

Tan, Sumiko. “Confessions of an ...” The Straits Times 7 December 1997

Tong, Kelvin. “No need scared, we all buay pai, leh (not bad, what).” The Straits Times 3

October 1999

---. “It's hard work being an Ah Lian.” The Straits Times 3 October 1999

Wong, Janice, et al. “SingapoLIANS & proud of it!” Her World August 2004: 120-129.