Seth Rogen talks about Singapore on Conan..and SG isn’t happy about it

Apparently Seth Rogen was in Singapore recently, as he told Conan O’Brien.

Many Singaporeans are upset over the interview and the negative image they feel it perpetuates of Singapore.

As an American, I get the humor Rogen is going for and the audience he’s playing to.  As an expat in Singapore, I also understand why locals might be pissed about what he said and how he said it.

The truth, as always, lays somewhere in the middle.

To borrow a phrase from MM Lee, there are some hard truths to tell Singaporeans about the American perception of Singapore in the interest of explaining the audience for Rogen’s remarks.

  • Few Americans could identify Singapore on a map, even if you offered them a large cash incentive.  I’ve had people incorrectly place it in South America and Africa.  Those who can place it in Asia often think it is part of China, or just plain doesn’t exist anymore because their one reference to it might be a throwaway comment in a Pirates of the Caribbean movie.
  • Michael Fay’s caning is one of the few things Americans might know about Singapore
  • The laws against gum chewing is the other thing Americans commonly know about Singapore
  • Americans as a breed really don’t know or care much about the rest of the world.  Something like only 25-30% of Americans have a passport (and the percentage only recently went towards 30 because you now need one to go to Mexico or Canada…something that wasn’t true five years ago).  To further clarify…American news, such as it is, focuses on the small part of the US you’re living in.  Boston’s evening news, for example, spend 70-80 percent of it’s time on Boston related news, 5-10 percent on the rest of Massachusetts/New England, and 5-10 percent on the US, and international news is generally limited to (A) places the US is at war with, (B) major events like the Japan Tsunami/nuclear plant and (C) gossip like the William/Kate wedding in England.


Here’s the thing…Rogen is a comedian.

But if I’ve learned something in the last year, it’s that Singaporean “funny” and American “funny” are often not the same thing.  It’s difficult for me to fully quantify/qualify how the notions of humor are different, but they truly are.  Americans, generally like the joke that mocks authority…which just doesn’t play in Singapore.

No one’s ever been to Singapore.

Look, it’s not no one, for certain (we make up some portion of the 40% of foreign born talent), but when Americans leave the US, they tend to stick to North American and Europe.  Americans like places where they speak English, and while (duh) Singapore is an English speaking country…no one knows that it is.  Most of Southeast Asia (if they can even place Singapore here) is fairly third world–as the joke goes, don’t eat the food and don’t drink the water.  Most Americans assume the same is true of Singapore.    For most of the US, getting here is a 20-30 hour trek door to door (I speak from experience).  Then you have to struggle with jet lag.  When you only get 2-3 weeks off in a year, you can’t go traveling to places that it takes two days to get to in the first place.  Singapore is exotic, and if there’s something that is SCARY to most Americans, it’s the exotic.

When I told people I was moving here, I was commonly asked “Where the hell is that?” “WHY?” and “What language do they speak there?”  Many of the people asking these questions were fairly educated individuals.

The thing you have to understand about American education is how Western/Euro/US centric it is.  “World” History might touch on Asia to mention the Silk Road, or Ghengis Khan, but few people ever learn in school how the British ended up in charge of India, for example (which is obviously a much larger country than Singapore) or why the Japanese were even involved in World War Two.  I have a degree in history, and my knowledge of this part of the world is better than most…and it was still ridiculously sketchy until I began to take it upon myself to learn more.

I’m not trying to say this is okay.  I’m just trying to explain how/why he’d say that.

Singapore’s claim to fame is it’s where that dude did graffitti and got caned

I have to say, before Ravi got offered a job here, that was pretty much the extent of what I knew about Singapore (and of course I’d heard about the gum ban, but we’ll get to that in a moment).  It was HUGE news that some American kid was going to get caned and his parents asked Clinton to step in.  I was in high school (I think) at the time, and I remember it being on the news.

While some states in the US still have the death penalty, it’s generally quite rare for someone to be put to death.  Other than death, the only thing that the US does is prison.

Corporal punishment has LONG been out of favor in the US.  To contextualize, many people see it as barbaric to even spank your child, much less to do something like caning.  As a teacher, I was considered a “Mandated Reporter” to the Department of Child Protective Services. I can assure you that if a child had come to school with cane marks on their leg or told me that their parents had caned them, I would have been legally obligated to report the parents for child abuse, and it is a possibility that the child would  be removed from the parent’s custody.

The idea that a government would cane someone was unthinkable to most Americans.

Further, graffiti is…well…not that big a deal in the US.  It’s a common site in cities. For example, these are the pertinent laws in Massachusetts (each state has it’s own laws).

Graffiti is defined as willfully or maliciously painting, marking, scratching, etching or otherwise marking or defacing the property of another. This property doesn’t have to be something of much value. A rock or fence would qualify for this charge.

If convicted of this charge, you could be sentenced to up to 3 years in prison and fines. You may also be required to pay for the removal of the graffiti.

A graffiti conviction will also get your driver’s license suspended for up to one year.

Ref: MGL c.266 §126A


Similar to a graffiti charge, tagging involves etching, signing, or painting your name, moniker, initials or other “tag” on someone else’s property. This offense carries a potential 2 years in prison and a fine of up more than $1,500 but less than 3 times the value of the damage.

A tagging conviction will also warrant a one year driver’s license suspension.

Ref: MGL c.266 §126B

However, I can assure you that almost no one would EVER do even a day of jail time over this.  Our jails are too crowded for this sort of non-violent offense.  Most of the time, if you were caught doing graffiti, if it was a first offense, you’d probably get off with just community service or a fine (or possibly nothing at all…depending).  Further offenses would still likely be fines and community service.

So the idea that a government would CANE someone for something most Americans see as a harmless prank…no big deal…was shocking news.

What Americans didn’t know about Fay was that he was an expat who’d been living here for some time.  He KNEW, better than any idiot tourist (which is what I thought he was) what would happen.  He just thought he was above it, or could get out of it because he was American.

I don’t really have any sympathy for him these days.  Considering the reality of Singapore, it’s just plain stupid to think you wouldn’t get caught.  There are TONS of cameras EVERYWHERE, especially the subway.  Even living here one year will teach you that Singapore does what it says it will.  There is no special consideration for remorse or a first time offense or any of that.  If the book of laws says the punishment is X, it’s X.

Death to drug smugglers and related humor

Rogen is a well-known pot head.  No one in the US (assuming they know who he is) isn’t aware that he smokes pot.  He was going to go after this.

Considering the recent cases of Death Row inmates who are facing death for being uneducated drug mules…I can’t really find the humor.

No gum in Singapore

If there is one thing that people have heard for certain about Singapore…it’s the no gum thing.  Here is the relevant history, courtesy of Wikipedia.

In his memoirs[3], Lee Kuan Yew recounted that as early as 1983, when he was still serving as Prime Minister, a proposal for the ban was brought up to him by the then Minister for National Development. Chewing gum was causing serious maintenance problems in high-rise public housing flats, with vandals disposing of spent gum in mailboxes, inside keyholes and even on elevator buttons. Chewing gum left on floors, stairways and pavements in public areas increased the cost of cleaning and damaged cleaning equipment. Gum stuck on the seats of public buses was also considered a problem. However, Lee thought that a ban would be “too drastic” and did not take action.

In 1987, the S$5 billion metro system, the Mass Rapid Transit (MRT), began operations. It was then the largest public project ever implemented in Singapore, and expectations were high. One of the champions of the project, Ong Teng Cheong, who later became the first democratically-elected President, declared,”… the MRT will usher in a new phase in Singapore’s development and bring about a better life for all of us.”

It was then reported that vandals had begun sticking chewing gum on the door sensors of MRT trains, preventing the door from functioning properly and causing disruption of train services. Such incidents were rare but costly and culprits were difficult to apprehend. In January 1992, Goh Chok Tong, who had just taken over as Prime Minister, decided on a ban. The restriction on the distribution of chewing gum was enacted in Singapore Statute Chapter 57, the Control of Manufacture Act, which also governs the restriction of alcohol and tobacco.

The chewing gum ban in Singapore was enacted in 1992 and revised in 2004 and 2010[1]. It bans the import and sale of chewing gum in Singapore. Since 2004, only chewing gum of therapeutic value is allowed into Singapore following the United States-Singapore Free Trade Agreement (USS-FTA).

This law was created because people disposed of gum incorrectly by sticking them under places like chairs or tables. Chewing gum is banned in Singapore under the “Regulation of Imports and Exports (Chewing Gum) Regulations.” Except for chewing gum of therapeutic value, the “importing” of chewing gum into Singapore is banned.

Americans love chewing gum.  LOVE it.  It’s widely available in grocery stores, conveinence stores, gas stations, Target, just about any store that sells soda or candy also sells gum.

To an American, the idea of banning gum is as ludicrous as banning orange juice.  It’s this harmless little thing that brings people happiness and what kind of crazy government would get involved in people’s lives to the extent of telling us what we can and can’t chew.  Americans are highly individualistic and wildly protective of individual rights.  People are freaking out that Boston just banned the sale of sugary drinks in city buildings, for comparison.  Even something that seems obvious, like making school lunches more healthy is met with protests over being “told what to eat.”  We take it to a stupid level on a regular basis.

Singaporeans are more about the community than the individual.  If banning gum keeps the MRT running and the streets clean, that’s clearly beneficial to the majority and not worth getting your panties in a twist.

Benevolent Dictatorship stuff

The whole “no one who lives there has ever voted,” thing.

According to what I’m reading online at the Singapore Elections Department Website, voting is compulsory if you’re over 21.  However, I also know that my friend K, who is Singaporean, said her grandfather has never had a chance to vote.  These two facts are confusing, and I would love for a local to explain the process of voting to me.  Prior to finding the website, I was under the impression that only a small percentage of people were allowed to vote.

One thing is for sure, and why most outsiders see Singapore as a benevolent dictatorship…and that is only one party has ever held power in modern Singapore.  This is baffling to outsiders.  That Lee Kwan Yew is basically still in charge (or perceived as being so…) also makes it look like one.  I can’t really think of another democracy where that has been true.  Even India, where one party was in power for an extended time has had power shifts.  In the US, we’re constantly shifting power between the Democrats and the Republicans and have since they were called the Federalists and Anti-Federalists, respectively.

It’s also seen as a dictatorship because of the level of “interference” the government has in the daily lives of its citizens.  In the US, you can refuse to allow a police officer entry into your home if he/she doesn’t have a warrant to do so.  The idea that I can’t refuse entry to a mosquito inspector is baffling.  There’s no pornography, and movies are edited for our own good by the government.  All of this conflicts with the American individualist ethos.

So far so good

Singapore is a country in it’s infancy.  It’s not even 50 years old.  To be fair, none of the policies has been tested long term.

For example, no one knows what happens when a 99 year lease on an HDB flat expires.  In 45 years, there’s going to be a lot of questions that will need answering.

It seems that Singaporean youth (whether corrupted by Western influence or on their own…whatever you want to call it) does see things differently than their predecessors.  It will be interesting to see how they change over time or rather how they change the culture over time.  Will they still be okay with the kind of work day/week that is common now?  That they can’t afford to move out of their parents homes?  Will gay and lesbian Singaporeans push for more equality?  How will the declining birthrate affect who is and is not considered “Singaporean”…and will Singapore extend citizenship by birth to create a larger local population if it continues to do so?

At this point, it’s hard to make a call on how Singapore is doing other than so far so good.

Conclusions…from me

I understand how and why Rogen’s comments could be upsetting to locals.  I definitely roll my eyes and think “here we go again” when telling someone back home where I live (for example I get a lot of weird looks asking for summer clothes in November in Boston, so it’s easier to explain WHY I want them).  I get frustrated by a lack of understanding and knowledge by Americans about Singapore, too.

Sure, he went for the easy and cheap jokes.  But let’s face it…it’s a light hearted late night talk show.  He’s there to crack jokes and promote something or another.  He’s not there to educate.  People would change the channel if he did.  If you want a more nuanced picture of Singapore, you need a different forum than Conan O’Brien.

Am I upset or angry?  No.  I laughed, and I agree with some of what he said.  But I also don’t take it seriously.

But I understand why others might, and it’s why I wanted to unpack some of what he said here.  Both to give clarity to my non-SG readers as to the full story/background on certain issues, and to clarify where the US audience is coming from to my SG readers.

I want to thank several people for talking about this online recently, making me realize that I did want to contribute to the conversation; Singapore Actually, Kirsten, and several others on Facebook/twitter.


This entry was posted in Culture Shock, customs, politics, Random Stuff, Singapore, Uniquely Singapore, Video. Bookmark the permalink.

26 Responses to Seth Rogen talks about Singapore on Conan..and SG isn’t happy about it

  1. bookjunkie says:

    This was brilliant!

    I really wonder what will happen when the 99 year HDB leases run out. I would love to see Singapore a hundred years from now. I wonder how our landscape would have changed and how the people would look back at how we lived our lives back in 2011!

    I never even thought about the mosquito guy being an intrusion till I realized this is just not done in other countries. I think we are just so used to our homes being ‘invaded’ at whim.

    I also had no clear notion of how stringent our laws are for graffiti for instance compared to the US. I had some notion, but no specific details.

    Whenever I read your blog I get an education and I mean that sincerely.

    I guess I am also lacking when it comes to US history. My Singaporean friends who studied in the US are surprised by how little I know.

    • Crystal says:

      I was curious how much US history would be taught in a country like Singapore. But then again, why would US History (perhaps apart from the Revolution and perhaps a mention of our Civil War, and role in more “local” history, like the Pacific theater in WW2 would merit play in Singapore’s school history.

      But to give you an idea of how biased US History is taught to Americans…if you are raised in the North or the South you get a VERY different set of lessons about the Civil War. For all that we are one nation, it’s difficult to explain how regional we are beyond that.

      • kierstens says:

        I got my education in the south, which means we learned about “The War of Northern Aggression.” Not even joking.

      • Crystal says:

        One of my professors interviewed for a job in a history dept in a southern university. No lie, they asked her what she would teach about the Civil War. She already hated the university, so her comment was “That the North won.” She didn’t get that job offer 🙂

  2. Jim says:

    First of all, a bit of relevant background: I’m an American friend of Crystal’s who’s lived in the US my entire life. I do have a passport and I have traveled outside of the US, but I’ve never been to Asia. I have a master’s degree, so I’d be considered fairly well educated.

    I think Crystal was spot-on in her analysis, so I’ll just offer a second American opinion here:

    American knowledge of the rest of the world is extremely limited. Our news coverage tends to be very America-centric, with only the largest international news stories getting major coverage in US media. In other words, if a major disaster hasn’t hit your country, we Americans are getting minimal news about it at best. As such, Singapore is almost never mentioned in American news. The last time I remember Singapore being mentioned prominently in the American media was the Michael Fay incident, which was over 15 years ago.

    Speaking of that incident, many Americans are familiar with Singapore solely because of that. It got a lot of press here at the time, because by American standards it’s a barbaric punishment for a minor crime. It was noteworthy enough to be mentioned in song by famous American parody artist “Weird Al” Yankovic, in his song “Headline News” ( While nearly all American states have laws against graffiti, most people don’t consider it a big deal. In fact, graffiti is increasingly celebrated as art these days: artists like Shepard Fairey and Banksy are considered legitimate artists, not vandals.

    Another famous quote about Singapore by an American is William Gibson’s remark that Singapore is “Disneyland with the death penalty” (William Gibson is a sci-fi writer who wrote Neuromancer, considered one of the pioneering works in the cyberpunk genre). However you perceive that quote, I think it captures the cultural differences between America and Singapore that are being expressed in Seth Rogen’s interview. As someone who’s only seen Singapore through Crystal’s eyes, it seems to me that Singapore’s cardinal value is preserving the social order, thus guaranteeing its citizens comfort. In America, preserving the rights of the individual is the highest value, and trumps nearly everything else. I don’t claim that either of those values is superior to the other, just that they’re very different. As an American, I would doubtless chafe under the censorship imposed by the Singaporean authorities as an unwarranted intrusion on my rights. The US Constitution and its amendments are very much focused on guaranteeing individual rights, and almost all Americans have internalized those rights as God-given. I don’t use the phrase “God-given” by accident: Americans are by and large very religious.

    Of course, it goes the other way as well. I have no doubt that the average Singaporean would be appalled by the disorder of large American cities, the coarse tone of our media, and the shockingly high amount of violent crime. Having said that, the vast majority of visitors to the US experience no problems at all, so don’t let me dissuade anyone from coming here. 🙂

    I think Crystal’s right: Seth Rogen is a comedian, and he went for the easy jokes. There’s plenty of room to have a debate over American versus Singaporean cultural norms, but a comedy show is not where that’s going to happen.

    As it happens, I will be visiting Crystal next month, so I’ll have a chance to see Singapore for myself. But I won’t be bringing any chewing gum. 🙂

    • Crystal says:

      The American individualism is both a blessing and a curse in my eyes. It’s hard for me to percieve the world differently as I grew up with that. But living in a place like Singapore, I’ve really come to see how much it gets in our way, too. It would be nice if we could rein it in a bit when it comes to things like public works and such…things that would really benefit a large number of people instead of bitching and moaning.

      I definitely do find Singapore’s “Big Brother”-ism trying at times, though.

  3. Flora says:

    Crystal, what a great post! And I agree with your analysis, too.

    American humor is sometimes lost on people in Singapore; I “get” Seth Rogen’s jokes, but I’m not sure a lot of Singaporeans do.

    Your post makes me realize how much I value our freedom of speech in the US, especially having lived in Singapore now.

    • Crystal says:

      Thanks! And thank you for the retweet 🙂

      I also have a new appreciation of freedom of speech having lived here.

  4. kierstens says:

    This was a fantastic post, thanks for writing. I think framing the discussion in the context of understanding American and Singaporean perspectives is brilliant, and it made me think about why I found the Seth Rogan clip so funny.

    That Americans come from a place where the value is placed on individualism, and that Singaporeans come from a place where the value is placed on community – well, this is something I had though but never been able to articulate. And I think the way you articulated it was brilliant.

    Really great, Crystal.

    • kierstens says:

      And moreover, I think you are right to say that Americans find a lot of humor in mocking authority. I’m thinking to all of the major comedy shows in the US (not just the Daily Show or the Colbert Report) and they all capitalize on making jokes about politicians and people with power. When we make a joke about Bush or Sarkozy or Berlusconi, nobody feels any sort of sympathy for those folks. It’s almost like a power check, no?

      • Crystal says:

        Absolutely! I think we also see that in the way we almost delight when celebrities screw up (Britney’s meltdown, Lindsey Lohan and the shoplifting or whatever that was)…the come-uppance of those who have more than us.

        It’s hard to imagine a local equivalent to the Daily Show or Colbert here, and I don’t wonder if part of the reason why (aside from that the gov’t would ban it) is that the audience wouldn’t find it funny.

  5. kirsten says:

    I’m pretty sure the audience would find it funny. But we wouldn’t dare to say we found it funny. So it would look like we don’t find it funny.

    *does that even make sense*

  6. Tabea says:

    Excellent, fair and balanced analysis!

    You asked how it is that many Singaporeans do not get to vote. Well you only get to vote if there is a contest in your constituency. For a good number of elections over the past few decades, the opposition parties contested national elections on a ‘bye-election’ effect. You see, the PAP government would try to warn people against voting for the opposition by warning that if enough people voted for the opposition, a freak result could see the PAP voted out of office – and Singapore would naturally go down the drain. So to counter this, in many elections, the opposition parties would only contest a minority of the seats in Parliament. The PAP, of course, contests every seat as their ideal is a complete shutout. This meant that on Nomination Day (the day when all the candidates standing for election are nominated to run), the PAP would win the majority of the seats uncontested and automatically form the next government. That saw off the ‘freak election result’ bogeyman, and the opposition could then proceed to campaign on a platform of greater representation in Parliament. Everybody knows that nobody really wants a non-PAP government, but having zero non-PAP MPs (which is what the PAP ideally would like) is not ideal for parliamentary democracy, to say the least.

    In the 2011 election, all the seats except one were contested. The uncontested seat was Tanjong Pagar, the Group Representation Constituency anchored by Lee Kuan Yew. Can’t remember the last time that seat was contested. As far as I can see, it’s been walkover each time going at least as far back to 1991.

    • Crystal says:


      I try to be cautious about doing political commentary, both because as an outsider I have less insight and can easily misread a situation and secondly it’s a bit rude (and thirdly I’m not supposed to!). But this was one of the few moments where I felt like I had a better understanding than many as to why this was funny in the US but not in SG.

      I always appreciate it when people explain the politics to me. I love politics, but have found Singaporean politics to be tricky and confusing at times.

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  8. Liz Ruizhu says:

    Thank you for a balanced opinion, it is refreshing!

    Time now for a harsher one, lol! I love the Micheal Fay sage and the way it brings about legend-like ideas of Singapore.

    Would like to add that while vandalising a couple of cars may seem trivial to US Americans, it is rather difficult to see it the same way when a car that would cost 15,000 in the US may cost 4 times (or more) here in Singapore, lol. If my Jaguar got sprayed by him, I would feel like caning him myself. It’s not the car, it’s the fact that some badly brought up kid with nothing better to do (not even because he is actually a gangster or thug) sprayed a car which was earned through hard work, hard work for which he had no respect and regard for.

    And erm, to add insult to injury, despite the caning he went home to America and got into trouble again.

    • Crystal says:

      Thanks and welcome to the blog 🙂

      I had forgotten he went home and got into trouble again. Apparently he didn’t learn his lesson…

  9. GuybrushAppletree says:

    You all realise that Seth Rogen is Canadian right?

    • Crystal says:

      Yes, but he’s playing to an American audience on Conan, and commenting on Singapore. I haven’t found there to be a huge disparity between US/Canadian humor (and Rogen has made his money in the US, so he’s obviously tailoring for the US audience).

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  12. Cosmo says:

    One more thing I need to highlight about Singaporeans is that many of us are very about our nationality and can be very sensitive towards foreigners’ comments of our nation. One nasty remark about Singapore by a foreign politician and it will end up as the breaking news in Singapore the next day.

    This is not a joke, but everyone has the right to laugh.

  13. Marjorie says:

    I personally enjoy and totally understand American humour. Yes he was doing that. But what he said made him look like he couldn’t bring his pot into Singapore and so became beligerent and chidishly ran down Singapore. He wasn’t exactly gracious for the trip to Singapore and came across as a selfish prick. Which he probably is in real life.

    • Why should he feel grateful for the trip to Singapore? Singapore didn’t pay for it, the movie company did. Singapore and however many other countries he was sent to. He’s under no obligation to be nice about things he didn’t like. As a pot activist, it’s pretty inevitable he was going to have words for Singapore.

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