There have been 2 shows on Netflix vying for my attention the past week. The first is the The Crown, which debuted its third season now starring Olivia Colman (an Oscar-winning queen!) as Queen Elizabeth II and Helena Bonham Carter as Princess Margaret. High-budget, prestige television. Beautifully filmed, scripted and produced – but it came nowhere near Singapore Social in terms of inciting an emotional response.
There’s a lot to hate about Singapore Social, and you’ll no doubt find the vitriol everywhere online. Sukki Singapora, one of the cast members, has taken it upon herself to enact the role of social media community manager on Twitter, replying very ardently to any tweet that so much as mentions the show. The good and the bad, she’s engaging with the viewers.
Right off the bat: of course Singapore Social is asinine, of course it’s vapid, of course it’s dumb. It’s a trashy reality programme, and it’s produced by a company whose entire trade cred is in producing reality TV. I don’t imagine that Americans live like the Kardashian-Jenner clan or that New York is filled with Tiffany Pollards. I’m well aware that the United Kingdom is more than just the vapidity from TOWIE. So who cares that we’re getting inane scripted subplots wrapped up as reality? You should know better, honestly. Otherwise who are you to call them stupid, right? At least the cast of Social got a cheque out of it and a Netflix Original to their names.
But about the show. The content is oddly captivating, and its implications are rich and provide wellsprings of equally unnecessary thought. This, I should be clear, is not a review or a jab at the cast members. It’s clear enough they’re playing versions of themselves. It is something I suspect a Singaporean audience is not used to, because it comes to us with simultaneously such closeness and distance. You recognise the scenes and perhaps some of the faces, but the constructed reality of Singapore in the show is almost completely foreign.
Before I’d even started watching the show, a friend had been commenting on the inconsistency of the accent that Nicole Ong, a blockchain entrepreneur on the cast, uses. When she’s hanging with her Singapore Social pals, there is that generally place-less and characterless American accent that many Singaporeans have learnt – likely through media consumption – as a reflexive code-switch. This usually happens when you need to sound proper, when you need a bit more enunciation and melody, or when you are speaking with Caucasians. I realise with horror that it’s also the sort of hodge-podge accent I pull out of my ass when I’m drunk.
When Nicole is with her parents, however, she sounds Singaporean again. As in, clearly and definitively Singaporean. The rhythms and melodies are local, the tonal fluctuations are flattened, and you hear her slide easily in and out of Mandarin. And it’s right on brand with a lot of the Asian family posturing that was thrown at us in the first episode. You know, when everyone talked about tiger moms and the worst cliches of parental and societal pressure. Those are real, no doubt, but there's something very disingenuous when it is so blatantly repeated and pushed on you. More likely, these are platitudes and stereotypes meant for a non-local audience, in which case it bears questioning: why are you perpetuating these lazy stereotypes?
Anyway, try comparing Nicole's obviously put-on way of speaking to the accents that Tabitha Nauser and Paul Foster have. They’re both mixed race and European on one side. Tabitha’s father is Swiss, Foster’s is British. It’s the kind of hapa mix that is approachable and consumable, and the resulting accents are the natural and unforced Western types that get easily accepted in local media. Think Henry Golding. Don’t kid yourself that he would’ve been cast for leading roles in Hollywood films if his natural accent was less British and more Malaysian. Of course, the role of Nicholas Young is also written such that the Chinese guy is so thoroughly British-educated that that’s become his natural accent.
Whatever, it’s a classist postcolonial complex thing, and I don’t want to get into anything deeper than saying Mae Tan had the most comfortingly consistent Singaporean accent. I recognised the desire to be taken seriously and legitimately in groups of people who, by nature of their proximity to being Caucasian, sound fancier, more educated, and more important than you. It sucks, and a reality show isn’t the sociological grounds on which to debate this, but it’s very uncomfortably present in Singapore Social. The producers behind the show, Love Productions USA, are the American offshoot of the company that also made the Great British Bake Off. Sit through the credits, and you’ll realise that most of the actual making of Singapore Social is not by Singaporeans. The Singaporeans on the cast seem to enact narrative arcs directed by American producers. That’s fine, and the depth of a reality programme doesn’t demand creative veracity, but I wonder if the producers can see these symptoms, which are at the very heart of the social fabric and discourse of half their show's title.
Also: all the drinking! There are countless comments online that this group of people seem to do nothing but go for drinks and get hounded by Sukki for one or another of their personal problems. Nightlife! Glamorous! Fun! Party! Except, alcohol taxes here are prohibitive, liquor licenses are getting untenably expensive, and all the good bars are taking their last calls at midnight. I don’t care that you’re glossing up these characters to make a show, but Singapore Tourism Board, please do not lie to us like that. I remember very vividly the face of a tourist who once asked me, on the bridge, having just walked out of Clarke Quay. “I’m looking for Clarke Quay, can you tell me where it is?” I pointed right where he’d come from. “The nightlife place? The parties?” I pointed that way again. “That’s it?” Sorry, buddy.
One of the gripes many people also seem to have is that these are ‘privileged rich kids’, the operative here being privilege and the seeming blithe unawareness of it. You’d do well to remember that Tabitha Nauser’s Singapore Idol audition clip was resurfaced for the show. Paul Foster was once on Polo Boys (a pinnacle gay moment for local free-to-air TV tbh). Sukki Singapora is a legitimately bound-breaking burlesque artist who’s opened up opportunities for the form in Singapore. I can’t speak to Vinny’s struggle story, but if his mother is practising homeopathy I assume poverty has never been a reality. I’m not sure about Nicole’s either, but being a person in blockchain is punishingly dull enough. As for Mae… well, she’s got one of those classic school dropout stories, I guess. (Go Gates! Go Bezos!)
But the point perhaps ought to be that privileged people have problems too. There’s a Romanian ex with crazy eyes who’s written to look and sound as though she’s ready to fight anyone who argues with her. She seems blithely unaware of the fact that her ex has moved on while she continues to declare loyalty and love. There’s a romance with an American that is so powerful it compels one of the cast members to literally fly across half the world to mumble a confession over dinner. Two millennials in their 20s muse on the exhaustion of dating. A 20-something also exclaims that she is too “fucking tired” when a hired stripper at her birthday party tries to get her to dance. There’s the trouble of a prying friend to whom you have to skirt around explaining that you’re still friends with your ex because the sex is still great. Things like that. They're easy to follow, and the subtext isn't written so much between the lines as it is on the literal subtitles. The central panic for all cast members seems to have to do with their romantic lives. After all, aren’t we all just prawns searching for another prawn?
Something the show comes incessantly back around to is this idea that it’s impossibly tough to find love in Singapore. Two of the girls have exes that they can’t shake because of a tiny creative industry that they’re all a part of. Another one is dating a bland caricature of a Chinese guy who studied banking and finance and who will one day buy an Hermès belt with the big buckle. But that’s because he’s the kind of guy that Chinese-girls-who-wear-their-lightly-curled-hair-down-one-side date.
It’s incredibly reflective of the kind of social divisions and stratifications that end up affecting the way we date. Social capital is important, too, because you realise that the cast members all represent a sort of glossy influencer mini-celebrity. And the fact is that the influencer ‘lifestyle’ is girded by conspicuous consumption, the source of its aspirational appeal really just being the financial means to spend frivolously. So yes, at the end of the day, Singapore Social is just another piece of polished capitalist drivel.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing. For all the complaints, it’s entertaining to watch trashy reality set in Singapore – even if it is in the parts of Singapore selected to telegraph wealth and cool. Honestly, approach the show knowing that there isn't a point to it, and that plain entertainment is the only remotely possible goal. It's actually quite fun watching. To enact your own Singaporean Social situation, why not play a drinking game? Once for every shot of Marina Bay Sands, text message animation, drink had, parents mentioned, and times Sukki Singapora looks stressed.
Just a suggestion: if Netflix decides to produce a season 2, please up the drama ante. You’re drawing from the 20-something pool of Instagram influencers, but if you know your shit, you’d look to the bloggers who are now in their 30s who set the template for messy low-stakes local drama. Basically, all I’m saying is to get Xiaxue on the show.