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Sticker Lady Tests Singapore Leaders

Jeremy Grant in Singapore
Tuesday, 12 Jun 2012 | 2:58 AM ET
Geraldine Tan | CNBC

Singapore’s graffiti-free streets and carefully maintained public spaces may be the envy of urban planners everywhere but they have proved an open invitation for the “Sticker Lady”.

A young female artist – whose name has not been officially revealed – has energized Singapore’s small but growing blogosphere after her arrest for allegedly plastering black circular stickers on traffic lights and stenciling phrases on street tarmac.

Normally such acts risk contravening Singapore’s vandalism law, where a conviction carries a sentence of up to three years, a fine and strokes of the cane.

Memories are still fresh of Oliver Fricker, a Swiss national who fell foul of the law in 2010 after spray-painting graffiti on train carriages. He was sentenced to five months in jail and three strokes of the cane.

Singapore’s vandalism law gained global notoriety in 1994 after a U.S. student, Michael Fay, pleaded guilty to vandalizing cars. His sentence of six strokes of the cane was reduced only after Bill Clinton, then U.S. president, intervened.

But Sticker Lady has been released on police bail pending “further investigations”, according to a police spokesman. An online petition calling for the woman to have her charge reduced from vandalism to “public nuisance” has been gathering momentum.

Her case comes as Singapore’s ruling People’s Action party has become more sensitive to public opinion since its worst ever result in a general election last year.

The party has been at pains to demonstrate that it is tackling rising housing costs, a growing gap between rich and poor and rising immigration, which officials acknowledge has created friction with native Singaporeans.

Lee Hsien Loong, prime minister warned in a speech last week that with global economic uncertainty, Singapore was “beyond the phase of effortless growth” that has characterized much of its existence since independence in 1965.

He acknowledged that building public consensus to support “sound policies and capable leaders ... becomes harder when growth is lower, incomes rise unequally and dividing up the pie becomes more contentious”.

Authorities must decide whether Sticker Lady’s actions amount to vandalism or are harmless street art .

None of the stickers appears to carry any overtly political message, instead carrying phrases that mock Singaporean habits in “Singlish”, a hybrid of English and local dialects.

“Press Once Can Already” runs one, taking aim at pedestrians for pressing traffic crossing buttons too often. “My Grandfather Road” appeared stenciled on to streets, leaving Singaporeans to puzzle over its meaning.

Chan Wing Cheong, associate law professor at the National University of Singapore, said the vandalism law was conceived at a time when Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s first prime minister, was fighting leftwing opponents.

“The acts of the Sticker Lady may show a degree of preparation and deliberation, and even a large dose of creativity, but they are surely not on the same scale as what was intended to be caught by parliament when the vandalism law was passed,” he said.

Sticker Lady’s antics have spawned imitators, with personal versions of the slogans appearing on Singapore residents’ Facebook pages.

“I’m sure the authorities aren’t too pleased about having to erase those markings on the road or peeling off those stickers,” Bertha Harian, a prominent blogger and former associate editor of the Straits Times newspaper wrote in a post. “But there’s something to be said about injecting some levity on Singapore streets.”

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