No naked lunch

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 22 June, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 22 June, 2004, 12:00am

To breastfeed or not to breastfeed in public, that is the question. In relatively prudish Singapore, the issue is sparking renewed interest. It began when a breastfeeding mother was recently asked to leave the Esplanade Arts Centre by a security guard, because the other patrons might be put off by it.

The Esplanade apologised, putting the incident down to the guard's misunderstanding of policy. Unfortunately for it, the nursing mother was a health-care professional who did not let the issue rest. She wrote a long letter to her local newspaper, starting a snowball of events which culminated in a rally of nursing mothers on Saturday.

It was well attended by Singaporean standards, with about 20 nursing mothers and 60 supporters. The demonstration was quiet, as participants paused for a few photo opportunities and breastfed in view of everybody.

Singapore reportedly has the lowest breastfeeding rate among Asean countries, and local non-profit organisations have been trying to change this mindset. They are spreading the word that breastfeeding is not against the law or considered a lewd act. Last year, they jolted Singaporeans with a poster of two children feeding at a pair of breasts, and this simple image prompted the ink to flow.

This is a country where nudity is frowned upon in many quarters, and where the much-promised programme Sex in the City has yet to be shown on television. Here the sight of a breast can still be rattling - even when it is obscured by clothing and a feeding child.

As a breastfeeding mother of a six-week-old, I too can get a little shy in public. Still, with an infant crying in your arms for milk you soon forget everything and just aim to give her, and your ears, relief. When I am on Orchard Road at my favourite coffee shop I often see a breastfeeding mother, but she is invariably white.

Come to think of it, I don't think I have ever seen a Chinese mother breastfeeding outside a nursing room. Nursing rooms are all well and good, if you are close to one. But I do not see why I should park myself, like a social leper, in a reserved area for doing something so very natural.

It does not help the breastfeeding cause that, until recently, advertisements carried the strong implication that formula milk was as good as breast milk and, what is more, could make a baby smarter.

Singaporean mothers are reported to be increasingly willing to breastfeed. With the government aiming for a major boost in local baby 'production', the sight of nursing mothers could eventually become as widespread as sales adverts - however titillating some people may find it.