Eight white elephants were recently spotted in Singapore. No, they were not a promotion for Air India, or part of the latest show from the Cirque du Soleil to have planted its chapiteau here. The elephants, in various poses, were actually rather cuddly cut-outs placed on a road divider outside an MRT rail station on the day a minister was doing a walkabout in the area.
Many would not have seen it as a silent protest by local residents, not knowing that the Buangkok MRT Station was completed in June 2003, but has yet to open. The operator says there is insufficient demand; there still aren't 2,000 housing units within a 400m radius of the station.
I first thought it was the latest ad campaign. After all, we're also being treated right now to colourful cut-outs of golf players and palm trees (advertising the Singapore Open, I presume) and not long ago we had cut-out cows selling milk. The minister declared himself 'amused' and the topic would have probably been left to rest if 'someone' hadn't complained.
The police are now investigating 'under the Public Entertainment and Meetings Act', though officials have refused to identify the source of the complaint or specify which rules the cut-outs have broken. Kopitiams (coffee bars) and internet weblogs have been awash with the story, with many wondering why so much effort is apparently being spent finding the 'artists'.
'I just heard someone calling in over the radio to ask why the police are investigating cardboard elephants when they should be looking out for terrorists,' said consultative constituency chairman Sunny Leow.
Indeed, the white elephant probe is prompting usually reserved Singaporeans to speak out. Several have written to local papers pointing out that the government has been urging them 'to be more creative', and certainly the white elephants were a creative way to draw attention to an issue of concern to local residents. 'Singapore has just turned 40; we are definitely mature and should be able to take such jibes in our stride. Equally, our authorities should discard the authoritarian manner in handling an issue like this,' one wrote.
Some netizens are giving helpful suggestions. 'To catch who drew the elephants is very easy, lah. Get all the residents staying in and near Buangkok to draw elephants,' advised one participant on the forum for young members of the main governing party.
Meanwhile, the 'white elephants' have served their purpose. This small act of civic-mindedness - or civil disobedience - has led the Transport Minister to press the Land Transport Authority to give him an answer 'in a month or so' regarding the opening of Buangkok MRT station.