The Unironic Endeavour To Turn Lee Kuan Yew’s Face Into Bling
All images courtesy of Neoliberal Arts

Lee Kuan Yew would have cringed at the hero worship after his death, his daughter Lee Wei Ling said in 2016. She was referring to initiatives that included an artwork of his face, created from 4,877 erasers.

Would the man get up even as we lower him into his grave if he saw his visage dangling from Singaporeans’ keys and adorning their ears?

Forget commemorative coins. Neoliberal Arts, a one-man outfit that’s in the business of art commodities and wearables, just launched a merchandise line that’ll make more of a statement (in more ways than one). Sure, the $10 commemorative coins are legal tender, but we doubt anyone will be spending their founding father merch. 

Instead, backers of Neoliberal Arts’ Kickstarter campaign ‘Our First Leader’ will be able to rep Lee Kuan Yew with keychains, earrings, rings and necklaces featuring 3D recreations of his countenance. 

The campaign is meant to commemorate the 100 years since our first prime minister’s birth—as well as his “charisma, uniqueness, nerve and talent”.

Lee Kuan Yew Jewellery

The merch has wacky names. We love ‘OB Markers’, a pair of earrings “for those with sensitive ears”. As much as it sounds like a biting commentary on the lengths Singaporeans would go to venerate the nation’s founding prime minister, rest assured; it’s a legit campaign.

According to Neoliberal Arts, the first deliveries should reach backers by September 16th, the day of Lee Kuan Yew’s 100th birth anniversary.

With five backers so far, the campaign has already exceeded its humble funding goal of US$289 (S$387.67) but will continue to run till August 19. 

We speak to the man behind Neoliberal Arts, Shoon, 33, to wrap our heads around this offbeat collection. 

Our first question: Why?

Well, as I began to pick up 3D modelling and experiment with 3D printing last year, one of the first things I ever modelled was Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s face. Using his face to learn 3D sculpting for the first time was actually a really good exercise; I don’t think people fully appreciate how iconic his piercing gaze and gentle scowl are. 

I think the impetus to fully realise this project came about when the commemorative $10 coin was unveiled. That announcement really opened the doors to dreaming about the creative possibilities of using Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s face in actual, physical, three-dimensional products.

Lee Kuan Yew Jewellery

Who are the people behind this project?

Neoliberal Arts is mostly the brainchild of one person—myself. For this project, my collaborators for this project were a diverse socio-economic group; friends who are lawyers, doctors, creatives and even civil servants helped me model, shoot and polish this project. Neoliberal Arts is an ongoing collaborative project that aims to explore intersections between the market, creativity and capitalism through art and design.

Congratulations on reaching your funding goal! What has been the most popular item so far?

Yes, the project got funded within 30 minutes, and that validation from the market feels amazing. The keychains are quite popular because of how functional they are, although during the process of shooting the campaign photography for it, a lot of people were asking about the earrings.

Lee Kuan Yew Jewellery

US$289 is quite a modest goal.

It’s my first Kickstarter, so I didn’t have any benchmark. I wasn’t expecting someone to purchase a ring straight off and fund the whole thing.

Some of the Kickstarter rewards wade into political territory (GRC Super Majority and Committee of Inquiry, for example). Is the campaign meant to be a political statement?

No, it’s not meant as a political statement. I simply wanted to impart some uniquely Singaporean traits into the project.

Yours isn’t the only project paying tribute to Lee Kuan Yew. What do you think of the $10 commemorative coin that was recently released by MAS?

I’d also add that in 2015 there were already $50 and $10 commemorative notes, and an attempt in 2020 by the Singapore Mint to make medallions featuring his likeness.

I think, fundamentally, the $10 coin and ‘Our First Leader’ serve different consumer segments and purposes. I felt strongly that younger Singaporeans, who already rely heavily on digital payment methods, would find a commemorative coin that can’t be used an unappealing and unattractive option in the marketplace.

Lee Kuan Yew key chain

Should people get the coin or your accessories?

Why not both? I don’t think these two LKY-based commodities are mutually exclusive; I myself ordered three copies of the coin. I will say I’m very happy with how good the earrings look on people, so I think if you want to make that OOTD pop, I think there’s a clear winner.

Would you ever consider making this a series? Perhaps a collectable range of Lee family merch?

Probably not. I think this project is a good summation of all my thoughts and feelings, and I’m personally ready to move on to different creative endeavours after this. I’ve mostly been creating 3D-printed wearables that reinterpret and modernise traditional Asian values for our current epoch.

Who knows, though—if public interest and market demand remain at this all-time high, perhaps a whole range of Lee Kuan Yew-focused lifestyle offerings could be successful. I’d love to see other Singaporeans craft their own tributes to LKY’s legacy. A copy of the 3D model I sculpted is available as an add-on to Kickstarter backers for anyone to use.

Your project’s technically legal. Have you run into any issues so far, though?

Not yet, although I do hear that there are some nice cafes in the Cantonment area now. There were some limitations around offering blockchain rewards, such as NFTs on the Kickstarter platform. 

Beyond the legal realm, what are some other challenges you’ve faced putting this together?

In terms of non-legal challenges, I think finding out that peoples’ reactions outside of my social circle and generation have been the most pleasantly surprising. I was fully expecting friends and family to be trepidatious around such nationally significant subjects, but in the past half year, a lot of people both from within and outside of my social circle have volunteered to help with this project. I even had a friend, who is a direct descendant of a PAP founding member, ask for a keychain because she loved the project so much. 

In terms of material research and product testing, there was quite a lengthy process to source hypoallergenic earring hooks and to find out the best earring and ring sizes for different body types. Also, trying to optimise the 3D printing process was quite a learning experience.

If Lee Kuan Yew himself were alive, how’d you think he’d react to the project?

Hopefully he’d appreciate how utilitarian and pragmatic I’ve tried to make this art project—and for ‘Our First Leader’ products to not just be a luxury we can’t afford.

In any case, Mr Lee Kuan Yew did make a number of personal statements during his lifetime that we as a society have, I guess, decided to expressly disregard in the name of public interest. So I think it’s become quite irrelevant to speculate on how he might have reacted.

I never had the honour of meeting him personally, but Mr Lee Kuan Yew did seem rather cognisant of the fact that what he desired and how Singapore might handle his legacy would diverge quite sharply, which just goes to show just how prescient he remains even to this day.

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