Save precious water. Floss your teeth. Buckle up for safety. Those are just some of the truisms familiar to generations of Singaporeans. Since gaining independence five decades ago, the Southeast Asian city-state has seen countless government campaigns aimed to mold citizens who could live up to the nation’s leap from Third World to First. Design has played a central role in these efforts, as evident in the 6,000+ posters preserved in the National Archives of Singapore.
Since its establishment in 1968, this state institution has archived posters as part of its collection of material culture—including government records, maps, photographs, oral history interviews, audiovisual, and sound recordings—that are significant to Singapore’s history. Most of its posters come from government campaigns, with a small number created for cultural events, movies, and corporations.
One of the earliest examples is a 1959 poster reminding citizens of Singapore to vote. That year, Singapore held its first general elections shortly after the colony was granted self-government by the British. The poster depicts a mass of racially diverse men and women headed to the ballot box in a historic event that brought the People’s Action Party into power.
Still in power today, the People’s Action Party made national campaigns a way of life. From fighting pollution and drugs in the ’70s or promoting courtesy and productivity in the ’80s, organizing a poster campaign became the go-to way for the government to broadcast new policies and national events. As the mass media format of the day, printed posters carried the state’s voice into schools, offices, and community centers.
Many of these posters were designed by anonymous commercial artists who worked inside government departments, and later on, advertising agencies. Their styles were reflective of the times. While early posters charmed citizens with illustrative graphics and a cacophony of typefaces, they took on an abstract, more corporate look as European Modernism took root on the island’s shores.
While the 1959 elections poster literally depicts people coming together, a 1983 productivity drive poster alludes to the same thing with interlocking arrows pointing upwards. The rise of photography also spurred innovative techniques, such as a 1977 poster in which a half-man, half-skeleton warns against the dangers of drug abuse.
As television, radio, and social media became a part of the contemporary advertising landscape, posters gradually lost relevance. The designs also had to evolve as Singaporeans became used to seeing so many annual national campaigns. Instead of running a blatant slogan for a recent campaign to promote the use of Mandarin, the message is presented as a quiz on Chinese culture and in a poster that playfully uses negative space.
Scrolling through the posters online via the National Archives website—the only way the public can access them—offers an illustrated history of Singapore’s development and the issues it’s faced. Campaigns came and went, but many were carried out annually for decades. Over the years, the poster collection has become a colorful historical resource referenced by television shows, books, and exhibitions to retell the development of national policies and the public service in Singapore. That the city has become a poster child for business and cleanliness, amongst other accolades today, is due, in no small part, to these posters.