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How to start a debate in the toilet

How to start a debate in the toilet

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What happens when you scrawl a question on an A2 paper, paste it up in a toilet cubicle wall, and put some marker pens nearby? Here’s the result.

By Fang Shihan

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TOURISTS often say that Singapore is a sterile city. So clean, so green, like a hospital. The fact that graffiti artist Oliver Fricker got thrown in the can for ‘decorating’ an MRT train only seems to reinforce that notion. I use that word decorating not as an euphemism but because whatever he drew was nice enough for onlookers to mistake it for an advertisement.

But of course there are pockets of this place, far from the roving eye of big brother, that remain autonomous spaces. Places like the toilet. And to paraphrase oscar wilde, shut a man in a cubicle, all alone by himself with nothing to do but wait for poop to drop out and.. he will scribble the truth on a nearby cubicle wall.

I remember my first encounter with toilet vandalism was in a shopping mall known as Oriental, it’s now rebranded into ‘Kovan shopping mall’. It was a dinghy place with an arcade, department store, an A&W, and toilets filled with scrawls on the wall soliciting free sex from ladies with bi-syllabalic names ranging from Amy to Mary to Sally. Phone number attached of course.

Fast forward to 2009. I was on exchange in a university in Sweden and there was a co-ed toilet in the language department that was known for its debates scrawled on the walls of a particular cubicle. Topics ranged from how Swedish girls were hot, to abortion, to feminism. It was clearly an ongoing debate and no one really bothered to wash the walls.

Us at New Nation wanted to replicate a washroom debate in Singapore. Find a toilet, write a question on the wall, leave the pen behind for 2 weeks and hopefully we’ll see a thread of replies at the end of it. Simple enough right? Except that we had to find a toilet that would let us use their walls for this temporary ‘installation’. Because we/I didn’t want to be charged for vandalism.

Places we approached

First up, the Marina Bay Sands Art Science museum. We marketed the experiment as a high-brow art piece and a critique on the sterility of modern Singapore. The museum was kind enough to grant us a pitch in a superposh conference room where this author was promptly told the the idea was neither new nor interesting. Vandalism also didn’t fit into the corporate/high-class image of MBS and they were sure that the powers that be wouldn’t be keen on the idea. Well, we tried.

Second place: a neighbourhood pub in the corner of Serangoon Gardens. The ladies who ran the place were amenable to the idea at first, until we told them that the walls could potentially be vandalised by drunken patrons and the vandalism would have to stay alongside the actual debate for 2 weeks, until the experiment was over. After some hemming and haw-ing, and a conversation over the phone that nearly erupted into a shouting match, we decided not to pester them again.


By this time, we gave up/wussed out on the idea of actually writing on the toilet walls and resigned to putting up an A2 sheet of paper for patrons to scrawl on.

After the firm rejection by the pub, this author was walking around dejectedly and decided to try his luck at a cosy restaurant nearby.

The owner-chef didn’t bat an eyelid and said…’ok’.

And so the experiment began at 66A Serangoon Garden Way, in a restaurant called “Arbite“.

Results? Surprisingly polite people

While we weren’t expecting anything close to “f*** your mother” or “For free sex, call Sally at 91234567″, we weren’t expecting replies to be so witty. Must have been the overall atmosphere of the restaurant, or the fact that patrons of the restaurant tended to be middle class, educated, potato-eating folk.

The topic question was decided completely at random: “Should public toilets be free?”

Three coloured markers were placed at the window sill behind the toilet bowl and the A2 sheet of paper was tacked to the wall. The experiment was confined only to the female toilet in Arbite.

One answer was scrawled on by this author to start the conversation: “No! toilet aunties need to make a living too!” While this starting statement could have affected the first few replies, it wouldn’t have much of an overall effect as the writing space was tacked up for 3 weeks.

By the second week, the space was nearly filled. One reply stood out: “I hope whoever used this marker before me used his/her hands”. That one prompted 2 followups: “That’s pretty brilliant. I’m wrapping this marker with a piece of tissue! B.t.w. we’re so off topic.”, and “have you guys washed your hands before writing this?”

Altogether, 15 well-worded replies in 3 weeks. That’s actually more than what the New Nation website gets in the same period of time. 😛

Most felt that toilets should NOT be free while the other 4 felt that there should be a nominal fee charged.

There was also a funny stain on the New Nation logo which could be a protest against the experiment itself, or some patron accidentally flicking water at the sink nearby.

Tentative conclusion? People do write intelligent replies in the toilet. Most of which are better-worded that the comments we find on various online sites.

In fact, we may try starting a conversation about politics the next time around. Thoughts? 😉

Read more toilet articles here.