The Genteel
January 28, 2021



When I moved to Singapore two years ago, the sights and smells of the colourful nation filled me with an assemblage of questions. Thankfully, my local friends patiently answered most of them, but there was one particular question that repeatedly played on my mind that neither friend nor guidebook had a conclusive answer to: why is the humble flip-flop the footwear of choice in a country that is, in every other way, a chic and stylish metropolis? It turns out, the flip-flop speaks volumes about Singaporean society and the hectic lifestyle of its residents.

A "Make Your Own Havaianas" event in Singapore.

Whether walking around a university campus, through the central business district, down the infamous Orchard Road or across Sentosa beach, you'll be bombarded by a cocktail of colourful flip-flops. And not just on holidaymakers, but also on every Singaporean - male and female, old and young, in all manner of situations. Everyone - with a few upper-class exceptions - loves the modest flip-flop.

A few factors appear to contribute to the overwhelming popularity of the footwear that can succinctly be described as a thonged slab of rubber. A predominant motivation would have to be the overpowering rainstorms and unrelenting humidity that suffocates the small, lion-city every single day of the year. In addition to complementing a pair of Bermuda shorts or a flimsy cotton dress, flip-flops allow the nation's feet to breathe in stifling heat and dry off quickly once heavy showers have passed.

Another factor for the low-key choice of footwear could be related to the relentless speed at which the country operates. Singaporeans spend long, arduous days working in the office. The country wasn't a part of the OECD's recent labour productivity survey, but in the past, Singaporeans were found to be right alongside South Koreans in terms of longest working hours. More work means less time and energy to waste deliberating over tough wardrobe dilemmas before going out; the slip on, slip off flip-flop is the perfect solution. Yet in the quickly growing, bustling metropolis of Seoul, it's rare to see people wearing flip flops on their way to work. It would seem, then, that the dressed down flip-flop is part of a distinctly Singaporean mindset. But why?

The flip-flop isn't a trend for Singaporeans; it is a style that has entered the national psyche and won't die out. It is part of our culture.

My university friend and self-appointed tour guide, Hui Qian Tan, had this rationale: "Our flip-flop devotion exposes the speed of our society and the stresses surrounding it," she told me. "Such a simple style of shoe takes little effort to put on when rushing out the door to meet friends or when going to a hawker centre. And, at the end of the day, we find it a bit of a chore to open the shoe cabinet and spend time contemplating which shoes to wear for such everyday occasions." She went on to note that, "If we have to be so kancheong [stressed] about our work, then I guess people relax in terms of attire." Of course, South Koreans also lead very busy lives. Perhaps, Singaporeans just put style lower on their list of priorities during hectic working days in comparison to their South Korean neighbours who are widely known to be fashionably put-together in a whole manner of situations. 

Despite the ubiquity of flip flops in Singapore, there are still codes of conduct to observe. It's considered acceptable for hard-working professionals to wear the insouciant v-thong design en route to the office, but frowned upon if worn at the office. Whilst this is a common mindset adopted across the globe, it's a noticeable exception in Singapore, given how frequently flip-flops are worn in more serious and formal settings such as Sunday brunches, nights out at local clubs and evening meals.

And, flip-flop use for home-to-work roaming is particularly interesting, considering ever-modern Singapore boasts smooth pavements, endless escalators and a highly efficient transport system. Practically speaking, high-heels wouldn't be a terrible choice of travelling footwear. Perhaps then, the choice to adopt the flip-flop isn't just about comfort. Choosing not to wear them would ultimately mean standing out amidst a crowd of colourful rubber and, at the end of the day, no one wants to be different. This would also explain why so many expatriates assume the informal flip-flop within months of moving to Singapore. It's a big part of fitting into the local culture. 

The flip-flop is widely accepted as a social marker for Singaporeans. The type you put on, albeit a 10-second mad-dash decision, is believed to say a lot about your character. When speaking with my friend Teck Heng Tan, he explained, "If you are willing to pay a small fortune for a brightly-coloured, good quality pair of Havaiana-esque ones then you are considered cool. However, if you opt for wearing a tatty two dollar style, we would see you as an ah pek [middle-aged uncle]. If you consider yourself to be a Tai Tai [high class socialite], then you just wouldn't wear them - you live in a different world and the flip-flop is not part of it."

"Flip-flops! Get your flip-flops!"

The complex social code that underlies the unassuming flip-flop got me thinking about a seemingly nonchalant and unconscious fashion decision. There is an undeniable bond between Singaporeans and their footwear that goes beyond associating with the latest runway collections. When speaking to another friend, Lianne Chia, she summed it up succinctly: "The flip-flop isn't a trend for Singaporeans; it is a style that has entered the national psyche and won't die out. It is part of our culture."

Her bold statement reminded me of a quote once given by demi-god of women's footwear, Christian Louboutin. In an interview with The New Yorker last year, he remarked, "The shoe is very much an x-ray of social comportment."

For Singaporeans, the flip-flop is a peep-hole into understanding the national psyche. The average Singaporean works hard, but likes to relax. They care about fashion and how others perceive them but, at the same time, understand the need to be practical in a country that reaches 30 degrees Celsius every day of the year, rain or shine. Despite perfect pavements, ideal for towering stilettos, stylish skyscrapers just don't fit into the laid-back way of dressing, within a fast-paced and successful country.



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