Criminal Minds' representation of S'pore is problematic, but it's not just plain ignorance, either – (registration)

The producers should have watched Crimewatch first.

Singapore was recently tossed into the spotlight.

The latest episode of US crime drama Criminal Minds: Beyond Borders dedicated an episode to this sunny island.

The show, as its name suggests, is a spin-off of the hit Criminal Minds series, where this time the FBI has an international response team, investigating crimes involving US citizens overseas.

This particular episode, titled Cinderella and the Dragon, is drawing attention for all wrong reasons, however, after it made its appearance online on April 12.

As seen in this article, which points out multiple inaccuracies, the episode played up excessively the exoticised orientalist characteristics that make Singapore look more like a shady Chinatown than a cosmopolitan city.

In fact, any Singaporean viewer would start to barf minutes into the show, as a “Singaporean proverb” flashes on the screen….. which, as any Singaporean would know, is complete utter BS.

Screenshot via CBS website

Yes, sure, history pertaining to piracy did have some relevance to early Singapore, but a quick google search suggests that it’s more likely to be Greek.

The use of stock footage (which thankfully, is shot in Singapore) didn’t really help much either when it came to the actual scenes. The airport looks… nothing like our Changi Airport at all.

Screenshot via CBS website

We won’t reveal spoilers, but Geylang was mentioned. Cue the usual description about it being a red-light district and an “overcrowded slum with a thriving underworld”.

Uh, Geylang deserves a better description than “overcrowded slum”. Don’t forget the good food while you’re at it, too.

Screenshot via CBS website

Speaking of good food, quick footage featuring Gluttons by the Bay was shown — while the team was supposedly in Geylang. Hello, Geylang and Esplanade are very different places okay?

Furthermore, where in Singapore would you find outdoor food vendors cooking wok hey like this, accompanied by seedy, red lighting and tacky red lanterns?

Screenshot via CBS website
Screenshot via CBS website
Screenshot via CBS website

If that wasn’t bad enough, the people who play Singaporean characters in the episode are, unsurprisingly, not Singaporean.

One of the police officers, Senior Station Inspector Cheong, was played by a Hong Kong-American actor Tzi Ma (who has acted in 24, Rush Hour and Once Upon a Time) who tried to sound Singaporean but ended up lapsing more into Cantonese-accented English.

It was not as odd as his character Cheong speaking to his fellow policemen in Mandarin, though. Other supposedly Singaporean characters also spoke in this “native” language to each other, which didn’t even sound close to the kind that we speak.

Screenshot via CBS website
Screenshot via Hardware’s Forum

Coupled with stereotypical Chinese music, suddenly, their version of Singapore went from hilariously campy to a big, healthy dose of WTF.

Screenshot via Hopeily’s Twitter
Screenshot via CBS website

Simply put, they tried to replicate the feel of Singapore without ever stepping into the country – and that turned out horribly. The plot twist nearly didn’t matter anymore.

Why they never do their homework ah? 

It’s probably fair enough to say that not enough research has been done on the part of the producers. It’s also revealing, however, how little is understood of Singapore on an international level.

This is why many of our friends in the US still think we’re part of China, and are genuinely amazed by the fact that we speak good English.

Many of us are getting tired of explaining to them that yes, we are 1) not in China, 2) we comprise of many people of different races and religions, not just Chinese and Mandarin-speakers; 3) Yes, we speak English. Nearly everyone does.


Given the advent of globalisation, surely everyone has heard of Singapore being mentioned somewhere before in the media.

However, those small references to our country, a quick Google search of Singapore and articles here and there cannot compare to the decades of the US’ culture that has dominated mainstream media.

There’s an article that aptly describes this — the fact that we don’t need to be an academic expert on the US to innately have that cultural context within us.

We navigate through their popular culture with much ease, we know their celebrities and their politicians, and their superheroes are our superheroes too. Our kids have memorised the lines to their Disney’s Frozen and voraciously rewatch Zootopia, and ordering drinks at Starbucks doesn’t feel like an (ironically) foreign concept. We get the inside jokes and their memes, like the link between Michael Bay and his explosions in his movies.

What about Singapore in the consciousness of citizens in the US, though?

Once we’ve gotten Michael Fay and canning out of the way, you can tick one where applicable: the Merlion, chicken rice, cleanliness, the chewing gum ban, lack of free speech and strict governance and efficiency. Perhaps they might know Lee Kuan Yew, Lee Hsien Loong or Joseph Schooling… and little else unless they are well-travelled to our neck of the woods.

Screenshot via CBS website
Screenshot via CBS website

All these which are, unfortunately, only bits and bobbles of a more complex historical and cultural make-up of a land called Singapore.

Of course, it’s not saying that entertainment programmes offer the most accurate picture of the US as a whole; CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, Law and Order and Ally McBeal aren’t exactly 100 percent faithful to the crime and justice system in the US, for example.

That being said, at least they were believable in their narrative, not some silly old Western flick with revolvers and cowboy boots.

Homework to be done

We can’t blame our friends from the US for not knowing everything about Singapore if they have not gone out of the way to do their research or have not travelled here before.

This is no excuse for producing an entire 40-minute episode on Singapore without proper research, however. This is because the presence of our country and culture is so heavily invested in the narrative, and a good part of the viewers are — you guessed it — Singaporeans.

We get it, production costs may have prevented actual filming from taking place in Singapore itself, but at the very least feedback on the episode’s development could have been gathered from locals, or even better, hiring Singaporean actors to play the role of the Singaporean characters.

In conclusion, there are two rather apt lines to quote from the actual episode itself.

Screenshot via CBS website
Screenshot via CBS website

Indeed, Criminal Minds, Singapore deserves a much, much more accurate portrayal than what was presented.

We’re happy to know Singapore is featured, but you could use a few episodes of local crime dramas and Crimewatch to up your authenticity game. Seriously.

H/T: Geek Culture

Top image via CBS

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