We should have been proud when it was announced that Singapore was the first Asian city to host the prestigious le Dîner en Blanc (Dinner in White). But instead some ugly behavior turned what should have been a congenial get together in the spirit of friendship and fine dining, into a furor over elitism and national pride. Why all the hullabaloo over an event that seems innocuous? Let’s examine what went wrong to see why le Dîner en Blanc was turned into a pariah in the Singaporean eye.
“No to local food” A timeline
Controversy over Dîner en Blanc only erupted when food blogger Daniel Ang was asked to remove his suggestion that Singaporean attendees bring local white foods in keeping with the white theme of the occasion. Mr Ang was subsequently also uninvited (link) for making the suggestion. Other food bloggers also had their invites rescinded (link) after the organizers unceremoniously booted Mr Ang from the event. The organizers claimed that local Singaporean foods were not permitted (link) to be brought for consumption during the picnic. The bloggers fought back by airing what had transpired calling for public solidarity against this affront to our national apetites and that was the beginning of the Dîner en Blanc public relations disaster
The next plot twist surfaced the weekend before the actual dinner. Thox the public relations firm for the Singaporean arm of Dîner en Blanc announced that it had parted ways with the organizers due to a misalignment of views (link).
Then came the discovery that the facebook page (note the page has since been restored after Dîner en Blanc was finished) for Dîner en Blanc had been shut down because it had become too inundated with angry posts from Singaporeans seeking to repudiate the slight (link) that they felt that our collective consciousness had been dealt with by the organizers.
The organizers then tried to make amends by explaining that a miscommunication (link) caused the entire firestorm to spiral out of control but it was too little too late…at least for the rest of the Singaporean internet community. Boycotts had been called for (link) and counter events were in the pipeline (link). The defiance exhibited by Singaporeans was exhilarating and the righteous fury of the masses would not be denied. Makan Day and Superwhite (link) sounded the clarion calls for a stand against food elitism and our people whole heartedly answered the call to action. The anticipation for the day of vindication for our makan palette was at an all time high.
August 30th rolled around without much fanfare. Dîner en Blanc came and went on that evening without much fanfare. Sure the media were on hand to cover it thanks to all the negative publicity but it was the standard boiler plate public relations tripe (link).
Except for the wedding proposal that happened on its site (link) Dîner en Blanc basically felt sterile and could not shed its elitist vibes. Maybe this was what the people behind the viral picnic had intended in the first place?
Why you may ask? Because despite the organizers apologizing for their gaffe (link) and allowing local fair, the event was still an invite only event: Meaning if you were not invited to their exclusive soiree you still could not get to participate. Also of note: the dress code of all white attire…given the social context within Singapore is a poor, poor choice. White attire in Singapore is too closely associated with the PAP political party and has in recent times become a polarizing symbol. Yes, the name of the dinner party is Dîner en Blanc but you would think that the people behind it would have put more thought into perhaps bending the rules a little in an effort to appear more inclusive.
Opening the picnic up to all Singaporeans instead of keeping it as an invite only event would also have gone a long way towards defusing tensions and making amends. As it stands, it was pretty obvious that the other counter events were better received (link) because the organizers tapped into the one thing that could unify Singapore: The sense of community that comes from the Singaporean gourmand experience. We are a nation of food loving and food appreciating people and we do have a sophisticated palette despite how some people may see us. If local fare served in the hawker centers is good enough for world renowned chefs such as Anthony Bourdain and Rick Bayless then it surely would be good enough for the would be foodies behind Dîner en Blanc.
Ultimately le Dîner en Blanc did indirectly fulfill its original intention: To be an occasion to bring people together to forge new friendships. The only thing was that the Dîner en Blanc organizers did not plan on their event being the catalyst that brought people together in solidarity in their scorn for the elitist dismissal of the bread of the common man.