All the shades of Lee Hsien Loong
by Isabella Chua
If clothes make the man, what can we tell from our Prime Minister’s shirt colours?
During Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s fifth address on COVID-19, something blue caught the nation’s attention.
It wasn’t his blue cup, a source of memes for its language-changing abilities, but his blue shirt.
What made his clothing choice noteworthy was that the Prime Minister of Singapore is known for his eclectic pink shirts. Why blue now? It was anyone’s guess, making it rich fodder for speculation. Was it to show solidarity with blue-collar workers? To signal that he means business?
The buzz surrounding PM Lee’s shirt colour speaks to the power of political dressing. Historically, politicians have used clothes to communicate their personal image. While typically the purview of female politicians—whose sartorial choices could expand beyond the traditional suit-and-tie ensemble—the men are getting in on the game too.
From Jokowi’s red-checkered shirt to Xi Jinping’s white button-down shirt, male politicians are loosening their neckties and rolling up their sleeves to appear more like the common man.
This brings us back to PM Lee. Compared to his predecessors, PM Lee projects a softer, more amicable governance style. He’s known for his strong selfie game with diplomats and undergraduates alike, and as the adorkable statesman who shared his Sudoku-solver’s source code.
Pink shirts may be a part of that curated image. At a Q&A, PM Lee clarified that he wears pink shirts often because his TV producer tells him to. Whatever the reason, we now know that his choice of shirt colours isn’t random.
With that, let’s do a little sleuthing to find out if PM Lee's wearing blue in his 21 April COVID-19 national address holds any significance. We collected data of all shirt colours worn during PM Lee’s speeches; in cases where he wore a patterned shirt, we picked the dominant shirt colour.
Turns out, he mostly wears white, although pink comes in a close second.
White makes a logical popular choice given its universality. He usually opts for white shirts over dark suits. Shirts with organisational affiliations, such as “Clean & Green Singapore”, typically use white as their base colour. Of course, it’s also the ruling party’s colour of choice, symbolising purity and integrity.
Nonetheless, there are a few reasons why we associate pink with PM Lee. Not only does he consistently sport a pink shirt, he also mixes it up with different shades of pink.
The year 2015 was an especially colourful one for PM Lee, and the public noticed. It was when online murmurings of his penchant for pink shirts began, which eventually crescendoed when someone asked him in a Facebook live chat why he always wears pink shirts.
In any shade, pink is a striking colour in itself, and even more so on a male politician. And while this isn’t hard science, according to colour psychology, pink has a calming effect on people, leading to feel-good vibes.
Taken together, these make pink a memorable colour.
Considering his history of pink shirts—which he wore for his previous four COVID-19 national addresses—PM Lee’s choice of a blue shirt at his address on 21 April stands out. To tease out its significance, we isolated the speeches in which he wore blue and categorised them by event type.
Generally, wearing blue is quite common for PM Lee. He often pairs a blue dress shirt with a dark suit, or tie, when giving celebratory speeches at anniversary dinners, attending book launches, or representing Singapore at overseas events.
On the rare times he wears blue to address Singapore, they tend to be about matters of national importance. We see this in his 21 April COVID-19 address, in which he announced the extension of the circuit breaker period to 1 June 2020. The first time he wore a navy blue polo shirt was to deliver a speech in memory of his father, Mr Lee Kuan Yew. One month later, his ministerial statement over the 38 Oxley Road saga marked the colour’s second appearance.
So, it made sense that people felt concerned when he appeared on their screens wearing blue.
But that’s not all.
What made PM Lee’s get-up even more unusual was that he paired it with a blue tie. After distilling the data further to instances when he wore a blue shirt and blue tie, we found that this was his first time wearing that combination for a national address.
At the risk of sounding like we’re overanalysing a literary text, PM Lee might have worn blue to calm us down after previous episodes of panic buying. After all, blue is commonly associated with tranquil elements like the sky and ocean, and it is widely seen as a calming colour.
That said, all this is conjecture.
We’ll never know the real reasons behind PM Lee’s colour choices.
And that’s alright, for PM Lee’s clothing choices have bestowed us with the gift of distraction.
Pondering his choice in shirts and ties offers a much-needed break from the state of the world today. For a brief, blissful moment, our minds are occupied by theories about his blue shirt rather than, say, when the pandemic will blow over. Maybe this is silly escapism, but at this point, we imagine most people wouldn’t mind.
Now, what colour will PM Lee wear the day the circuit breaker lifts?
Isabella loves to dig beyond what is ‘commonsensical’ or ‘natural’ to us, by looking at the larger forces (or even accidents), that may have structured these beliefs. A writer at Kontinentalist, she's particularly interested in social issues—religion, crime, identity, and food. While she strives to stay curious about the world by listening to podcasts and taking classes, she's happiest when eating pastries, cakes, and drinking tea.