Sunday 4 March 2012

Have you heard of The Great Singapore Penis Panic of 1967?

After the recent death of one of our country’s founding fathers, Dr Toh Chin Chye, there was some kvetching about how members of the younger generation don’t know enough about Singapore’s past.

Although my membership card to “the younger generation” has long expired, I realise that I, too, don’t know enough about Singapore’s past.

I came to this realisation last week when I chanced upon a news story on the Internet (where else?) about the books shortlisted for the Diagram Prize for Oddest Book Title of the Year.

One of those shortlisted is a book called The Great Singapore Penis Panic And The Future of American Mass Hysteria, published last year.

The Great Singapore what?

Is this some sort of a twisted tongue-twister? (Peter Piper picked a peck of panicked Singapore penises.)

Is this even a real book?

I went to Amazon and there it was for US$9.99 (S$14) - with an awful Oriental cover that looks like it was designed by Charlie Chan in collaboration with Fu Manchu. Was Suzie Wong too busy?

According to the Amazon book description:
“(In 1967), a strange series of events unfolded on the island of Singapore.

“Hundreds of men rushed to the hospitals with the terrifying belief that their penises were shrinking.

“Each feared that if his penis shrank away completely, he would die.

“Some came with lucky red strings tightly wrapped around their penises to prevent the lethal disappearance. Others had clamps holding their wayward organs in place.

“Most often it was a firm grasp of a hand, their own or a frightened family member's, that prevented the shrinking penis from slipping away and taking their life with it.

“Oddly enough, about a dozen women also fell victim to the panic.

“This was the Great Singapore Penis Panic, or what doctors refer to as an epidemic of the psychiatric condition called Koro.”
Is this for real? It sounds like a David Cronenberg movie from the 70s but with more phallic symbolism.

The book is written by Dr Scott Douglas Mendelson, an American psychiatrist living in Oregon. (So that’s why they're called shrinks!)

His previous books, Beyond Alzheimer's: How To Avoid The Modern Epidemic of Dementia and Metabolic Syndrome And Psychiatric Illness: Interactions, Pathophysiology, Assessment & Treatment, are both non-fiction.

Which suggests that, yes, the Great Singapore Penis Panic of 1967 actually happened.

This was confirmed when I found a Straits Times article dated Nov 5 1967 with the headline “A strange malady hits Singapore men and the SMA steps in”.

SMA stands for Singapore Medical Association, so it must be serious.

In the article, SMA warned that “considerable injury may be done to the male organ consequent upon extreme methods used in withholding the organ from its mistaken retraction”.


How come as a Singaporean, I was never taught this in school? It would've certainly been more useful to know than trigonometry.

I can mistakenly feel my organ retracting at this very moment.

(It was believed that eating pork was a cause of this retraction. I used to wonder why my father refused to touch the meat. Now after all these decades, I may have finally found out why.)

I think every man in the world should be informed of this “malady”.

That’s why as a service to mankind, we need to help publicise this book by making it the Diagram Prize winner.

So I implore you, dear readers, go to and vote for The Great Singapore Penis Panic as the oddest book title of the year. (UPDATE: Voting is closed.)

The other contenders are:

The winner will be announced on March 30.

Previous winners include The Big Book Of Lesbian Horse Stories and Living With Crazy Buttocks. Last year's winner was Managing a Dental Practice: The Genghis Khan Way.

So how does Dr Mendelson feel about being shortlisted?

He wrote this comment on the Diagram Prize web page: “I humbly offer my thanks for being nominated... I had sought a title to prick the ears of the reading public, to penetrate their imagination. Thus, your recognition serves as a rewarding climax to my efforts.”

No, thank you, doc, for the stimulating Singapore history lesson.

And readers, don't forget to vote. The ball's in your court.

- Published in The New Paper, 4 March 2012

READ: Interview with Dr Mendelson

UPDATE: The Great Singapore Penis Panic loses Diagram Prize


Ahh the Great Singapore Penis Panic.

I have so many fond memories of this and I was impossibly pleased when it made the papers. Finally something exciting was happening in plain old vanilla Singapore.

Surprisingly, this was actually a real and serious thing back in the day. If I remember correctly, it was not an exclusively Singaporean thing - it originated in Japan and was widespread in many Asian countries including Malaysia, Thailand, the Philipines and even India.

My neighbour, from when I used to live in Ang Mo Kio, told me that one fine unsuspecting day he noticed that his penis was considerably smaller after a shower.

By bedtime it had apparently retracted all the way until there was only a nub where his penis used to be - or so he says at least. When he told me I laughed so hard I almost died.

He became visibly upset and claimed that this was a legitimate medical condition and my inexcusable behaviour was no different from laughing at a handicapped person. I'm not sure how it panned out after that.

I saw him recently though at some coffee shop by chance about 20 years later with his family including grandchildren.

I could not resist but ask him how his penis was doing in front of his family.

He looked pretty pissed and muttered something about a succubus before ignoring me and returning to his Kueh Teow.

Oh how me and his grandkids laughed.

Uncle Alex chew