CREATIVITY IN SINGAPORE
CREATIVITY IN SINGAPORE
Hello and welcome to 72Voices Singapore! When we opened our doors on Duxton Hill in January 2018, we wanted to understand what it means to create in Singapore today. From the outside, the red dot is renowned for its commercial successes, skyscrapers, Crazy Rich Asians ;-) and high standards of modern living, but Singapore’s not always famed as a creative nation. We wanted to use this as an opportunity to get to know and understand Singapore’s creative community from the inside. So we sat down and chatted with 72 of the island’s most interesting makers, thinkers, commentators and shapers. They span a vast range of ages, interests and industries, in order to give us a nuanced and thought-provoking picture of the state of creativity in Singapore today. We asked them 15 questions to get the conversation going, covering everything from their personal creative journey, to their predictions of what Singapore might look like in the near future. This book captures those conversations in 10 chapters, each focusing on a discrete theme that arose from the discussions, thoughts and opinions of our Voices, plus a little analysis on our part, that we wanted to share with you too. Massive thanks to all our 72 Voices for their time, support and insights and the entire team at 72andSunny Singapore who pulled together to make this possible. Finally, a special thanks to you too, for picking this up and flicking through it, we really hope you have as much fun reading it as we did writing it. Enjoy. And if you’d like to chat just drop us a note at: email@example.com
P. 40 ONE ISLAND, MULTIPLE SINGAPORES How do all our realities form part of our national narrative?
P. 92 SINGAPORE AT A CROSSROADS What do the next 50 years look like? For us and for creativity?
P.12 CREATIVITY VERSUS LOGIC IN SINGAPORE Are we right-brained or left-brained?
P. 48 SINGAPORE IN THREE WORDS
P. 104 TENSION WANTED! How can we sustain creativity if we donâ€™t have to struggle?
P. 30 MADE IN SINGAPORE How do we relate to and understand our creative community?
P. 66 THE SINGAPOREAN WAY Success is one way only! What does that mean for creativity?
P. 82 SPACE TO BE CREATIVE Do we have the physical or mental space to be creative?
P. 116 OUR FOODâ€”AS DIVERSE AS WE ARE What would Singaporeans fight for?
P.126 FINAL THOUGHTS
P. 22 THE POWER OF SMALL How does our size affect who we are, and our creativity?
AARON KOH Co-founder of GOVT ADRIANNA TAN Founder of WOBE and The Gyanada Foundation AGNES KWEK Design Ambassador AMANDA CHONG Lawyer and Poet ANGJOLIE MEI Funeral Director of The Life Celebrant AUN KOH Founder of Straits Clan & Chairman of Pangdemonium Theatre Company CAROLYN KAN Founder of Carrie K CHARLIE LIM Singer Songwriter & Producer CHOO YILIN CEO & Head of Storytelling, Choo Yilin CLARA YEE Co-founder of In The Wild CLIFFORD WONG Tattoo Artist DANE LIM Former Director, Marketing & Communications Division at EDB Singapore DANIEL ANG Founder of Danielâ€™s Food Diary DANNY TAN CEO of HipVan DARRELL ANG Conductor DARREN TAN DJ & Co-founder of Vinyl of The Day DARYL YAM Author & Arts Organiser DILLAH ZAKBAH Creative Technologist DR MARC CALAUNAN Founder of Healing Hands DYLAN AND MUMMY SOH One Kind Future and One Kind Mother
ELYN WONG Creative Director of Stolen FRED YAP Businessman GEORGINA KOH Co-founder of nana & bird GLEN GOEI Co-artistic Director of W!LD RICE KANE TAN, JULENE AW, SVEN TAN & JACLYN TEO Co-founders of IN GOOD COMPANY JACKSON AW Founder of Mightyjaxx JACKY LEE Director JACQUELINE CHANG Founder of PREP & Photographer JANICE KOH Actor JERRI NG Editor-In-Chief of InStyle China JIEZHEN WU Executive Director & #girlboss of The Hidden Good JOAN HUANG Founder of Center Pottery JON CHAN Singer Songwriter JOVIAN LIM Photographer JOY TAN Style Architect KENNY LECK Co-founder of BooksActually LINYING Singer Songwriter LISHAN SOH Co-founder & Managing Director of AGENCY LOUIS NG Founder of ACRES & Member of Parliament LUANNE POH Director of The Ground Co. Limited MAE TAN Creative Director of Surrender MAK CK Documentary Filmmaker
MALVINA KANG Founder of Hom Yoga & Mini Glow Yoga Club MARK LAW Photographer MARK TAN Founder of Rice Media MAXINE NG Tattoo Artist MIKE FOO AND SHANNON ONG Co-founders of Wood In The Books MINDY TAN Photographer MORGAN YEO First Son of Roger&Sons NATALIE KWEE Illustrator & Founder of Festive Folks NELSON NG Publisher & Art Director PHILIP MAN Head of Experience Strategy & Design of GovTech QIXUAN LIM Designer & Artist RENN & AIRA LIM Brother & Sister Duo, One half of Family Art Collective, Holycrap.sg RISHI BUDHRANI Comedian & Actor RONNIE LIEW RCS Lead, APAC SAM LO Founder of Project XIV SERENA TANG Founder of nanatang SONNY LIEW Comic Writer & Artist SPEAK CRYPTIC Artist STEVE LAWLER Artist, Curator & Creative Director SU-ANNE MI Co-founder & COO of The Great Room
TAN YANG ER Art Director, Photographer & Artist TANIA CHAN Marketing & Communications Director of The Lo & Behold Group TELL YOUR CHILDREN Creative Studio TERESA LIM Embroidery Artist & Illustrator TINA FUNG Experiential Designer VANESSA KENCHINGTON Founder & Owner of Plain Vanilla VANESSA PARANJOTHY Founder of Freedom Cups VERENA TAY Writer, Storyteller & Theatre Practitioner YANLING MA Company Manager of Centre 42 & Performer YILIAN NG Founder of Yi Lian Ng Floral Atelier
ARE WE RIGHT-BRAINED OR LEFT-BRAINED?
WE DON’T JUST HAVE THE AMBITIONS, BUT THE ABILITY TO REALLY MAKE SOMETHING. Agnes Kwek
I THINK OUR CREATIVITY COMES NOT IN TERMS OF THE VISUAL ARTS, BUT MAYBE IN TERMS OF GETTING CREATIVE WITH LOGIC… THAT IS THE SINGAPOREAN WAY TO WORK AROUND AND SEE BEYOND CHARTS, IT IS OUR VERY QUEER KIND OF CREATIVITY. WE NEED THE BOX, TO THINK OUTSIDE THE BOX. Mindy Tan
CREATIVITY VS. LOGIC IN SINGAPORE
You don’t have to look very far to get a sense of Singapore’s achievements. The glass and steel façade of slick modernity, the second highest GDP per capita in Asia and a diverse, yet harmonious urban society that, from the outside, seems to function almost effortlessly . Oh and of course, the world’s best airport . But beyond this gleaming exterior, what does creativity and originality look like here? Can Singapore be creative? How do we define creativity? To find out, we tracked down 72 of the most creative people living and working in Singapore today and asked them. Unsurprisingly, they had a lot to say. This first chapter aims to unpick their responses and set out not just what creativity looks like in Singapore today, but also gain an understanding of Singapore’s unique flavour of creativity, which some of our Voices argued is globally distinctive. 1
1 CIA World Factbook (2018) https://www.cia.gov/library/ publications/the-world-factbook/ rankorder/2004rank.html 2 Channel News Asia (2018) https:// www.channelnewsasia.com/news/ singapore/harmony-betweendifferent-races-religions-fundamentalprinciple--7938502 3 Skytraxx (2018) http://www. worldairportawards.com/awards/ worlds_best_airport.html
Even our proud and vocal creative community acknowledged that Singapore has overwhelmingly rational tendencies. One Voice almost sheepishly admitted ‘It is true, we have a DNA of pragmatism.’ Dane Lim This ‘DNA’ runs deep for many of us, starting at childhood: ’Everything is instructions and stepby-step. First, you do this, next, you do this. Everyone goes one by one, no creativity, certainly not in school. Many of us grow up in quite a boring way.’ Serena Tang And it permeates our entire world view: ‘Left-brained is how we were brought up. It is the whole system.’ Daniel Ang This left-brained upbringing and ‘system’ is reinforced at a macro level in our society: ‘We are a nation run by engineers and ministers. Very few studied literature at university. We run so efficiently because we are run by engineers.’ Glen Goei But other Voices we spoke to believe that this pragmatic and logical side to Singapore actually has more fundamental roots. Singapore is a goal-oriented and purposeful nation that is driven by the desire to improve, not simply by creative whims. ‘We don’t just do things for the hell of it, it’s always towards a goal. That leads to a very efficient society, which is how we have built what we have in the last 50 years.’ Vanessa Kenchington Indeed, this rational and driven aspect of Singapore should not be something we feel less proud of, but something we should celebrate and a quality that has been integral to our successes to date. ‘We are left-brained and we can boast the biggest economic miracle of the 20th century. We have gotten there through being analytical, orderly, logical, science-focused and pragmatic.’ Vanessa Paranjothy
Drawing: Charlie Lim
‘SINGAPORE IS LEFT-BRAINED LAH. LEFT UNTIL CANNOT LEFT’Daniel Ang
FIGHTING FOR OUR SURVIVAL
At only 53 years old, the founding of Singapore as an independent nation state and the precarious way in which the country was formed has left a deep impression on us, and the way we think and behave. ‘Singapore is very left-brained. I think it is due to the importance of the country’s survival.’ Nelson Ng One respondent clarified, ‘We are left brain for sure. It’s the result of a post-war economy, a fear of becoming irrelevant.’ Mark Tan But it’s not just history. Geography has also defined us. ‘I think for sure we are more left brain. We have been brought up to be more pragmatic in our approach and in terms of how we live. It is the nature of living in a vulnerable geographical position. We have to be very tactful with what we say to our neighbours. That atmosphere brings a pragmatic mindset driven by problem solving.’ Jon Chan An urgency to prove ourselves as an independent nation, striving to establish Singapore on the map, and safeguard a future for our nation has meant that ‘As a small nation, we are surrounded by circumstances, constraints, and influences. There is a consciousness that the solutions we develop must serve real immediate needs and that creativity comes with a purpose.’ Dane Lim This fixation on nation building has influenced not just the nation’s trajectory, but many young people’s lives, choices and career paths too. ‘In the past, in universities, everything revolved around engineering or finance because Singapore feels we need people with these skill sets. Things are all very logic-based. We were just trying to survive.’ Ronnie Lim
CREATIVITY VS. LOGIC IN SINGAPORE
CREATIVITY TO ME IS NOT ABOUT PUTTING PAINT TO PAPER OR BEING ABLE TO SKETCH BECAUSE LORD KNOWS I SUCK AT DRAWING. FOR ME IT IS BEING OPEN-MINDED AND ALWAYS TRYING TO MAYBE TAKE A PATH THAT IS LESS TRAVELLED TO FIND SOLUTIONS THAT ARE PERHAPS UNEXPECTED. WHAT'S INTERESTING IS FINDING INNOVATIVE SOLUTIONS TO SOLVE PROBLEMS. Tania Chan
CREATING A COUNTRY FROM SCRATCH
It is precisely the history of Singapore, the incredible trajectory over the past 53 years that means that some of our respondents were ready to defend Singapore’s capacity to be creative. ‘Creating something from nothing is very much in our history and in our legacy. This country came out of nowhere. So, in that sense our roots are quite creative, but we’re also pragmatic.’ Lishan Soh There’s a specific variety of creativity that defines Singapore and tangible examples of this can be found in very practical yet original solutions across the city state. ‘Be it the airport, our water, our solutions to overcoming shortages of water, or looking at the whole city as a garden — these are extremely right brain creativity. It is about daring to dream of answers that weren’t there before. And also not just blindly taking answers from overseas but being able to contextualise it to what is right for us.’ Agnes Kwek In the Singapore of 2018, the boldness and bravery of many innovative solutions that the creative community referred to have deep roots: ‘Deep down there is an entrepreneurial and creative side. Look at previous generations who sailed from China to Singapore with nothing. Had they not had that entrepreneurial spirit to leave their family behind, their future would never be the same. If you dig far back enough, definitely there are roots of the right brain and us being entrepreneurial adventurers.’ Danny Tan Putting aside debates over which specific aspect of our history has had the biggest impact on us, it is clear that through meeting challenges and facing adversity that Singapore rose to explore alternative paths. ‘Singapore is an extremely creative place. Having been birthed out of the chaos of WWII and the subsequent merger and separation, we have always had to find new ways to deal with our status quo.’ Vanessa Paranjothy ‘My Mum used to live on a Kampong and they caught chicken. It was a very different experience, a whole different world. That is the mindset instilled in us as a country.’ Linying
IF YOU DIG FAR BACK ENOUGH, DEFINITELY THERE ARE ROOTS OF THE RIGHT BRAIN AND US BEING ENTREPRENEURIAL ADVENTURERS. Danny Tan
WE’RE NEITHER RIGHT-BRAINED OR LEFT-BRAINED. BECAUSE WE’RE QUITE COMFORTABLE IN BEING SPOON-FED SO WE JUST DO THINGS ACCORDINGLY. BUT WE ALSO WANT TO BE CREATIVE, WE WANT TO BE PART OF THE WORLD THAT IS CREATIVE. Kenny Leck
I THINK WE ARE VERY LEFT-BRAINED. IT IS REALLY BECAUSE WE DON’T HAVE THE BALLS TO LAUGH AT OURSELVES, TO BE UNCOMFORTABLE OR PUT OURSELVES IN A SITUATION THAT FORCES CONVERSATION. Dillah Zakbah
‘BEYOND THE STEREOTYPE’
BECAUSE WE’RE MULTICULTURAL WE ADOPT TRAITS OF OTHER COUNTRIES… WE INTERNALISE THINGS AND WE EXPLODE. I DON’T KNOW THE ANSWER TO LEFT BRAIN OR RIGHT BRAIN, BUT I THINK THAT WE HAD TO BE MORE OF ONE SIDE THE FIRST 30 YEARS OF OUR COUNTRY’S LIFE TO SUCCEED. BUT NOW IT’S KIND OF LIKE, WHAT ARE WE RALLYING FOR? DO WE NOT HAVE A VISION ANYMORE, OR DRIVE? AND NOW PEOPLE ARE EXPLORING THEIR CREATIVE SIDES… Aun Koh
CREATIVITY VS. LOGIC IN SINGAPORE
Drawing: Speak Cryptic
Malvina Kang Many Voices we spoke to railed against the notion that ‘left’ and ‘right’ brain are two opposite sides to creative ability. They felt that this distinction was not necessarily meaningful, or something that could feasibly be applied to Singapore. Of course Singaporeans seem pragmatic, but at a macro level we also dream big. ‘If you zoom out of those individual interactions [to] look at the country as a whole, what you are going to see is actually a lot of ambitious thinking. And finding answers for ourselves in a world of constraints that weren’t there before, and that is super right brain.’ Agnes Kwek Rather than Singapore being pigeonholed as one or the other, the reality is that Singapore is both left and right-brained and this is actually a more natural state. ‘Left brain and right brain is a medical misconception. The body uses both brains differently and equally’ Jon Chan because after all, ‘You need both parts to survive.’ Tell Your Children Not only is using both left and right brain together more ‘natural’, arguably it leads to better results such as ‘finding new possibilities and different solutions to existing problems. It’s about asking the right questions, not getting an A in art.’ Jiezhen Wu In fact, when creativity is at its best, it is ‘about problem-solving to a certain extent. And that’s what good design is about — creating fresh solutions to old problems.’ Carolyn Kan This is where Singapore excels, from reclaiming land that was once ocean, creating a city within a garden, to working out how to turn wastewater into freshwater. It is the sheer ability to problem-solve imaginatively, to apply original and creative thinking to the creation of tangible solutions that marks Singapore out as a nation with a unique and heady approach to creative thinking and an ability to combine left and rightbrained thinking to impressive ends. ‘Singapore is a nation by design — we weren’t supposed to exist. Everything around us and all the answers we have discovered, they are really by design.’ Agnes Kwek
Drawing: Kevin Too of Tell Your Children
IF YOU LOOK AT OUR COUNTRY AS A PROJECT, OR A CONCEPT… IT IS REALLY CREATIVE. SINGAPORE IS A PIECE OF ART ON ITS OWN.
CREATIVITY VS. LOGIC IN SINGAPORE
HOW DOES OUR SIZE AFFECT WHO WE ARE AND OUR CREATIVITY?
WE ARE SMALL AND WE CAN BE INSULARâ€”SO SOMETIMES WE ARE TONE-DEAF TO THE WORLD. Yi Lian Ng
I THINK SINGAPORE’S BIGGEST STRENGTH AND IT’S BIGGEST WEAKNESS IS THE SAME THING—ITS SIZE; THE SMALL-NESS. Natalie Kwee
THE POWER OF SMALL
As the 19th smallest country in the world and with the self-proclaimed nickname ‘Little Red Dot’, being small is something Singaporeans, creative or otherwise, can hardly overlook. In our 72 conversations, the new creative class in Singapore had mixed feelings towards their home country’s size. It was our final respondent that perhaps best summed up how Singapore’s diminutive size has both positive and negative implications: ‘We are very compact. We’re like a Swiss Army Knife. That’s very us. We try to be a lot of things—we succeed in some, we need some work in others.’ Qixuan Lim This chapter focuses on interrogating the up and downsides of being small, and how it impacts the creative process. BIG FISH, SMALL POND
For the creative community in Singapore, there is a sense that with a smaller group of people here, there is an increased number of opportunities to stand out and a greater potential to affect change. ‘I feel like it’s a case of big pond or small pond. Singapore is a small pond, but that gives you the opportunity to become a big fish. But at the end of the day, you’re still in a small pond. It’s a great place to meet people and become successful.’ Su-Anne Mi ‘You do anything and it is a ripple. You can cause something to happen. You see progress. But if you are a small fish in a big pond, nobody notices…’ Tan Yang Er
THAT KAMPONG SPIRIT
Some feel the heritage of Singapore’s small village communities such as working together and learning how to compromise and empathise with each other — is still true today in the creative community. ‘There is a bond between Singaporeans. Singapore is so small that really at its heart is a kampong spirit. When a Singaporean does well, you see all the Singaporeans cheering. We are very supportive of other locals. We have high standards but we are still supportive based on the fact that we are all Singaporeans.’ Tell Your Children It is the close ties between friends and neighbours that drive loyalty in this country that some say marks Singapore out as special. ‘At the end of the day, Singaporeans will fight for one another. If you say to fight for their country, it would turn some people off, but I do think that inherently because of its size, Singaporeans feel connected to the person next to them.’ Natalie Kwee
YOU DO ANYTHING AND IT IS A RIPPLE. YOU CAN CAUSE SOMETHING TO HAPPEN. YOU SEE PROGRESS. IF YOU ARE A SMALL FISH IN A BIG POND, NOBODY NOTICES... Tan Yang Er
Drawing: Dane Lim
There’s also a certain degree of manageability that a small country affords, which some believe the government has embraced, hence the ‘gardenin-a-city’ concept. ‘You see the roads are so wellmaintained — it looks like a garden because the National Parks plants trees literally everywhere. It’s impossible to do this in a country that is bigger. That’s one of the things that I really enjoy about Singapore. You drive down East Coast Park, it’s beautiful. Very well-manicured. That is unique. It’s only really possible in a small city.’ Mark Tan It’s not just a manageable size, but our size also affords a certain degree of creative licence or experimentation. ‘Singapore is set up in such a way that we can do things like socialist experiments. For example bike sharing or the scheme called Share An Umbrella. It makes sense because of the number of people we have here.’ Speak Cryptic However, some also questioned if there is more that can be done given Singapore’s size, especially when looking to larger countries that have taken more action towards changing society for the better. Some felt that Singapore was actually lagging behind. ‘Singapore sees itself as a model city or country for urban development — but I find it strange we haven’t done a lot of things (or enough!). For example, India has banned plastic bags but we seem not to be doing a lot of things which we could do. It feels strange that Singapore has not adopted a lot of things which seem controllable given its size.’ Sonny Liew
WE ARE JUST A VERY SMALL ISLAND. WE DEFINITELY CAN’T JUST STAY WITHIN THIS ISLAND —OTHER CULTURES HAVE SO MANY QUALITIES WE CAN LEARN FROM. Joan Huang
THE POWER OF SMALL
On the other hand, in our increasingly globalised 21st century world where populations of other Asian countries are over a billion, our Singaporean Voices were thinking ahead and reflecting on the place that Singapore occupies, and the likelihood of our survival. As Kenny Leck puts it bluntly, perhaps we need to consider that we might just be ‘too fucking small to survive.’ Kenny Leck Likelihood of survival aside, there were also concerns expressed around the limited size of the country and whether that can lead to a stale or suffocating environment. ‘Socially, you only have a few degrees of separation with people you know, so it’s difficult to meet new people. Social circles are really small here, it can get a little stifling.’ Mark Tan Where it can be hard to forge new ground and make a new name for yourself, ‘in a small country maybe the mistakes you made in high school will stick with you for the rest of your life.’ Phillip Man Some suggested that despite Singapore’s location in such a dynamic and interesting continent, there is the tendency for this country to be quite inward looking. ‘Singapore is so small you sometimes feel that you know it all.’ Natalie Kwee ‘We’re quite an insular community. You really don’t know a lot of things outside of Singapore. The kind of voice you have resonates amongst your social circle, but your social circle is maybe 500 people. And that is very different from people in Philippines, Indonesia, or Bangkok.’ Mark Tan Some felt too that perhaps there is a missed opportunity — rather than us continuing to reinforce that we are the country our neighbours can learn from, potentially we should ask ourselves what others can teach us. ‘We are just a very small island. We definitely can’t just stay within this island—other cultures have so many qualities we can learn from.’ Joan Huang
SINGAPORE IN A WAY IS SMALL BUT BEAUTIFUL, BOTH IN TERMS OF AESTHETICS AND HOW IT’S SO SURREAL THAT IN 50 YEARS AS AN INDEPENDENT STATE, WE HAVE ACHIEVED THIS MUCH—BOTH ECONOMICALLY AND THE STANDARD OF LIVING —IT IS BEAUTIFUL HOW FAR WE’VE COME. BUT WE’RE SCARED BECAUSE WE HAVE LOTS TO LOSE. THE WHOLE BEAUTIFUL BUBBLE COULD JUST POP… WE ARE A TINY ISLAND, HOW MUCH MORE CAN WE SUPPORT? Maxine Ng
Drawing: Jacky Lee
THE POWER OF SMALL
Some of our voices also expressed the concern that our geographical size has parallels with what worries and concerns us. ‘We will fight for filing taxes online, Changi Airport being number 1, for inconsequential things, not values.’ Dylan and Mummy Soh ‘Singaporeans fight for the littlest things — there are more important things to care about, things to provide constructive criticisms for. If we could step back a little and open our eyes, maybe we can fight for better things, such as the rights for wildlife, feminism, something bigger…’ Maxine Ng This also opens up the opportunity to fight for what we are passionate about — creativity. Whilst the community of people we spoke to were motivated and engaged in creativity, they did lament that perhaps this community is too small: ’It’s the same bunch of people interested in the Arts. It feels like a small, niche group. I’m not sure if it really does reach out to a wider audience.’ Sonny Liew That said, Sonny Liew argues that our size does not have to be an impediment to our achievements; that with the right funding and support, great things are possible, even in a small country and it is up to us to push on, regardless of our size. ‘We always talk about how Arts cannot thrive because there’s a lack of critical mass, right? The same thing in soccer — we don’t have the mass so we can’t produce world-class teams. But there are other small countries who have produced world-class teams like Uruguay SMALL YET MIGHTY and Iceland. That’s based on infrastructure support, Indeed, Singapore’s achievements since active promotion, and a nurturing environment. independence attest to the potential of such a In Singapore, you could argue that the same thing small country making a big impact. ‘Sometimes applies to both spheres. Without the willingness I don’t realise how small we are… Singapore to support the Arts or soccer in that sense, we are is smaller than London, so when you think about going to limit ourselves.’ Sonny Liew the idea of us creating so many things within that small little area, it’s mind-blowing. It’s quite cool that we have such amazing accomplishments within such a short history, for such a small size with so few people.’ Qixuan Lim ‘When people talk about Singapore in the movies, you know your country isn’t just a tiny dot on the the world map.’ Maxine Ng In fact, some Voices believe that it is precisely Singapore’s size that has guaranteed such success, and in fact, our size is our superpower. ‘Our strength and our weakness is the fact that we are small. You don’t have a lot of natural resources, but at the same time these are constraints you have to work within. It’s not easy to survive as a small nation—when you are so small it is like fighting with one hand’ Jacky Lee And undeniably our size and constraints directly impact and shape our creative abilities. ‘Slowly but surely, there is an emerging creative confidence in Singapore. This confidence is shaped by appreciating the constraints we have, such as the size of our domestic market, the more dominant cultures that have historically existed around us, and our openness to global cultures. This pushes us to make our work globally relevant, be open to working with others from around the world, and being comfortable with juxtapositions of cultures, identities and ideas.’ Dane lim Certainly our size marks us out, not only for our multiple achievements, but also as a place where we can experiment to grow and evolve. Small will continue to be a strength for us — provided we can see beyond the limitations and if we continue to embrace the unique perspective of our diminutive size but outsized achievements, offer us on the world stage.
SINGAPORE ONLY HAS PEOPLE, WE DONâ€™T HAVE ANYTHING ELSE. IT IS THE PEOPLE WHO BROUGHT SINGAPORE TO WHERE IT IS TODAY.
THE POWER OF SMALL
HOW DO WE RELATE TO, AND UNDERSTAND OUR CREATIVE COMMUNITY?
HOW DO I DEFINE CREATIVITY? I ALWAYS HAVE THIS SAYING, 一抄二用三研四发, FIRST YOU COPY, THEN YOU USE IT, THREE YOU START TO INNOVATE, FOUR YOU START TO CREATE YOUR OWN NOW. Angjolie Mei
WE EMBRACE CHANGE, BUT WE ARE FOLLOWERS, WE DONâ€™T LEAD THE CHANGE. Dillah Zakbah
GROWING UP YOU KNOW THEY TOLD US SINGLISH IS BAD, AND WE ALWAYS HAD THIS INFERIORITY COMPLEX. Charlie Lim
MADE IN SINGAPORE
We’ll be honest—we were surprised at how many of our 72 Voices have a mixed relationship both towards how Singaporeans en masse view their creative endeavours, and how they relate to the creative community. It was almost as if people felt for the first time they could explore their relationship with their collective creative selves. Albeit a small sample, we noticed immediately that this relationship with Singaporean creativity is fraught with complexity, nuance, skepticism and pride. A relationship, therefore, worth exploring in greater detail.
In such a small country, there is clearly a pressure to import, learn, listen and be inspired by other bigger cultural players. ‘Everything has been globalised — there is no support for local content anymore. Everyone goes to Uniqlo or Muji, watches Netflix or US media, listens to Rihanna or Cardi B. What about what we make on our own? With globalisation and technology, the floodgates have opened. I guess there is only really food that is locally made.’ Jovian Lim A number of our Voices expressed frustration and confusion that a majority of Singaporeans seem to prefer creative work from abroad: ‘Singaporeans don’t like to support Singaporeans. They support overseas people because they look down on Singaporeans. If you say that something is done by some foreign person, people will feel better about it. They’ll appreciate it more. ‘Oh you are so artistic’ — they will think differently, they will think you are good, just because you are from abroad.’ Serena Tang And some Voices suggest that today we only hold our own creators in high esteem if they succeed at a global level: ’If you look at Nathan Hartono… he is like the Michael Bublé of Singapore, but if he hadn’t been on The Voice of China, would anyone care? Whereas in Tokyo, it’s more a sense of work on your shit and be really good at it and be proud of it! If we had a bit more of that ethos we would be great.’ Charlie Lim For Qixuan Lim, there was a sense that this default self-deprecation is misplaced and it means we sometimes overlook the advantages of being from here: ’Singaporeans have a tendency to be a bit more critical about ourselves, and this also applies to the art scene. We always say that there is no culture and no activities, but the art scene is alive, there are many things going on. It’s quite cool being a Singaporean.’ Some of our Voices also felt that Singaporean creatives should utilise this sense of xenophilia to their advantage. ‘We seldom value our homegrown talent. Singaporean-made things are often seen as not as good. For creative people to survive, they usually have to make it big elsewhere before coming back home.’ Mark Law Others felt that times are changing — with a new sense of national pride and desire to support local, with this positive intention often expressed in the form of governmental support. ‘Singapore is a lot more creative now because of how the
SINGAPOREANS HAVE A TENDENCY TO BE A BIT MORE CRITICAL ABOUT OURSELVES, AND THIS ALSO APPLIES TO THE ART SCENE. Qixuan Lim
SINGAPORE IS A LOT MORE CREATIVE NOW BECAUSE OF HOW THE GOVERNMENT IS PUSHING, HIGHLIGHTING IT AND OPENING UP DOORS. Elyn Wong
MADE IN SINGAPORE
Drawing: Marc Calaunan
government is pushing, highlighting it and opening up doors. I personally have benefited a lot from it.’ Elyn Wong At the same time, with the access to international products, it can mean that local creatives struggle to keep up with the exacting standards of their fellow countrymen. ‘Instead of going for a cookie-cutter international brand, people are now seeking out local but it has to be of an international standard and it has to have a strong provenance, story, and quality craftsmanship. Because Singaporeans’ expectations are very high. You’ve got to make sure that your product has got both a story as well as craftsmanship, especially since things made and sold by a Singapore designer can be more expensive because there are no economies of scale.’ Carolyn Kan Furthermore, some of the Voices complained that Singaporeans don’t always appreciate their locally developed and made craft. ‘Singaporeans are more practical — they don’t see the difference, often because they don’t know. Singaporean clients are a bit safer compared to international clients because of the exposure of what exists — the lines between culture and commercial are very defined here.’ Tell Your Children This has resulted in some Singaporean makers feeling under pressure to educate their local customers. ‘It was tough for us at the start because people don’t really understand or appreciate craftsmanship. We were trying to hire and get a good team of Singaporeans so we were unable to compete with price. We really value the craftsmanship and the amount of effort put into our work, so it was difficult for us to be able to educate our local customers.’ Morgan Yeo
WE’RE ON A JOURNEY…
However, the above irritations notwithstanding, it was almost universally recognised that Singapore is a young country: ‘I have come to accept that I can’t compare Singapore to a city like London where I was for 10 years. Obviously Singapore is very young and fresh, all these things have grown organically and exceptionally fast.’ Tina Fung And, as Adrianna Tan points out, we aren’t just young, but we are coming of age. ‘I’d say what I like about our country is that it always feels like a work-in-progress, and it’s never finished. There’s always something more that we could be. It could go either way, right? It’s just like a construction, you can build a monstrosity, but you can also build a work of art. But until then, ‘it’s still being built.’ Adrianna Tan
TELL US MORE, ABOUT US…
Whilst the proliferation of international entertainment channels and platforms has descended upon Singapore in recent years from both the East (Korea, Japan, China, Thailand) and West (UK, Australia, USA), there is still space for Singaporeans to be told uniquely Singaporean stories. ‘For me it is about storytelling, telling our stories… the people we live with, it is not just my story, but the stories of our community.’ Glen Goei Several of our Voices reiterated that it is speaking and engaging with those who share circumstances or backgrounds with us that is key, with Jacqueline Chang lamenting the lack of this in Singaporean society: ‘I think the fastest way to learn anything in life is to speak to others around you. Despite our education, a lot of Singaporeans cannot share their heart and their mind properly. Running a hair salon has exposed me to many different stratas in society, and everyone needs to be more exposed to this.’ Jacqueline Chang This need for history to be re-lived and experienced on a local level doesn’t only insulate the creative scene in Singapore from outside influences, it also particularly protects the theatre community: ’In spite of Netflix, internet and the proliferation of entertainment, there is still a growing audience in Singapore for theatre. People want to hear their own stories because unlike other developed countries like England and America, the questions you are asking yourself as a Singaporean, you don’t get that on the TV or in films from Hollywood. But you do get it in the theatre — stories that reflect your community.’ Glen Goei
DESPITE OUR EDUCATION, A LOT OF SINGAPOREANS CANNOT SHARE THEIR HEART AND THEIR MIND PROPERLY. Jacqueline Chang
DO WE BELIEVE IN WHAT WE DO? DO WE ALLOW OURSELVES TO EXPERIMENT? DO WE ALLOW OURSELVES TO PLAY? WHEN ARE WE GOING TO CREATE STUFF THAT NOT ONLY INSPIRES US AS A NATION BUT ALSO INSPIRES OTHERS? Verena Tay
NO SHAME IN BORROWING
MADE IN SINGAPORE
When discussing creativity, there is a pressure on Singaporeans to feel as if they are the architects of the idea or the thought. However, this is not necessarily something Singapore can always claim, something that some feel uncomfortable about and believe therefore that ‘our creativity quotient is low, because we are often inspired from elsewhere and import it into Singapore. It feels like we are having creative concepts but I don’t think the creation happens here. We are good at borrowing ideas, very good at it, since the birth of our nation. So I would say we are enjoying the fruits of a creative environment but we are not the creators.’ Jovian Lim Some of our Voices shared how they felt the creative community across Singapore was not fully flexing its creative muscles or pushing the limits of what is possible: ‘We’re very set in our ways and we borrow a lot of our ideas from other places. A lot of what we see around us is very derivative from existing structures and different countries.’ Jon Chan But other Voices disagree — they feel proud of this pragmatic side to Singapore, and that we should not be afraid to acknowledge it. We must recognise that being creative in this part of the world serves a purpose and that is something powerful in and of itself. ‘We are very good borrowers. Taking stuff from elsewhere and making it our own.’ Jon Chan ‘We don’t have to pretend to be too original — there is no shame in copying. We should look around us and we can copy, but what we will do is we will make it better and adapt it to the local needs and to the time.’ Dane Lim
WILL SINGAPORE BECOME MORE ACCEPTING TO NICHE LOCAL CRAFT? I’VE BEEN HEARING A LOT OF POSITIVE OUTLOOK FOR THE CREATIVE SCENE HERE, BUT IT’S MAKING ME THINK IF WE’RE BEING TOO INSULAR? YOU CAN’T BE IN A BUBBLE. THE ACCESSIBILITY TO GENERAL PUBLIC STILL MUST EXIST.
MADE IN SINGAPORE
A LOT OF SINGAPOREANS FEEL THAT IF YOU HAVE MADE IT IN SINGAPORE, YOU HAVE MADE ITâ€¦
REMEMBER HOW FAR WE HAVE COME, BUT DON’T FORGET THE BIGGER PICTURE
THE ROOT WHERE IT STEMS FROM IS BEING ABLE TO MAKE SOMETHING OUT OF WHAT YOU ENVISION IN YOUR HEAD, AND IT COMES TO LIFE OUTSIDE OF YOURSELF IN A WAY THAT PEOPLE CAN ENJOY IT. Jon Chan
MADE IN SINGAPORE
It feels as if this creative community has a realistic grasp of where Singapore is today with regards to its creative journey. Whilst some of our Voices rightly reminded us of Singapore’s creative achievements to date and what has been uniquely forged or made in Singapore: ’Singaporeans are extremely creative. Look at Singlish, it’s a combination of our different languages and dialects. We have created our own way of communicating that is super creative. And by the way we fuse recipes, giving it a new twist — that is creative.’ Dillah Zakbah Others want to highlight that we still need to prove ourselves on a global stage: ‘A lot of Singaporeans feel that if you have made it in Singapore, you have made it… but the only way really for us to make it is to come together and show everybody this is what Singapore is. Then we get to be international.’ Mae Tan Finally, there is also a call from the creative community here to lean further into our strengths, our diversity and our multiculturalism, because these, as they rightly pointed out, are quite the unique selling points for the local creative community. Rather than exploiting our differences — ’I hope that one day, you can kill someone’s creativity or shoot down someone’s ideas just because they have bad ideas, not because of what racial group they come from. Which unfortunately I think sometimes is still the case in Singapore today. You’ve heard it since you’re in school doing presentations: Indians can talk, so you present.’ Rishi Budhrani We should leverage what is truly unique about us, for that is where the creative magic lies. ‘Our biggest strength is our multicultural and diverse population because that gives us so much richness, a real tapestry of ideas. The fact that we are so different in Singapore, whether it’s religion, ethnicity or language, is actually very unique in the world. But our weakness is that we are not comfortable with the grey and that means we don’t have that much space for dialogue and debate, because that’s where there’s a lot grey.’ Janice Koh
CAN DIFFERENT REALITIES FORM ONE NATIONAL NARRATIVE?
THERE ARE SO MANY STRATAS OF SOCIETY THAT PEOPLE AREN’T EXPOSED TO BECAUSE OF WHERE YOU WORK, WHERE YOU STUDIED. Jacqueline Chang
ONE ISLAND, MULTIPLE SINGAPORES
SINGAPORE IS ROJAK. THERE IS A DISH, LIKE AN ASIAN SALAD, WITH LOTS OF STUFF JUST THROWN IN THERE. THE TASTE OF IT IS A COMBINATION OF DIFFERENT FLAVOURS. YOU CAN’T REALLY TELL WHAT THE FLAVOUR IS... THAT IS WHAT SINGAPORE IS. YOU CAN’T REALLY TELL WHAT IS MIXED IN AND IT IS JUST A MIXED BAG. Ronnie Liew
As a small nation of only 5.6 million people living on a single island, you would be forgiven for thinking that Singapore only has one side to our national story. Certainly that’s the perspective held abroad, where Singapore is seen as a prosperous Asian miracle; a young developed nation that is both a playground and a bubble, set apart from economic difficulties that affect other societies. And, as some of our Voices pointed out, this story is one that the Singaporean government has sought to encourage. But one of the key lessons you can draw from the 72Voices project is that there is more to Singapore than the chrome-plated capitalist success-story by the bay. The recent documentary ‘Regardless of Class’ explores these many different sides to our island home. ’A lot of people see Singapore globally as this Asian miracle that managed to develop in only 50 years—they see the glitz, Marina Bay Sands and the economy, but when we peel back the layers, people are so interesting, so creative.’ Jiezhen Wu 5
Drawing: Angjolie Mei
The creatives we spoke to stressed the complexity of the Singaporean society, which is divided into many different strata; ‘I do believe that as people, we have a very rich and diverse, layered kind of community.’ Carolyn Kan These layers were felt to be heavily dependent upon wealth and education; with a change of career having the power to whisk you into an entirely new social set. ‘I am just operating in a box and moving in the same box till I graduate. If I have taken on a professional role, I would have met exactly the same people. But after doing makeup and hair styling, I met a different group of people. Like completely different.’ Joy Tan But some of our Voices felt that it was this diversity and difference that ensured that people were more able to perceive difference, and also to work together: ‘I believe that Singapore’s creatives are very good at collaboration because we’ve been born into a very layered society, so generally we’re quite mindful of how we operate with other people. I’ll say that’s one of our strengths.’ Carolyn Kan
DISTRACTED BY THE NEW
There was a sense amongst many of our creative Voices that the modern high-rise buildings have distracted Singapore from who we really are. But others disagreed, arguing that old traditions do have a place within our new landscape, and in fact this combination is something we should fight to preserve. ‘I don’t think we should lose our identity. Sometimes old school doesn’t have to be replaced. Old and new can live together— like sinsehs in high-rise buildings.’ Dillah Zakbah Whilst many Singaporeans told their personal stories of struggle and difficulty to navigate a society where education, family connections and influence are still paramount, they were often shocked at the one-dimensional view of Singapore that many (especially Western) foreigners appear to glean when posted here on an expat contract. ‘The expat lawyer thought Singapore was such a great place—it’s so amazing, it’s like a playground. You have such awesome nightlife.’ Amanda Chong
5 https://www.channelnewsasia.com/ news/video-on-demand/regardlessof-class
ONE ISLAND, MULTIPLE SINGAPORES
I DON’T THINK WE SHOULD LOSE OUR IDENTITY. SOMETIMES OLD SCHOOL DOESN’T HAVE TO BE REPLACED. OLD AND NEW CAN LIVE TOGETHER—LIKE SINSEHS IN HIGHRISE BUILDINGS. Dillah Zakbah
WHERE IS THE REAL SINGAPORE?
Although the dominant story of Singapore as a commercial, thriving metropolis is a true and important side to the country, our creatives pointed out the importance of acknowledging the many different Singapores that lie alongside one another. ‘If we don’t work hard at trying to tell each other what our differences are, and tell it as honestly as possible, there will always be bad shit happening eventually.’ Kenny Leck There was a frustration that the ‘managed’ version of the Singaporean story does not allow for the telling of multiple realities and any variety of ‘voices’. ‘There is this blanket or top-down approach in terms of narrative and how events are told to the public. That’s dominant in a lot of media sources nationwide, so that gives the illusion of single-mindedness or the lack of dissenting voices, which also gives the illusion of stability… because we are all singing the same tune.’ Jon Chan Solely focussing on icons — like the Marina Bay Development — can distract from the realities of day-to-day life for ordinary people, and the nation’s successes may not be relatable to all. ‘In those years that I was away from Singapore, that was when Marina Bay Sands came up. When I came back, I felt this weird sense of dislocation with the city, there was a disconnect. Singapore was diverging so quickly, there were people who have been left behind. There’s this entire other class and there’s this great inequality in Singapore.’ Amanda Chong
NEITHER EAST NOR WEST
As hosting the recent North Korea—United States Summit (2018) clearly demonstrates, Singapore readily exploits the fact that it sits comfortably in both Eastern and Western cultures and thereby almost offers a certain neutrality. Although politically this position is potentially advantageous, for young people growing up at this intersection, life can be deeply confusing and pose many challenges with regards to finding and navigating one’s own identity. ‘We have this ghost of our own thinking that is haunting us from Western culture and our Chinese values. I tried to explain to my Mom one day on how confusing it is to be part of this generation — you grow up with this very Chinese Asian values, but at the same time we’re exposed to Western culture because of globalisation, social media, our education, and everything. Suddenly we’re fucked and we don’t know which path to take, what is yes, and what is no.’ Tan Yang Er
This floating spot between East and West that we inhabit, leads Janice Koh to reflect on how it impacts our readiness to take a side: ’We tout our multiculturalism in a superficial manner. Sometimes the mutual understanding between people with differences is not really deep, and the reason I feel that is because the common space to discuss it isn’t there. It doesn’t really exist. We are afraid to dialogue in a very real way because those dialogues can lead to disagreement. We don’t want that, we fear that. But sometimes we need to push through that to find a new level of understanding.’ It is only through disagreement and discourse that we can really uncover who we are. As Elyn Wong pointed out, if we utilise our position between East and West in the right way, it uniquely positions us to affirm our standing on the world stage: ‘What is Singapore’s identity? Thailand has an identity, UK has an identity — but we are so young. We should be celebrating the fact that we are both Western and Eastern. We started embracing the Eastern culture because they are our roots. But we also embrace Western culture and instead of making us backwards, we can be in the future. Instead of being 50 years behind, I find that we are 50 years ahead.’ Yet this vantage point between two cultures does have some disadvantages, the most notable of which being that we identify with neither one nor the other. As Darren Tan pointed out, even our architecture reflects this intersection that we sit at. ‘I find Singapore very pastel.’ With no declarative style, East and West sit beside and atop of one another in one uniquely Singaporean blur.
WHAT IS SINGAPORE’S IDENTITY? THAILAND HAS AN IDENTITY, UK HAS AN IDENTITY—BUT WE ARE SO YOUNG. WE SHOULD BE CELEBRATING THE FACT THAT WE ARE BOTH WESTERN AND EASTERN. WE STARTED EMBRACING THE EASTERN CULTURE BECAUSE THEY ARE OUR ROOTS. BUT WE ALSO EMBRACE WESTERN CULTURE AND INSTEAD OF MAKING US BACKWARDS, WE CAN BE IN THE FUTURE. INSTEAD OF BEING 50 YEARS BEHIND, I FIND THAT WE ARE 50 YEARS AHEAD. Elyn Wong
ONE ISLAND, MULTIPLE SINGAPORES
CREATIVITY IS THE ANSWER
The people we spoke to felt that they, as creatives, had an important role to play in exploring the different layers of Singaporean society. Some felt that creativity could give you a new and almost more liberated take on society than what is conventionally available. ‘The whole mentality of living in an urban environment is to be quite protective of yourself and your vulnerabilities. To wear a lot of masks or hide behind a lot of layers. And then being a poet is deconstructing everything; take everything apart and just say, okay, this is actually what I am feeling. It’s a lot of stripping down.’ Amanda Chong Our Voices also stressed that their imagination and gift for thinking outside the box allowed them to step outside of the silos created by differences in wealth and opportunity, and take a broader perspective. In this way, they felt able to better recognise and acknowledge diversity. With this gift for appreciating the multiple Singapores that exist on the same island, some of our creatives struck a challenging note — looking at the government’s vision of Singapore as a gleaming seafront, a city of the future, and asking ’Marina Bay, or Gardens By The Bay… that’s the impression of Singapore. I’m sorry, but that is not Singapore. That is what has been marketed abroad. So can we stand in our own right as a creative nation without this glass and steel monstrosity that the government has created to market Singapore as the city of the future? It is very top down. That is not us. Where are our artists?’ Verena Tay In fact, several of our Voices remarked on a certain sense of nostalgia they feel when looking at some of the older buildings, and raised the question that continual evolution and modernisation can mean people end up feeling disconnected from their society and important elements of their heritage. ‘We don’t have a lot of heritage. We don’t really treasure a lot of these things, like Rochor or Pearl Bank. People get angry when you are knocking it down, but these heritage sites may not mean anything to them. There’s something that needs to be addressed because if we keep renewing our landscape, what are people going to be tied to?’ Natalie Kwee To conclude, whilst Singapore has clearly developed quickly and has an incredible economy and skyline to be proud of, we should not forget the diverse people and cultures who have made this island nation what it is today. Given our history, our location and our trajectory, we naturally sit at a confluence between East and West. We are neither, yet we are both. Attempting to fit in with one, whilst rejecting the other is not true to who we really are and the strengths we have. To grow and evolve we must embrace the differences that exist within our small nation and learn to build from both vantage points. In the words of Janice Koh, we must use our Eastern and Western perspective to ‘Build a more organic and harmonious mutual understanding, that both views are valid.’ This is the path to not just an inner harmony, but also having an informed and truly unique stance on the world stage too.
MARINA BAY, OR GARDENS BY THE BAY… THAT’S THE IMPRESSION OF SINGAPORE. I’M SORRY, BUT THAT IS NOT SINGAPORE. THAT IS WHAT HAS BEEN MARKETED ABROAD. Verena Tay
Drawing: Lydia Yang of Tell Your Children
ONE ISLAND, MULTIPLE SINGAPORES
YOU ARE ONLY CHINESE OR MALAY BECAUSE YOUR PARENTS ARE. ACTUALLY WE ARE JUST SINGAPOREANS… IF YOU ASK AN AMERICAN, HE WOULD SAY I AM AN ITALIAN AMERICAN, BUT IN SINGAPORE YOU WOULD SAY SINGAPOREAN CHINESE, OR SINGAPOREAN MALAY. IT’S NATION FIRST, RACE SECOND.
ONE OF THE MOST INTERESTING QUESTIONS WE ASKED WAS ACTUALLY THE SHORTEST: DESCRIBE SINGAPORE IN THREE WORDS. HERE ARE OUR 72 VOICESâ€™ RESPONSES.
FULL OF POSSIBILITIES
SINGAPORE IN THREE WORDS
PLUS PLUS PLUS
VENDING MACHINE SOCIETY
EVER-CHANGING VERSATILE DIFFERENT
BORING CONTENTED COMPETITIVE
CONFLICTED DETERMINED ENVIED
HOT. HOT. HOT. SINGAPORE IN THREE WORDS
HOME OPPORTUNITY STABILITY
GREEN CLEAN STERILE DOWN TO EARTH AT A CROSSROADS
PREDICTABLE ROJAK FAST LIVE LIVE LIVE
WORK IN PROGRESS LITTLE RED DOT
FUN,HOT, TREES/ MULTI RACIAL COUNTRY
OPPORTUNITY GLOBAL, GREEN
MULTICULTURAL FORWARD CONSERVATIVE
SAFE CONSERVATIVE WARM
SINGAPORE IN THREE WORDS
ITâ€™S VERY HOT
HUNGRY FEISTY HOPEFUL
EQUALITY STABILITY SAFE
FULL OF POTENTIAL
SWEATY OPPORTUNITY MONOTONOUS LITTLE RED DOT
GREEN FEISTY HOT
SAFE GROWING CONVENIENT
ITâ€™S OK LAH
SINGAPORE IN THREE WORDS
HOME COMFORTABLE AMBIVALENCE
TROPICAL PRODUCTIVE CONTROLLED–YUMMY
HARDWORKING CAREFUL POTENTIAL
CONFUSED HOPEFUL HUNGRY
TRY HARD MAXIMUM EFFORT
HOW MIGHT WE…?
RICH MANâ€™S WORLD
STILL GETTING THERE SINGAPORE IN THREE WORDS
PRISM PRATA PILSBURY
NEVER TRULY SATISFIED
FOOD IS GOOD
PRAGMATIC FORWARD COMFORTING
SLOW MO DESTRUCTION A BEAUTIFUL MIND
INCLUSIVE DIVERSE POTENTIAL POSSIBILITIES Jiezhen Wu
SINGAPORE IN THREE WORDS
CONVENIENT SELFâ€“ PRESERVING RESILIENT
TENTATIVE ANXIOUS UNCERTAIN
SAFE, DIVERSE, GATEWAY
MODERN, SAFE & PROGRESSIVE
LITTLE RED DOT
EXCITING COMFORTING WELCOMING In Good Company
EXTROVERTED PROUD, ADAPTABLE
A WELL– OILED MACHINE
PROSPEROUS FAST–PACED OPPORTUNISTIC POSSIBILITIES BEAUTIFUL SCARED
IMMATURE COMPETITIVE EVOLVING
SHY, PAGGRO, STRONG(UNITED)
FUNCTIONAL INSULAR SENSITIVE
SINGAPORE IN THREE WORDS
CAN DO BETTER
IN (ITS) CREATIVE RENAISSANCE
ISLE FULL OF NOISES
PRAGMATIC ANGLO ASIAN ADAPTABLE
READY. SET. ROLL.
DIVERSE, SAFE, PROGRESSIVE
AN IMPREGNABLE FORTRESS
WORK IN PROGRESS
RESPONSIBLE GLOBAL CITIZENS
TINY BUT MIGHTY
HOT, SMALL, DYNAMIC
ONE PARTY RULE
VERY GREEN KIASU, SAFE SINGAPORE IN THREE WORDS
A KIASU COUNTRY
A NEW OLD STARTUP DREW BARRYMORE BY SZA
SMALL BUT POWERFUL
SAFE OPPORTUNITY OPPORTUNITYâ€“ COST
SINGAPORE IN THREE WORDS
SUCCESS IS ONE WAY ONLY! WHAT DOES THAT MEAN FOR CREATIVITY?
CREATIVITY IS NOT THE ESTABLISHED PATH HEREâ€¦ YOU NEED A VERY STRONG HEART TO DO SOMETHING CREATIVE. Serena Tang
I FEEL LIKE WE ARE NOT THAT CREATIVE, WE ARE STILL PRETTY MUCH FOLLOWING A SYSTEM, FOLLOWING A SENSE OF COMFORT AND THAT ANNOYS ME A LOT. SOMETIMES I JUST WANT TO TAKE PEOPLE AND SHAKE THEM AND ASK ARE YOU THINKING? ARE YOU OK? Tan Yang Er
I THINK SINGAPORE IS FINALLY REALISING THAT CREATIVITY IS NOT DANGEROUS.â€‰ Steve Lawler
THE SINGAPOREAN WAY
To be honest, we didn’t plan this chapter. Rather, it simply poured out of the 72 Voices we spoke to. When we asked our opening question, ‘Tell us about your journey to where you are today’, we intended it simply as a warm-up exercise, a way to get them to open up and relax. We never expected that an overwhelming majority of our Voices would begin in the same way. There was an overwhelming sense from our 72 Voices that whatever the path they had pursued, it differed wholly from the ‘norm’ and what constitutes success in the minds of Singaporeans. This is precisely what this chapter intends to investigate—what is this ‘norm’? How do our Voices differ? What role does being creative play in ‘normality’ in today’s Singapore? And how did this ‘norm’ come about?
I WOULD SAY THAT I STARTED OFF ON THE CONVENTIONAL SINGAPOREAN PATH. I DID WELL ENOUGH TO GET INTO LAW SCHOOL. I PRACTICED AS A LAWYER FOR 3—4 YEARS. BUT THEN THINGS CHANGED. Mark Tan MY BACKGROUND STARTED VERY NORMALLY, LIKE ANY OTHER SINGAPOREAN. Clara Yee
Drawing: Natalie Kwee
I’VE HAD AN INTERESTING CAREER… BUT I DON’T QUITE FOLLOW THE NORM. Ronnie Liew
THERE WILL ALWAYS BE ACCOUNTANTS AND DOCTORS AND PEOPLE WHO WANT TO DO THOSE THINGSâ€¦ I AM NOT WORRIED OF SINGAPORE RUNNING OUT OF ENGINEERS.
THE SINGAPOREAN WAY
Drawing: Dylan Soh
I THINK WE ARE VERY FLEXIBLE AND PRAGMATIC REGARDING SOME THINGS AND THAT’S OUR STRENGTH. BUT WE ARE IDEOLOGICAL AND INFLEXIBLE WITH OTHERS—POLITICS ESPECIALLY. THAT COULD BE OUR WEAKNESS, BUT [THE GOVERNMENT ] SEES IT AS A STRENGTH. THEY DON’T SEE IT AS IDEOLOGICAL AND NOT VERY PRAGMATIC.
THE SINGAPOREAN WAY
SUCCESS IS A CLEARLY DEFINED CONCEPT IN THE MINDS OF SINGAPOREANS
Drawing: Deon Phua of Tell Your Children
Following the ‘path to success’ isn’t just expected, but many voices flagged that, unfortunately, only those with privilege can consider pursuing an alternative route: ’We have a set mould, there is a Singaporean dream. To be able to drive a nice car, live in a nice house, have two kids, go to elite schools. That is what everyone chases. If you can afford not to, then you go and do something else, or be an artist or whatever, but that is clearly the benchmark.’ Linying Aside from life goals, there is a shared sense of what it means to start out in life here: ’I’ve been born and raised here. As with all Singaporeans I’ve been through a very standard route.’ Georgina Koh Unsurprisingly, it is out of this ‘cookie cutter system’ Danny Tan that a certain standard emerges. Children and adults are held to an inescapable definition of success: ’I kind of think that I’m quite a product of the Singapore system. In the sense that I did everything and I’m doing everything that was expected of me. The pragmatic Singaporean move is to become a lawyer even though I studied arts.’ Amanda Chong This hardwired definition of success also impacts how we think. ‘We equate certain successes to a certain mindset. Being inward looking, being practical, being money-minded. So these are things that have led to where we are now, and if you are an uncritical person, you will definitely think these are good things to have.’ Daryl Yam It also means many creative Singaporeans feel inhibited to pursue what really motivates them: ‘I’ve always sculpted on the side, it’s a huge part of who I am, but there is this very practical Singaporean side of me that is a little bit afraid to do it full time.’ Qixuan Lim
CREATIVITY? THANKS BUT NO THANKS!
Some of our Voices acknowledged that within the academic focused schooling system in Singapore, they struggled to find a way to express themselves and their creative side. Either their creativity was not appreciated or recognised: ’I followed a traditional educational route and got into triple science. But I liked to draw a lot and I’d draw the cells but my teacher would say “please don’t add more details”’ Clara Yee, or they feel that creativity is fundamentally undervalued in the Singaporean system: ’Those who cannot make it in Singapore have to go to the arts stream. Those who are good go to the science stream.’ Dylan and Mummy Soh Many also described how they struggled to succeed against the metrics used to measure conventional academic prowess. ‘I actually did really badly for my O levels… if you take into consideration that I was from Victoria School and the school expects us all to go to junior college, which was drilled into our minds for 4 years… But I was never really interested in theory and math, science and physics.’ Jacky Lee They recalled how they even felt as if they were an outsider in their own country. ‘Quite a lot of people would have the same thoughts that growing up in Singapore through the system, you end up feeling like you don’t belong, and that something is not quite right. You don’t really fit in and you are trying to figure out what to do with your life.’ Danny Tan Others said that following an alternative path doesn’t just add on to the feeling of not fitting in, it also represents something negative, volatile or even dangerous: ’You very quickly find that you are in the niche, in the margins, and people look at you very differently because you are the crazy ones, the wild ones… If there was any trouble in school, we were seen as the deviants!’ Janice Koh Others felt that they succumbed to this pre-defined track and found it hard to behave in a different way, as if they were running on rails: ’Things are done a certain way. You do certain exams. You are created a certain way. You are guided to think in a certain way. And you carry those things forward for most of the time.’ Rishi Budhrani
THE SINGAPOREAN WAY
‘BORN THIS WAY’
Serena Tang (and Lady Gaga) Finding their creative feet is an experience that many of our Voices dwelt on and has clearly been an important journey for them. Whilst some people explained how it was less of an epiphany and more of a reaction to their surroundings: ‘When I was in the Ministry of Defence, it was an extremely leftbrained sort of job, and I’ve always needed a rightbrained outlet, so that was when I started designing jewellery.’ Choo Yilin Others explained upon discovering another world outside Singapore, they felt totally different and that this is what prompted them to realise that they were, in fact, an outsider in their home country. ‘When I stepped in to Goldsmiths Arts College in London, I wanted to cry because I felt so accepted… I thought “oh my God, I’m normal.” Look at all these people doing all these weird, wonderful things.’ Janice Koh ‘We all came from the generation where we were supposed to sit in school and memorise. I did that. I memorised. I only started to realise what creative expression was when I left Singapore and went to boarding school. I sat in class and the teacher asked what we thought about a book, and I thought “huh, I can think??”’ Malvina Kang Reflecting on finding their path, there was a consensus that they could not control their creativity, that despite any system’s strictures, their path was something they were drawn to. ‘I don’t think I found it, it was a bit of an accident, a bit of a mistake. I always said it’s a dream I never knew I had because when you are growing up in Singapore you are never really encouraged to be funny.’ Rishi Budhrani
IT IS ACTUALLY OK THAT OUR EDUCATIONAL SYSTEM IS VERY STRUCTURED. TO ME, PEOPLE WHO WANT TO BE CREATIVE WILL FIND A WAY TO DO IT. I KNEW FROM THE BEGINNING THAT I NEEDED TO DO SOME HANDS-ON CREATIVE WORK. FOR ME, THIS IS MY PERSONALITY, THIS IS MY CHARACTER. I AM BORN THIS WAY… Serena Tang
Drawing: Mark Foo
CHILDREN ARE THE MOST CREATIVE. IT’S JUST HOW THE SYSTEM SHAPED YOU THEREAFTER THAT MAKES THE DIFFERENCE. IT’S VERY HARD IN THIS ENVIRONMENT TO BRING OUT THE BEST IN GENIUSES OR PEOPLE WITH REALLY ALTERNATIVE IDEAS. Joy Tan EDUCATED OUT OF CREATIVITY?
4 https://www.channelnewsasia.com/ news/singapore/exams-assessmentsscrap-mid-year-primary-secondaryschools-10767370
THE SINGAPOREAN WAY
As British education specialist Ken Robinson eloquently describes, rather than fostering creativity, education systems, by focusing on more logical subjects, can inadvertently educate us out of our natural creative inclinations. Although with recent initiatives such as the Ministry of Education’s reduction in the number of exams Primary and Secondary-aged students will face4, hopefully times are changing in Singapore. However, many of our Voices, when describing their experiences at school, noted how the system is either not conducive to building creative skills in children, or focuses on the wrong thing. Our Voices don’t see the education system as bad or inadequate per se, it is more the fact that it is overly structured: ‘You were streamed, you were funnelled’ Lishan Soh — and fails to prepare students for a creative profession, or to think creatively later in life. ‘Being creative, you need to take risks, ignore doubts and do things differently… My school didn’t teach me that. Neither did my teachers.’ Dillah Zakbah And that both these limitations come from how focused on exams schools are: ’Everything is about exams. It’s not even about learning, you memorise stuff, then you go for exams and regurgitate it. Whether you understand the subject is a different thing.’ Dylan Soh Finally, given this pressurised and examoriented environment, some Voices cited the impact of this on society as a whole: ‘We have never been encouraged in school to have an opinion of our own, we have never been encouraged to have an opinion that is different. How much richer would our country be if we had people with divergent voices?’ Glen Goei Therefore leading us to the question — how well does our current education system prepare us not just for the exams we might face at school, but more critically, life beyond school?
CREATIVITY IN SINGAPORE TODAY FEELS MORE LIKE AN UNDERGROUND MOVEMENT RATHER THAN SOMETHING THAT IS CELEBRATED AND PROMOTED.
SINGAPOREANS, WHY CAN’T YOU WALK ACROSS THE GRASS? WHY DO YOU HAVE TO WALK ON THE PAVEMENT? MAYBE BECAUSE YOU’LL GET YOUR SHOES DIRTY, BUT IF THE GRASS IS NOT MUDDY, AND IT GETS YOU THERE FASTER, WHY NOT?
THE SINGAPOREAN WAY
‘I’M NOT A CREATIVE. I JUST LIKE ART LAH!’
Lishan Soh The prescriptive and slightly formulaic approach to education practised by the wider schooling system is reflected in how Singaporeans assess or perceive creativity more broadly. Growing up, many of our Voices referred to how being creative and being ‘into art’ are commonly confused. ‘Growing up, I didn’t think I was a creative person… You know when you are at school and you don’t do that well in art and craft, you can’t draw people or trees very well, so you are not a creative person. In a culture where a lot of stuff is measured by grades, it was an easy mindset for me to come into. But I have learnt to redefine what creativity is for me. I like to think I am born again as a creative person… So for me there has been a lot of reclaiming what that word [creativity] actually means.’ Jiezhen Wu Even in terms of entering into adulthood and pursuing a creative career, there was even a preconceived notion about what a creative adult looks like for some Voices: ‘I don’t think I’ve fitted in the mould of a creative person in Singapore in the way that people know it. When you mention ‘I’m a creative’, you’re usually talking about people in the ad world, people who work in agencies. I never really fit in to that crowd.’ Mark Tan The flexibility and fluidity of a creative path in adulthood is often one that is not comfortably received in Singapore. ‘That was actually my biggest challenge coming back to Singapore… that people could not box me. I often get the question: ’Which [career path] are you really doing? Which is your real job? Which one is more full-timed?’ Jacqueline Chang Indeed the social pressure to step up to the plate and take up a more conventional path actually puts a stop to more creatively inclined adults to pursue their creative side. ‘I have seen many creatives, creative people pop up and go ‘oh yeah I kinda need to make money from it. I got a family. I got to buy a flat. Pay the bills. Pay the mortgage’— things like that. So what I am gonna be is be more pragmatic and do something that stifles my creativity. And maybe if being creative is a hobby or a side thing, then it’s ok. Let me stop that and concentrate on real life.’ Darren Tan Finally, for better or worse, those who are in control, and in positions of power and influence in society often don’t have a creative background. ‘If you want to have a world-class gallery or drama centre, you need to have it run by people who are in the arts. That is just normal right? You don’t get a civil servant who has an engineering degree or a biology degree. A lot of these art organisations are run by committees that are appointed by the government…’ Glen Goei
Drawing: Carolyn Kan
THE TEACHERS AND THE PEOPLE IN THE SYSTEM SEE THAT THE WORLD IS NOT THE SAME, THEY SAY THEY ARE PREPARING US FOR A COMPLETELY NEW, EXPONENTIAL WORLD. BUT IF YOU ASK THEM HOW—IT’S STILL THE SAME INDUSTRIAL AGE METHODS. SCHOOLING HASN’T CHANGED FOR A COUPLE OF HUNDRED YEARS. IF IT WORKED FOR YOUR GRANDPARENTS, IT WILL WORK FOR YOU. Dylan Soh
‘ASIANS DON’T DO GAP YEARS’ Philip Man
SINGAPORE TODAY IS VERY CREATIVE WITHIN THE BOX. I DO THINK THAT WE ARE ON THE VERGE OF BREAKING OUT OF THIS BOX—ONE WHOSE BORDERS HAVE BEEN DRAWN BOTH FOR US, AND BY US. ONCE WE GET PASS THIS TIPPING POINT, I BELIEVE A REAL CREATIVE REVOLUTION WILL ARISE. ONE THAT SMASHES EVERY PARADIGM THAT WE HAVE COME TO ACCEPT AS THE ONLY POSSIBLE REALITY IN SINGAPORE. Mak CK
THE SINGAPOREAN WAY
Flippant though this comment may be, there was certainly a sense of how a number of different conventions impacted our Voices’ decisions and paths in life. Firstly, the importance of listening to our elders, so important in Confucian thinking, and across Asian culture, ensures that there is natural deference that governs society. ‘Generally in the Asian upbringing there are certain things, certain requirements that you should have at a certain age and we like to go for what is safe.’ Clifford Wong This cultural context ensures that young people often have less freedom than in other cultures or countries to explore an alternative path. ‘Most of the parents are more structured, traditional, and very comfortable with a very stable life. They don’t really give kids much freedom to explore what they want. They are too concerned with the journey. This is the path that I’ve set for you. Parents can be the ones who are stopping their kids from reaching their creative potential.’ Serena Tang Secondly, the historical context of Singapore casts a deep shadow on how brave, creative, or indeed risk-averse modern Singaporeans are. ‘We were kicked out of Malaya one day and it was like shit. I can almost feel the cold sweat of that generation when they realise that we were passed out on a little life raft and cut off from supplies and they had to figure out how to survive. And that’s what they did. So everyone was just really focused on surviving. They did such a good job of surviving that they didn’t realise that they were beyond surviving.’ Carolyn Kan Finally it is the financial successes of this story of survival against the odds, that Singaporeans are so rightly proud of, that in turn, perhaps impedes the next stage of success: ‘We have done this and built [the country], there is the fear of losing everything.’ Jiezhen Wu ‘Making money is a strength of Singapore that has become a weakness. It is the only thing that people look for. We can actually do good stuff, but we are still in survival mode. Westerners are vocal. But it is just not part of the Singaporean culture to be vocal. We’re just “listen to your parents, listen to your government.”’ Tell Your Children As Glen Goei notes, the impact of the cultural, historical and sociological factors have a profound and crippling effect on the creative potential of Singaporeans today: ’We lack originality in the country, we are not risk takers because the system of over 50 years has not allowed us to make mistakes. The kiasu and the kiasi… that is our culture, afraid of losing and afraid of dying. We have bred two to three generations of Singaporeans who are not risk takers, because we are afraid of making mistakes and failure, we are afraid of judgement and losing face. We don’t have a framework or a structure where people can take risks and people can have a say or a voice.’
NOW IS OUR TIME…
The limitations of our history, education system and cultural context aside, our new creative class recognised that things are beginning to change and expressed hope that tomorrow spells a different future for Singapore. ‘Singapore has potential to be creative. I won’t say that right now it is the most creative place that I know, but it has tremendous potential to be a bustling and creative place. We have very innovative people and entrepreneurs.’ Qixuan Lim It is today’s younger generations who have pushed change in modern Singapore and are starting to champion creativity: ‘I think you can get by your whole life in Singapore never having to express yourself if it isn’t what is demanded of you. Creativity has only started to become a desirable trait in our generation.’ Linying However, we all have a responsibility to understand the power and potential of creativity, and embrace it. ‘What’s the next phase of development? That’s creativity, because it’s in everyone. Now, it’s just a case for the government and also, society to reframe or adjust the way we live in order to support and nourish creativity.’ Carolyn Kan Changes in education and parenting must happen in order to drive a more creative future for this island nation. ‘If you want to breed a generation of creative entrepreneurs and gogetters, and have a sense of purpose in the world, you can’t at the same time be paternal and tell them what to do.’ Danny Tan But there is an overwhelming sense that today, we are not yet thinking the way we should be: ’Creativity is under-appreciated in Singapore. We are still taught that there is only one road to success, and that choosing a creative profession is not that road. This mindset is dangerous and hinders our prospects for a future economy that now values creativity more than ever before.’ In Good Company It is only when mindsets shift, both on behalf of government officials, educators and society at large, that change and progress within creative industries will be felt. ‘If we were more equipped with the skills of creativity, then maybe as a nation, we will feel less trapped and more encouraged to find your own way.’ Vanessa Kenchington ‘Singapore is a little bit oppressed in the sense that there are lots of rules and expectations that define how you live, what you should do and be. Creativity is also freedom and expressing who you are. If we can start to loosen up a little on that front it will definitely happen at a sharper pace.’ Tina Fung To conclude, the energy, enthusiasm and passion for pursuing an alternative path to the typically accepted success here suggests to us that the tide is changing in Singapore. The new creative class has not just arrived, but they are shaping the future of their nation. Beyond forging a different path to the one that society set out for them, many of the parents among our 72 Voices agreed on one thing — their children will not face the same pressures they did. As new parent Fred Yap puts it ‘I will raise her in an unconventional way. I will raise her so she has the freedom to explore.’ In the words of Dillah Zakbah, although some may ‘Call us millennials, our generation are game changers.’ So if our Voices have anything to do with it, the path to success in Singapore looks very different for the creative class of tomorrow.
WHEN PEOPLE SAY SINGAPOREANS, OR SINGAPORE, IS NOT CREATIVE ENOUGH, THEY ARE SAYING THAT ABOUT THEMSELVES… SINGAPORE IS NOT LIKE JAPAN, WHERE THEY ARE ALWAYS TRYING TO IMPROVE ON THE PAST. SINGAPORE DOES NOT HAVE A PAST, SO WE’RE ALWAYS TRYING TO REDEFINE THE PRESENT AND THE FUTURE.
THE SINGAPOREAN WAY
I DON’T THINK WE HAVE THE SPACE—THE BRAIN SPACE OR PHYSICAL SPACE TO TEST AND DEVELOP IDEAS. WE NEED THOSE SORT OF SPACES, SOMEWHERE YOU CAN INTERACT AS A SOCIETY—WITH SPACE THAT IS BIG ENOUGH TO ACCOMMODATE EVERYONE. Luanne Poh
DO WE HAVE THE PHYSICAL OR MENTAL SPACE TO BE CREATIVE?
SPACE IS A WORD THAT I THINK ABOUT A LOT WHEN I THINK ABOUT SINGAPORE. THE COMMON PERCEPTION IS THAT THERE’S NOT A LOT OF SPACE, PHYSICALLY OR MENTALLY… Adrianna Tan
SPACE TO BE CREATIVE
As the second most densely populated country in the world , it is hardly surprising that the topic of space is top of mind for Singaporeans. What was interesting for us was how many of our respondents called out a lack of both physical and mental space in Singapore. It was consistently raised that this lack of space has a significant impact on the creative output of the country, suggesting that in comparison to other countries they had visited, or lived in, Singapore and Singaporeans exist in an ‘invisible box that we don’t see. It’s just something that’s been cultivated all these years and we bought into it unknowingly.’ Rishi Budhrani This is what we’d like to use this chapter of 72Voices to interrogate—the impact of space, both mental and physical, in Singapore’s creative community today. 6
PUBLIC SPACE = STRUCTURED, COMMERCIAL, FUNCTIONAL SPACE
It is no secret that the Singaporean government has spent considerable time and effort designing and delivering an urban environment that is sustainable, functional and liveable. The muchcited ‘Garden City’ concept is one such example of this wide-reaching public policy effort. Yet some of our Voices observed that this structure of public space has a downside when it comes to creativity. ‘Singapore as a country is so well maintained, so proper, it’s great. But it’s hard to find a space to apply creativity in Singapore.’ Aaron Koh Furthermore, much public space is devoted to commercial spaces, either offices, shops or restaurants, which, despite connoting the rapid development and urbanisation of the city, was felt to have a detrimental impact on how creative Singapore is as a nation. ‘For us to have made such great progress throughout the years is a really great achievement, but I would eradicate many malls — malls kill your vibe, your landscape, everything.’ Tell Your Children More specifically, not only has the domination of commercial spaces affected our ‘vibe’ as a city, the way space is structured in Singapore naturally affects what Singaporeans choose to do with their free time. ‘We leave the confines of our little apartment, go to work, and go back home. In our free time, most Singaporeans would check out this new shopping mall, eat at this new place… When you see a large group of people just hanging out, there is a high chance they are all going somewhere but they don’t know where they are going. They just want to browse.’ Darren Tan
This leads to a lack of energy and time being poured into creative endeavours. ‘We like to consume more than we create… on a weekend, generally people are just out there enjoying ways to consume more things. To just receive and consume — the only thing they are creating are hashtags or posts.’ Jovian Lim Several Voices also contrasted Singapore’s commercial use of public space with how other countries choose to utilise space: ’If you go to Europe, you see people chilling out in city squares — a whole bunch of people sitting around not doing anything specific. They are just chilling, talking, hanging out. We are lacking in spaces where creative people can gather, talk, be together.’ Darren Tan The conclusion was also drawn that the absence of these functionally neutral spaces has led to a shift in how ready Singaporeans are to embrace free time. ‘Singaporeans don’t really like just hanging out — oh, what we doing? What we doing? What we doing next? It’s so boring! Let’s go to a club or let’s go to a bar. We can’t just sit here and have a talk, have a chat. Most Singaporeans wouldn’t be in tune with that’ and that actually is something distinct to the behaviour of migrant workers who have settled in Singapore: ’If you go to any place that has a large group of people gathering, chances are they are not Singaporeans, they are often foreign workers. That is what they do — they get together, hang out, they gather.’ Darren Tan
Department of Statistics Singapore (2017) https://www.singstat.gov. sg/-/media/files/publications/ reference/sif2017.pdf CIA World Fact Book (2017)
WE LIKE TO CONSUME MORE THAN WE CREATEâ€¦ Jovian Lim
SPACE TO BE CREATIVE
TIME TO RECLAIM OUR SPACE
Regardless of how the structuring of space has shaped or whether it is the other way around with Singaporeans’ pastimes dictating how public space is assigned and managed, many Voices expressed a desire to reclaim public space. ‘My Sticker Lady project started because I wanted to use the street to interact with people. Prior to the stickers, I was already experimenting with public spaces. When I started doing Press & Be Shiok, and all these Singlish things, I realised that in doing so, I wanted to take back space, to make it feel like it was Singapore again and not so homogenous.’ Sam Lo Additionally, some suggested it is the absence of a specific designated use that can ensure a space feels creative and dynamic. ‘A lot of creative spaces are dying out, they are becoming white elephants because there are fewer brave people. Sometimes it is just about letting go of spaces, letting the space breathe instead of trying to rejuvenate life into creative spaces. That’s when the city starts to breathe and feel organic and can develop little niches that are characteristic of the people who used to live there and the people living there. Stop trying to make Singapore so sterile and new. Spend your money on something else.’ Mindy Tan Some Voices expressed concern on how advancing development, clamouring for space and modernisation, have affected the authenticity of the parts of Singapore they feel most connected to: ‘I feel like I personally am not tied to the newer parts of Singapore like Marina Bay Sands… those parts are constructed for the sake of having a skyline, but there are many places that have so much more character. [Singapore] does not feel real anymore.’ Natalie Kwee Many Voices expressed that safeguarding spaces where different cultures and nationalities can come together is critically important. ‘Our shared social and common spaces, where we come together, regardless of backgrounds, religion, are worth fighting for. Just being able to share a meal or a moment together, these shared spaces are really important.’ Agnes Kwek Some also cited ways that Singaporeans are emotionally attached to spaces. ‘The places of cultural importance in Singapore are few and far in between. When we lose a place of importance, people get upset… we feel quite sentimental towards certain places here.’ Mark Tan Furthermore, given the ethnic diversity of Singapore, safeguarding cultural places or spaces that have a shared relevance gains an added degree of importance. ‘Our multicultural landscape does come with some risk of disharmony; we tout our multiculturalism in a superficial manner. Sometimes, the mutual understanding between people with differences is not really deep, and the reason I feel that is because the common space to discuss it isn’t there. It doesn’t really exist. I feel that we don’t have enough common space where everybody agrees to not take it personally — but it is all very personal right now, is there a real tolerance of our differences?’ Janice Koh
THE PLACES OF CULTURAL IMPORTANCE IN SINGAPORE ARE FEW AND FAR IN BETWEEN. SO WHEN WE LOSE A PLACE OF IMPORTANCE, PEOPLE GET UPSET… Mark Tan
MAKING PHYSICAL SPACE LEADS TO MAKING MENTAL SPACE
Two of our respondents have actually established and run spaces in Singapore that are designed for people to come together to create, rather than simply consume. To a certain extent, they both acknowledged that by making these physical spaces, they ensure that people have the mental capacity to create too, and that spaces like these are important to safeguarding Singapore’s future creative successes. Three of our Voices work in the field of creating cross-generational, intersectional and cross-functional spaces where people can come together to collaborate, and they too expressed the importance of the provision of these spaces. ‘We wanted a space that would gather change-makers or thought-leaders, regardless of age, socio-economic background, to allow people to gather for more creative, inspirational exchanges, as well as providing them with a wonderful sanctuary where they can work, rest, play, entertain, and work on themselves.’ Aun Koh ‘We want to create nice spaces where you can bump into people, strike a deal. Singaporeans would fight for space. I think that we just don’t have enough space or resources — physical resources and physical space. 80% of the population lives in HDB, and real estate prices keep going up. That’s where the internal unhappiness and angst comes from. Because I lived in the US, I could be earning one-fifth less than anybody else, and I could still have a space.’ Su-Anne Mi
SPACE TO BE CREATIVE
SINGAPOREANS WOULD FIGHT FOR SPACE. I THINK THAT WE JUST DON’T HAVE ENOUGH SPACE OR RESOURCES. THAT’S WHERE THE INTERNAL UNHAPPINESS AND ANGST COMES FROM. Su-Anne Mi
MAKING MENTAL SPACE FOR CREATIVITY
Clearly physical space is just one aspect of this debate, and with regards to the mental space, or appetite for creativity, our Voices were split. Some argued that Singapore’s history and political context has shaped a country that has significant mental space for creative thinking: ‘We don’t have the baggage of history. We don’t have this baggage of tradition that is weighing us down. Seeing Singapore as a project or concept, that can also free us up to be very liberal in what we explore and what we do in the future.’ Clara Yee ‘Our biggest strength has been our long-term thinking and the ability to put this into a plan and execution. We can do this because we don’t have the threat of changing governments every two years, because with that there is a lot of politicking that goes on. Politics and policies go hand in hand. And we have a long-term space for us to think about ambitious policies.’ Agnes Kwek Others vehemently disagree that Singapore and its population has any mental space for creativity. Some respondents suggested the high pressure, high intensity and work-oriented nature of society here means that people are too busy, too swept up in routine to make space for anything else, we need ‘to be able to take some time to slow down. We’re always chasing and there’s no time to stop and pause and really be thankful for how far we’ve gotten.’ Tania Chan ‘Singaporeans, do you ever relax? Do you ever stop just to take a deep breath? Typically if I ask my patients that, they answer ‘How to?’, ‘How can you do that?’ It really is a place that’s busy busy busy.’ Dr Marc Calaunan Others cite larger macro issues when it comes to how willing the population here are to make mental space to think differently, or explore new thoughts and ideas. ‘There is so little room for creativity, we are stifled here. Everything is controlled or censored by the government, so a lot of top creative people have left the country.’ Glen Goei Be it government controls, or social pressure, as we referenced in Chapter 2, the net effect that several Voices cited is the same — little or no mental capacity for freedom of expression. ‘There is very little room for you to figure out who you are, before you get swiped up in the entire system of study, get a job, then as a uni graduate you marry another uni graduate, then have graduate children. And a mortgage, kids. It’s a very templated life. There’s an invisible box that we are all in.’ Rishi Budharani
SPACE TO CREATE— DOES IT COME AT A PRICE?
Finally, several of our Voices recognised that in order to build such a safe society that Singapore clearly enjoys, there inevitably needs to be some structure and control. It is this structure and control that many of our Voices felt restricted their space to be creative, both in a mental and physical sense. Therefore is there a sense that the price to pay for having a space to be creative and express ourselves is a less safe and secure society? ‘The biggest plus point [in Singapore] is the kind of safety and security you get here. Physical security, safety, peace of mind… Maybe the price to pay is being number 151 on the Reporters Without Borders index. Maybe the price to pay is to be really far behind in freedom of expression…’ Rishi Budharani But as Glen Goei aptly asks, this trade-off has served us well to date, but as society and culture changes, will sacrificing a space where people can express themselves freely serve Singapore well tomorrow? ‘You know it is low crime and clean hygiene, it is heaven. But you know for creative people, for creativity, and the future of Singapore, we are going to be left behind because we are not allowing people the space to voice their opinions and let one hundred flowers bloom.’ Glen Goei
Drawing: Rishi Budhrani
WE ARE SUCH A HIGHLY PRODUCTIVE SOCIETY. WE TEND TO JUST KEEP DOING, ONE PLAY AFTER THE NEXT, OR DOING 5 THINGS AT ONCE. I’M GUILTY OF THAT, TO A POINT WHERE YOUR MENTAL, EMOTIONAL, AND PHYSICAL STATE DOESN’T HAVE ANY TIME TO REST OR REJUVENATE… AND THAT QUELLS ENTHUSIASM, INSPIRATION, AND MOTIVATION TO TRY SOMETHING ELSE, OR TRY SOMETHING AGAIN.
SPACE TO BE CREATIVE
IF I WAS PM FOR A DAY, I WOULD DECLARE A NATIONAL DRAWING DAY.
SPACE TO BE CREATIVE
Drawing: Su-Anne Mi
IF I WAS PM FOR A DAY I WOULD REVAMP COMMUNITY CENTRES. THE WHOLE POINT OF COMMUNITY CENTRES IS TO HANG OUT WITH OTHERS—BUT IT’S ALWAYS CLOSED DOORS OR FOR OLD, POOR PEOPLE.
WE ARE AT THE BEGINNING OF SOMETHING FRESH AND INTERESTING. IT’S GUIDED AND SUPPORTED BY US, BY OUR GENERATION. WE’VE EXPERIENCED SOMETHING DIFFERENT AND WE WANT TO SHARE IT WITH OTHERS AS WELL. I THINK IT’S CHANGING AND IT’S EXCITING. AS A COUNTRY WE ARE MOVING FORWARD AND IT’S ATTRACTING PEOPLE BACK—I WANT TO COME HERE NOW AND BE INVOLVED WITH THIS CULTURE OF GROWTH AND EXPANSION. I AM EXCITED. Malvina Kang
WHAT DO THE NEXT 50 YEARS LOOK LIKE? FOR US AND FOR CREATIVITY?
SINGAPORE AT A CROSSROADS
I THINK WE ARE KIND OF AT A CROSSROADS RIGHT NOW. Darren Tan
The 72 conversations we had were fun. Not just because of the fascinating array of creative people we spoke to, but also because there’s an overwhelming excitement in the air and sense of curiosity and urgency for tomorrow. The creative community we spoke to believes Singapore is at a pivotal point in our creative development, and indeed our history. Our Voices were full of determination and hope to build upon the successful foundations laid by previous generations—especially infrastructure and economic development—by focusing on cultivating the soft-skills vital to all creative industries. But there was a sense among many, that time is of the essence. The world is changing, the time to act is now and there is pressure on Singapore to keep up—’There is no time to fail.’ Mindy Tan WE ARE ON THE ROAD, WE ARE STILL YOUNG!
Almost universally, our Voices agreed that the nation building project that Singapore took on a mere 53 years ago, albeit a glittering success story, is still very much ongoing: ’We are marketing a country that is a work in progress.’ Georgina Koh We are still struggling with identifying who we are, what we stand for and how we achieve success, but we shouldn’t stress about this — it is part of the process. ‘Singapore is a young nation so it will go through a lot of the things that many older countries have already gone through.’ Clifford Wong But being a young country clearly has an impact on our creative class, and indeed how developed this community is: ’Singapore is almost a newborn baby in terms of creativity, it is young but always growing, the future is optimistic.’ In Good Company As the country develops, hopefully the community will grow in confidence and many of our Voices expressed hope that Singapore increasingly draws upon local talent. ‘We’re now starting to have a sense of confidence and looking inside, not just outside for talent, for ideas, for inspiration. We’re now studying to also mould our own creative voice.’ Carolyn Kan
SINGAPORE AT A CROSSROADS
THAT’S THE BEAUTIFUL THING ABOUT BEING HUMAN, RIGHT? WE SEE THE WAVE COMING AT US AND WE STILL FLING OURSELVES AT IT. THE POINT IS DO YOU KNOW HOW TO SURF THE WAVE? NO MATTER HOW DAUNTING THE TSUNAMI MIGHT BE, IT’S SOMETHING WE ALL HAVE TO DO. CREATIVES IN SINGAPORE ARE AN ESPECIALLY TENACIOUS BUNCH. THEY’LL CONTINUE TO BE, AND THEY’LL BE BETTER OFF FOR IT IN THE END.
SINGAPORE AT A CROSSROADS
Drawing: Tania Chan
CREATIVITY FOR ME IS NEVER GIVING UP. THE CREATIVITY AND THAT PASSION OF NEVER GIVING UP IS REALLY STRONG HERE.
Part of moulding this creative voice also involves shaping and working out our goals as a nation, and where we are heading. ‘Singapore is trying to grapple with its purpose, what its vision is among all the various things that it does. People are starting to see that there are so many different ways to learn and to express ourselves. I think we’re on the right path. We’ve got all the right ingredients. We’re just not there yet.’ Lishan Soh Whilst recognising we are on the path, a number of our Voices wanted to acknowledge it is a scary journey. ‘It’s a big unknown. People are happy, contented and proud of what the previous generations have achieved. But I don’t know if the vast majority of people are happy just looking at the present or if they have the vision to look forward and see what is best for our next or next next generation. It’s always work in progress.’ Shannon Ong
WHERE TO NOW?
Whilst once the next step was clear, many of our conversations explored the fact that tomorrow is not necessarily easily defined. Our role and standing is yet to be shaped in the 21st century and that perhaps this is stalling our creative growth and progression. ‘We have reached a plateau in Singapore, we have been growing and growing, but suddenly everyone’s a little bit lost. Compared to our parents’ generation when the path was more defined and about survival, we are a first-world country today, but at the same time there is a fragility to our status. There is a sense of urgency that is fuelled through a very real threat of us being obsolete in the world.’ Danny Tan Singapore is definitely at a critical point in its development — an inflection point, where new forms of creativity are emerging at the intersections between different cultures, communities, and industries. ‘There’s something bubbling under the surface here and it is creativity [but] not just in the traditional sense. It is also the business and traditional fields.’ Tania Chan Our Voices emphasised that this brewing potential reflects how much there is still to be done: ’Singapore itself is “a work in progress.”’ Dane Lim
SINGAPORE ITSELF IS A WORK IN PROGRESS. Dane Lim
NOW IS OUR MOMENT
This ‘coming of age’ is not just timely, given our relatively short history, it is also hugely exciting: ‘Societies in general take a long time to form very distinct identities and Singapore’s history is barely 50+ years, it is a very dynamic ecosystem and culture. I am not sure that we have a super sharp identity, our style is slowly emerging and you can never quite define it. But when you smell it, you hear it, you see it, you sense it, you get a feel of yeah this is probably us, this is probably Singapore. And I can’t help but to be quite excited about this, about this emerging over time. Maybe this is how we are defining ourselves, how we go through our creative process. This will be a journey that we will have to take ownership of.’ Dane Lim Many Voices agreed that there was no better moment in Singapore’s history to take advantage of past successes and define what the Singapore of tomorrow looks like on a creative platform: ‘If you talk about creative cities, of course Singapore is not as mature compared to the rest of the world. It’s only rather recent that we are more comfortable in actually expressing ourselves creatively and going out to the world with our own ideas and opinions and I hope that can continue to grow stronger and we can be more comfortable with our own creative voice.’ Clara Yee
Drawing: Phillip Man
INSULAR OR MAKING THE MOST OF WHAT’S WITHIN?
Undeniably, there are firm foundations built by the previous generations of Singaporeans, but defining Singapore’s next step will require a bit of soul-searching: ’Singaporeans have been successful at breeding a Singaporean-ness, but we haven’t yet been able to define what it is.’ Mindy Tan Indeed there is a sense that the skill-set that has got us to where we are today might not be the right one to take us to the next stage. ‘The way we’ve got to where we are now — we have had a certain mindset — being inward-looking, practical, money-minded. These are things that have led to where we are now, and if you are an uncritical person, you will definitely think these are good things to have. But this has bred a very selfish, individualistic kind of person in Singapore.’ Daryl Yam Other Voices reiterated this point, emphasising that they wonder if our inwardlooking nature has damaged the social fabric of the country: ‘When I’m feeling pessimistic about Singapore, I feel we are quite materialistic and focused on our own comfort and that really will be our downfall — serving the needs of yourself first and being very insular within your own life, when you don’t reach out to help another or to make space for someone else.’ Amanda Chong This insular aspect of Singapore may have affected the degree of cross-pollination and collaboration within the creative community ‘The creative scene could use a bit more understanding and collaboration between different creatives. Singapore’s market is already so small that everyone is so closed up and cautious of their own bread and butter. Normally they wouldn’t want to open up to other people in fear they may be a threat.’ Tell Your Children
WE ARE STILL TRYING TO ACCEPT NEW IDEAS. WE HAVE TRADITIONAL ASIAN VALUES… BUT THOSE ASIAN VALUES CAN BE DETRIMENTAL TO OUR PROGRESS BECAUSE PEOPLE NEED TO TAKE COMFORT, COMFORT IN CONSISTENCY. Sam Lo
SINGAPORE AT A CROSSROADS
Moving forward, for Singapore to evolve and transition through this inflection point, there must be a balance between learning from best practices around the world and striving to discover our own, distinctive voice. ‘We are still trying to accept new ideas. We have traditional Asian values… but those Asian values can be detrimental to our progress… it is because people need to take comfort, comfort in consistency.’ Sam Lo Building the next phase in Singapore’s story, many of the creatives reflect that people in their sectors are returning to Singapore, seeking to build a new and innovative side to the country by using all the ingredients available to them. ‘There are more creative minds coming from elsewhere to Singapore, and more Singaporeans returning home. I feel that the future is very bright because this influx of creativity won’t stop, it won’t cease. And I see the steps generated by the government here to involve more creative people in the scheme of things. Where Singapore is going, what Singapore wants to become. It is a very positive signal for the future of creativity here.’ Darrell Ang Perhaps most powerfully, as Kenny Leck puts it, ‘Creativity means survival to me’ and as Singapore enters ‘the next phase of nation building’ Agnes Kwek it is turning to the creative community, involving and engaging creative minds that is the most critical piece of Singapore’s journey. In order to continue on our trajectory and embrace a future that befits our ancestors’ achievements, we need to ‘come up with innovative solutions that the world would look towards us for — we need to reinterpret what this means for us for the next 100 years, that is why I said we are at a crossroads. Are we going to continue to be the country that other countries watch for these sort of solutions?’ Agnes Kwek
Drawing: Ronnie Liew
I THINK WE ARE A PROBLEM-SOLVING COUNTRY. WE TRY TO OVER-ENGINEER EVERYTHING TO THE POINT IT IS HILARIOUS. WE OVERDO EVERYTHING. IT’LL BRING OUT OUR CHARACTER A BIT MORE IF WE CAN LAUGH AT OURSELVES. THERE ARE BOUND TO BE SOME SIDE EFFECTS TO GROW THE COUNTRY ON STEROIDS, IF WE DON’T TAKE TIME TO REFLECT AND SIT BACK, ONE DAY WE ARE JUST GOING TO BURN OUT. Carolyn Kan
SINGAPORE AT A CROSSROADS
SINGAPORE AT A CROSSROADS
THE WAY SINGAPOREANS ARE USING TECHNOLOGY TO IMPROVE AND CHANGE OUR ISLAND IS QUITE UNIQUE AND BRINGS OUT AMONG THE BEST EXAMPLES OF CREATIVE EXPRESSION. I CAN IMAGINE A FUTURE WHERE TECHNOLOGY AND DESIGN WILL JOIN TO EXPRESS NEW IDEAS. IN THE FUTURE THERE WILL ALSO BE MORE INTEREST IN CREATIVITY AND THE ARTS BECAUSE THIS IS A FIELD THAT CANNOT BE COMPLETELY REPLACED BY THE ROBOTSâ€¦ YET.
CREATIVITY TO ME MEANS EXPRESSING MYSELF IN A DIFFERENT WAY EVEN IF OTHERS DON’T LIKE IT. Renn and Aira Lim
HOW CAN WE SUSTAIN CREATIVITY IF WE DON’T HAVE TO STRUGGLE?
I FEEL VERY SAFE TO BE A CREATIVE HERE. Jacky Lee
ALL ADVERSITIES ACTUALLY LEAD YOU TO CREATIVE SURVIVAL. Tan Yang Er
Life is famously good in Singapore. Some of the highest standards of living in the world, fabulous food, sunny year-round weather, exceptionally clean, and a lush garden in a bustling cutting-edge city. What more creature comforts could anyone wish for? But therein lies the problem. Or at least according to some of our Voices. A central topic of debate that emerged in our 72 conversations was the notion that Singapore is too comfortable a place. Some Voices believe that the creature comforts, efficiency, opportunities and economic growth have not just given citizens stability, but have actually curtailed creativity. Whilst others assert that the constraints or tensions that exist in Singapore are simply different to those in other countries. This chapter explores both sides of this debate and interrogates if tension and difficulties exist here, and how creativity can develop as a result of that. ‘IT IS WHEN THE CHALLENGES ARE TOUGH, THAT CREATIVITY IS THE STRONGEST.’ Ronnie Liew
Drawing: Daryl Yam
Almost all our Voices agreed that creativity and originality require some degree of resistance or something that people can push against. ‘Creativity is the ability to create something original and novel with limited resources. To see things in an original and true lens, you need to work around your conditions and constraints. You need parameters to do something creative.’ Jovian Lim Many acknowledged that it was the toughest times in their lives that had pushed them to be the most creative. ‘I always felt like I had a story to tell. Suffering and conflict breeds some mode of expression ultimately, right?’ Daryl Yam Although the notion of having resistance or obstacles can be seen as problematic or frustrating, our Voices encouraged us to see this as an opportunity. ‘Constraints can sometimes be defined quite negatively and I find that if you flip it around, the constraints can power creativity.’ Dane Lim
I LOVE ROUTINE, SO IT IS NOT ROUTINE THAT IS THE PROBLEM. IT IS COMFORT THAT IS THE PROBLEM. SINGAPOREANS LOVE COMFORT—IT’S SOMETHING WE ARE WILLING TO SACRIFICE EVERYTHING FOR. Jovian Lim
WE DON’T QUESTION ENOUGH. WE’RE VERY COMFORTABLE ‘YOU HAVE EVERYTHING YOU NEED HERE’, RIGHT? I JUST WORRY THAT NOT A LOT OF PEOPLE HAVE THE OPPORTUNITY TO EXPLORE A DIFFERENT PATH.
But it is this need for creative thinkers to push against a status quo or existing convention that some of our Voices suggested was at odds with the Singaporean context — either because the situation here is too good: ’A lot of the best ideas and products come out from no-hope situations. I have no choice but to make this work. That’s when you really get something good. The problem is that we actually have a lot of choices here.’ Mark Tan — or that the country is too structured and too risk-averse: ‘Creativity. I would say that a lot of times is unhinged, not so structured. Singapore wants creativity to be structured. But it often comes from hardship, like a terrible neighbourhood. You can’t force creativity — you can’t manufacture creativity. Singaporeans as a whole tend to think too much… is this idea going to work, is this idea going to make money, has somebody done it, are people going to like slam it. They’re too afraid of what people think. Or they are too afraid of the act of failing. We are too sheltered as a bunch.’ Darren Tan
COMFORT BREEDS COMPLACENCY
Singapore is rightly proud of its high standard of living. This year, it (again) was ranked number 1 in Asia, and number 25 globally on quality of life7. But it is precisely these creature comforts that our Voices find to be impeding creativity and breeding a sense of complacency amongst the population. ‘Singaporeans feel it is hard to step out of their comfort zone and do something they don’t dare to do. We have no bread and butter issues to fight for, we have no survival issues. All our basic needs are met. Everything else can seem frivolous and privileged compared to our duties of filial piety for our parents and earning enough money to be a good son or daughter.’ Mae Tan This comfort and lack of struggle means that we lack something crucial: ’it really does feel like a fucking utopia. We’re so out of touch. Other places have natural disasters. Other places are acquainted with tragedy. Other places are familiar with conflict, with sadness, with trauma on a personal, regional, national level. All those things teach us important lessons about how we ought to live our lives as humans. All these things give us perspective.’ Daryl Yam
SAFETY AND SECURITY IS ONE OF OUR GREATEST STRENGTHS, BUT WE CANNOT LET THIS LIMIT US IN THE SENSE OF TRYING NEW THINGS, AND NOT BEING AFRAID OF WHAT WE DON’T KNOW. BUT HOW DO WE HAVE PEOPLE WHO CAN’T JUST SURVIVE BUT THRIVE IN OUR WORLD TODAY? THAT COMES FROM THE WILLINGNESS TO BE UNCOMFORTABLE AND STEPPING AWAY FROM WHAT WE KNOW SO WE CAN EXPLORE NEW, POSITIVE, AND CONSTRUCTIVE WAYS OF DOING THINGS. Jiezhen Wu
7 Mercer 20th Annual Quality of Life Study (2018) Available here: https:// www.mercer.com/newsroom/2018quality-of-living-survey.html
It is Aun Koh’s belief that this lack of struggle and absence of ‘tough life choices’ directly impacts how creative the city is. ‘Do I make it home in time for my mom’s homecooked meal at 6pm, or do I go to a hawker centre at 8pm? Those aren’t major tough life choices that are going to define a zeitgeist. We are a comfortable city, so creativity comes in slow waves. There are no enclaves for those… I wouldn’t say angry… but impoverished, angsty creative types that really do drive ideas to the next level.’ Aun Koh But many of the younger respondents were of the opinion that this comfort does not hold Singapore back. ‘We have it easy, but just because our life is breezy doesn’t mean we shouldn’t find new ways of doing things. We are now in a place where everything is so easy, Singaporeans can become complacent.’ Dilllah Zakbah ‘Safety and security is one of our greatest strengths, but we cannot let this limit us in the sense of trying new things, and not being afraid of what we don’t know. But how do we have people who can’t just survive but thrive in our world today? That comes from the willingness to be uncomfortable and stepping away from what we know so we can explore new, positive, and constructive ways of doing things.’ Jiezhen Wu
MEDIOCRITY IS KING
A number of our respondents noted how there is a lack of passion or fire in the Singaporean society. When asked ‘what would Singaporeans fight for?’ several Voices answered ‘nothing’. With Morgan Yeo asserting ‘we don’t feel strongly for anything… we don’t fight for anything.’ ‘We are not naturally people who fight for things.’ Elyn Wong Some reflected on Singapore’s trajectory with dismay, concluding that our lack of fire meant ‘we haven’t produced anyone gangster enough.’ Mindy Tan Whilst others felt that this lack of fight reflected a positive sign: ‘There’s no need to fight because we’ve already won.’ Lishan Soh Others agreed that Singapore is too vanilla to attract the very best creative talent. ‘We are trying to attract the best talent but we lack a bit of dirty, a bit of character. Most bright and talented people want a bit of character and personality, which is lacking in Singapore. We have everything else, but we don’t have personality.’ Glen Goei This doesn’t just impact the creative talent, it can also explain the lack of innovation internally. If we take the innovation that happens within the food and beverage sector as an example, we can see how many creative people find the environment in Singapore frustrating. ‘One guy who’s the leader comes in a very nice concept, and then everybody else jumps on the bandwagon. Singapore trends are basically one person doing something and everybody else just copies it.’ Fred Yap According to Janice Koh, she believes that this recurring phenomenon, replicated across creative industries in Singapore is explained by a combination of a risk-averse society and a conviction that average is acceptable. ‘A fear of failure leads to high averages but almost no or very few peaks of excellence. It’s a lot harder to find those sharp peaks of excellence and innovation because we are not encouraging people to go outside of what is necessary. But maybe people are very happy with high averages. The mentality of “let’s just be average but higher than other people.”’ Janice Koh Many Voices questioned how this attitude will enable Singapore to grow in the future. ‘Even if we end up at the stage where we’re recognised for creativity, it might become too templated. And we might have to change to avoid a lot of repeats.’ Aaron Koh
SINGAPORE TRENDS ARE BASICALLY ONE PERSON DOING SOMETHING AND EVERYBODY ELSE JUST COPYING IT. Fred Yap
IT’S A SAFE COUNTRY, NO BIG PROBLEMS EXCEPT FOR MRT BREAKDOWNS. TRAFFIC IS FINE. FOOD IS FINE. EVERYTHING WORKS IN SINGAPORE. BUT WHY IS THAILAND A MORE CREATIVE COUNTRY? IT’S BECAUSE THEY HAVE MORE PROBLEMS. YOU HAVE TO FIND CREATIVE WAYS TO SOLVE THINGS.
EUNUCHS IN THE PALACE
Several Voices highlighted that a critical driver of more mediocre creative output is the degree to which Singaporeans have freedom of speech and expression. But rather than outright criticism of the government, there is a maturity amongst our Voices in understanding that there has been a trade off with the security and safety of the place they call home. They have traded this for personal liberty: ‘When we want to talk about Singapore’s greatest strengths and weaknesses, I always think of this scale in which there is freedom and then there’s security. If you want more freedom, you need less security. Or you will have less security. If you want more security and comfort, some freedoms have to be taken away. Unfortunately that’s just the case.’ Daryl Yam ‘We are like eunuchs from another era… we have no balls and we have been castrated. Yes, we live in a palace but the price is our liberty and now our privacy.’ Glen Goei
TIME FOR A CHANGE?
Looking ahead, some respondents predict a difficult adjustment for Singaporeans. ‘I think the next 20 years will be very interesting for our nation, but people have to realise that they can’t affect change and expect everything to be as copacetic and wonderful as they’re used to — they need to go through a few years of struggle. That’s the hardest thing for Singaporeans to live with, that they have to suffer.’ Aun Koh Whilst others simply feel that we need to learn from where we have been, and embrace a freer tomorrow in order to grow and evolve. ‘We have a very strong government, a very efficient, pragmatic government which has many upsides and benefits. We are small and things have to run well, but I would love to see more creativity, flexibility, trials, and failures, and an ability to move on and detour because that’s part and parcel of being creative. There needs to be some chaos in order to find the right way.’ Janice Koh
WE ARE LIKE EUNUCHS FROM ANOTHER ERA… WE HAVE NO BALLS AND WE HAVE BEEN CASTRATED. YES, WE LIVE IN A PALACE BUT THE PRICE IS OUR LIBERTY AND NOW OUR PRIVACY. Glen Goei TENSION WANTED!
OR CAN WE WORK WITH WHAT WE’VE GOT?
Rather than adopting a Western take on how to best be creative, is there something unique within our society that we can draw upon? Why should the Western world define what the journey to creativity is? ‘Singapore Tourism Board (STB) was trying to sell Singapore as a creative hub. There was an older American arts journalist who asked, ‘You said that you guys are doing art, but you haven’t suffered so what do you know about art?’ I was super offended. Why must art be done in one way — the tortured and tormented way? Why can’t art stem from positivity? We have our own style.’ Elyn Wong ‘Creativity is trying to solve something within constraints. And Asia is tremendously good at that. We typically feel as if we have less, so we try to figure out a way to work within the constraints, so whether it is logistics or dealing with more political or government constraints, you know it is just different.’ Ronnie Liew At the same time, a government that is building an efficient and harmonious society, and solving problems that we face, can also hone a specific type of creativity. ‘The good thing about government is that the canvas is everything and everywhere. Pain points and anger are a good place to start because you have to change things. There is a lot of inspiration in the problems you see.’ Philip Man Furthermore, to write the whole society off as vanilla belies the emerging creative class. In fact, there is creativity here, you just have to look for it. ‘Wrestling with the constraints of being here has helped me to become creative. I really resent when people say Singapore is really boring compared to other countries and other cities, because I don’t think that’s true. Everyone in Singapore is constantly negotiating the demands of the society, and becoming the kind of people that they want to become. I see the art scene, visual arts, theatre, the literary scene... everything is blossoming and people are interested to consume these cultural products as well.’ Amanda Chong Finally, Singapore’s historic success story and rapid development from ex-colony to regional powerhouse is something that we shouldn’t forget too easily. Yes, the successes we have built may make us slightly risk averse, but we should remember where we came from and tap into that as we move forward into the 21st century. ‘If we think about Singapore 53 years ago and shortly after independence when the British forces withdrew, the first job we had to do was to create jobs for Singaporeans. And the second thing was, at that point in time, the idea of welcoming foreign multinational companies to invest by providing industrial land, infrastructure, and reformed labour laws. Investment in basic education with emphasis on technical skills was a completely novel idea that is truly creative… and there are many of these examples in Singapore that come out of constraints.’ Dane Lim ‘We stand up and fight when you feel like Singapore is coming under some threat. That is when I love to see the Singaporean spirit come out. We’ll fight for making things better and that spirit needs to come out a lot more.’ Georgina Koh
I REALLY RESENT WHEN PEOPLE SAY SINGAPORE IS REALLY BORING COMPARED TO OTHER COUNTRIES AND OTHER CITIES. Amanda Chong
WE ARE A NATION OF BLIND LIONS.
WHAT WOULD SINGAPORE FIGHT FOR?
WE WOULD FIGHT FOR FOOD. Verena Tay
We asked the question ‘What would Singaporeans fight for?’ to each of our Voices and we’d be lying if we said we weren’t surprised by the consistency of their responses. Whilst a good number of people agreed that family, friends, security and harmony are all important, what struck us was how consistently our 72 Voices passionately believed that Singapore would stand up and go into battle for something seemingly so simple—food. In fact, over a third of our Voices felt that food, over and above anything else, would provoke Singaporeans to take up arms. Clearly, Singapore’s diverse and vibrant cuisine is well known and something that we are rightly proud of. Food is clearly a creative canvas that Singaporeans can use to readily express their diverse identities, heritage and tastes, which in some part explains the appreciation of this rich aspect of our society. However, we felt that the enthusiasm and passion for food went somewhat deeper than mere patriotism or creative respect—food is also a way of bringing us together. In such a diverse country, where so many different cultures and peoples live in such a small space, the common yet simple enjoyment of food together provides a powerful glue that binds us as one nation. Rather than weave enthusiastic quotes about food into a chapter complete with our analysis, we wanted to use the topic of food as an opportunity to showcase the rich back and forth that this question elicited in our interviews. The quotes speak for themselves, so sit back and enjoy the range of perspectives below just like you would at the kopitiam…
Drawing: Elyn Wong
THE ONLY THING PEOPLE FEEL FOR IS FOOD. THE REASON WHY FOOD IS SUCH A NATIONAL INTEREST IS BECAUSE FIRSTLY WE ARE LATCHING ONTO IT AS A CULTURAL ICON; SECONDLY, THERE ARE NO OTHER VICES THAT SINGAPOREANS ARE ALLOWED TO HAVE. SEX IS RARE, WE LIVE WITH OUR PARENTS. ALCOHOL AND CIGARETTES ARE EXPENSIVE. THERE ARE NO DRUGS. THE ONLY THING YOU HAVE LEFT IS FOOD. Jon Chan
THE ONE THING THAT WE MIGHT FIGHT FOR IS OUR HAWKER CULTURE. THERE ARE MANY DIFFERENT WAYS TO FIGHT FOR SOMETHING… THE OUTWARD PRESERVATION OF HAWKER CENTRES, WHICH MIGHT BE LED BY CERTAIN BODIES BUT THERE’S ALSO A MODERN WAY OF FIGHTING FOR HAWKER CULTURE—HAWKERPRENEURS. IN THEIR OWN WAY THEY ARE TRYING TO KEEP THE HAWKER TRADITION ALIVE. Tania Chan
SINGAPOREANS GET VERY DEFENSIVE OVER FOOD. IT’S QUITE SAD, BECAUSE IF YOU TAKE AWAY FOOD, WE DON’T HAVE A LOT TO STAND FOR. ANYTIME YOU TAKE AN OPINION ON COMPARING A MALAYSIAN DISH AND A SINGAPOREAN DISH, IT’S A SURE WAY TO START A FIGHT. THAT’S ONE OF THE THINGS THAT WE’RE VERY PASSIONATE ABOUT HERE. WE’RE PROTECTIVE OF THAT PART OF OUR NATIONAL IDENTITY. Mark Tan
WHEN IT COMES TO THINGS LIKE FIGHTING FOR OUR CULTURE, THE PEOPLE FIGHT FOR FOOD. TAKE ‘CRISPY RENDANG’ AS AN EXAMPLE— SUDDENLY WE’RE BANDING TOGETHER WITH OUR NEIGHBOURING COUNTRIES TO APPEAL TO THE WORLD NOT TO CHANGE OUR CULTURE. IN THE PAST, SOMEONE COMPLAINED HOW COOKING CURRY SMELLS AND SINGAPOREANS CREATED A COOK CURRY DAY AS A REACTION, A PUSHBACK. WE ARE FUCKING WEAK… BUT OUR PRIDE IS IN OUR FOOD. OUR SINGLISH, OUR COLLOQUIAL WAY OF LIVING. Dillah Zakbah
Drawing: Steve Lawler Photo: Daniel Ang
BUT I DONâ€™T THINK SINGAPOREANS WOULD FIGHT FOR FOOD. WE ARE VERY PRACTICAL PEOPLE, WE WILL SAY IF YOU WANT GOOD FOOD THEN GO TO MALAYSIA.
SINGAPOREANS WOULD FIGHT FOR MCDONALDâ€™S CURRY SAUCE, WIFI AND CRISPY RENDANG.
HOME IS WHERE THE HEART IS, THROUGH THE STOMACH. In Good Company
WE’D FIGHT FOR OUR FOOD. WE WILL FIGHT FOR THE RIGHT TO CLAIM WE HAVE GOOD FOOD. Charlie Lim
WE’D FIGHT FOR THAT LAST PLATE OF CHICKEN RICE. Vanessa Paranjothy
SINGAPOREANS WILL FIGHT FOR THEIR FOOD… ALL OUT TO SAVE THE AUTHENTIC SIGNATURE DISHES. Mindy Tan
PEOPLE DON’T REALLY HAVE STRONG OPINIONS ABOUT SINGAPOREANS MORE THAN YOU KNOW, ‘YOU GUYS LIKE FOOD’, OR IF I GO TO MYANMAR THE TAXI DRIVERS CAN BE LIKE, ‘OKAY, OF COURSE YOU WOULD LIKE TO GO OFF THE PLANE AND GO FOR TWO HOURS TO EAT FISH NOODLES, BECAUSE YOU’RE FROM SINGAPORE’. THAT’S REALLY THE ONLY THING THAT DEFINES US. Adrianna Tan
THERE ARE A FEW THINGS THAT SINGAPOREANS ARE VERY PASSIONATE ABOUT. WE ARE EXTREMELY PASSIONATE ABOUT OUR FOOD AND PART OF THAT ACTUALLY COMES FROM WANTING TO HOLD ON TO OUR IDENTITY. FOOD HAS SO MUCH TO DO WITH OUR HERITAGE, TRADITION AND CULTURE. THE REASON WHY SINGAPOREANS FIGHT FOR OUR FOOD TO BE AUTHENTIC, AND TO BE OURS, IS BECAUSE THIS IS OVERALL A FIGHT FOR OUR IDENTITY. Qixuan Lim
Drawing: Jovian Lim, Clara Yee
I REMEMBER GETTING QUITE CONFUSED BY THE ANGER SHOWN AT THE FOOD JUDGES FOR CRISPY RENDANG. IT FEELS LIKE A COLONIAL HANGOVER, RIGHT? Sonny Liew
WE WOULD FIGHT FOR FOOD, IT IS OUR IDENTITY AND I LOVE IT. I THINK ABOUT FOOD SO MUCH IT IS CRAZY. WE HAVE GOT ALL THESE FOODS IN SINGAPORE THAT PEOPLE LOVE — WE ARE A MELTING POT, IT IS OUR HERITAGE.
Drawing: Dillah Zakbah Photo: Luanne Poh
IN ORDER TO BE CREATIVE YOU HAVE GOT TO BE BRAVE. Morgan Yeo
SINGAPOREANS ARE THE ONLY THING HOLDING OURSELVES BACK. Darren Tan
THIS IS YOUR COUNTRY, YOU’D BETTER DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT. IT IS YOU DOING SOMETHING NO MATTER HOW CYNICAL, HOW MUCH A RIGHT BRAIN YOU ARE, HOW SKEPTICAL YOU ARE. YOU CAN’T JUST SIT BACK. Kenny Leck
Singapore November 2018
Drawing: Russell Ong of Tell Your Children
Any piece of research that engages 72 respondents undoubtedly uncovers tensions and differences of opinion. Yet in this book, where we have engaged a vocal and creative group of people to reflect on the state of creativity in their nation, difference is certainly writ large. Whether it is assessing Singaporeans’ creative abilities versus their logical faculties, debating the merits and limitations of the Singaporean education system or even assessing how the diminutive size of our country has impacted our trajectory on the world stage, this book addresses the central debates that the creative community faces in Singapore today. Across all our Voices, for better or worse, there was an overwhelming sentiment that creativity, and the creative class, in Singapore is very much a work in progress. Some did indeed recognise that our tendency to complain is core to our Singaporean identity, but simultaneously others felt that this gives us an energy and an ability to look at ourselves critically and honestly. Whichever side of the fence you fall on, across the different points raised throughout our book, one thing is hard to deny — the sense of momentum and energy amongst this new creative class is palpable. The central question many of our Voices addressed, and indeed much of the content in this book aims to explore, is whether or not we can rise together to tackle the challenge that this ‘next stage of nationbuilding’ presents. Agnes Kwek As some argued, we are on the cusp of ‘something fresh and exciting’ Malvina Kang, with optimism and vibrancy exuding from our Voices as they contemplate the Singapore of tomorrow, whilst others believe we’ve got more work to do to understand ourselves, define who we are and what we stand for on the world stage. Either way, the responsibility falls upon us, as the new creative class, to write our next chapter. So, to all of us in the creative community in Singapore: Mai Tu Liao!
THANKS AND ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS We hope you have enjoyed reading this book as much as we have putting it together. Clearly a project like this could not have been undertaken alone, so weâ€™d just like to end by saying thank you to the following people. All 72 of our outspoken, fascinating and charismatic Voices, without whom this book would not have been possible. 72andSunny Sydney, for your generosity, guidance and of course inspiration in the first place. Dr Jonathan Woolley and Patrick White, who painstakingly proofread and edited the manuscript. And, Jacqueline Chang, for her stellar photographic talent that she volunteered so readily. Written by 72andSunny Singapore