Singapore Design: Asian or Western?

It was a gathering of editors from design magazines around Asia — Malaysia, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore — but while the other editors spoke about their country’s respective design scene in Chinese, I was only comfortable to do mine in English and had to depend on a translator.

This odd situation at the Kaohsiung Design Festival’s Editor — Chief Editor’s Forum left me wondering if Singapore Design is “Asian” or “Western”?

Historically, design came to Singapore from the West. The earliest design studios were started by expatriates from UK, Australia and New Zealand and later, Singaporeans schooled in Western design schools. The choice of English as the country’s working language has also made Western design more relevant to us as opposed to that from Asia, which comes in a variety of languages.

Moreover, the concept of Asian in Singapore has also been associated with ‘tradition’. One reason we are taught an Asian mother tongue is so that we do not lose our cultural bearings. But other than that, the development of this country has always been oriented towards the West, which is seen as both economically powerful and culturally influential. In these conditions, “Asian” in Singapore is seen as historical and backward, which creates a further distance between young Singaporean designers and Asia.

However, the rise in China in recent years and the near future may change this. The editors from Taiwan and Hong Kong lamented how many of their best designers have flocked there to practice their design because that’s where the business is. It’ll be interesting to see how Singapore designers react to this, especially since the Singapore government has been very supportive of businesses here to chase the Chinese market.

When asked at the forum about what I thought of design in Asia, my view (in English) was that Singapore designers did not look towards Asia, with the exception of Japan and maybe, Hong Kong. But then again, it’s because these two territories, especially Japan, have received a kind of ‘international’ recognition. I cited language as a major barrier to our understanding of Asian design. Though Singaporeans are bilingual, our primary language is English. More importantly, I didn’t think Singapore designers bothered about this question of their design being “Asian”, “Western” or even “Singaporean” — nationalism or regionalism was irrelevant in a Singapore that wants to be a “global city”. What mattered to design studios today is that they had their own voice in their work.

Surprisingly, the speaker from Taiwan’s Shopping Design, Chan Wei-Hsiung, echoed similar sentiments. Here was a veteran creative director, double most our ages, exhorting Taiwanese designers to globalise so as to bring their conversations outside of Taiwan. He also felt that the future of design was all about individual choices and styles.

The trip up to Taiwan has opened my mind and eyes to designers in Asia and I’m curious if they do have something to offer to the global stage. For one, I realised Taiwan is a good place to learn about Japanese design because while I don’t understand Japanese, I can get access to their writings and works translated to Chinese. For now, I’ve cobbled together a few links related to Asian design below. Let me know if you have more!

  • Where You Going? A duo trying to find design in Southeast Asia
  • art4D A design magazine based in Thailand
  • Cutout Magazine A Malaysian design magazine
  • Malaysian Design Archive A repository of old Malaysian design
  • PPaper A Taiwan design magazine created to introduce design to the masses. Sold in 7-11s!
  • Shopping Design Another Taiwanese magazine that looks at design in everyday life
  • Aaron Nieh Contemporary Taiwanese designer
  • 號外 (Hao Wai) A Hong Kong cultural and lifestyle magazine that has been around since 1976
  • Kohei Sugiura A veteran Japanese designer who has been thinking about Asian design
  • Sulki & Min A contemporary Korean design duo

5 comments

  1. reader says:

    I read your post with interest but also felt that the subject of design coming from the West is miscast. By this I believe you mean design as a professional practice in today’s sense of the word came from the West and not the notion of design itself. Throughout the short history of Singapore, Asian design practice, distribution and circulation (whether they are indigenously Malay or constitute a migrant culture such as Chinese) existed side by side with what you called ‘Western’ design – in architecture, clothes, household objects, furniture. Therefore design – as aesthetic and sensibility – is not by any stretch of the imagination exclusively Western.

    I suspect what you mean by ‘Western’ is actually ‘modern’, in that case it’s not so much a question of West vs East but ‘modernity vs tradition’. But even this binary is problematic and inaccurate as exemplified in your example of Japan and Hong Kong whose designers generally have forged a collective sensibility that encapsulated both their traditional aesthetic yet modern.

    And the reason why it took a while for Singapore culture to come about is simply because Singapore was a young nation. A short stroll back in history will tell you the shifts in the people’s sense of belonging. Prior to that the British practised a divide and rule policy, each community had their own design vernacular and seldom do they meet. In the Fifties it was the Nanyang fengge as well as the Malayan spring. These were attempts to forge a synthesis between Southeast Asian aesthetics and East Asian sensibility. Until Singapore was separated from Malaysia was it required to forge ahead and conceive a national culture. Even so, I don’t think designers were slavishly following every trend in the West. As such, modern design in Singapore would need to be understood as instances of how received forms are localised and contextualised.

  2. j u s t i n . z says:

    Thanks for your comment reader! I agree that one aspect that has defined ‘Western vs Asian’ is ‘Modernity vs Tradition’, but I’m also wondering if contemporary design practices can be seen in this binary. And as you have pointed out, it is problematic — as with most binaries. Besides geography and language, can we really define an Asian aesthetic and sensibility today? I’m not sure.

    Yes, Singapore’s culture is young so this idea of identity is still in conversation. It’s interesting you mention the Nanyang Fengge and Malayan Spring, I understand these were very evident in fine art, but I wonder if there are any commercial design pieces that reflect this? It’s obviously more difficult because designers also had to create to clients’ requests, which I’ve been told has been a pursuit of a very “international” and “modern” look.

    I wish we had an archive to begin such studies. There is definitely a link between art and design, but I haven’t come across much of it except for the fact that early commercial artists were fine artists from NAFA seeking to make a living.

  3. Another Reader says:

    To understand design is to understand it heritage and culture.

    A real Singapore’s design neither lies on Western nor Asian (East Asia).
    The answer lies on the South East Asian ( Austronesian) themselves.
    They are born craftsmen and artist.
    But due to colonialism and economic changes, most of them couldn’t ply to their craft as it was redundant or prohibited during those period.

    Examples of South East Asian History in arts and design…
    Sphere of influence Srivijaya-
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Srivijaya

    Architecture
    Borodubur http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Borobudur-Nothwest-view.jpg
    Angkor Wat http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Angkor_Wat

    Sphere of influence Majapahit-
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Majapahit

    Architecture
    Kidal Temple http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kidal_temple
    or the reminiscence of Majapahit’s Design is in Bali

    Design
    Historically, they are ship builders where they use it to travel from places to places within their sphere of the Malay Archipelago.

    Graphic
    Batik

    Austronesian design motifs are usually “curves”

    Thais-
    http://www.fotolia.com/id/24177972

    Khmer
    http://www.shutterstock.com/pic-54049378/stock-photo-khmer-design-from-banteai-srei.html

    Malay
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/16125505@N08/3327332208/

    Maori
    http://closetpirate.deviantart.com/art/maori-design-15682854

    Indonesian
    http://www.123rf.com/photo_10111168_indonesian-fabric-design-details.html

    Why are they similar and who are these Austronesian?

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