Tag: Singapore Culture

Dear Friend

Dear Friend,

It has been two weeks since I returned to tropical Singapore. The sweltering heat outside makes me yearn for the cooler weather during my recent trip to Tallinn, Copenhagen and Helsinki. More than comfort, I find that living with the seasons makes one more sensitive to the environment. The daily need to respond to the weather — be it making plans or dressing accordingly — reminds us of how we relate to nature. But weather along the equator is significantly less drastic. In fact, I used to think we had no seasons until I attended a discussion on produce in Singapore last week. One of the chefs reminded us that different species of fish thrive in the seas around our island depending on the time of the year. But as few of us cook and shop in supermarkets selling only imported produce, we have lost such knowledge of how nature works…

Download a PDF of the letter and read other issues here

From now till then

What will Singapore look like in 2030? That is the question in the minds of many Singaporeans nowadays. The government made the nation sit up and reflect on its future when it released reports in January 2013 on how the city-state could possibly change in the next decade and a half: not only would there be more people, land use would also be more intensive.

For many, it was shocking to envision such a city. How could Singapore take anymore development when signs of aging are starting to show just two years before it turns 50 in 2015?

Over the last few years, its highly reliable infrastructure broke down several times, leading to flooded streets and disrupted train services. Last year, it witnessed its first industrial strike in decades, led by bus drivers recruited from China, who have become a common sight in a city increasingly reliant on migrant workers. The once squeaky clean government has also come under scrutiny with several of its honchos facing corruption accusations. Most recently, a Member of Parliament from the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) resigned over an extra-marital affair. This triggered a by-election which saw the opposition party gain yet another seat in the government. While the PAP was the only party in power since independence for over two decades, there are now 7 elected from the opposition Workers’ Party — albeit a tiny fraction out of a total of 87 seats.

Such cases have led observers living in Singapore to go as far as to suggest that the city is living in a “new normal”. It may be premature, but it has certainly got Singaporeans thinking about possibilities. The government has even tried to harness this energy by recently initiating a “National Conversation”, promising to listen to what Singapore citizens wanted, so that it can shape its future policies.

As part of this new generation of Singaporeans who are in the 20s and 30s, I do hear murmurings from my peers who envision a different city from what we grew up in. While those before us may have emerged from the oft-told struggle in which Singapore went from Third World to First, we grew up in a city that became a global city in the ‘90s, renowned for its efficiency and roaring economic success. While we may have worshipped the Western world then and  were proud to have made English our language of choice,  the tides have changed two decades on. Singapore finds itself looking towards Asia for its future. We now find ourselves — grandchildren of immigrants from Asia — caught in-between our historical roots with the region and how comfortably assimilated we have become with the Western world.

The truth, perhaps, is we are rootless — disconnected from our ancestors with not much else in Singapore to latch on to either. It is perhaps why so many of my peers and I have started to mine our histories to find out who we are. Whether it is the love for all things retro or a kind of wide-eyed wonder towards anything from the past, we often seem trapped in a nostalgia for a past we never lived through, but yearn to have grown up in. Any news of the impending demolishing of an old place in Singapore becomes an opportunity for us to whip out cameras and video recorders to stake our ‘memory‘ of a city lost to the future.

This question of who we are and who is this city becomes even more pronounced as Singaporeans and Singapore become more cosmopolitan. Our insecurity and inability to say who we are shows in how xenophobic we are nowadays — a kind of refusal to reflect on who we are, but instead assert the claim that they are not us. 

In these uncertain times, I find comfort in seeing other Singaporeans getting their hands dirty to create change. This city guide is an attempt to map out some of these efforts, and help us navigate the possible Singapores that are emerging. From its people, places and phenomena, there are signs of what the future holds for this city.

Nguan’s Singapore sets the tone with his pictures that captures the mood of Singaporeans as they go about their everyday lives. Two interviews with The Thought Collective and studioKALEIDO give insights to the new values and ideas that are shaping the city’s future, while August 9 Portraits by Sam & Sam reflects the wishes its citizens have for the nation as recorded on its birthday last year.

A tour of spaces in Singapore captures how the city’s landscape is changing as well. In Wide Open Possibilities, experience up-and-coming neighbourhood Jalan Besar as mapped out by local independent travel guide alter:sg, while a fictional essay from the literary magazine Ceriph, shows an aspect of the city through the eyes of a young Singapore writer.

Finally, in Anew Singapore, we explore some of the ongoing trends in the city as well as its design, magazine, food, and music scenes that hint at the values that matter to young Singaporeans today what might define their tomorrows.

When one flips back at this guide in 2030, how much of Singapore will we recognise? The journey there starts now.

Written in 2013 for The Alpine Review as part of a proposed city guide on Singapore. The section was never published. Thanks to Nguan, Dan Koh, Shin Lin, Rebecca Toh, Iliyas Ong, Samuel He, Sam Chin, Benjamin Koh, Winnie Wu, and Amanda Lee-Koe for their help on the guide.

SG Design: Consumption or Culture Cultivation?

When I first began writing about design, an editor of an Asian design magazine categorised my essays as only interesting to designers. Instead, I needed to re-tune my writing for “design consumers” if I was to write for their magazine.

The remark gave me much clarity in what I sought to write about. I’ve never wanted to sell or promote the coolest or latest designs , but I’ve always seen design as a part of our everyday life, as well as a product of our culture and times . But such a view is rare amongst how many in Singapore view design. One of the most telling indicators for me is how design is often represented in the local mainstream media. When design gets coverage in newspapers like The Straits Times and Business Times, design is usually portrayed as a consumer product: designer furniture, stylish interiors, and dream homes. The same goes for many magazines about design that I find in Singapore.

Such a dominant view of design’s role in society probably explains why there was hardly a reaction from designers and architects over the fact that Singapore sat out of the Venice Architecture Biennale this year. As compared to local artists currently going brouhaha over the government’s decision to pull out of the contemporary art version of the Venice Biennale next year, the response has been rather muted except for some comments elicited for an article on The Straits Times over the weekend (Singapore skips architecture biennale. 1 September, 2012). After participating in every edition since 2004, building national pavilions around themes such as Second Nature (2004), Singapore Built and Unbuilt (2006), Singapore Supergarden (2008), and 1000 Singapores (2010), Singapore designers and architects will not be able to showcase their ideas, culture and work on an international platform this year.

While DesignSingapore Council has chosen to remain “tight-lipped about this year’s non-participation”, its executive director Jeffery Ho told the newspaper that the council was focusing on other events such as the Milan Furniture Fair, Maison et Objet in Paris and International Contemporary Furniture Fair in New York. As Colin Seah from Ministry of Design pointed out in the report, this indicates the council’s direction to concentrate on “more commercial and trade events” — which supports my view that the council has become more interested simply promoting design for economic consumption. From what I understand, the Venice Architecture Biennale has always been an exhibition about ideas in design and its role in arts and culture as opposed to the business of selling design.

This latest pullout follows in the wake of the postponement of what was supposed to be the fourth Singapore Design Festival last year. There is still no news if the council will hold the festival this year, traditionally happening between October and November. What we can say for sure is that policymakers are reviewing their strategy of promoting and supporting design, perhaps aptly so since next year will be a decade since the council was set up.

A cue for the future of how the Singapore government will support and promote design can be found in the council’s plans for the upcoming National Design Centre due in 2013. It seems that government policies are shifting back to the view that design is for commerce and trade alone. This marks a shift in the original agenda set by the council’s late founding director, Dr. Milton Tan.

As one of his staff recalled in a eulogy for him that was published in The Design Society Journal No. 02, “Milton’s eventual vision for Singapore design was formed with the Ministry’s support… His research in design creativity also informed him that a healthy design strategy had to be integrated with culture, craft, and inspiration. This is why Dsg is in the ministry leading the creative industries, and not trade and industry. Though frequently challenged by MICA to deliver the economic numbers when formulating the design strategy for the next five years, Milton continued to push the cultural agenda.”

Could the time be up for the council and it finally needs to justify continued support for design with indicators of how it has benefitted Singapore economically? How will national design policies that ignore culture and affect the industry and community in Singapore?

This is a similar concern raised almost 15 years ago in a 1998 news report in the Business Times reviewing what was then the decade-old International Design Forum held in Singapore, another government initiative for design. The question was asked if the now defunct forum had become “too commercially oriented at the expense of highlighting design in its pure form”.

An optimistic view would be to say the council has laid a foundation and the growing community of designers and architects can continue cultivating the seeds of cultural evolution. But has the scene arrived at this point? It’ll be sad to see the council’s decade-long work of pushing design beyond the realm of business go to waste, but what is even more painful is to realise this is something that has happened before. And likely to happen all over again.