Home to more than 100 ethnic groups who speak hundreds of languages and dialects, Southeast Asia is one of the most culturally diverse regions in the world. It is also rich in natural resources, with its 4.5 million-square-kilometre area supporting a fifth of the world’s plant, animal and marine species. But despite this bounty of treasures for craft and design, the region has long been overshadowed by its surrounding creative capitals, including India, Japan, South Korea and China.
A change is underway, however, with the emergence of a new generation of Southeast Asian designers. Mostly born after the 1980s, they grew up in a time when the region prospered through trade and investment; this was the outcome of decades of post-war industrialisation precipitated by territories seizing their independence after more than a century of colonial rule. It remoulded a region that had for centuries been a vital hub in the spice trade into a major exporter of diverse materials for manufacturing as well as an attractive manufacturing base for international companies.
Along with Southeast Asia’s growing, globalised economies came a wave of modernisation and cultural globalisation that utterly transformed the region. In the 1980s and 1990s, for example, McDonald’s expanded from its first outlet in Singapore into Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines and Brunei. In 1995, MTV began broadcasting an Asian edition throughout the region. Skyscrapers rose across the rapidly growing cities, with the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur claiming the title of world’s tallest building in 1998. This arrival of modern ideas and cultures in a region steeped in tradition created a melting pot of cross-cultural interactions that have only been accelerated as the region has hooked up to high-speed internet and the increasingly globalised world.
Emerging from life between the local and the global is a new kind of Southeast Asian designer who desires to participate in creative culture that is unbound by conventional geographical boundaries. Not satisfied with their local design education, which until recently focused on equipping designers with the technical skills to serve manufacturing economies, some are going on to study in more design-forward places such as Europe, Australia and the United States, where they are encouraged to develop their creativity. And after graduating with top honours and going on to work for leading global designers and companies, some are returning home to Southeast Asia to ignite change in their local design scenes.
➜ Read the four essays in the EMERGE publication
Energizer lithium batteries. The motor that powers Dyson cordless vacuum cleaners and hairdryers. Robots that clean buildings around the world. These are some examples of “Made in Singapore” products today. It may surprise some that manufacturing goes on in a city-state better known for its services industries — which generated almost 70% of its gross domestic product in 2020. But making and crafting products has long been a part of Singapore as far back as the 13th century when it was a part of a vast trading network spread across its neighbouring ports and regions. Traders and immigrants brought from their homelands trades such as food processing, sign painting, furniture making and tailoring to support everyday living in the port city.
Such cottage industries grew under the British rule of Singapore from the 19th century, but began facing stiffer competition after World War II when the popularisation of mass production led to cheaper goods. In the 1960s, Singapore also embarked on a state-led industrialisation drive to secure its economic survival and eventual independence in 1965. The newly-elected local government set up the Economic Development Board (EDB) to woo industrialists from overseas and support the modernisation of local industries, reshaping what was “Made in Singapore”. Instead of simply meeting the needs of the local market, industries were encouraged to produce for export too. The government implemented a series of “interlocking economic, land and labour policies” that favoured multinationals and big businesses over cottage industries. The EDB also helped local producers improve their products for export through the Industrial Research Unit (IRU) and the Light Industries Services (LIS). Both were staffed with experts from Western developed nations, including USA and Australia, to consult Singapore manufacturers on how to meet international technical standards as well as employ “modern” marketing and industrial design.
The resulting output was “Made in Singapore” goods tailored to the world. For instance, furniture produced locally during the 1970s and early 1980s largely came in the Scandinavian style as it “won for their makers a steady export trade to countries like the U.S., Canada, Europe and Australia”.The overseas market was not only more lucrative, but manufacturers blamed a lack of local demand for “Made in Singapore” furniture too. According to then secretary of the Singapore Furniture Manufacturers and Trades Association, Singaporeans had a prejudice against locally made goods and preferred European furniture from West Germany, Italy and France.
An exception to the trend of shaping “Made in Singapore” products to suit overseas tastes was in local souvenirs where a distinct national identity was essential. An early 1960s LIS survey noted that Singapore lacked “souvenirs with a strong local identity” and most were imported from neighbouring countries. One reason was the lack of local designers and that the young nation’s identity was still in the making. As a local carver of miniature sampans and tongkangs summed up his dilemma in 1970: “Today’s tourists don’t want them. They tell me my carvings are not national. But I can’t think of a single design that’ll represent Singapore.”
➜ Read the full essay in the “Design & Made in Singapore” exhibition by New Optimistic Works
This book was born out of an observation. While reading a recent newspaper review of Antigen Rapid Test (ART) kits, this sentence jumped out at me:
“Aesthetics aside, all the kits were found to be very similar, with only slight differences in procedure.”
Aesthetics aside? In just two words, the reviewer dissected the kits’ design into form and function and so casually dismissed the former. At first, I was irritated by the assumption that form in design was mere styling, or even worse, a distraction. That quickly grew into an existential crisis: If aesthetics could be so conveniently cast aside, then why have I spent all of my adult life researching and writing about design?
So I decided to compile a decade’s worth of writings into a book. The 30 essays in Aesthetics Aside: Observations on Design in the Everyday come from various points in my career, including my very first story decoding a city’s identity by examining the typefaces on its streets to a recent reflection on the role of imitation in design and life. Each offers a journey beyond the stylish “designer” world, on to the designed graphics, environments and objects that we encounter daily.
Design never looked so ordinary, and extraordinary.
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