Singapore's New Cs

 

Collaboration, Creativity and Community are the driving forces that give Singapore its real edge.

 

First published on publichouse.sg in June 2012

“A great city,” said Victorian British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, “is some great idea.” Rome, he continues, represents conquest; Jerusalem, faith; and Athens, art. What then does Singapore represent? What is the idea behind this burgeoning, cosmopolitan, modern city-state that is very small but always dreams big?

 

For decades it was the colloquial ‘five Cs’—condo, credit card, country club, cash and car—symbols of status and success, coupled with tight government control. That meant multi-million dollar real estate developments but no rock concerts, Lamborghinis but no long hair (for men) and lots of brightly lit shopping malls but less in the way of arts and culture. Fortunately, that has been changing.

 

Next to commercial success—which remains a golden pillar in Singapore society—other Cs are bubbling up: collaboration, creativity and community, that are steadily transforming Singapore into a vibrant, buzzing ball of energy and new ideas.

 

The fabulous Gardens By the Bay are no doubt one of the most visible examples of this. Set to throw open its gates in July, this feat of sustainable landscape architecture and engineering will feature its already much talked about two climate-controlled conservatories, sci-fi super trees and stylish restaurants and bars, including the aerial Indochine perched on the top of a super tree, and will transform the Marina Bay area into a urban park of the future. 

 

“When I first came to Singapore in 2000,” says Andrew Grant of landscape architecture consultancy Grant Associates and the brains behind the one-of-a-kind Gardens by the Bay, “I was amazed at the lushness of the city landscape, but there was nothing of the vibrancy we see today. The city had a corporate sterility and showed little of the ambition and distinctiveness of new development it has now.”

 

The Heart of the Matter

Beyond the obvious there is so much running through the bloodstream of the city. Jazzing up Singapore’s business-suited uniformity are a hive of new ways of thinking and doing in a myriad of fields, from fashion to nightlife, design, architecture, civil society and entrepreneurship, to name some, that look forwards, jump out of the box and for whom boundaries and definitions simply don’t exist.

 

“People need to be willing to fail and resist the judgment of peers,” says Kennel’s Ho. “We also need a culture that champions passion as the basis for pursuits and not material gain.” Zarch’s Chan agrees: “We need to see failure as part of learning and not over compensate to find a solution. Getting results should not be the only end point; processes should be allowed to take place too.” “Look at art for example,” says Kapoor. “We create artistic spaces and then fill them with only paintings that sell—what’s the point of that? Art is multi-dimensional and evolutionary, and should be presented as such.”

 

Ho perhaps puts is most succinctly. “What’s missing are systems that build the entrepreneurial character, not the entrepreneurial mind,” she says. “There’s a lot of infrastructure to help entrepreneurs, like incubation centres and training schemes, which is knowledge, but what we need is soft capital, a supportive mindset that cultivates confidence and resilience in the face of change. That has to do with the way members of society respond to each other, the way parents support or disapprove of their children’s choices, for example, and the way the education system funnels us down certain paths.”
 

“We need a new attitude,” sums up Kapoor.

 

Moment of the Future

If the creative sparks flying all around Singapore are anything to go by, this new attitude is well on its way to taking root and sprouting new shoots. “The most positive and significant change is in the outlook and enthusiasm of youth in Singapore,” elaborates Ho, “who feel proud of the country, excited about the opportunities here and eager to effect change. At a recent Kennel night, 24-year old founders of a Singapore startup were talking about how they had previously thought being overseas was more exciting, but who are now happy and excited to be in Singapore and who want to contribute to its growing scene.”

 

American thinker and critic of urban architecture Lewis Mumford said “The chief function of the city is to convert power into form, energy into culture, dead matter into living symbols of art, and biological reproduction into social creativity.” That seems to be the new heartbeat of Singapore, and one that will the shape the life and soul of the country and its people going forwards.

 

Zarch’s Chan cites another famous thinker, Michel Foucault. “We are at the moment,” quotes Chan.

 

Singapore is certainly in a moment. And if we seize this moment, the future looks promising indeed.

 

 

Singapore’s wonderboy architect and set designer, Randy Chan of Zarch Collaboratives, whose high-profile achievements include creating the Singapore Pavilion in the 2005 World Expo in Japan, two Venice Biennales, the stage design for three National Day Parades and who is now working on the Singapore Pavilion for this year’s World Expo in Yeosu, Korea, remarks: “In the last few years, there are many spaces that have grown organically in Singapore. Night and Day bar and gallery, which was voted one of the coolest underground bars in the world by The New York Times, Haji Lane with its indie shops and live music, Little India that has been energized by creative startups; and all this complemented by arts schools like The School of the Arts and LASALLE College of the Arts, which provide future human capital for feeding this spirit of creativity.”

 

“I see this spirit everywhere!” echoes Renyung Ho, one of the founders of collaborative workspace Kennel, whose ethos is that entrepreneurship is a path to self-actualization and who thus view people for ‘who they are, not what they do.’ “I see it in new publications such as Underscore by design collective HJGHER and Bracket by independent cultural think tank ANONYMOUS; done with only pure passion and no hint of ego. I see it in events like conversation series think&drink by social business Syinc; Creative Mixer by typography-led design agency Relay, that brings together an explosive mix of creatives, entrepreneurs and hackers; and the interdisciplinary ROJAK nights by the imaginative Farmers—all of which are about people sharing their ideas.”

 

“Our fashion community continues to inspire me,” adds Kapoor. “Arty, multi-label stores like Blackmarket and The Editor’s Market curate the best emerging Singapore, Asian and global fashion labels under one roof, for example. I also like dining and nightlife entrepreneurs the Lo and Behold Group who created the hip Tanjong Beach Club and The White Rabbit and who consistently have their finger on the pulse of the trendy set; as well as smaller restaurant owners like Sharon and Javier who run Kilo, which is set in an old industrial building.” 

 

Old Habits Die Hard

But before we get dizzy with the euphoric thought that Singapore has turned into a utopia for creativity, let it be said that some old obstacles to this have far from disappeared. Grant of Gardens by the Bay points out that it wasn’t very long ago when Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak made his controversial remarks about Singapore in an interview with the BBC, that spread faster than a bubble-tea craze across the island’s social media. “Bad behaviour isn’t tolerated,” Wozniak said. “You are extremely punished.” And this pressure to conform, to stay on the trodden path, to be risk-shy, is something the republic still needs to let go of, if it is to fully catapult itself into the land of the free minds.