When I returned to Singapore last November to help set up our newest bureau and shop, I almost couldn’t recognise the city of my birth and upbringing. In the six years or so since I left, young Singaporeans have been stepping on the accelerator across all sectors from food and hospitality, to retail and design, to film and fashion. All over the island new boutiques, cafés and independent cinemas are sprouting up at an exhausting pace.
During the past five months living and working in Singapore I’ve had the privilege of speaking to many of the movers and shakers making headway in their various fields. I’ve seen the passion in their eyes as they wax lyrical about how their publishing firm is grooming the next generation of literary talent, gush about the perfect Japanese workshop that manufactures their clothes or show me their latest crop of organic vegetables harvested from urban farms.
This plethora of new initiatives is a breath of fresh air in the suffocating concrete jungle that can be Singapore. Citizens who have spent years studying or working in other cities want to bring the best bits of their lives abroad back home, whether it’s coffee, craft beer or cycling. Slowly but surely ‘Brand Singapore’ is emerging from their collective efforts. The government is also happy to accommodate this trend, starting up new arts-focused schools and design universities; investments in the hope that the country will soon have the creative capital to match its financial reserves.
While there’s much to be celebrated about stepping off the corporate ladder to chase after one’s dreams and passions, the fact remains that most of those who do so come from well-to-do families with mum and dad to fall back on if things don’t go according to plan. Unlike Australia with its minimum wage of almost AU$17 (€12) an hour or Canada’s universal healthcare system, Singaporeans have to live in one of the world’s most expensive cities with very little social support. In Asian culture it’s also customary for children to support their parents, so it’s no wonder that most Singaporeans are shackled to their nine-to-five jobs whether they like it or not.
I can’t help but think it’ll be a great shame if the players shaping ‘Brand Singapore’ come solely from society’s upper echelons. Design schools are all well and good but some things just can’t be taught in a classroom. More needs to be done to ensure that ‘doing your own thing’ becomes viable for more than just the wealthy.
Jason Li is Monocle’s deputy bureau chief in Singapore.