One of this column’s objectives is to take you traveling. Our destination today is the city-state of Singapore. During my voyages, I kept coming back to this small Asian nation, because Singapore is a hub for world travelers. But is it a hub for designers too? Here’s the answer from three Singapore designers—two expats and one local.
The Lion City
I first traveled to Singapore in 2010, my mind full of stereotypes: I expected to find a postage stamp-sized country—think Vatican—so aseptic that even chewing gum is illegal. But I quickly realized how wrong I was. Singapore is actually a 30-mile-wide island blessed with lush vegetation and home to a thriving city of 5 million inhabitants. Only 60 percent are Singaporean citizens, including Amalina Zakaria, a web designer “born and raised in Singapore” who represented her country at WorldSkills 2009.
The Lion City—Singapura in Malay—is also a hotspot for expatriates. Game designer Antoine Henry left the banks of the Seine for the shores of Malacca Strait in August 2014. In the growing expat community he met Perrine Lefeuvre, a creative director who has been working in Singapore since 2012 for luxury brands such as Guerlain and Dom Pérignon.
One of the notions I had about the city turned out to be true. Singapore is “Asia for dummies”—an easy city for first-time travelers to Asia: orderly, English-speaking, clean, well-connected. Easy doesn’t mean boring, though. The whole of Asia meets in the city-state.
A unique blend
“The cultural diversity here is one of my main sources of wonder. For a European like me, it is amazing to find yourself at the crossroads of Asian cultures like Chinese, Indian, Malay, and the whole diversity of South-East Asia in general,” says Antoine Henry. Perrine Lefeuvre also finds that the city-state is an exciting place to be a designer. “If you have experience, you will have access here to projects you will never work on in Europe.”
Even for those who are not new to this melting pot, like Amalina Zakaria, the diversity is mind-opening. “The different styles of each culture and how it is fused and integrated into modern design has always been an inspiration for me as a designer.”
With 75 percent of Singaporeans being ethnic Chinese, you might be tempted to imagine the Lion City as a microcosm of China, a tropical Hong Kong. “Don’t,” reply my three interlocutors as one. “Despite our large Chinese population,” says Amalina Zakaria, “we are ultimately a Singaporean audience, rather than a Chinese, Malay, or Indian audience.” Perrine Lefeuvre adds, “Singapore only feels like China during Chinese New Year, when everything is gold and red—the traditional colors.” She even believes there’s a Singaporean style of design: “Very preppy, gentle, clean—and a bit hipster.”
The right environment for creatives?
Many web, game, and design companies have chosen the city-state for their Asian headquarters, Perrine Lefeuvre told me. And startups are following suit. “With a growing entrepreneurial spirit among locals, this creates opportunities for creative professionals to work with startups on exciting new projects. There is a lot of financial support and backing in the form of grants if creative professionals want to start something,” says Amalina Zakaria. “Singapore is a booming industry for creatives,” she adds.
Singapore, a paradise for startups and web companies? Although Amalina Zakaria has found bureaucratic procedures stifling, Harvard Business Review calls Singapore “one of the easiest countries in the world in which to do business.”
But when it comes to recruiting creatives, most of the expats I met told me the process of fostering creative thinking needs more time. A tradition of putting the group in front of the individual has historically made local workers less comfortable displaying initiative and creativity. “After a few frustrating experiences, I had to hire a designer from the Philippines because I couldn’t find one from Singapore,” explains Perrine Lefeuvre. Antoine Henry, who leads a team of designers, also experienced the culture gap. “I was used to challenge and be challenged quite openly regardless of who’s managing who. This is happening a lot less here, and I had to change my work process to actively seek that kind of honest feedback.”
A genuine world city
Listening to Antoine Henry, I have the feeling Singapore is actually Asia’s biggest Western city. “From my colleagues’ gaming habits and the test sessions we conduct with Singaporeans, I tend to think that their video games consumption is closer to Western than Chinese.”
Singaporeans are “exposed to a lot of influences from the West right from the start,” explains Amalina Zakaria. “We may be struggling to inject more Eastern influences into our work!” she adds. Which means designers choosing the city-state for a deep dive into Asian cultures might be in for a disappointment. “It doesn’t have the hints of Asian tradition that you find elsewhere in South-East Asia, nor the eccentricity found in South Korea or Japan,” acknowledges Antoine Henry.
But Singapore is actively shaping its own culture. This could well be its best argument to attract foreign clients as well as creative workers. As Amalina Zakaria says, “designers in Singapore are so well-versed in Western media, culture and customs, that we’re able to communicate effectively with our global clients.”
Because it concentrates so much diversity, Singapore has always struck me as an “East meets West” kind of place. “It’s a more complex situation than just ‘East meets West’,” retorts Amalina Zakaria. “We do not have a long history that is unique to ourselves,” she says. “However, we are globally exposed with a lot of influences coming from outside, rather than inside—and that’s what makes us globally competitive.”