Will the Real Singapore Please Stand Up?

“How do you like Singapore?”, “Oh it’s nice, love the food, fantastic shopping and I love/hate the weather. But I do think it’s a bit boring.” Sounds familiar? It’s pretty much what most western tourists would say about Singapore if they’re asked.

Actually, even quite a few expats would describe Singapore in a similar fashion. But does that make it true? Is Singapore a boring, unimaginative and bland place where bankers come to live in luxury condos with helpers? Is it true that Singapore is “not really Asia, more a western state that’s located in the East”? If perception is reality, maybe it is. But maybe, just maybe, Singapore is what you want it to be? What you believe to be true? Isn’t your perception of any country you visit or live in really a reflection of yourself? As Forrest Gump so brilliantly stated, “stupid is what stupid does”. Well, the same applies here, “boring is what boring does”.

If these tourists spend their days in MBS and Universal Studios and the expats spend their days working in Raffles Place (nothing wrong with that, we do too), and they spend their evenings drinking in Boat Quay, their Saturdays brunching in Dempsey, their shopping on Orchard Road and get their groceries from Tanglin Mall, well then of course Singapore can be seen as boring. They are certainly not capturing the spirit of Singapore, and they are not looking beyond the veneer that is Marina Bay, the CBD and Orchard Road. What they are experiencing is the shallow end of the great little country of Singapore.

In reality, Singapore has a lot to offer visitors. There is so much rich culture, such amazing food (but we knew that already), and so many lovely people (that sometimes live in their shells, but so do we Scandinavians). But it’s kept hidden from the average tourists (who spend an average of 3.5 days here), and even expats aren’t always exposed to the real Singapore, unless they have friends who take them around, or they are specifically interested in learning more about their adopted home. Why is the branding of Singapore focused on the veneer? Why aren’t tourists encouraged to explore all that Singapore has to offer? If we could get tourists to increase their stay in Singapore by just one night, it would generate billions in revenue. And if we could change the perception of Singapore among those who have visited, the word of mouth value would be enormous. But it requires a different approach.

I understand why it has turned out this way. Singapore is a young country. When Sir Stamford Raffles opened the trading post in 1819, there were only about 1000 people (and lot of tigers and mosquitos) living on the island. Since colonial Singapore was built, it was always a dynamic and growing city without a large indigenous population. Therefore, there are not a lot of old historic sites and ancient cultures. And many of the historical buildings that were in Singapore have been demolished to make way for the modern city. But there is still culture. The culture of Singapore is, of course, a blend of many influences; Malay, Chinese, Indian, British/colonial cultures with the different languages, religions, foods and cultural traditions from all of them. This provides for quite a dynamic, yet mostly peaceful, relationship between the different ethnicities. And since Singapore doesn’t have many natural resources, except its geographical position and deep water, Singapore has had to carve out its place in the world as trading hub, port, shipbuilders, financial centre and tourist spot (and to be fair, mostly for people who are passing through). And that is the easy story to tell: Singapore is a great place to spend a couple of days en route to other (more exciting) destinations.

I’m not much of a nationalist. I’m not so interested in countries, per se. But I am interested in culture. Culture brings people together, but it can also be divisive. So how can Singapore bring its culture and core values to the forefront of its branding (rather than just the shopping, casinos, the airport, Universal Studios and the other mainstream attractions)? Because, let’s be honest, people may come for the veneer, but to build lasting relationships, and having people come back, Singapore has to offer something else. That something else is already here. With the diverse cultures, Singapore is unique on a global scale. No other city crams so many different cultures, traditions, food styles and personalities into one small place as Singapore. And even though other cities have diverse cultures, it is a lot more integrated here than most other cities. Inter-cultural relationships, different ethnicities working side-by-side, people from all walks of life and backgrounds. They’re very different, but they all gather around the idea of Singapore as one (small) nation, and the idea of a melting pot. I’m not saying there is no racism in Singapore. For sure, there is. I am not denying that a lot of the integration came through social engineering. And I know that many people lead completely Chinese, Malay, Indian or Western lives. But for visitors to Singapore, there is still an exciting idea of the real Singapore. It is just under-communicated.

It’s important to recognise that there are many levels to culture – the visible and the hidden, the individual and the communal, the expressive and the nuanced, the formal and the informal. Singapore has not managed to change perceptions (although their current campaign in Australia is on the right track); it still feels like we are presenting the polished, smart and squeaky clean (or sterile if you will) image of the Lion City. But other layers exist. These are the subtexts to this cosmopolitan, multi-racial and multi-cultural society.

So I say it’s time for a cultural shift in Singapore. Not by changing anyone, but by addressing perceptions. And we can give visitors a unique experience in Singapore, if they just know where to go, whether it’s eating hawker food in Changi Village, exploring nature around Sungei Buloh, seeing the native hipsters in Tiong Bahru, celebrating Deepavali in Little India, chilling in Kampong Glam (these days without shisha), exploring the Green Corridor or any of the cultural activities or festivals that are happening around the country. To facilitate these unique experiences in an effective manner, Singapore as a tourist destination has to go through a digital transformation. We must create platforms that truly enriches the stay for the visitor, before, during and after their visit. Something that connects visitors with locals and local insights. This is not just a job for STB, it’s a challenge to every government body, all businesses in Singapore (local as well as foreign), for every Singaporean and for everyone else who loves Singapore. The visitors have to come home with unique experiences, something they can’t get anywhere else. Of course, they’ll combine that with the shopping and the casinos, but that only means that Singapore has the complete package. All we have to do is change and add to the conversations.

Erik Ingvoldstad is the Founder & CEO of Acoustic.
Follow Erik on Twitter @ingvoldSTAR, follow Acoustic at @AcousticGroupSG
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[Main photo by the author]