Laura Halliday
Jul 30, 2015

Creativity in Singapore: A square peg in a little red dot?

On the eve of the SG50 celebration, Laura Halliday of Flamingo explores the city-state's creative evolution, and explains why 'Singapore creativity' may not be an oxymoron.

Laura Halliday
Laura Halliday

Last month, Flamingo was asked to speak at an industry event about the creative evolution of Singapore. This baffled some people. “Won’t it be quite a short talk?” was one of the more blunt responses. 

This kind of sentiment is part of a narrative that Singapore just isn’t built for creativity. All too often we hear the opinion (especially from those outside the market) that the things Singapore is most celebrated for—its safety, stability, economic success—are at odds with what creativity “should” be all about. An article from Today in 2013 claimed:

...the overarching influence of Confucian teachings and adherence to obedience, respect for authority, hierarchical structures and insistence on conformity …translates into a workforce that, while it conforms and performs to the best of its abilities, will not take on unnecessary risks.

There are two assumptions here. Firstly, that people in Singapore are not interested in creativity. Secondly, that creativity has to be a risky, unconformist venture.

Our experience talking to Singaporean millennials challenges both those assumptions.

Talking to them about a variety of topics, it’s clear that whilst traditional markers of status remain important, young Singaporeans are aspiring beyond the ‘5 Cs’ for something beyond the norm. Corporate life may afford them a comfortable financial position, but it no longer feels like enough of a ‘mark’ on the world. There’s a unique sense of restlessness to this generation, which approaches SG50 with a mix of nostalgia and self-reflection. They admire the pioneer generation’s sense of purpose, and question how their generation could propel the country forward when so much has already been achieved. They see a reframing of ‘success’ by alternative and non-traditional measures as a way in which to experiment and achieve beyond what’s expected of them.

Whilst there are some obvious ‘creative’ outlets such as The Hub, the Makers of Singapore and The Substation, at an individual level we need to dig a little deeper to see evidence of creativity, because creativity might not look as we expect it to.

Within the Singapore context, creativity is only occasionally high art, and even more rarely is it about private passion. Rather, we can see creativity at work in the grassroots emergence of a new breed of entrepreneurs, dealing in crafts rather than commodities. The weekend craft stall’s bakers, artists and designers are often filled with people moonlighting from their city jobs as bankers, lawyers and engineers. 

These entrepreneurs reflect a different paradigm for creativity. They show the need for creativity to have a sense of purpose to resonate in this market. This isn’t ‘art for art’s sake’—it’s a means through which to achieve a goal, whether that be more autonomy, money or recognition. Success feels crucial to making their creative ambitions permissible. Show a group of consumers a lone painter, he’s an outcast. Show him selling that painting, or others admiring it, and he’s far more aspirational.

Moreover, creativity isn’t about reading a new path, but rather achieving the best of both worlds. These entrepreneurs don’t see any tension between their traditional day jobs and their more creative aspirations. They value their ability to make rational business decisions, their experience of negotiation and supply chains. They have a business mindset that’s reflected in their language—they aspire to find the ‘white spaces’ in the creative marketplace, to have a ‘point of differentiation’ or ‘first-mover advantage’. They are as pragmatic as any other entrepreneur; only they use their skills and imagination as product.

This article is part of the Cultural Radar series

Undoubtedly, the warmth towards creativity and the emergence of creative entrepreneurs is a shift that should not be underestimated, especially in a population that, a generation ago, was wedded to a top-down, single-minded pursuit of economic growth. Singaporean creativity is far more pragmatic and purposeful, and what Western-led brands may see as emotional or inspirational can smack of indulgence here. Finding ways to celebrate roles that tread the path between creativity and conformity (such as architecture or design) may resonate more than celebrating painters or sculptors.

Singapore’s dreams are not (and never have been) limited by its physical size. As it continues to dream big and punch above its weight, Singapore’s emergence as a new global creative hub looks increasingly likely for the next step of Singapore’s development, making creativity a tempting topic. But we need to know what kind of creativity we’re talking about—to clearly define its meaning from a consumer and cultural standpoint—before we celebrate it. 

Laura Halliday is associate director at Flamingo


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