Singapore rising

With its robust economy, benign government support for education and design, and strong cultural links within the UK and the US, Singapore is all set to steal a slice of the consultancy services sector from China and India – and the West. Jo Kotas reports

Kult 3D
Illustration by Tom Fairfax, Clay Ferguson and Justin Reed for the Fortune edition of the quarterly magazine Kult, from design group Kult 3D

As the Western world licks the wounds it sustained in the economic crisis, a tiny island on the other side of the world is enticing creative Westerners and Singaporean expats to try a slice of its creative pie. Singapore is a young, industrial country with a reputation for indifference towards the arts, but its government recently started to invest in digital culture, through the Media Development Authority. To compliment these efforts the Economic Development Board successfully invited Lucas Film, Double Negative and Sony Pictures to set up on Singapore’s shores.

The country has nurtured a thriving business culture over the course of its short, 44-year life, and finds itself in a comfortable position while the rest of the Western world treads water. Now, the apprentice of the world is looking to its elders and finding that it needs to support art, design and creativity to become complete.

Until very recently, designers from Singapore tended to learn and practise their skills in Western countries. Now, at last, the government is looking to attract them back home – which may prove easy in light of the recent downturn.

Randy Yeo is in his final year of a graphic and media design degree course at the London College of Communication. ‘Singapore is such a young country, and is at the stage where it is only just starting to define its identity,’ he says. ‘To come back home with the benefit of a design education and work experience that a country like the UK has provided me with, and to be part of the generation that will play a key role in shaping the nation’s identity, and push the benchmark of Singapore design to levels we never dreamed of – I don’t think I can say no to that. It is something I feel compelled, proud and obliged to do.’

This huge national pride – a relatively alien emotion to us Brits – is prevalent among Singaporeans, whose country is unusual for its financial abundancy and its cultural blend. ‘Singapore is a multi-racial country which, because of its diverse ethnicity, has developed a unique identity,’ says Sean Lam, award-winning creative director and founder of digital consultancy Plate Interactive.

Having a dual Western influence stemming from British colonial rule and US pop culture has provided this food-loving Asian nation with its very own flavour. Traditional Asian printing techniques, patterns and architectural detailing blend with Western typography and style, while colour and structure fire the melting pot to produce a unique and subtle mix. This is in contrast to other Asian countries, which have maintained a strong Eastern bias despite adopting some Western trends. Plate Interactive’s website for Hello Sour Sally uses patterns and characters that feel Eastern, while teacups and cup cakes present a Western balance. Origami features in Plate Interactive’s own site, which again is balanced with a Western tone.

Post-production house Lucas Film Singapore is leading the pack in terms of negotiating its start-up, reaping the benefits of the time difference that allows Western-based companies to work almost round the clock, as well as government support. The company’s presence brings a new and exciting opportunity for 3D designers and artists to work on Hollywood blockbusters.

Similarly, UK-based post-production house Double Negative has seen Iron Man II, Transformers, Avatar and Harry Potter pass through its Singapore doors.

Having watched its talent pool leached by the rest of the world for the past few decades, Singapore is now keen to provide a solid educational environment to help keep it at home.

Two art institutions, Lasalle College of the Arts and Nanyang University, have sprung to the forefront of design education, largely thanks to significant government funding and support.

Students are taught that drawing is key, and don’t go near a computer for the first year. Once well-practised, they are let loose in spectacular design facilities. Students play with stereoscopy and 3D printing, while in animation, modelling and stop-frame approaches are taught before any 3D programs are introduced, so that students fully understand the lighting and spatial rules that govern the medium.

Festivals and showcases are also growing in popularity and number with the support of government-run Design Singapore, which was set up in 2003 to promote and develop the Singapore design scene.

The Singapore Design Festival, run by Design Singapore, and the Design Film Festival, founded and designed by Felix Ng and produced by design think-tank Anonymous, both seek to persuade the nation about the value of design and creativity. However, the Design Film Festival – which claims to be the first film festival dedicated solely to design – has chosen to remain completely self-sufficient.

‘It was a conscious decision we made at the beginning to keep it “sponsor-free”, as this allows us to develop a self-sustainable model that keeps the festival going regardless of an economic crisis or the existence of government funding,’ says Ng.

Another key figure in the Singapore design scene is publishing and design consultancy The Press Room’s founder Kelley Cheng. She believes that further changes in attitude towards creativity in Singapore will come through education.

‘I have a personal mission never to turn down a talk, whether it is to five students or 500 people. Every day that I spread the message that designers should be valued is a step further towards being respected properly as professionals,’ says Cheng.

Multidisciplinary design group Kult 3D creates the quarterly magazine Kult, which introduces new artists and illustrators to the public. Kult 3D creative director Steve Lawler – who grew up in Hong Kong before moving to Singapore – believes that by showing off visual culture in this way, one day the seeds will take and become permanently embedded.

The message is clear. Singapore is ready to present itself to the world as an emerging creative force.

With government support, plentiful jobs, a blooming creative scene and a shiny new attitude towards the arts, it’s an incredibly exciting place to be. The world’s apprentice has learnt fast, and is making itself a very attractive alternative to the depressed West – and perhaps even a more prestigious service provider than India or China.

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