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State Of Cool

Have we finally found our spot of gold at the end of the hipster rainbow, wonders Helmi Yusof.
Oct 8, 2016 5:50 AM

GOOD morning, Singapore! We don't know about you, but we sense something in the air - and it's not Zika or PM2.5 particulates.

Think about it. Hokkien is now spoken on national TV. We put one of our own on an open-top bus and worshipped him like a rock star. Caucasians are officially angmohs - because the Oxford Dictionary say one. We carry tote bags proclaiming our inner Beng (look up said Oxford). If a banker decides to quit and become a hawker, that's okay - because even bak chor mee can earn a Michelin star. Wake up and smell the kopi - has Singapore finally become cool?

If so, many would agree that the 'cooling' - or should we say Schooling - of Singapore has been in the works for a while now. But being the way we are, it takes international validation in the form of English dictionaries and French food guides to confirm what we've felt all along but were too paiseh to say: that we have a cultural identity to be proud of, and the world wants a part of it.

It's a far cry from the time when we accepted our global image as a dull, sterile city. A place that caned people and took away their gum. We were just good at building things. Fast. Efficient. Safe. Clean government. We spent the last 51 years packing everything from state-of-the-art airport to one of the world's highest per-capita GDP into a compact, 719 sq km space that we call home and others describe as an economic miracle.

But now that we've ticked 'Asian Powerhouse' off our to-do list, can Singapore be up there with the likes of London, New York, Paris or Tokyo - whose names tumble from the lips of hipsters in pursuit of cool cities to live and play in?

YES WE CAN Cynthia Chua was just a fledgling entrepreneur in 1999 when Time magazine registered its shock that "Asia's nanny state" was loosening its apron strings, in a cover story emblazoned "Singapore Swings". Local theatre is pushing boundaries! It marvelled then. The club scene, too, was hotting up (read: more places for expats to have fun in).

But if that was a time for more social freedom, the founder of the Spa Esprit Group set the stage for self-discovery in 2010 when she opened specialty coffee bar Forty Hands in the then-sleepy enclave of Tiong Bahru. Now she is alternately known as the trendsetter who kickstarted the gentrification movement, and the market-spoiler who pushed property prices there into the stratosphere.

The fusion of old and new is what makes Tiong Bahru "the perfect microcosm of what's happening in Singapore right now," says Ms Chua, who also owns a French bakery, bistro and male grooming salon there. "It's about tradition, strong local culture (Singlish and hawker food), community and an infusion of urban concepts that feed the growing needs of the new generation. There is life and a mix of all eras that is reflective of the 1960s to the 21st century, all captured in one place."

The influx of young entrepreneurs and new residents into the area is what makes Singapore cool, in her view. "We are the best of Asian and Western rolled into one, but with strong roots and an evolving identity."

Expats officially love us too. Global bank HSBC's 2016 survey of nearly 27,000 expatriates worldwide cited Singapore as the best country to live, work and raise a family abroad. Sixty-two percent of expats living here say they earn more money, and 66 per cent of them say life is much better here than it is back home.

Money and security are the main drivers, but Singapore isn't too shabby in the cool department either, says David Harris, an American banking consultant based here.

"When you speak of cool cities like New York, London, Paris - the sense is of great things to do, see and experience. And the local confidence expressed partly by fashion but even more in the behaviour and sense of an engaging, enviable lifestyle in terms of buzzy meeting places, museums, restaurants and nightlife where people can see and be seen. Different crowds come together and spark off each other. Singapore has all this in spades, but it has its own very unique spin.

"You have this smorgasbord of cultures - languages, food and customs - that, despite the occasional fault-lines, co-exist remarkably well and positively cross-fertilise. You just have to look at the polarisation in America and the UK right now to realise just how cool such a balancing act, such an achievement, this is."

Or, to put it in the colourful words of Pat Law, founder of social media agency Goodstuph: "I love living here. I can walk home on the streets at 3am and expect not to be raped by a college kid in a back alley. I can party in a gay club in Singapore and expect not to have a bullet through my head."

Weighing in is Loh Lik Peng - Ms Chua's male counterpart in the 'leading trendsetters of Singapore' department.

"We may not be as sophisticated as Tokyo or New York, which have a more rounded arts and entertainment scene because of their size and deeper talent pool. But we are not far off."

In fact, Mr Loh - who's behind a good dozen hotels and restaurants in Singapore, London, Shanghai and Sydney - believes that we are punching above our weight. "Cities about the same size as us don't have the same culture and entertainment scenes that we have - definitely not in F&B where we're every bit as sophisticated as the top cities."

NOT SO FAST Singapore has added plenty of shiny trophies - Formula One; Gardens by the Bay; National Art Galley; the high-end art cluster Gillman Barracks - to boost its gleaming 21st century metropolis image. But does it let you be you?

While expats jostle to live and work here, Singapore's attempts to fast-track its personality cut no ice with the meister of Cool himself, Tyler Brûlé.

In the July/August issue of Monocle, the globetrotter's magazine of choice published its annual ranking of the 25 most liveable cities in the world. Singapore has never ranked in the top 10. This year, it slipped seven places to 20th spot.

Mr Brûlé, who is Monocle's editor, says the magazine regularly tweaks its complicated metrics to include questions like: "How many commuters cycle to work?" "What is an ambulance response time?" "Are dogs welcome?" - which prompted the fall in our ranking. Tokyo won instead.

Comparing Singapore with cities like Tokyo, New York, Paris and London is unfair, says Mr Brûlé. "They have existed for millennia and have the weight of history and experience behind them."

Singapore is still a kid. "Fifty-one years is a short time. That's perhaps why you have a government that wants to guide its people, like a parent would guide a child. I understand the desire for speed, but perhaps there's a depth of experience that Singapore has yet to gain."

A few years ago, he was invited to Singapore to give a talk about cities. "I said that great cities offer a certain serendipity, the idea that you could turn a corner and see or experience something completely unplanned. A few young bureaucrats put up their hands to ask, 'how do you create serendipity?'

"I replied, 'Gentlemen, you cannot plan for these things'."

Jeff Cheong, Asia president of global ad agency Tribal Worldwide, agrees. "Singapore ticks all the boxes in the area of hardware. It's a global hub for MNCs, it's got superb infrastructure and a great city skyline.

"But as you visit other cities, you'll soon find that Singapore is missing the software - the authenticity of a city that sets the pulse. Perhaps we were brought up with a lot of boundaries, so our level of spontaneity has been curbed."

COMFORT IN OUR OWN SKIN To some, the issues remain. The view that arts censorship is worse today than it was 10 years ago. That there is a certain predictability about the outcome of public consultation over national issues. That the media is still restricted in an age of free-flow information online. And how, when poet Gwee Li Sui wrote an Op-Ed article in the New York Times about Singaporeans being confident enough to embrace Singlish, a government official promptly refuted it as "making light of the government's efforts to promote the mastery of standard English."

"We're still second-guessing what we can say in the public arena," says writer Imran Hashim, whose chick-lit novel Anabelle Thong is about a Singaporean finding love in Paris. "That's not going to help us truly discover the soul of our people."

But we're not kids anymore. We're pushing into puberty and beyond, and gaining street cred in the process. Local writers have more things to say about living and loving in Singapore. Our musicians are getting noticed overseas. Gentle Bones. Nathan Hartono. We struck Olympic gold with Joseph Schooling. Sonny Liew's graphic novel The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye made it to the NYT bestseller list. Theatre makers are still pushing buttons.

And we're finding beauty in our heritage. Design brands like Onlewo, Supermama and The Farm Store are just some of the names proudly mining the cultural landscape to create kueh lapis doorstops, pineapple tart cushions, curry puff earrings or beautiful porcelain ware decorated with Singapore landmarks.

Not to mention our food - our national obsession and number one tourist magnet. "Chili crab is embraced and interpreted in restaurants around the world," says Tung Lok Group's Andrew Tjioe, who is also president advisor of the Restaurant Association of Singapore. "When people come to Singapore, they specifically search for chicken rice and laksa because they've heard so much about it."

Michelin guide and fancy French restaurants aside, Singaporean chefs are creating their own food language. It's cautiously labeled 'Mod-Sin', because "I'm not exactly sure what it is but there are a lot more chefs dabbling in Singapore-inspired cuisine," says Han Li Guang, chef-owner of Restaurant Labyrinth. The former banker famed for his twists like chili crab ice cream represents a new breed of young chefs bypassing conventional Western cooking for a bigger challenge - getting both local and international diners to accept their food as a genre of Singapore cuisine.

"When it comes to fine dining, Singaporeans still equate it with Western food. We need to be more proud of our homegrown talents and that's not happening yet."

It's a topic that annoys KF Seetoh, founder of food bible Makansutra. "Why is there no school or institution that fosters new thinking, craft, preservation and business opportunities for Singapore food culture? We don't just need confidence in our own identity and culture; we need consistency and respect for it. Even the media still gives indepth coverage to new, foreign restaurants, relegating local fare to a 'where to eat' column."

SO ARE WE COOL YET? "Singaporeans are gaining a stronger sense of confidence, and are more willing to be themselves; to be cool in a non-conformist, worldly and different way," observes Mr Harris. "With a bit of self-assurance mixed occasionally with arrogance, the locals don't need to have a chip on their shoulders when comparing themselves to London, Paris and New York. You see it in the embrace of Singlish and heritage. To a certain extent, this sense of self, pride and self-assured coolness has been crystallised by the passing of Lee Kuan Yew last year, and what a good buzz he has left behind."

"We used to be defined by the Lonely Planet guide book as sterile, one without identity and our own language," muses Ms Chua.

Remind her of the days when it was cool for Singaporeans to emulate the Americans or British, and she laughs. "I know, right. Now we cringe at the pseudo-accents."

After a beat, she adds, "I think we've done very well. We like being Singaporean."

Tell you what you think at btweekend@sph.com.sg