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Crazy Rich Asians: Scoring big-time for brand Singapore

The Hollywood hit is a big plus for the Lion City, even though it stops short of reflecting its unique multiculturalism

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The movie showcases big-ticket visitor attractions from sweeping vistas of Marina Bay (above) to the intangible cultural heritage of Newton Hawker Centre.

Crazy Rich Asians is putting Singapore in the international spotlight like never before, but how will this movie affect its country brand?

This question can be considered in four dimensions: General awareness of Singapore, and in terms of the three "Ts" of nation branding: tourism, trade and talent.

In some corners of the globe, people still think that Singapore is in China. This is probably why the film has a scene in which the visiting Asian-American Rachel Chu (Constance Wu) gets a geography-cum-history lesson from her Singaporean best friend Goh Peik Lin (Awkwafina), who uses a map design on her luxury handbag to point out Singapore, to explain how migrants from mainland China moved to this part of South-east Asia.

Curiosity sparked by the movie should mean progress, with more people realising that this Republic is actually quite far from China, and is also not part of Malaysia. General knowledge of Singapore's location will be increased by Crazy Rich Asians, more than the rather static backstage role of a venue for the Trump-Kim Summit earlier this year.

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Beyond the film itself, also extremely helpful are the many references to Singapore by the country's new enthusiastic brand ambassadors in the film's director, writers and actors such as Michelle Yeoh (who calls Singapore her "second home") in media interviews and other forums.

Game changer

Tourism, obviously, is where Singapore scores big-time with this movie, which showcases big-ticket visitor attractions from sweeping vistas of Marina Bay to the intangible cultural heritage of Newton Hawker Centre, where Nick Young (Henry Golding) orders favourite dishes while speaking Malay, Mandarin and Hokkien. This is a game-changer, to sweep away lingering cobwebs of misperceptions about Singapore among people who have yet to visit.

The film's actors tell the media that one common reaction of viewers stepping out of cinemas in the United States is to ask: "Where do I get a ticket to Singapore?"

Such fresh interest in Singapore will win tourism mindshare not only on social media, but also as long as this Hollywood production is available after its theatrical run on cable TV or as inflight entertainment.

Trade (which includes business and investment) is a close cousin to tourism in terms of impact. With Singapore portrayed as a hip, sexy place of wealth, sophistication and futuristic infrastructure, the needle has already moved, and will do so even more, for positive brand recall.

It is on the facet of talent that the picture gets a bit more complicated. This aspect includes would-be immigrants, as well as those who might want to move to Singapore to study or work.

Some debate has surfaced over whether the movie represents Singapore adequately, especially its Indian, Malay and other minorities.

Based on the narrative core of Singapore-born American writer Kevin Kwan's trilogy of novels, the film's director Jon M Chu is telling a story from, and for, an Asian-American perspective - which is why the movie foregoes more meaningful depictions of Singapore's non-Chinese characteristics, because this would be a digression from his chosen focus on the world of the Chinese diaspora.

This is where the movie stops short of reflecting Singapore's true multiculturalism, when this is, in fact, the main X-factor of its country brand.

Those considering relocating here to study, work or reside will take the trouble to learn more, and come to realise the full multicultural nature of this place.

But for everyone else, the movie's incomplete picture of this island-state is an understandably limited cinematic snapshot that, hopefully, will inspire deeper discovery.

Singapore's unique societal milieu is expressed in cultural products such as the homegrown TV series Tanglin, which features two Chinese families, one Malay family, one Indian family and a few Eurasian characters, with lots of inter-racial friendship and romance weaved in.

Such "racial harmony" (a very Singaporean term) is especially precious today. The sharpened awareness in post-2016 America of how fragile ethnic inclusiveness truly is may well be a sub-conscious factor that underlies the warm opening reception in the US for Crazy Rich Asians from Caucasian, and also African-American, audiences and critics, not only in major coastal cities with larger Asian populations such as San Francisco, but also across the whole country.

Marginalisation of Asian minorities in popular culture might persist more in countries in which Asian immigrants are insignificantly few, or have become resigned to languishing on the sidelines of more segmented societies. In contrast, the way this movie's ethnic representation has been queried in Singapore is perhaps a feature of ethnic inclusiveness, a sign of a more integrated society accustomed to multicultural representation as a norm and always expecting to see this portrayed.

Perhaps, one day, a Hollywood producer will find a story worthy of the big screen to present the breadth and depth of the kind of multiculturalism that Singaporeans have embraced for decades. That is when this facet of brand Singapore will reach another new level.

  • The writer, a country brand consultant, is the author and editor of more than 30 books, including 'Brand Singapore: Nation Branding After Lee Kuan Yew, In A Divisive World'.