Tuesday, March 5, 2024

Can Singapore Be The Next Big Creative Capital?

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Around mid-September this year, a newly birthed public Instagram account @creativecitizens.sg started circulating among members of the local creative industry, including us here at FEMALE. Its content: messages – often strongly worded, at times cheeky and always alluding to local culture and history – espousing the need to “stand up for Singapore and create” written in a distinctive scratchy scrawl. “We dream that, one day, Singapore will be the most creative city in the world – Creative Citizens of Singapore,” reads the bio. 

The anonymous yet thought-provoking memos have been dropping slowly but steadily since. Up till Nov 7, there were a total of 23 of them, each as impassioned as they are wry. “The dull kingdom of Pragmia… Coming soon,” reads the last of these. It’s enough to raise eyebrows among anyone who’s interested in the arts and culture landscape here. Is this some guerilla marketing campaign? Does the government have anything to do with it? Or is this some exasperated creative’s rant-slash-cry for help? 

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That the account’s following – as paltry as it is (922 as of press time) – reads like the phone book of a social power player piques curiosity even more. Among them: several of Singapore’s most prolific design authorities; more big guns from the worlds of art and lifestyle; the odd celebrity and fashion KOL; and many media insiders – this writer included. Clearly, there were others who were intrigued too. 

Credit:Creative Citizens of Singapore

Creative Citizens of Singapore brings its provocative message outdoors to Outram Park MRT Station.

And then came the post featuring pictures of some of the account’s messages blown up and displayed across pillars in the MRT on Nov 9. Dude With Sign this is not. Who is behind Creative Citizens of Singapore, or CCS for short? And what does CSS have up its sleeve beyond its plucky rhetoric? 

I got in touch with the PR expert from whom I had first learnt about CSS – an industry veteran with a reputation for being sincere. Behind CSS is an independent coterie of esteemed creatives who prefer to stay incognito, she says, but she can connect me for email interviews. Of course, protecting CSS’s identity means having to also protect hers, she adds. I relent, impelled by my news sense as a journalist and even more so by a desire to demystify this vigilante-esque posse trying to tell us how to make Singapore better.

Here is the full email interview with the Creative Citizens of Singapore about the state – and fate – of creativity here.

What exactly is Creative Citizens of Singapore about?

“Creative Citizens of Singapore is a movement dedicated to exploring new territories in creativity. It’s about making creativity matter to the ordinary Singaporean and deepening and broadening our creative culture so intangibles such as excellence, craftsmanship, originality, aesthetics, art, beauty and creativity in general are valued and made a priority here. It’s about challenging norms and inspiring fresh forms of expression in Singapore’s art and design landscape, and exhorting Singaporeans to be open minded and to have the nerve to embrace the new and strange. It’s about creative confidence and learned optimism, which means having the guts and gumption to take on and overcome seemingly impossible odds and insurmountable challenges… It’s about not allowing the practicality, responsibility and care that comes with life snuff out the creative genius and child prodigy in all of us, and having self-awareness and respect for fellow citizens by not boring them to death with whatever you’re doing, be it an ad campaign for a bank or the design of a block of flats or a brand experience.

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And – last but not least – it’s about inculcating good taste and acquiring good judgement. To paraphrase (the late Chinese inventor and philosopher) Lin Yutang: It’s about knowing what to love and hate, and having taste in knowledge rather than having the mere theory of knowledge because without such well-developed sensory powers so to speak, we would have to resort to physical measurements to quantify merit, and that is just foolish and missing the point. Beauty, ideas, creativity, excellence, originality and all of life’s most important things cannot really be measured physically.” 

Credit:Creative Citizens of Singapore

Your message seems to be targeted mostly at those in the creative industry, who incidentally make up a considerable proportion of your Instagram followers. Is that your intention?

“The aim is to inspire and provoke thought, debates and kopitiam chit chats not just among professionals in the creative industry, but also the broader community. We want to reach out to anyone who appreciates creativity and win over everyone, especially the so-called non-creative. We want people to realise that in the economic and cultural race of cities, the only power that can set us apart and propel us forward is the inventiveness and creativity of our human capital.”

Who exactly is behind Creative Citizens of Singapore?

“Creative Citizens of Singapore is more about collective effort than individual leadership. It’s a community-driven initiative focusing on collaborative creativity and, as we push forward with our vision, we would like to see such collaboration grow and recruit leaders of various creative industries to come alongside us in this endeavour. The founding members of CCS are all from the creative industry, specifically the communications industry. They can be said to be the leading lights of the industry and have a combined experience of over a century. The sense of mystery and anonymity on our account is intentional. It focuses the attention on our work and not our identities, allowing the messages to be unencumbered. We don’t want to get in the way of the communications.”

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So far, your main mode of communication has been your strongly worded messages scrawled in a distinctive script on your Instagram account as well as your website (creativecitizens.sg). Why this choice of artistic direction?

“It’s a deliberate artistic choice. This method effectively communicates ideas directly. In a sea of imagery, we think an all-copy campaign stands out… We’re zigging while everyone else is zagging.” 

Credit:Creative Citizens of Singapore

Part of your MO seems to be references to Lee Kuan Yew, whom you dub “Singapore’s original chief creative officer”, as well as rhetoric reminding us of our uniquely Singapore culture and how we have progressed in your messages. Tell us more.

“These references to Lee Kuan Yew and Singapore’s progress are to root our initiative in a Singaporean context and to encourage the exploration of our nation’s past to shape its creative future. We have called out our past creative credentials (published messages have commended, for example, the introduction of NEWater or how Lee Kuaw Yew had built our country from essentially nothing) to show Singaporeans that we indeed have a creative DNA, and ought to follow these examples and not lose the spirit of courageous creativity that our pioneers had.”

At the same time, your messages seem to hint at a sense of disappointment in the state of creativity here and that we as a nation used to be more creative than we are today.

“We are ambitious for what Singapore can potentially be. At the same time, we as a collective are flabbergasted at what seems to be a lack of idealism… Singapore is not unrich. What cultural, artistic, scientific and technological legacy will Singaporeans give to the world?… We don’t think the Singapore creative scene has diminished. We are not disputing that there are individuals who are currently already pushing those boundaries in the hope that they can make a difference, but the success stories we feel can do far better. In Singapore, life is hard being a true creative who’s pursuing your dream if you do not have the resources and support. 

“We want people to realise that in the economic and cultural race of cities, the only power that can set us apart and propel us forward is the inventiveness and creativity of our human capital.”

What CCS is hoping to drive is structural change to promote a lasting impact to imprint creativity into our DNA – from government policies, our education system and environment to our mentality… All we are asking is how can it be far more developed and varied in present-day Singapore?… In the simpler days of yore, there was much less navel-gazing and overthinking, and innovation was more instinctive and spontaneous – an approach that is more conducive to fostering creativity. When the execution of an idea is paralysed by overanalysis, we lose freshness and enthusiasm… Big ideas always start small and with one person having one idea.”

Credit:Creative Citizens of Singapore

So you’re not back by or associated with the government?

“CCS is an independent initiative that’s not linked to any government entity. It was established by a globally recognised group of creative industry professionals. These individuals, celebrated for their award-winning work, have not only helped put Singapore on the global map in design and advertising, but have also played a pivotal role in shaping design initiatives and policies. Collectively, they share a vision of making Singapore the most creative city in the world.”

When and what was the last thing you encountered here that made you go, “Gosh, Singapore is so fun and so cool!”?

“There have been – and continue to be – many inspiring and exciting moments in Singapore’s creative scene that are truly motivating, and showcase our creative potential and brilliance. There’s the Singapore Girl – what some might find a predictable answer, but the imagery makes such a prominent and lasting icon that personifies our world-acclaimed SQ service experience that continues to win awards…

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There are architectural marvels such as Marina Bay Sands and the Artscience Museum that have changed and anchored our skyline, giving it a distinctive personality that spells Singapore. Other architectural marvels include Jewel Changi Airport for being a diorama of Singapore as an airconditioned garden city Parkroyal Collection Pickering hotel designed by WOHA – a pioneering work that has brought tropical greenery into our dense urban environment as an inspiration to global urbanisation. We love Baybeats for being a longstanding incubator and platform for the local independent music scene. Also making our list: Kevin Kwan’s Crazy Rich Asians, Anthony Chen’s Ilo Ilo and even NEWater.”

Credit:Creative Citizens of Singapore

Creative Citizens of Singapore’s outdoor campaign displayed on the billboard of the Ten Square building (pictured) is meant to be “a clarion call and we are hoping it will be answered by leaders and members of our diverse creative community”.

So how do you determine what’s creative?

“Many people have tried to define creativity. We like (the late British author and TED Talks icon) Sir Ken Robinson’s definition: ‘Creativity is the process of having original ideas that have value… I think of creativity as putting your imagination to work.’ Creativity is not just about being original, but also making sure that originality makes an impact. It’s also about what challenges and inspires, and not just about the creation itself.”

And what do you think is the biggest problem with Singapore’s creative culture today?

“Through our experience as working creatives and from the conversations we’ve had with creative leaders from fields ranging from architecture to the visual arts, the biggest issues we’ve identified is a tendency to play it safe and to settle for being good enough. The former comes from the fear of failure while the latter comes from apathy and the lack of idealism. You don’t have to be a social scientist to know that fear of failure – what we refer to as kiasu in Hokkien – is so deeply ingrained in our national psyche that it’s second nature to us. See the 2018 National Values Assessment conducted by aAdvantage Consulting that revealed the top 10 values and behaviours Singaporeans saw in others around them. In descending order, these were kiasu, complaining, competitiveness, materialistic, educational opportunities, blame, kiasi, self-centredness, care for the elderly and effective healthcare… We are often brought up to be kiasu and to look after our own and our family’s well-being and interest to the exclusion of everyone else. There isn’t a sense of putting others first or a kampong spirit in the Singapore culture.

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In his seminal lecture series, Can Singapore Fail?, Lim Siong Guan (the former head of the civil service and now a professor who also sits on and consults for the board of directors for several companies) puts it this way: ‘The interesting question is why what is perceived in Singapore society is so different from what the survey respondents said were their personal values: Family, Responsibility, Friendship, Happiness, Health, Caring, Honesty, Compassion, Positive Attitude and Respect… If everyone is saying these are the most important values to them, the question is how come we are not seeing it? If the personal values were actually lived out, we should reasonably expect that at least some of them would be reflected in a description of current culture… However not a single one of them was reflected in the prevailing culture as perceived by the respondents.

“We are often brought up to be kiasu and to look after our own and our family’s well-being and interest to the exclusion of everyone else. There isn’t a sense of putting others first or a kampong spirit in the Singapore culture.”

One explanation for this incongruence is that the list of personal values did not reflect the truth because respondents wanted to present a positive image of themselves. However there is a second fascinating explanation: Both the lists are honest and true. The most important value for the individual is family so because my family is the most important, I would cut queues for the sake of my family; argue with my daughter’s teacher because my family is most important and so forth. Others may see my behaviour as kiasu whereas all I was doing was living out my belief that family – my family – is most important to me. You can decide for yourself what the correct explanation is.”

We here at FEMALE have met and interacted with many creative talents whom we feel are helping to steadily turn Singapore into a powerful creative capital so while we hear you and agree that there’s a lot more room for growth, we hold a more optimistic point of view about our creative scene.

“We see a growing aversion to risk that’s the by-product of an increasingly transactional and corporate culture that’s become all-pervasive. This focus on financial success over creative exploration has led to what we see as a preference for the safe, tried and tested, and has put a straightjacket on innovation. The challenge lies in balancing this focus on growing economically with the need to foster an environment that values creativity for its ability to inspire and transform… If you think about it, where are our BTSs, MOMAs and Wong Kar Wais, or the next great Singapore novel or film?… Singaporeans are, by and large, too self-satisfied. We have after all risen from rags to riches in two generations and we like people to praise us as the miracle, but let’s quit resting on our laurels and begin to enact the next miracle.”

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“There are plans for various initiatives aimed at cultivating a bolder creative culture including collaborative projects and platforms for unconventional ideas. The projects are still at the negotiation stage so we are reluctant to put a date on any one of them, but there is very likely going to be a CCS project in the first quarter of 2024 with DECK. For the time being, our outdoor campaign (besides Outram MRT, CCS’s artwork has also been displayed on the billboard of the Ten Square building) is a clarion call and we are hoping it will be answered by leaders and members of our diverse creative community. So far the song writing community has responded and we’re looking forward to seeing how they can contribute to the cause. Since everything is voluntary, we expect all contributions to be slow, but we are in no particular hurry. Slow progress, in our view,  is better than no progress.”

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