Two Singapores

by singaporearmchaircritic

If you are frustrated about the state of affairs in Singapore and highly critical of our government as I am, you would probably have heard this from your bewildered foreign friends: “What’s so bad about your government?” or “What are you so unhappy about?”. As far as they can see, Singapore is clean, safe, modern, efficient and very liveable. They don’t understand why Singaporeans “complain so much.”

It seems that while some Singaporeans are feeling a sense of disconnect and displacement in our own home, many foreigners have taken to the new Singapore like fish to water.

Local journalist Sumiko Tan, no less smitten than foreigners about how “glamorous” our city has evolved, muses in her article titled “Singapore’s Golden Age” that “Singapore must be doing something right if so many foreigners want to be part of the action.”

Sumiko’s sweeping statement is, of course, flawed. That aside, I have no doubt that Singapore has indeed become the place to be for foreigners, particularly the high-flyers.

This is no happenstance. Our government has been actively courting foreign talents, businesses and investors, redoubling their efforts over the last few years.

Some of these efforts that add to our wow factor – like the creation of enticing, if superficial, “spectacles” such as the Supertrees, the MBS, and the hosting of international events such as F1 – are more visible to ordinary Singaporeans.

What is perhaps unbeknownst to many of us is the formidable marketing campaign to promote Singapore as an ideal location for businesses and investors.

Fashioning Singapore

Since 2010, the EDB (Economic Development Board) has kicked off a business brand campaign with the slogan “future ready Singapore.” The campaign paints an image of Singapore as forward-looking in many aspects – our infrastructure, openness to talents of all nationalities and ethnicities, sustainable energy solutions and even our strong defence. Some components of the campaign are:

  • Three 30-second testimonial style advertorials featuring Jim Rogers, Olivia Lum and Alain Vandenborre, who raved about how great Singapore is for businesses and for living. These were broadcast on CNN in the US and Europe, and also appeared as online videos on CNN.com and NewYorkTimes.com.

Rogers: “Everything works in Singapore so it’s obviously stress-free. It’s going to be one of the great cities of the future” (0:22).

Vandenborre: “It (Singapore) is the Formula One in today’s global economic race and I feel like being part of a winning F1 team” (0:17).

  • A series of print features in Monocle, Harvard Business Review, The New Yorker etc. You can see some features in Monocle below).

Click to enlarge

  • A campaign targeted at German executives in print and TV (you can also see the ads etc at the EDB’s German language website). According to the photographer, the campaign aims to show how easily these German CEOs eased into their new life in Singapore:

Marc Lohoff of Conergy still has his business lunches, only here they are slightly more colourful; Dr. Jens Hardenacke of DMG still enjoys sailing his yacht, only here he can do it throughout the year; and Dr. Markus Waechter of TUM can still enjoy nature, only here it’s located just minutes from the city centre.

I am sure there are many other aspects of the campaign that I have missed out here but the message is loud and clear: Come to Singapore, which is not just a great place for doing business but a most liveable city with all the conveniences for you and your family.

Imagine if you are a foreigner. Is it not easy to fall in love with Singapore after seeing these advertorials?

All that Glitters is not Gold

About the “accolades” heaped on Singapore that Sumiko claimed “(w)e’ve grown accustomed to,” how many of these are just marketing gimmicks?

Just look at this one, for instance. A magazine published by the Financial Times named Singapore the “Asian city best prepared for the future” for the second time running in 2012. The award was given out at the World Cities Summit held in Singapore, organized by the URA and the Centre for Liveable Cities (CLC) established by two Ministries. Any surprise we won the award?

My point is not whether we deserve the award, but rather to stress that Singapore’s image to the outside world has been painstakingly fashioned by our government. The onslaught of favorable publicity would have generated more glowing reports in various international media, all of which contributed to and reinforced the outsider’s impression of Singapore as a highly developed, exceptionally well-planned and immensely successful city-state.

Given the huge amount of money the government has pumped into our nation’s marketing blitzes, we can now see why it has always reacted strongly to spoilsports who tried to mar our reputation with global rankings such as this and this (of late it even came up with its own ranking system).

But the truth is the perspectives of an outsider and an insider will be vastly different. The super rich and the CEOs who have moved to Singapore do not give two hoots about press freedom or freedom of speech here. Neither does it bother them that Singapore is increasingly expensive, or that our rich-poor gap is among the widest in the world. The lack of a statutory minimum wage, independent trade unions and so forth only adds to Singapore’s attractiveness as a place for doing business, for obvious reasons.

On the other hand, the very real concerns Singaporeans have over our retirement savings in CPF, stagnant wages, housing affordability,  job security etc were seldom reported or glossed over in non-local media. Such mundane issues simply have little news value beyond the domestic market. Outsiders only see the big picture while insiders delve into the details that affect them. And that is why the grass is always greener on the other side.

In the coming weeks I will be responding to a series of reports comparing Singapore and Hong Kong published in Mingpao. That the series culminated in a forum with four speakers – two of whom represent the banking and real estate sectors – singing high praises of Singapore is, in itself, suspect (I wonder if there is a sponsor for the series of reports? If any reader knows please leave a message).

If you read Chinese, you can find some of the articles posted on MND’s facebook page.

Till then.