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State of the Nation: Is Singapore ready to claim the creative spotlight?

By Daniel Kee, Executive Creative Director

March 5, 2023 | 6 min read

Singapore has consistently punched above its weight and held a string of glittering titles, but creative plaudits have long evaded the nation, writes Daniel Kee, executive creative director of Mullen Lowe Singapore. In the latest State of the Nation column, Kee argues that now is the perfect time for Singapore to seize the creative crown.

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/ Image by PublicDomainPictures from Pixabay

Daniel Kee Mullen Lowe Singapore

If there is one country that famously and consistently punches above its weight, it is Singapore. It’s a story that bears repeating – an island state booted out of Malaysia and left to fend for itself, with no natural resource and hardly enough land to carry any mass. 57 years along, it has defied every expectation, gritted its teeth through economic crises and pandemics and outsmarted more established nations on its way to the top of many “world’s best” lists.

Yes, it was clever enough to capitalise on its positional advantage in the world’s busiest sea lane, becoming one of the biggest container ports in the world. What it lacked in natural resources, it made up for through cultivating human capital – achieved by developing one of the world’s best education systems. Its national carrier Singapore Airlines and its base of operations Changi Airport also rank amongst the best in the world – facilitating more connections than any other airport in Asia. A banking sector, built on near incorruptible governance, quickly grew into one of the world’s most important financial hubs. All absolutely necessary, because it had little else to offer, beyond location, skilled manpower and the services that come with it.

But there is an intangible quality to Singapore that’s hardly given enough credit, and it is something forged by Singapore’s perpetual sense of fragility – the will to pull itself together. As a trading hub, business centre and financial capital, the slightest shift in posture between the United States and China ostensibly threatens Singapore’s finely-tuned equilibrium. Wars, even thousands of miles away, pressure Singapore’s supply lines. With no domestic market to cater to, the pandemic and resultant border closures practically shut down Singapore’s aviation industry. Somehow, it kept its economy not just going – but growing. It organised and managed its way out of the pandemic without once running out of hospital beds. It kept its currency strong against the US dollar while other Asian currencies tumbled, as the world approached the brink of recession. Instead of caving in to all the global pressures around it, Singapore came through, and crucially, came out ahead of Hong Kong – the one city it is most often compared to. It could have been a miracle, but it was probably sheer force of will. The same strength in its policies and its people that was forged the day it found itself cut off from the world and left to sink.

What does any of this have to do with creativity? Let’s begin with where Singapore now finds itself. More global businesses are recognising Singapore’s seemingly impervious nature and are shifting their regional, and in some cases, global headquarters onto the island. Those that once saw Hong Kong as a natural destination are now looking to Singapore. It is both the geographic centre and de facto centre of Southeast Asia – home to the world’s fastest-growing middle class, and one of the world’s biggest and still underserved markets – a huge opportunity begging to be capitalised on. In recent years, we have begun to see the Singapore government speak increasingly of “passion” – a word that would have sounded out of place when it was dialling up sectors like finance, industry and STEM. It may be a sign that Singapore is consciously transcending what it now views as its traditional framework, and is redirecting its considerable willpower into attracting visionary entrepreneurs, enabling businesses with purpose and welcoming digital nomads. All these factors are coming together to pull in more businesses that aren’t necessarily interested in a domestic market of 5.5 million consumers – they see Singapore as a launchpad to the region and beyond, and minimally they’ll need better marketing, brand building and identity design as they jostle for recognition and international breakthrough.

And this is something Singapore does best. Play host, synthesising input and broadcasting output. Basically, being a hub. In this case, the potential to be an undisputed creative hub. It’s the missing piece in Singapore’s storied transformation from muddy backwater to outsized world city. Apart from brief moments of brilliance like Batey’s “Singapore Girl” for Singapore Airlines, Neil French’s residency and David Droga’s famous incubator that was Saatchi & Saatchi there hasn’t been a sustained and sustainable push to cement Singapore’s creative reputation as truly world class, but now, the pieces are starting to fall in place.

For too long, agencies have simply been spending too much time and energy fighting over the relatively small accounts available in the domestic market, when there’s a regional and global market share to capture. Behemoths like Unilever, P&G and Standard Chartered have long-standing presence and solid relationships with their agencies here – where a substantial amount of their global communications is conceptualised and executed out of Singapore. As more international brands move their corporate and marketing bases into Singapore, there is a real opportunity for the creative industry to work with professional budgets, see the bigger picture, compete on a truly global stage, and help another improbable dream find purchase in one, last, unconquered “world’s best” achievement.

We already have the will for it. Now we have a way.

Daniel Kee is executive creative director of Mullen Lowe Singapore.

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