To the Singapore Tourism Board

Recently I went to Singapore’s art and culture expo at Madison Square Park in New York City. The exhibit contained several art installations, food components hosted by vendors in the area including Shake Shack (see photo), and entertainingly, performances by actors who played the roles of the artists whose works were featured. Overall the expo was well done and gave an impression of Singapore as an optimistic, open-minded country with an increasingly large focus on the arts.

Gula melaka shake at Shake Shack = #win

However, as someone who grew up in the US and spent about a year and a half living in Singapore after college, I think the exhibit shows where Singapore could improve how it communicates its identity to the world. Here are some pointers that I think could be helpful:

  1. Don’t assume Westerners have strong preconceptions of Singapore. A lot of the exhibition was focused on debunking the impression that Singapore is an artistically and creatively dry place. However, most Americans have little knowledge of Singapore to begin with, so there’s no reason to lead them to think that way. We’re pretty much blank slates. The exhibit could have started by telling the fact that the Singapore government allocates an impressive sum of $600 million to the arts every year, rather than saving this fact for a small quip in an actors’ performance.
  2. Explain what the story of Singapore actually IS. An art installation satirically praising the great sand dunes of Singapore was funny to me because I knew that it was both a reference to land reclamation and a play on how we take information for granted from official-looking sources. The exhibit itself was well done, had a lot of attention to detail, and had some funny components. However, a lot of it may have been too nuanced for people who aren’t familiar with the island’s development. And that goes for the exhibit as a whole, to some extent. Singapore, as a culturally blossoming country, needs to explain more of why it is blossoming now. Having overcome its poverty and formed a multicultural society that is open-minded and very free in 50 years is an incredible story. And it is part of the reason the arts are finally being emphasized in Singapore. It’s OK to joke about how the government used to be made of hard-nosed people who didn’t like artists and hippies. People love stories of overcoming obstacles, and this should be part of the story too.
The supposed sand dunes of Singapore

3. It really boils down to a knowledge gap between Americans and Southeast Asia. It takes some effort for Americans to learn about the intricacies and richness of Singapore and its heritage. To entice Americans to put forth that effort to go learn about some far away part of the world, show them in a tactile way what they are missing. Give out spoonfuls of gula melaka. Pour small cups of inexpensive and easy-to-make laksa for visitors. Fresh sugarcane or calamansi juice wouldn’t hurt either. The secret of Southeast Asian cuisine is too well kept, and it has a place at an expo of Singapore’s culture.

4. Final note: Why doesn’t the Tourism Board mention that in Singapore someone will cooks you world-class food at every single meal for $4!?!? That is every American’s dream. Singapore should make a week-long tourist food passport: all hawker meals for a week for $250. (Think Class Pass, but for getting fatter.)

I thought it was a fun exhibit and a great use of the space in Madison Square Park. And I really hope I win two tickets to Singapore from Singapore Airline’s lucky draw!

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