Why Singapore is Asia's Next Design Capital

Singapore says it's ready to embrace creativity. Can it shed its reputation as Southeast Asia’s antiseptic financial center and draw outside the lines?

Design Orchard is an incubator and retail collective promoting local brands.

Everywhere you go in Singapore these days someone is throwing shade at medical professionals or purveyors of the law. “I always hated that everybody is striving to be a doctor or lawyer,” the artist and sneaker customizer Mark Ong says in a recent promotional video for the tourism board. “It can be enough to convince a local parent that their kid does not have to be a doctor to succeed,” says Richard Hassell, co-founder of WOHA Architects of his latest project, an incubator and retail complex for local design talent.

In truth, neither Ong nor Hassell have beef with the trained professionals who save our lives and protect our rights. They are, however, projecting a desire for creative fields to be seen as a valid career trajectory in Singaporean society’s eyes. Hassell and I are discussing these issues while he tells me about Design Orchard, which his firm helped conceive on a corner along Orchard Road, right in the middle of the toniest retail district. Opened in January, it pairs the Ministry of Trade’s promotional initiative, Enterprise Singapore, and the local tourism board to foster, market, and sell everything from clothing to jewelry to homewares by local brands.

Since gaining full independence in 1965, Singapore has become a manufacturing, trade, and financial powerhouse, as well as a symbol of Eastern wealth. It’s little wonder it serves as the backdrop to Kevin Kwan’s thinly fictionalized materialist memoirs, the most famous of which became the film Crazy Rich Asians. The tiny nation on Peninsular Malaysia’s southern tip has also gained notoriety for extreme treatment of minor transgressions, public gum chewing, petty vandalism, and recreational drug use included. The country’s entrenched top-down, management-centric mindset hasn’t exactly made it a ripe breeding ground for creative fields.

Local firm WOHA paired concrete and tropical landscaping for the facade of Design Orchard, including an open-air rooftop amphitheater.

In recent years, though, Singapore seems poised for its moment on the creative stage thanks to public sector shifts and a younger generation open to enjoying the fruits of their ancestors’ toil—studying the arts at leading Western institutions and bringing their newfound skills home. Government bodies, affectionately known as Singapore Inc., are increasingly waking up to the benefits of design. It’s part of how Singapore became a UNESCO Creative City of Design in 2015. The government also hosts the annual Singapore Design Week in parallel with the Brainstorm Design Conference, which attracts industry A-listers such as Thomas Heatherwick, Patricia Urquiola, Tom Dixon, Paola Antonelli, and Ole Scheeren.

So I’m here on the eve of the country’s 54th birthday to see if my former home is truly nurturing a new artistic-inclined generation. Count Hassell, an Australian expat, and his Singaporean business partner Wong Mun Summ, as believers. They point to their work, recognized among their peers as pioneering in the area of environmental design, as proof that the state has shifted its posture.

Conceptually, Design Orchard is an encouraging sign of progress even if its inventory has some catching up to do. Though WOHA’s vision for its home base is a boon for contextual architecture. The three-level concrete, glass, and timber building thanks to a Swiss-cheese facade laden with portholes, offers glimpses to passersby of the open-air rooftop amphitheater cosseted in tropical landscaping. Inside, incubation and co-working studios provide support to local designers who then sell their products in the ground-floor retail spaces. The Textile and Fashion Federation helps provide Design Orchard’s brands with co-working spaces, professional equipment, a fabric library, and networking opportunities. On my first morning, I perused the 60-plus brands on display, trying on a handful of frocks but walking away with only one purchase: dog decals for my seven-year old nephew from Pew Pew Patches, a company founded by a local with a degree from Savannah College of Art and Design.

An installation at SingaPlural during Singapore Design Week.

Only citizens and permanent residents are eligible to take advantage of Design Orchard’s resources—however, a creative scene has been simmering on the periphery for years, even attracting foreign talent. Case in point: Indonesian fashion designer Silvia Teh, who sells her stylish womenswear inside an industrial co-working space in Geylang, the city’s former red light district. The Singapore edition of Harper’s Bazaar named Teh as the Asia NewGen Fashion Designer of the Year in 2015 while she was still a student here.

Today the 25-year-old custom tailors each of her precision-cut white, black, or navy separates made of premium staple cotton grown in China’s remote Xinjiang province.

Though she lacks access to initiatives like Design Orchard, she is quick to point out a contemporaneous cultural shift. “Individual support here for my work has been phenomenal,” says Teh, counting an oft-photographed Singaporean gallerist and Crazy Rich Asians star Gemma Chan among her loyal following. Collaborations, such as with a recent capsule collection with local jeweler Alexandra Alberta whose architecture-inspired chandelier earrings are on offer at Design Orchard, are becoming more commonplace.

Raye Padit has developed a following for his custom-tailored recycled garments.

Another transplant feeling the local love is Raye Padit, whose custom-tailored recycled garments divert tons of textile waste away from Singapore’s overburdened landfills. Opened last year, the Filipino’s Fashion Pulpit boutique overlooking the Singapore River resembles a rigorously curated East Village vintage store, replete with a trio of sewing machines where Padit and his crew embroider, recut, and resew discarded apparel. Such style intervention is too avant garde for his hometown of Manila, Padit says, where locals would scoff at donning second-hand gear. “Singaporeans actively want to innovate at every level,” he says, “including wearing one-off recycled pieces of clothing.”

Padit’s experiment, the first of its kind in the city-state that produces more than 200,000 tons of textile waste annually, has already made him a darling of several government agencies. The Ministry of the Environment and Water Resources even distributed a video of Padit issuing alarming statistics about fashion’s harmful impact on the planet.

Internet giants like Facebook and some of Singapore’s largest financial institutions have called on his services to hold workshops and clothing swaps for their employees. But it’s not necessarily the eco cred that is amassing Padit a devoted following; it’s his risk-taking designs that push the envelope where other local brands tend to favor “boring utilitarian shapes.” This explains the basic, oversized silhouettes I saw repeated across nearly every rack at Design Orchard, a description that does not apply to the contemporary recut of a vintage silk kimono I tried on in Padit’s shop.

Artist Mark Ong's sneaker customizations have earned his SBTG brand cult status.

An up-cycler of a different sort, Singaporean artist Mark Ong has been painting sneakers and skateboards for 16 years, yet has seen his local profile rise dramatically as of late. In 2003, just after completing his compulsory national service, the graphic design graduate embellished a pair of camouflage Nikes and submitted them to an online competition for fun, unaware that anyone was paying attention. As it turns out, someone was. Not only did Ong win top prize, but Tokyo sneaker retailer Atmos ordered 72 pairs. “I was painting in the kitchen of my dad’s HDB flat,” Ong recalls, referring to the ubiquitous, publicly subsidized housing in which more than three quarters of all Singaporeans live. (In another sign of the government’s growing embrace of design, it tapped WOHA to envision two new HBD complexes, Skyville and Kampung Admiralty.) Ong’s trajectory is unique in that he achieved global prominence before local recognition. He’s since customized kicks for Nike—he became the label’s first Southeast Asian design partner with his rendition of the Dunk SBs—Puma and Asics.

Ong and his business partner wife Sue-Anne Lim (who moonlights as a professional pole dance instructor) are known in sneaker circles for their punk rock patina and military motifs. Their SBTG brand’s biggest following now comes from the United States, including past and present NBA stars such as Kobe Bryant and Stephen Curry. His newest fans? The government, which enlisted him to design a popular credit card for the Development Bank of Singapore, shouted him out in a National Day speech by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, and cast him in the aforementioned tourism promo video in which Ong recalls the conservative pressure he felt growing up here in the 1980s as a denizen of the counterculture.

He never let the status quo get in the way of his passions. “Evolve beyond your surroundings,” he tells me in his studio, concealed within a central block of storage units above a neon-lit Buddhist shrine. Ong and Lim are focused on their next venture, whose prototype I spy squirreled away in a back corner: their first built-from-scratch shoe. Even a sneaker neophyte like me can sense that the artful design, with an homage to the Nike Swoosh, will be a hit with the hypebeasts.

The National Gallery of Singapore.

“You don’t have to feel ashamed to be creative in Singapore anymore,” architect and interior designer Robert Cheng says the next morning in the office of Brewin Design. The alumnus of Rhode Island School of Design and Harvard apprenticed with New York–based Tsao & McKown Architects and Ateliers Jean Nouvel in Paris before returning home to open his own practice in Singapore. His worldly perspective has earned him high-profile commissions, notably a restaurant at iconic Marina Bay Sands resort, soon-to-open Curators Library at the National Gallery of Singapore, and Takashi Murakami Kaikai Kiki gallery at the Gillman Barracks, a former British military camp turned modern art enclave that this January will host the influential platform for on-the-cusp Southeast Asian artists, S.E.A. Focus, inside of Cheng’s custom tents.

Cheng bemoans the rote memorization-based education system here, with its lack of focus on critical thinking. “No one who grew up here did so in a creative environment,” he says. Though he is quick to remind me that the country is only 54 years old, and the first few decades were focused on survival.

Cheng’s friend, the artist Dawn Ng, echoes that sentiment when I visit her seventh-floor studio overlooking the waterfront Ferris wheel. “Singapore is still in a very embryonic stage of development,” she says. The Georgetown grad is alluding to the country’s upcoming birthday, evident in the profusion of red and white flags and cheery nationalist messages emblazoned across virtually every building I see around town. Though Singapore has historically lacked artistic output, it does have artisanal traditions which Cheng and Ng adapt in contemporary forms. Ng works regularly with local carpenters, metalsmiths, neon sign makers, and paper printers.

Artist Dawn Ng surveys her “Perfect Stranger" installation.
Ng served as the creative director for Odette, the lauded restaurant inside the National Gallery.

Ng’s work involves meticulous repetition, which I see in the detritus from some of the 60-plus blocks of multicolored ice she has been casting, freezing, and melting over the past two years for a series she plans to exhibit at S.E.A. Focus next year. Her previous installation, “Perfect Stranger,” sprung from a year-long cyber conversation with an Israeli psychiatrist. Some of the most intimate snippets, chiseled by gravestone carvers onto large slabs, are en route to Art Jakarta as of this writing.

There are advantages to her homeland’s relative youth, Ng points out. “You’ll find no canonized conception of what art is here, which leaves us to make our own rules.” While Ng laments the lack of an artistic community like she witnessed overseas during her 20s in New York and Paris, her work bears witness to the fruits of what she calls “barrier-free cross-pollination” across disciplines. The lean cultural apparatus affords her and other artists the freedom to experiment.

Size also matters to Olivia Lee, an industrial designer who has made an increasingly high-profile career built on such seemingly disparate connectivity offered here. After two years at the rigorous National University of Singapore, she won a scholarship to study overseas from the national agency DesignSingapore. The now 34-year-old Lee chose London’s prestigious Central Saint Martins, where she made her mark with a viral collection called Limited Edition Design Dolls that personified Zaha Hadid, Jaime Hayon, and Karim Rashid. She went on to work for acclaimed French designer Sebastian Bergne before returning to Singapore in 2011.

Olivia Lee’s Athena furniture collection at Milan Design Week 2015.
(CLOCKWISE FROM LEFT) Pieces from Lee's The Secret to Longevity collection. The designer’s window installation, Museum of Wonders, for Hermès. Inside her light-filled studio.

Echoing WOHA’s Hassell, Lee believes the establishment of public sector initiatives like DesignSingapore convinced her parents that the state sees a future in design. And while government criticism is still in vogue, she admits, this one has been unusually future-minded when it comes to design. It’s hardly unique for governments to offer scholarships for its young citizens to study science and medicine abroad. However, Lee points out that Singapore has been supporting design education, albeit for just an especially talented few, at the finest international institutions since 2005. “They really supported me to study design abroad. Where else could I do that?”

Since her future-proof Athena furniture and accessories line was shown to critical acclaim at Salone del Mobile in 2017, the commissions have come rolling in. Her Museum of Wonders window installations for the Hermès Singapore flagship, for instance, feature a collection of absurdist historical scenes placing the brand’s products next to inventions from the Industrial Revolution era. Though her client list is global, Lee produces everything locally, mostly with small manufacturers. The shiny brass desktop set she shows me, for example, was commissioned by a Singapore government agency as a gift for visiting foreign business VIPs. It was fabricated by a company that previously serviced Singapore’s maritime industry.

“I’m fascinated by things that are 100-percent designed and made in Singapore,” she says. “It pushes me to find people willing to take risks and to join in the creative journey with me.” It can be arduous, but it also puts the renowned Singaporean resourcefulness on display. “Taking the cards you’re dealt, then pushing thoughtful transformation involves design thinking,” she says. In a sense it represents the duality of Singapore itself. “There is rigidity in our system,” she says. “But there is also so much can-do kampong spirit here. ”

Singapore, she sums up, has always been a place where “shit gets done fast,” leaving open endless potential for the growing class of artists and designers to dream, imagine, and produce anew.

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