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Cultural change in Singapore

February 21, 2012

I'm back in Singapore for a week working on a portfolio of projects building on work over the past decade. It's exciting to see ideas mature, understanding grow and engagement deepen over time; one of the characteristics of Government in Singapore is that they think and plan over the long term, less driven by the short termism than the UK and the US. I expect to report back on some of that work in future months, this week is scoping and discussing. I'm also taking the opportunity to spend some time in the new office and work through a whole bunch of stuff that follows on from our recent shift on the software.

Now I first came to Singapore over 15 years ago to speak at a conference. I was working for IBM then, and was still in the early naive days so I decided to stay on for a few days in case I could do anything. I got completely ignored, and couldn't even get into the IBM building to check email so I gave up and played tourist. Subsequent visits both in and IBM became a lot more packed with little leisure time. Although my whole family have been out with me at various times. If you come to a country once or twice a year (more frequently at times) you get a better sense of change than if you live there.

I remember in the early days Singapore was very functional, modern buildings and an engineering orientation. There was concern about innovation and programmes were put into place (some of which I was involved in) to change that. We now have a major new arts centre, the arts college and a blossoming community of designers and artists. In parallel with that a growing pride in heritage. The old police building (pictured right) has been restored and is now the centre for MICA, one of the places I have been working this week. It is also full of sculpture (see opening shot) of considerable originality. Our old office in Mount Sofia had a really strange red statute of a distorted male figure and most public spaces and areas have now moved away from a strictly utilitarian appearance. There is even an opera on next week, something which is the sign of growing enlightenment!

The food courts are as good as ever, and I went out for a meal with out developers and support people last night. As they are mostly Indian and vegetarian we ended up in Little India. At this point you just sit back and let the experts order. One dish (looking for the name) involved purring mango juice into a small edible basket and eating it whole. Tonight its Tai, and I have already had the statutory chicken rice, my all time favourite. Much is the same, much has changed. The society is now larger, it is more distanced from the bad times; its worth remembering it was a basket case forty or so years ago and now with the 50th Anniversary looming it is one of the most successful economies in the world. But with that success and size there are different tensions. I doubt there is one Singapore meta-story anymore, although there was when I first came. Growth and growing sophistication bring advantages but also dangers.

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