First Singapore musings

I just finished up three short workshops in Singapore. As always, I enjoyed the place and the people there immensely. (The hot sticky weather is another story.) The food is good, the workshop where I was teaching is great and the infrastructure there is amazing. Still, my favorite part of Singapore is the struggle going on about their future. They are collectively aware that in order maintain their status as one of the most vibrant economies in the world they need to keep moving up the economic ladder. The step they aspire to make next, to become innovators/creators of new products and services, has the potential to vault them to the top of the pyramid.

Do I have any real, substantive understanding of how they will in fact do that? No, not a chance! But I am guessing that if some of the Singaporeans I work with can learn to embrace the ambiguities of the creativity required to become great photographers, their society as whole may in fact be able to make that larger leap. Only time will tell whether I am right to apply the idea that transferability of that adaptability is a good barometer of the creative potential of another society and culture, like that of Singapore.

When you think of Singapore, stereotypes come to mind. Sure, the government can be a bit draconian. Apparently they have been punishing murderers and drug traffickers with the death penalty. Last time I looked, Texas was still executing people, so Americans have nothing to gloat about. We certainly could use something to put a little fear into our own serious drug traffickers. They also severely punish graffiti “artists” including an American who was caned in the 1990s. A Swiss man was recently punished for spraying graffiti and sentenced to three strokes of a cane.

On the other hand this is an unbelievably safe place, so that accounts for something. I was talking to Singaporeans here about the latest graffiti related punishment with caning. They condemned the Swiss man for entering the train depot by cutting a hole in the fence and then vandalizing a few trains. Graffiti on this scale is so unusual in Singapore that many train travelers thought the graffiti was part of some weird marketing campaign. Also, I personally have no sympathy for graffiti artists, having owned a home that was “tagged” once too often. One man’s graffiti was my vandalism.

The students in my various classes joked openly about their country’s reputation and politics. They let me tease them even further about their tendency toward group-think and their unwillingness to stick out too much from the group. The culture in Singapore stereotypically tends to reward conformity and linear problem solving, two traits that will only take you so far in creative photography.

In all the classes I have taught in Singapore I have never doubted the student’s ability to grasp the technology. In fact, they are generally really fast learners. I have worked with some amazing students who have grasped the more open-ended ambiguity that is at the heart of so much creativity in any field. But since creativity is not something that is neither particularly linear nor easily “taught,” I will have to keep coming back to see what kind of progress they make.

The Singaporeans I worked with these last few days also worked very studiously on the assignments I gave them and made some great images in a short period of time. Most importantly of all, they asked questions. Some questions were very specific and technical but other questions were broad and even philosophical. Unlike American college students who are too “cool” to admit what they do not know, these Singaporeans were pretty explicit about what they wanted to learn.

One student was very up front about what she wanted to learn, so much so that we started corresponding by e-mail about her “questions” before the class even started. That dialogue is the seed of what will be the second of these two blog entries of musings on Singapore.

The workshop where I teach whenever I am in Singapore is a private organization that wisely seeks out and uses some public funding to support its mission. The government in Singapore is a big player in this amorphous struggle to teach creativity and centers like Objectifs, are where they put much of their support. It is a visual arts centre for photography and filmmaking enthusiasts, which you can read more about at

During the class we ended up discussing (and traveling via) the MRT (subway) trains. The graffiti case was one point we discussed but the ease of use and efficiency of the trains was also part of our dialogue.

As I was heading out to the airport on the train on my last day, I started to wonder if a country’s trains reflect the society’s values? The MRT (subway) tracks are so smooth and the cars so free of shaking and shimmying that I usually fell asleep. Now compare this to riding New York City’s subway, where every ride is an adventure and you hold on for dear life, as your head is slammed left and right against the walls of the subway cars.

I am quite aware how fascists like Italy’s wartime dictator, Mussolini, justified his oppressive consolidation of power by making sure that ”the trains ran on time.” I am not suggesting anything like that. mNor am I linking the more draconian aspects of the government in Singapore to Fascism.

I am simply noting that a society that can keep train tracks perfectly straight can obviously export electronics and chemicals, as well as provide world-class services. Similarly, it can educate its population build a vibrant economy by refining imported raw materials into high value exports. But for me, the real question is, can they add creativity to their mix to take them to that next step?

One response to “First Singapore musings”

  1. the running gag is that Singapore is a fine city.

    There’s a fine for littering. There’s a fine for jaywalking. 🙂

    Objectifs is in a very cool neighborhood, also a nice walk to Little India where there’s great photo opps.

    The notable thing about Singapore is that it is a city-state and a society of people who are keenly aware of the work it takes to be a successful multicultural, multi-ethnic, multi-religious society and to be a successful small city state with no natural resources (they even have to import a healthy % of their water from Malaysia despite the “love-hate” relationship between the 2 nations) surrounded by and cooperating with oftentimes culturally and politically unfriendly much larger neighbors.

    Achieving stability and thriving with that level of ambiguity and challenge is notable.

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