Singapore less travelled

IT would seem that every company based here is clamouring for a piece of the SG50 pie, shining the spotlight on their contributions to our shiny, happy city-state.

But several multinational businesses are taking a different route, opting to not only re-tell the stock swamp-to-riches story, but also to help Singaporeans and foreigners alike view the country through a new lens.

One such company is US ice-cream maker Ben & Jerry's, which will be launching a series of "Diverse-City" trails from March 16 through Little India, Toa Payoh and Jalan Besar.

Those expecting a fun afternoon checking out indie cafes while snacking on sweet treats will be in for a shock ruder than Kanye West at awards shows.

With deliberately vague descriptions - the Toa Payoh edition is titled A Beginner's Guide to Social Innovation - the trails are designed to engage the public on a deeper level about current affairs.

"From marriage equality to supporting diplomatic efforts to resolve political conflict, it's not new for Ben & Jerry's to get involved in issues that are serious, and spreading the word through ice cream is a great way to get people engaged," says Ilaria Ida, the company's global social mission manager.

Far from being an excuse to slap on the red SG50 logo on its collaterals, the tour zeroes in on less shiny aspects of living in Singapore, and instead focuses on the uncomfortable reality of life under the radar.

For example, participants will be shown a block of flats in Toa Payoh where murderer Adrian Lim lived - not for shock value but as a reflection on a lack of integration in some communities.

Because despite the high density of residents, the people living in the block kept to themselves rather than raising arms to track down the criminal.

Another stop on the Toa Payoh trail is Block 15, Lorong 7, a "rental block" inhabited by low-income families.

Jail-like in appearance, with little natural light streaming through the corridors, the visit to the block aims to raise questions about social responsibility and what everyone could do to help others in their community.

Mission to raise awareness

Arriving in Singapore a year ago, and tasked to look into local social platforms that fit the brand's mission of encouraging dialogue and social cohesion, Ms Ida conducted interviews with universities, think tanks and non-governmental organisations before chancing upon trails conducted by The Thought Collective, a social enterprise.

It hopes to attract 1,500 visitors on the trails and will be planning a call to action for participants spurred on to do their part to help.

"It's not all gloom and doom," says Ms Ida.

"People go on the trails not knowing what to expect so it's good to get everyone across various backgrounds, whether they're Singaporeans, expatriates or foreign visitors to think, 'Hey, what can I do to improve the situation and make the next 50 years of Singapore just as successful?' "

As much as ice cream and Gini coefficients might have very little in common, Tong Yee, co-founder of The Thought Collective and the guide for the media preview trail, says that the partnership provides the series much-needed exposure to a much larger audience.

"I always knew Ben & Jerry's took their social mission very seriously and in our conversations with them so far, there was never the impression that they were shying away from difficult topics," says Mr Tong.

"They are genuinely concerned about the social issues rather than pushing their brand."

The Thought Collective includes enterprises such as the School of Thought - a tuition centre that tries to teach subjects in a way that sparks empathy and instils values, and cafe chain Food for Thought, which supports community causes.

Art and authenticity

Likewise, while its competitors might throw big cash prizes and plenty of publicity behind glitzy art awards, Deutsche Bank has been sponsoring a more bohemian but no less engaging initiative - Open House.

The art walkabout, affectionately known as OH!, will be rolling out its fourth incarnation in Joo Chiat. During the walk, hosts open up their homes as art galleries and visitors get a rare opportunity to appreciate art outside the formal setting of a museum or gallery.

OH! is the brainchild of local curator Alan Oei and Deutsche Bank's Oliver Bettin, a managing director in Global Markets, who was inspired after he opened up his home to an artist to use as her studio.

Today, not only is it a trail for art lovers and a platform for contemporary art, the walkabout stimulates research and curiosity about the neighbourhood it inhabits.

"We are going to Joo Chiat, a place that's been suggested to us for a long time, but I wasn't interested because it seemed predictable - it had the usual components of a cool neighbourhood like food, Peranakan history and shophouses," admits Mr Oei, who lived in the area as a child.

"I thought it would become another Tiong Bahru, gentrified and one-dimensional, but it has resisted that, and so we're interested in why. And it turns out, Joo Chiat is really elusive, complex and has multiple groups who claim it as theirs. That makes it worth our while to understand it a bit more, and artists can help us to open up perspectives."

When Mr Bettin first brought the concept to the bank, the company was keen to support the project even though it was an unusual and untested idea, in part due to the bank's focus on emerging contemporary artists.

The bank opened the doors to its offices in 2014 as part of OH! at Marina Bay to show its art collection and allow Singaporean contemporary artists to take over several meeting rooms.

"Deutsche Bank staff play an active role too," adds Mr Bettin. "Apart from myself, Lisa Robins, who runs Deutsche Bank's Transaction Banking division in the region, sits on the OH! board, and Deutsche Bank employees have volunteered as photographers and guides, and have participated in focus groups to help devise new concepts."

Meanwhile, Louis Vuitton has also taken it upon its Monogram-embossed self to offer a new take on Singapore to visitors with its City Guide.

Singapore is the latest destination in a series of travel guides featuring a hand-picked selection of addresses for sophisticated travellers, with its launch timed with the nation's 50th birthday.

Although it might appear to be a savvy allusion to its heritage in travel, as the brand's roots lie in crafting suitcase trunks, Louis Vuitton has managed to tap local experts for a truly Singaporean guide.

The book's recommendations range from trying the murtabak at Zam Zam in Kampong Glam, to more glamorous activities such as having an evening gown tailored by veteran designer Tan Yoong.

The strongest feature of the LV City Guides is that, contrary to what one might presume, they don't only list luxury addresses. The aim is to offer a good balance of addresses, from time-honoured classics to fashionable new establishments.

Foreign forces

Ironically, it seems to take the backing of international firms to uncover the many facets that make up the Singaporean experience - due to either the fresh perspective that foreign entities bring to the shaping of the country's identity, or a vested interest in improving the conditions for doing business here.

For example, Ben & Jerry's focus on the theme of social cohesion arose from feedback on how the influx of foreign labour has sparked off discontent among the local population.

"Being a US company and having been in Singapore for a decade, we are part of the issue since we bring in foreign talent to the country," says Ms Ida.

"We are in a prime position to raise such issues and plan to market the trails heavily to multinational companies, as they are perfect for expats to get under the skin of these topics."

Thankfully, such global entities are by no means imposing their own views of Singapore from the outside in. On the contrary, the companies are working closely with local partners to fully unravel the narratives that form our identity.

Each Louis Vuitton City Guide features the contributions of a special guest, and art and consultant Peter Lee was engaged as a guest editor for the Singapore edition.

The local insiders offer their distinctive vision of their city and remain at the reader's side throughout the guide, sharing experiences and personal favourites, inviting the reader to join them at the table, open their wardrobes or peruse their bookshelves.

Similarly, OH! is backed by the National Arts Council and will feature Singaporean artists such as Hafiz Osman, who is a painter, sculptor, installation artist, interior designer and object designer; and contemporary art and design collective Phunk Studio, who will "invade" the homes of local residents.

"The involvement from Ben & Jerry's was pretty authentic and I couldn't detect a single part that was commercial or marketing-driven, except their unwavering focus on raising awareness for this social issue," adds Mr Tong.

"While the trails did not take place on a regular basis due to lack of demand, we hope to see this change with the collaboration."

This article was first published on March 14, 2015.
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