“To me, Singapore style is dynamic and fluid. By this, it means we must be able to acknowledge that we are heavily influenced by what surrounds us – in particular, our neighbours in the region and around the world. The nature of this style comes from us being so cosmopolitan. We also embrace diversity in the things we do, eat, and wear!”
– ONIATTA EFFENDI, BAJU BY ONIATTA
"Oniatta Effendi’s outfit is from the Kasih+Sayang collection from Baju by Oniatta."
The idea of a quintessentially Singaporean style, or local identity, has been explored throughout the nation’s history, but is still something so wonderfully fluid that most people cannot put a finger to it right away.
Yet, it is possible to immediately recognise something as “so Singaporean” when you see it. Whether it’s the iconic Vanda Miss Joaquim orchid, a poem on HDB void decks, a practical everyday item like the plastic carrier for a cup of kopi peng or our local brand of down-to-earth humour, there is a Singapore spirit that deeply resonates with people.
But what exactly is this Singaporean identity – and does it differ according to generation or creative discipline? In celebration of Singapore’s 55th National Day this month, we asked 20 creatives in the local arts and design scene to share their opinions.
A CONSTANTLY EVOLVING IDENTITY
To some, the Singaporean style is one that’s constantly evolving. “To me, it’s dynamic and fluid,” shares Oniatta Effendi, designer and founder of batik fashion label Baju by Oniatta. Natalie Mok, architectural executive at RT+Q Architects, agrees. “The core of Singapore design is to improve experience, and it’s increasingly reflective of innovation and creativity,” she says and cites RT+Q Architects’ House of Spice project as an example of the city-state moving towards architectural design for environmental sustainability. Think terraces for urban farming as well as natural insulation and optimised airflow.
Another thing that most creatives agree on is that design in Singapore will continue to adapt and evolve in a post-pandemic era. Becca D’Bus, drag performer and founder of Singapore drag revue RIOT!, muses that visual spectacle will be even more important now that online platforms have become the default – and our sensory experience has come to rely mainly on our eyes and ears.
For most, experiencing the arts is a dialogue of communal spirit and energy, something we have to work harder to achieve in a world without crowds. But there is hope. With its potential as a refuge for a shared identity among Singaporeans across the digital divide, design is more essential than ever. How exactly? “We are still searching for the answers,” says Tan Jia Yee, co-founder of creative studio In The Wild. “If we come together as a community and country, and have faith, we can adapt and learn to thrive alongside change.”
And it doesn’t matter if, in the end, the exploration never ends, and that we don’t have one single interpretation. Khairudin Saharom, founder of Kite Studio Architecture eloquently addresses this: “Sometimes, definition stifles exploration and creativity. Perhaps leaving it as something intangible might be what truly defines Singapore style.”
"The interior of Cure restaurant by Camiel Weijenberg."
“For me, Singapore style has shifted from the functional, basic and utilitarian purpose-built designs of the 1960s to 1980s to what we see today: an aesthetic that is more design-focused, taking the best of contemporary international designs and making them our own while respecting local heritage and conditions.” – CAMIEL WEIJENBERG, WEIJENBERG
“I believe there is no distinctive or definitive Singapore style, design or look. It is more of a collective attitude towards architecture. It’s the constant evolvement and improvement of ideas, revolving around progressive aspirations.”
– NATALIE MOK, RT+Q ARCHITECTS
House of Spice by Rt+Q Architects.
“It is not limited to any specific look, attitude or approach. It can even be derived from our lifestyle or anything uniquely us – and that may include our quirkiness or things about us others find hard to understand. I’d like to believe that we are still in the midst of a journey to discover our true style. That’s probably because we are still considered a young nation.”
– KHAIRUDIN SAHAROM, KITE STUDIO ARCHITECTURE
Khai took inspiration from the HDB void deck, an iconic example of Singapore design, for the Archifest 2018’s pavilion.
“I think of Singapore style as being informed by the weather and one’s level of comfort. it is also about a complicated relationship between what is made and designed by Singaporeans and the region versus what comes out of places like the US and Europe.”
– BECCA D’BUS, RIOT! DRAG SHOW
Drag performer Eugene Tan, also known as Becca D’bus, names Pink Dot as a design entity that is quintessentially Singapore.
Where would Singapore style be without a dash of the pragmatism or kiasu attitude we’re famous for? To twins Santhi and Sari Tunas, founders of apparel brand Binary Style, it’s an attitude of “practicality, convenience and sensibility with a hint of tradition”.
Perhaps this is best expressed in Singapore’s careful environmental planning that’s resulted in the flourishing garden city. While the detailed structuring may strike some as safe or boring, it represents the quintessential beauty of Singapore to others.
Hossein Rezai, founder of structural engineering firm Web Structures and the President Design Award’s Designer of the Year 2016, observes that Singapore has been designed in three levels: the detail level, the environment level, and the system level, citing the plastic carrier for our much loved kopi peng, the pruned rain tree canopy along the ECP and HDB public housing as respective examples.
Lee Tze Ming, one of the founders of multidisciplinary creative firm Stuck Design, says that good design should be very much connected to the way Singaporeans live. “We try to express this in our work while reminding ourselves to simplify, and to prioritise the question of ‘Why would someone use it’ before ‘What should it look like?’” he says.
“In terms of design, I don’t think there is a significant Singapore style yet. But brands here are definitely trustworthy and people around the world are willing to partner them.”
– JJ CHUAN, REHYPHEN
“Everything in Singapore has been designed to work exactly like it is intended to, from the detail level (think the plastic carrier for cups in hawker centre) to the system level (HDB schemes).”
– HOSSEIN REZAI, WEB STRUCTURES
becca d’bus portrait MOONRISE STUDIO
A Binary Style scarf featuring the iconic facade of architect Paul Rudolph’s The Colonnade and hornbills.
Santhi and Sari name the Shang System, a contemporary furniture system rooted in history and culture, bylocal furniture brand Scene Shang as an example of Singapore design.
“Singapore style is about practicality, convenience and sensibility with a hint of tradition. It is an attitude!”
– SANTHI & SARI TUNAS, BINARY STYLE
The X-hood, a Covid-19 initiative with healthcare workers by Stuck Design.
“We hope that design can have longevity. It should be loved and connected to the way Singaporeans live. We try to express this in our work while reminding ourselves to simplify, and to prioritise the question of ‘Why would someone use it?’ before ‘What should it look like?’
– LEE TZE MING, STUCK DESIGN
The communal spirit and energy of a live audience play a part in shaping the music.
"Jack and Rai at a live show"
“There is a Singapore style that exists but we think that it’s more like a philosophy. One that forms the basis of the way we think and do things, ultimately leading to how we behave and express ourselves. However, it isn’t original. Instead, it is an amalgamation of different cultures, from ethnic to pop, that influences the end product.”
– JACK AND RAI, SINGER-SONGWRITERS
A BLEND OF CULTURES AND TRADITIONS
The notion of a rojak of different cultural influences and identities is by far the most common thread when it comes to identity. Given Singapore’s history and our close ties with neighbouring countries, it’s not surprising to learn that most creatives feel that there is no singular attitude or approach to define Singapore style, but rather a colourful mix of the local and international, traditional and modern.
“Sometimes, as we are making an arrangement, we’d say, ‘This feels very Singaporean.’ And it can be for a variety of reasons. We do not fit into neat boxes!” says John Lim, founder of floral atelier The Humid House. This tapestry of cultural influences stretches across all creative fields, it seems, including art and music.
Artist Sun Yu-Li, who created the sculptures outside Suntec City and Singapore Art Museum, points to communal artworks as examples. For NDP51, for instance, he gathered 40,000 members of the public, who each added their personal interpretation of Singapore to a mosaic. “People draw something from memory or heritage, which contributes to the richness of the canvas,” he says. The mosaic is now on display outside the Singapore Sports Hub.
This expression of multicultural influences is also found in individual works of art. “The most consistent and recognisable has been designers’ reinterpretation of Singapore stories using visual icons from the architecture and objects that are uniquely Singapore,” shares Carolyn Kan, founder of jewellery brand Carrie K. One of her favourite designs features the diamond shape of the National Theatre built in the 1960s, a “gem we created together and which spurred our local arts and cultural landscape,” she says.
Carrie K’s Icon jewellery collection is inspired by diamond motifs of the National Theatre’s facade.
“Singapore is a melting pot of styles that builds off our layered culture. The most consistent and recognisable has been designers’ reinterpretation of Singapore stories using visual icons in architecture and objects uniquely Singapore.”
– CAROLYN KAN, CARRIE K
“Singapore style is a mood. Something that’s evocative of our melting pot, our climate... like rojak (the dish); a melange of various things where the sum is greater than its parts.”
– JOHN LIM, THIS HUMID HOUSE
A contemporary flower arrangement by This Humid House.
“Singapore style is a mishmash of styles as we are a true cultural crossroads. I don’t think we should worry about having a style, to be honest. I think being who we are allows us to have more space to play with.”
– YAH-LENG YU, FOREIGN POLICY DESIGN
“We can see some designers drawing inspiration from local cultures, elements and nuances, and applying them to their works. Others, having adapted and accepted international exposure, are executing their interpretations through implied sensibilities.”
– DAVID THAM, STUDIONORM DESIGN CONSULTANT
David named Kampung Admiralty, Singapore’s first integrated public development designed by WOHA Architects, as an example.
Artist Sun Yu-Li in his studio, surrounded by artwork.
“The idea of Singapore style has always been a quest for all Singaporeans. It’s something that comes from the heart and is created by Singaporeans of all races, cultures and backgrounds.”
– SUN YU-LI, ARTIST
“Singapore design interlaces other Asian influences with our history, heritage and dualities. East and West, the traditional and the futuristic, as well as our multicultural society make up the fabric of this nation.”
– TAN JIA YEE, IN THE WILD
“I think the beauty of Singapore lies in the richness of its influences. Though we are a small country, we unite an incredibly diverse mix of backgrounds and creative styles, and this unity gives rise to a style so rich and complex that it is beyond definition.”
– JAZZ CHONG, ODE TO ART
Bustling Streets of Chinatown by Lim Tze Peng.
"Priscilla Lui and Timo Wong, the founders of Studio Juju."
“I regard [Singapore style] as a stereotypical term that is used loosely on things that exist here, and which can be experienced in abundance such as the types of food and the way people speak and behave.”
– TIMO WONG, STUDIO JUJU
text MELODY BAY AND ASIH JENIE