A Visit to Singapore
By: Karen Moltenbrey
February 16, 2010

A Visit to Singapore

Like many Americans, I am not the best when it comes to world geography. I can pinpoint the general area of the continents. I can say with pride that I do know that the Russian Federation is situated on the far north of the Asian continent, as are Israel, Jordan, and other Middle Eastern countries to the west, India to the south, China to the east, and the islands to the south east (thanks to have recently quizzed my seventh-grade son for a social studies test). But that is far as my limited geographical knowledge can offer without me taking a quick look at a map.

Why this sudden interest in world geography—specifically Asia? I recently visited there to check out the country’s developments in the digital media market. On New Year’s Day, I stepped on a plane in New York with two others who also were invited to visit the country (a third person was leaving from San Francisco), and we left for Singapore.  Below is a diary of that trip.

Prior to leaving: Contact Singapore had contacted me in the early fall about the trip. It sounded good. In November, I had to decline, but circumstances changed, allowing me to accept the invitation in early December. Okay, things sounded good. When we finalized the information, I found out that my passport was set to expire in March. No problem. I would be back the second week of January. Well, there was a problem. Two days before Christmas I was informed that I needed at least six months remaining on my passport in order to enter Singapore. I called the national passport center to get an expedited appointment for renewal, but due to the holidays, the first appointment I could get was the Tuesday after Christmas. I was leaving that Friday. So, I waited in line, a long line, with others from the Boston area. Some were also looking to travel on business, while others were hoping for a quick vacation. They should have planned better. I should have, too. On Thursday afternoon, less than 24 hours before I was to leave, my passport arrived. Lesson learned: Renew your passport nine months before the due date!

Day 1-2: I had to forgo cheering for my alma mater, Penn State, in the Capital One Bowl (thank goodness for my DVR) and head from Boston to New York for the first real leg of the Singapore flight. There, I met up with two of my companions on the trip: Amid Amidi from Cartoon Brew and Eric Alba, a VFX supe and blogger for Stash. We waited for the flight in the Singapore airlines lounge. Luckily, we were traveling business class, which afforded us some comfort for the approximately 20-some-hour flight. We left in the evening on Friday, changed flights in Frankfurt sometime on Saturday, and arrived in Singapore Sunday morning. It seems longer than it was—there is a half-day time difference between New York and Singapore. I whiled away the day/night watching movies, catching a bit of sleep, and eating. And eating. The food was always coming—and nice meals, too. Not your average “airline food.” Little did I know that this was a prelude of what was to come.

Day 3: What happened to Saturday? I think I only recall an hour of it in Frankfurt’s airport while they prepped the plane for the next leg of the journey. Well, it’s early Sunday morning in Singapore. Along with my fellow travelers, we went through the processing. As an official stamped our passport, we all found the large sign at the desk disturbingly interesting: Attempting to bring illegal drugs into the country will be punishable by death. I hoped my Advil didn’t qualify.  

A car and driver were waiting for us. As we stepped out of the airport, immediately I was pleasantly surprised with what I saw. It was like I had been transported to a pristine New York City where the streets were free of litter, a swarm of vehicles did not choke the highways, and the buildings were well kept. We got the hotel, waited in the restaurant lounge for our rooms to be ready (we met up with Matt Lambert, a director and associate editor for Motionographer, who had arrived from California). It was still early morning. All of us quickly unpacked and, though a bit tired, decided to do some exploring. Eric, as it turned out, had lived and worked in Singapore for a year, though nearly a decade before. He became our tour guide for the day. The three of us left to explore—Amid had decided to do his own walking tour and met up with us later.

Soon I discovered what one of the favorite Singaporean pastimes is: shopping. Christmas decorations adorned the streets and malls—decorations that had a definite Asian twist to them, but beautiful nonetheless. It was Sunday, and shoppers were everywhere. Stores were everywhere. I have never seen so many stores in one location, next to another location filled with even more. Apparently the growing economy supports this activity. We stopped at a few techno-malls—multi-story malls that sell everything electronic. And I mean everything. After partaking in this activity, we did a bit of sight-seeing. Later, during meetings with government officials, they boasted of Singapore’s diverse cultures; this was apparent while walking down the streets, as Asian blended into Middle Eastern, which blended into Indian, Thai, Filipino, Korean, and more. There were temples beside mosques beside churches. And I mean literally beside one another. It was fantastic.

Day 4: Monday, the first real day of the business trip. We had our government agency briefings by the Singapore Economic Development Board (EDB) and the Infocomm Development Authority (IDA). Guiding us through this experience was our assigned hosts: Mary Placido, a marketing rep from Golin Harris whose client is Contact Singapore (on her first visit there), and Yee Ling Lee, assistant director at Contact Singapore. Attending these meetings with us was a small group of students from all over the world who had come check out Singapore as a possible place of employment after graduating as part of the Experience@Singapore program. It was a pleasure to meet these intelligent, focused students, spend some time with them, and listen to their plans for the future.

I am thankful that Contact Singapore focused on showing us the work and play aspects of their country. So, mixed among the meetings were activities meant to teach us about the country as a whole. Our first lesson was to experience a basic food staple: porridge. Okay, I was thinking about the tale of the Goldilocks and the three bears. Was it oatmeal? Was it rice? What was it? Honestly, porridge is bland. But, you have to think of it like you would a salad: Start with boring lettuce, and then add lots of tasty ingredients. That is what they do with porridge, which is just the base item; atop of the soupy mixture you add items--various meats, vegetables, spices, sauces, and more—from a buffet.

Next, we visited the Singapore City Gallery—again, we saw more and more stores. And restaurants. As we were informed, people here eat five times a day. (Note: eating is the second cultural pastime.) They do not consume huge super-size meals, but smaller ones. Apparently this must work, as I did not see any overweight people! Before I go on, I must introduce our tour guides for part of the trip (when we were with the students): Ricardo Chua , Gary Lai, and Shirley Wee from Adrenalin Events and Education. They were young, knowledgeable, and very enthusiastic and happy to share information about the lives of their fellow countrymen and women. They definitely made the trip very enjoyable for all of us, and even taught us a little Singlish, which is an informal, abbreviated form of English with Chinese or Malay mixed in—for instance: “Next time, I’d rather eat at another hawker center” would be said “Go hawker center better.”

Filling out the day, we visited the Media Development Authority (MDA) and toured Fusionopolis, the science and technology cluster that brings together scientists, engineers, and technology experts from public and private labs. The facility is brand-new and serves as a test-bed for new concepts and products. Very interesting, and an excellent investment in furthering digital media concepts.

Now, it was time to relax. We visited Marina Barrage. Built at the mouth of the Marina Channel, the Barrage creates Singapore’s 15th reservoir and the first in the heart of the city. Its catchment area is about one-sixth the size of Singapore. Sound boring? Not at all. We were not just looking at a dam here. It is an architectural wonder. And while visiting, we learned another bit of information. Singapore is an island (okay, I knew that), and it has to be conservative with its freshwater supply. Here, a natural flushing process will turn the Marina Basin into a body of freshwater in one to two years, naturally. And this is just one example of the country’s approach to environmental practices. They are very green in their approaches. Built at the Barrage is a big outdoor park where families and friends meet and play. While we were there, dozens of folks were flying kites, picnicking, and more. (Note: Most structures serve at least two, often three, purposes.)

Here is a good time to interject another fact: Everything about Singapore is planned. As a small island nation Island that is merely 704 sq km and home to 4.8 million people, land is limited. Thus, the government plans development. When it opens up an area of land for development, it determines what the usage will be, dictating how much of that area will be available for residential housing, how much for business usage, and so on.

Then, it was off to dinner, where we partook in a very popular dish: chili crab. Think Maryland-style crabs, only here the pepper coating was not dry but a wet, scrumptious, spicy, red sauce. That was just one course. In all, there were several, and each as delicious as the first. Well, almost. While I committed to being adventurous with my dining, when it came to the jellyfish, I just could not past the texture. I tried it, and while the taste was not bad, it felt like I placed a forkful of gummy worms in my mouth.

Day 5: We started the day off with a guided tour of the city. It was so beautiful. For this, you must see the pictures. Next, we met with the Ministry of Manpower (MOM). What was so interesting was the access we had to government officials. Then, we visited Viwawa/Pendulab, a game studio that produces causal browser-based multiplayer online games. The company is Singaporean. From there, we visited Sunwoo Entertainment, a Korean-based company that set up shop in Singapore in 2008 and produces and distributes animation. (Job alert: At Sunwoo we heard that animators and compositors are in high demand because many artists specialize in modeling as opposed to animation and compositing

Now, it was time for fun. We visited the Singapore Flyer, the world’s largest observation wheel. During our ride, we were afforded the beauty of the Singapore skyline at dusk, with the shimmering Marina Bay waterfront at our feet. It was breathtaking. (Fact: The port of Singapore is one of the busiest in the world. We saw this from the Flyer, as huge cargo ships dotted the bay.) We finished the evening with a dinner at Gluttons Bay, eating hawker style. I had no idea what to expect, or what the heck hawker-style was. As it turns out, years ago, vendors used to set up small shacks to sell food. When the government planned out the country’s growth, it dedicated “centers” for these vendors—think a mall food court only outdoors and locals cooking their own thing. The food was delicious, and our hosts made it easy for us by setting up the meal beforehand with some of the vendors so that we had a chance to sample a number of menu items.

Day 6: We started the day early with the UK Trade & Investment group—at the UK embassy. This is the first time I had the chance to visit an embassy on foreign soil (never having the need to do so before, thank goodness). Luckily, I was here for a meeting, not an emergency. Security was very tight (tighter than at the airport) and we surrendered our passports at the gate, along with cell phones, cameras, and all other electronic devices.  The person we met with, Hugh Mason, explained that currently Singapore is not a big production hub—yet. For now, though, it is a good place to finance projects. The country has money to invest and a shortage of talent, so many find the business climate here very agreeable.

One thing Mason pointed out to us was that cultural and family values affect the creative nature of the local populace. Historically, students focused on getting good grades and were pressured to perform “proper” jobs, as the nation struggled to find its own identify (it became an independent country in the 1960s). Now, Singapore is coming of age, he explained, and the current generation is beginning to change, evolve, as people shift their restrictive values that place high value on math and science, and learn to appreciate the arts. Students are beginning to be encouraged to take risks and venture into the arts. It is a young nation and still learning and growing, he adds. His overall assessment: It is a nice place to live and work.

Next we got to see what education here is all about.  We visited the campus of NYU Tisch Asia School of the Arts. Unfortunately, the students were still on Christmas break, but we did enjoy a tour of the campus and saw the amazing new equipment there that is available for the students to use in order to hone their skills in filmmaking. The school opened in 2007 and has 123 students who (impressively) produced 151 short films collectively in that two-year timeframe. Students here are required in their first year to produce three films. Animation is taught in the second year, where student learn history, the use of 3D tools, motion capture, character development, compositing, programming visual effects, storytelling, and game development. Interestingly, the student body hails from 23 countries, and Singapore is NOT in the majority. The film curriculum is the same here as it is at the New York school. So why do students come here instead? Some for the adventure. Also, they spend far more time on campus here than the average student in New York due to logistics (the school is outside the city). Class size is the same as its counterpart, but because it is a new campus, there is less competition (currently) or coveted spots in the Tisch program.

Lastly, we visited Infinite Frameworks (IFW) a producer of media and entertainment content. It is, in essence, a postproduction facility with a dedicated animation facility on Batam Island in Indonesia. Among the productions done here: It is the exclusive postproduction house for Mark Burnett’s The Contender. The facility was quite impressive, as was Freddie Yeo, general manager.

We capped off the evening by venturing to a large hawker area and experiencing the concept as native Singaporeans do. (Note: Families here do not cook at home very often; rather, they meet up at hawker areas for dinner. The food is cooked quickly-- think fast-food without the processed ingredients). The stalls are inspected regularly for cleanliness, and when a vendor runs out of items, he or she closes up for the day. Prior to dinner, Amid, Mary, and I went shopping, visiting the twisting-turning maze of tiny vendor stalls filled with goods and food in two outdoor markets. It was quite the experience!

Day 7: We began the day by meeting with the American Chamber of Commerce. The AmCham chairman, Steven Okun, introduced us to Americans living in Singapore, and they shared their thoughts about their adventure. He noted that a survey of ex-pats here showed that 99 percent were satisfied with their post. (I can bet that percentage would be far lower if you posed the same question to those in the US.)  Some comments from the group:
  • The advantage to working here is the exposure to so many markets, but there is a big learning curve to doing business with so many cultures.
  • You have access to high-level government officials.
  • It is easy to set up shop here.
  • The country is very technologically advanced and focused.
  • The country is less conservative now than before—just a few years ago, The Sopranos and Sex and the City were banned. Now, the government is encouraging the arts with a film festival and art festival, and has blessed the industry as a career.
  • It is where all the action is: in the 1800s, it was London; in the 1900s, the US; in 2000, it is Asia/Pacific.
  • Singapore is “Asia Light,” in that you get the advantages of Asia but with the comfort level Europeans and Americans are used to.
  • As India develops, Singapore will play an even bigger role in providing a bridge to that area.
  • Singapore is expensive—a car, schools, housing. Prices do not fall here. Rent has doubled in the last five years. But on the brighter side, there is a ton of government housing, and a large percentage of the population lives in these apartments. They are not cheap, though, but rather more affordable than a single-family home. And the government helps finance them through low-interest loans. Food is also expensive, though you would never know this at the hawker stands, where a meal costs from $4 to $6 (Singapore dollars). I am not sure why groceries are so expensive and hawker food is not. Maybe it’s the refrigeration for keeping items longer.
  • Most people in big business today need Asian experience to succeed in a global company.

Our next stop was at 3DSense Media School, which has grown to be one of the leading Asia institutions providing professional education in digital media and entertainment. In a global survey, it was touted as one of the top 10 schools outside the US and UK for learning computer animation. I can see why. Students are immersed and receive a diploma in VFX and animation in just one year’s time. It is intense. Impressively, 90 percent of the grads are placed in jobs. There are about 15 kids to a class, and to be accepted, they must produce a portfolio of drawings and come with some 3D experience. School officials pointed out that most of the students are graduate-level with degrees in other more traditional areas, such as finance. Because they are older (typically in their 20s and 30s), they are more mature and can handle the intense program.

We had another government briefing, as well, with the executive director of Contact Singapore, over lunch at a nice downtown hotel restaurant. (The food was good and plentiful, but I passed on the chicken feet.) Then, off we went to Tiny Island Productions. This place indeed felt like a real VFX/animation studio, with funky objects adorning workers’ areas. I was very impressed by this stop. It is part school/part studio. Founded in 2002 as a business entity representing the interests of a pool of CG artists in overseas markets, Tiny Island has grown to become an independent production and consulting company that provides one-stop solution for 3D animation productions. It is run by David Kwok, CGI producer at Tiny Island and chairman of the Singapore Animators’ Connection. What I liked best is that on one side of the building there is a CG protégé school, where students learn from experts. Off to the side is an area where those working in the industry can continue to hone their skills. On the other side of the building is the studio that is doing some impressive work. Tiny Island is working on a feature film that is expected to be released in 2011.

Lastly, we visited Scrawl Studios. Founded in 2002, it has grown to become the most prolific animation companies in Asia, with original series sold around the board to broadcasters such as Nickelodeon, ABC, Discovery Kids, among others. The studio specializes in conceptual development, character design, and high-end traditional and digital animation for TV, commercials, the Web, and new media platforms.

At this point, the day was done, and I had a midnight flight back home. So, it was time to pack and get ready to leave.

Day 8: It started at 12:05 am as the plane pulled out of the gate in Singapore. On the same day, we stopped off in Frankfurt, and arrived in New York. All before 11:00 am! So, I guess I got my day back that I missed on my trip over.

In looking back, I can say that I learned a lot about Singapore in general, and quite a bit about the digital media sector there. But, I can only deliver a little taste of what I saw. I am very impressed with the way the country is targeting this market and how it is going about achieving its goal of becoming a leader in this area. Despite having big names (EA, Lucasfilm) and some ambitious local facilities making great strides, it is obvious that the digital media industry here is in its early stages. However, all the pieces are in place, and now it is just a matter of time until all the efforts mature, and with that will come a large group of highly skills, focused digital artists. The veterans are passionate and are committed to making this a reality. And so is Singapore.

Karen Moltenbrey is the chief editor of CGW.