I have lost count of the number of times I have been asked: “As an author of creativity books, how on Earth can you live in Singapore?” And when I reply, “Because I think it is the best place in the world to live for a creative person,” most people think I am kidding and everyone asks me to explain. But no, I am not kidding. And yes, let me explain.
I moved to Beijing from my native Sweden in 2005 because I wanted to be in Asia when Asian countries truly started to embrace creativity. The defining moment for me was when then-People’s Republic of China President Hu Jintao gave a speech to the Chinese people in which he said that “China should be an innovative country 15 years from now.” Since I write books on business creativity, I just had to move to Asia and see this shift happen. After two years in Beijing, I learnt two things: firstly, I wanted to leave Beijing, which is a fascinating city, but has too much traffic, too much pollution and too little water for a Swede brought up in the Stockholm archipelago; and secondly, I wanted to remain in Asia.
So I went on a grand journey. While doing research for my book The Developing World, I constantly travelled over a period of more than 10 months. I went to 20 developing countries and when I came to each new city that I thought had potential to become my new home, I made sure my schedule allowed me to stay a few extra days to get a feel of life there. I spent two weeks each in Seoul, Hong Kong, Bangkok, Shanghai, Mumbai, New Delhi, Istanbul and Singapore. Then I made a list of positives and negatives about each city. Singapore won in the end.
City-State of mind
Why? Well, for many reasons.
Such as quality of life—I now drink as much fresh mango juice in Singapore as I did beers in Beijing, weather (no, I do not mind the heat; I love it), security (I love countries where there is a good chance you will get your iPhone back if you left it behind in a restaurant) and convenience (like the fact that Changi Airport has extensive connections to the world, since my work involves a lot of travelling to different countries on a frequent basis).
Those are the usual reasons that attract most people to Singapore. But the main reason I live in Singapore is because this city-state, to me, is the one place on Earth where it is the easiest to have a globally-creative mindset. Some people say Singapore is “Asia for beginners.” I do not agree. I think Singapore is “globalization for beginners,” or rather, “globalization for early adopters.” With a diverse mix of races, religions and nationalities, Singapore not only represents the cross-section of the world, it is also a time capsule of what the world will look like in the future. And I love that.
New York may call itself ‘the capital of the world’ but Singapore is the world. Unlike New York, which is a global city in the United States, Singapore is a global city—a global city-state. Singapore is a city in the world, not a city in a country in the world. And this makes it easier to have a global outlook here since nationalistic barriers do not block the view as much.
A Beautiful Mix
A positive side-effect of this is that Singapore is one of the least racist countries in the world. Now, that does not mean that there is no racism in Singapore, but I have worked in more than 40 countries, and I have never experienced less racism than I do in Singapore. That is important to me. Not only because we are a mixed-race family—I am from Sweden, my wife from the Philippines and my son a happy mix of Stockholm, Manila and Singapore. As an European, I am ashamed and disappointed when European leaders recently proclaim that “the multi-cultural society does not work.” I just wish they would come to Singapore.
To live in a place that is celebrating ‘Western New Year’ and ‘Chinese New Year’ is not only twice as fun, it also gives you the feeling that there is more than one way of doing things. On a recent New Year’s Eve party, we realized our group consisted of 10 people with 10 different passports. A friend told me how they had had an after-work beer at his company and 14 people—from 14 different countries—showed up. At our wedding, we had 40 guests from 8 countries, comprising at least 4 religions and 4 races, and, at the time, no one was counting. It all just felt as if it was the most natural thing in the world. The point, of course, is that it is not the most natural thing in the world. Unfortunately, in most places in the world, it would be rare, strange and exotic to have such a natural mix of backgrounds. For people living in Singapore, it is so natural you do not grasp how unnaturally natural it is, and how valuable.
Of Roots And Branches
Now, do not get me wrong. I am not saying that knowledge of your own culture and background is not important. It is. It is often said that a person without roots is fickle, doesn’t know how to connect to who he is and can be easily manipulated, because there are no basic values keeping him grounded. Roots are important.
But if one is going to use a metaphor (in this case, of likening a human being to a tree), one has to use the whole metaphor. Because it is equally true that a tree without branches also perishes. A tree that does not spread its branches out in all directions to gather as much sunlight and energy as possible might have deep and strong roots, but it will eventually still wither and die. In other words, to be rootless is dangerous, but so is being branchless.
And if your own culture is the roots, the cultures of the rest of the world is the energy that your branches need to reach out to, so that you can get new ideas and ways of doing things by learning from others, be inspired to try new foods, acquire new habits and try new customs. It will make you curious of other ways of doing things, be inspired by different ideas and energized by alternate points of views. And that is what creates creativity.
And nowhere in the world is it easier to let your branches spread out than in Singapore. Want some exposure to American influence? Watch American Idol the day after it airs in the US. What about a dose of Indian culture? Join in the Deepavali celebrations together with thousands of Indians in Little India. Want to practice your Chinese language? Go and order frog in Geylang.
Heimskur Means ‘Moron’
The Icelandic Vikings, who lived a thousand years ago, had a word for people who never left their farms on Iceland and never ventured outside. The word was heimskur. It means moron.
As they saw it, a person who did not open up to the world to find new ideas from other cultures was a moron. I think the Vikings would have loved Singapore. I sure know that I do. It is the one place with the fewest heimskurs that I have found .
Too many people limit their potential, their creativity and in the end, their lives, because they are not embracing the whole human spectrum of creativity. They are not taking full advantage of the potential of the world, because they are not living in the world. They are stuck in their own corner, looking inwards, seeing whatever that is different as ‘foreign.’
I think that answers the question of why I am living in Singapore—because Singapore makes me more human by making me more a part of the world, a part of humanity. And by being part of the world, I have a bigger chance to be inspired and have new ideas. Ideas that will benefit us all.
This article first appeared in the Singapore International Foundation’s book aimed at bridging communities, Singapore Insights from the Inside.