Sunday, May 31,1998
The Straits Times : Sunday Plus Page 7

Soft goods, soft power rule

IN THE past several months, editing Life!, the "soft" cultural section of The Straits Times, I sometimes felt like Nero playing his fiddle while Rome burned.

How to focus seriously on movies, music and fashion and the arts, when all around was turbulence, and Singapore, even though a pocket of calm amidst it all, was being affected nonetheless? People were losing their jobs, and here we were talking about Titanic the movie?

In the recent two weeks that saw the worst turbulence of its kind in Indonesia since 1965, I was away in Denmark on a press trip and subsequently in London for a short break.

As I followed the burning of Indonesia from afar (CNN in Denmark, and Sky News in London) and worried about how it would all end, I wondered, too, how my colleagues in Life! were coping. How to turn out cheery copy on the fun stuff, when the situation was so grim?

As it turned out, Sumiko Tan and the team more than coped, they did a tremendous job.

When I was in the SIA office in London, the sweet girl at the counter let me have the week's set of The Straits Times. I spent a pleasant hour in one of the couches, going through the papers.

Reading The Straits Times from a distance, I could see it in a different light, and I must say I had never felt prouder to be a part of the recently-revamped paper. It looked good and felt right.

The coverage of the crisis was comprehensive and authoritative, and the home news, sports and money sections were compelling. The Forum pages had a clamour of voices, even if the letters were considered and mild in tone.

And Life! was fun without being frivolous. Read immediately after the main section, it never seemed out of place.

Life must go on, as the saying goes, but Life! the section is a lot more than just going on.

It is about staying sane in a time of uncertainties -- Minister-Without-Portfolio Lim Boon Heng said this of the arts -- and it is about preparing for the future even as the country is managing the present. IF THE global integration of economies has brought about the social and political disintegration of countries like Indonesia, then the new global cultural bazaar, which comprises entertainment and the arts and fashion, is yanking loose the foundations of traditional communities and local cultures, and like it or not, billions of people are being dislocated, losing their sense of place and the sense of self that give life meaning.

For the bazaar is being spearheaded by a relatively few companies with global reach, and unlike national governments, they have no obligations to citizens, only to their customers and shareholders.

With world spanning technologies, these secular companies penetrate the most remote corners of the world, change themselves when they meet resistance, and peddle dreams in the form of images and music. They open up a window to the people on endless fantasies of The Good Life, but keep the door closed to those who can only afford to window-shop.

As pointed out by authors Richard J. Barnet and John Cavanagh in their 1994 book, Global Dreams: Imperial Corporations And The New World Order, these companies may have their eyes on the global market, but most of the world's people remain invisible.

"'Going global' is a strategy for picking and choosing from a global menu. Vast areas of the world and the people who live there are written off... The ideology of the age of globalisation celebrates the liberation from passionate attachments to any specific piece of territory."

One of the most fundamental concerns for a city state like Singapore at the closing of the century is: How do you balance the onslaught of Hollywood movies and MTV and yet keep the people rooted in spirit to the place -- and at the same time, draw in the best and the brightest from around the region, if not the world?

Life! (and The Straits Times), among other civic organisations and organs, has a significant role to play in this delicate balancing act, as a mediator between cultures, and as a spur to the development of the creative industry here, even when the times are as bad as they are now.

And you can't be pedantic about it. Anything that smacks of exhortation or propaganda will turn the young off. It's got to be hip, smartassed, fun.

The development of a creative industry is urgent. It is where much of the value-added will be in the next century, and even hard manufacturing will have to rely on it for its design and packaging services, because making is no longer enough.

In a world where every new product can be replicated as soon as it comes on the market, design becomes paramount. And new ideas and concepts are the "soft" goods that sell.

And yes, branding. Walt Disney, McDonald's, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Nike -- they sell because their brand is America. And the dominance of the brand is being reinforced continuously by the seductive images of Hollywood movies and round-the-clock MTV.

TITANIC the movie has conquered just about every market in the world.

By the end of April, it had earned about US$543 million (S$901 million) in the US and US$933 million in the rest of the world, making it the highest-grossing movie of all time.

It has so shaped the world's imagination that billions of people have seen it, heard the theme song sung by Celine Dion, and have this experience in common.

There is no escaping the song in Singapore and elsewhere. You hear it at every karaoke lounge, on the radio and in the malls.

At her sell-out concert at the Indoor Stadium on Wednesday, Taiwanese diva Zhang Huimei included it in her repertoire, and many in the audience sang lustily along with her.

Chinese President Jiang Zemin declared at the National People's Congress in March that he had seen Titanic at a private screening and had been moved by it.

He said: "Let us not assume we can't learn from capitalism. Titanic has a budget of US$200 million. This is venture capitalism... I invite my comrades of the Politburo to see the movie -- not to propagate capitalism but to better understand our opposition, the better to enable us to succeed."

The Chinese obviously did not need his encouragement to flock to the movie, despite higher ticket prices. But the day the movie opened in Beijing, the Government film bureau announced a major project, involving collaboration of the government and university engineers, that will soon produce the same digital, laser and other special effects tools used to make Titanic, according to a New York Times report.

It was a coincidence, but Singapore's Ministry of Information and the Arts set up in mid-April a Film Commission, headed by Raffles Hotel general manager Jennie Chua.

With money provided by the ministry, the Economic Development Board and the Singapore Tourism Board, its task is to make Singapore a one-stop centre for foreign film-makers and to spur the development of a film industry here.

Films can do two things, besides adding to the GNP, if they are successful at the box-office.

They can sell Singapore abroad, and together with the Singapore Girl, reinforce the Singapore brand. At the same time, they can serve to provide Singaporeans a sense of place and an identity, as last year's 12 Storeys and this year's Money No Enough have done.

Singapore will never become another Hollywood, but it can be a dominant regional film centre. As it is, Mr Daniel Yun, TCS' vice-president of programming and marketing communications, has seen the vacuum in the region, what with Hongkong's film industry in the doldrums, and has plans to make eight movies in two years, with a specially set-up subsidiary company.

In the case of MTV, instead of blocking the channel, as the Singaporean mindset of 30 years ago would not have hesitated to do, the authorities actually wooed the 24-hour rock 'n' roll station to set up base here in 1995.

Now, the MTV headquarters in Singapore is the base of MTV Asia, which produces shows that serves South-east Asia, and MTV India and MTV Mandarin, whose shows are produced in India and Taiwan respectively, but uplinked here. Together, the three channels reach out to 86 million people in Asia.

The spin-offs for Singapore go beyond just money. There is transfer of technical expertise and creative skills. There is an excitement generated by its very presence, and its overnight celebrities like Nadya and Sonia are pushing TCS stars like Zoe Tay and Fann Wong to exceed themselves.

Excitement and star power are "soft" power that appeals to the mobile global professionals who can choose where they wish to live and work.

Singapore musicians, too, have access to a bigger base. I was pleasantly surprised to find out at the Ah Mei concert on Wednesday that her backing band, which had toured with her in Taiwan and Hongkong for the last year, was made up wholly of musicians from Singapore.

The boys were terrific, and at least two of them had composed songs for the singer.

The show was thoroughly cosmopolitan, MTV-style, even though it was largely in Mandarin. That Ah-Mei has tribal blood and paid homage to her heritage in song and costume was another plus factor that would go down well in the global cultural bazaar.

Instead of competing with the thousands of Filipino musicians in performing wholly in English, or trying to mimic rock superstars of the moment like Alanis Morissette, Singapore's musicians should capitalise on their facility with both English and Chinese pop, and venture into the East Asian market, as backing bands, session musicians or even as solo performers.

Get onto MTV Mandarin. Get onto MTV Asia. The world can be within reach afterwards.

So no, Lifers are no Neros, and Life! has just got to get on with it.

Since the team is managing so well, I guess I can afford to skip work and stay at home for another week, to finish this year's big book, The Wealth And Poverty Of Nations by David Brandes. Incidentally, it points to culture and values as the key factors which decide whether a country is a winner or a loser.

Archive 1

21/11/99 Hit me with the Blues

31/10/99 No chaise longue, just chaise daybed

17/10/99 Tell your tale and watch it take off

03/10/99 Goodness, its been 25 years now

19/09/99 To have a productive day off

27/08/99 Conduct yourself well

08/08/99 Liberalisation and the small man

27/06/99 An ATM at home that knows me

30/05/99 Why fleshy hips and jiggly thighs

16/05/99 A dressing-down for the interns

02/05/99 I've the best seat in the house

04/04/99 I may take China, drop my 'mistress'

21/03/99 When the lens harden

07/03/99 Among dreamers and risk-takers

07/03/99 Lives will be transformed

17/01/99 Look for me at the movies

03/01/99 Hardy, hungry, but a cause for worry?

15/11/98 Goodnight Irin, while I think of New Orleans

01/11/98 'Sexy' and 'Cool' is what sells today

04/10/98 Letter from melancholic anonymous

20/09/98 Men behave like sperm

01/08/98 Global is good, but local matters too

26/07/98 4 books I can't renounce

28/06/98 49 and the genes are calling

14/06/98 Beep beep for every kid

31/05/98 Soft goods, soft power rule

10/05/98 Be still--and be open to constant change

05/04/98 Fight heat at home, then soar the skies

15/03/98 Bond Breakers and my brother and sister

15/02/98 If you love her, set her free

18/01/98 Romancing Cambodia