Actor Henry Golding and his wife Liv Lo arrive at the premiere of 'Crazy Rich Asians' at the Capitol Theatre in Singapore on August 21, 2018. Photo: AFP / Roslan Rahman
Actor Henry Golding and his wife Liv Lo arrive at the premiere of 'Crazy Rich Asians' at the Capitol Theatre in Singapore on August 21, 2018. Photo: AFP / Roslan Rahman

The film Crazy Rich Asians might be the best promotion that Singapore’s tourism board has had in decades. The movie, which features the first all-Asian cast that Hollywood has seen in 25 years, has plenty of Singaporean footprints: It is set in Singapore, is based on a book by a Singaporean, most of the onscreen characters are playing Singaporeans, and at least 12 members of the main cast are based in the country.

As the movie proved itself by topping the box office in the US two weekends in a row, it also cast Singapore as the perfect backdrop for good laughs and romance. But is the image of a breezy, passionate island something Singapore can uphold along with its more stringent social policies?

Singapore’s next-most-recent claim to fame was as host of the Kim-Trump Summit, but while that event attracted 2,500 journalists to the International Media Center, it didn’t necessarily give Singapore a fun-loving image. Now, with all the hype surrounding the movie, the Singapore Tourism Board (STB) is trying to ride the wave of success that is Crazy Rich Asians and market the city as the ultimate crazy, rich, stylish destination in Asia.

In the past month, the STB has worked with US public relations companies Edelman and Bullfrog + Baum to connect journalists with actors who could tell them about “rich travel experiences in the Lion City.” The board has also partnered with Warner Bros to publicize Singapore on the red carpet in Hollywood with slogans such as “Passion Made Possible.”

The STB has also taken its efforts online to extend its reach. On the STB website, visitors are encouraged to enter the world of Crazy Rich Asians by adventuring into Peranakan culture at Joo Chiat or buying glamorous local designer clothes at Holland Village. Kershing Goh, regional director of  STB Americas, said in Marketing magazine that the goal was to convert the media coverage of Crazy Rich Asians to “highlighting Singapore’s great tourism offerings.”

Such a move is only natural. As it is, the movie could already be a feature-length advertisement for the best parts of Singapore’s art, culture and architecture.

When lead actress Rachel Chu’s character first arrives in Singapore from New York, the film shows sweeping aerial views of the Marina Bay skyline, with the skyscrapers in the financial district in all their glory. At the Singapore airport, as if in an advertisement, Chu remarks casually, “I can’t believe this place has a cinema and a butterfly garden!” before being driven off to Newton Food Center to taste local flavors such as laksa, satay and gong gong.

The hawker center is smoky and somewhat mysterious, the actors are having a field day ordering whatever they want, and the table ends up heaped with colorful dishes and steaming plates of food. The entire scene is the best presentation of Singapore’s local food scene on the silver screen.

The message is clear: Singapore’s tourism board and media-development authorities want the rest of the world to know that the country is as luxurious and glamorous in real life as it is on set

The message is clear: Singapore’s tourism board and media-development authorities want the rest of the world to know that the country is as luxurious and glamorous in real life as it is on set. They funded the film in its early days, and now they have plenty of reason to be proud of their efforts. Yet the glitzy and lavish lifestyles featured in the movie, from fireworks atop Marina Bay Sands to a wedding party at Gardens by the Bay, have only come into being in recent history.

Once a British colony, Singapore was occupied by Japan in World War II, was returned to the British at the end of the war, underwent merger with and then separation from Malaysia, and only became a sovereign country in 1965. Thereafter, Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s first prime minister, has been cited widely by the British Broadcasting Corp, The Economist and the Financial Times for having grown Singapore “from third-world to first” in the shortest time ever for a country.

To make it more remarkable, Singapore has no natural resources. Under Lee, Singapore opened itself up to foreign investment while keeping the government small, efficient, and pragmatic. The industries in Singapore focused on technology and banking so as to bring in a high economic yield from a small labor pool.

The government felt comfortable instating less popular policies, such as high ERP (Electronic Road Pricing) rates as tolls for using the roads, and taxing car owners such that Singapore’s cars are the costliest in the world, because it was confident in its policies and its ability to promote wealth and organization in the country for the long term through them.

So far, it has worked. In 2017, the World Bank ranked Singapore second in the world for ease of doing business. It is also the third-richest country in the world, and the most meticulously planned.

While Singapore’s stature of richness in finances is something it can rightfully brag about and incorporate into its image, there is a weaker case for the tourism board to be exhorting richness in intangible things. Freedom, happiness and identity, themes that Crazy Rich Asians grapples with, are still hot topics and points for division in Singapore.

This image of Singapore as a charming and comfortable site for the young and wealthy to fall in love, laugh, cry and grow into themselves is a remarkable departure from the straitlaced image that Singapore has become associated with since independence. The island-state has had the same political party in power for 53 years, and while economic growth is strong, laws still persist to quash political dissent and freedom of expression. Homosexuality is still outlawed.

Such policies do not align with an image of a romantic freewheeling nation à la Crazy Rich Asians. To get there, the authorities will have to do more than promote the well-known, architecturally marvelous tourist hotspots like Moshe Safdie’s Marina Bay Sands and infinity pool or the Supertrees in the Gardens. They will have to form a more coherent branding image.

In the movie, after having dinner at Newton Food Center, the characters of lead actor Henry Golding and Chu join two friends in their open-top vehicle and drive along East Coast Road. While Singapore is usually too hot for open-top vehicles, and most cars have their windows shut and air-conditioning on, the film posits a beautiful ideal of Singapore where young lovers can roam freely on the streets, arms tangled over each other and enjoying an island breeze without the trademark Singapore humidity.

Maybe this is something one can hope for, and it can be a genuine moment in Singapore on a cool weekday night, sans traffic. But to be realistic, to set an image of Singapore in the eyes of the international media that will actually align with what tourists will see and feel when they are in the country, the tourism organizations will have to do more than promote notable landmarks and Singaporean celebrities.

A paradigm policy shift is necessary for Singapore to get to where it wants to go. And with the track record it has in policymaking and being a model city, there is no doubt that it can fashion itself into whatever it wants. Now that people are expecting Singapore to offer a certain lifestyle experience, will it deliver?