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The origin of coffee, the continent of Australia, pirates of Southeast Asian seas – what do all these have to do with Singapore’s economic success? Plenty, if you are Tribe, a travel start-up specializing in curating unique local experiences. In the hands of 2017’s Singapore Tourism Awards recipient for best tour experience, these info-bits are tossed, like juicy tidbits, to pique the interest of visitors and draw them into the story of Singapore’s economic success.
“When you look at Singapore’s skyline, which is an icon, you can see the first world country that we are now. What you can’t appreciate is how far we’ve come.
You can’t appreciate the decisions that we had to make, the hurdles we had to cross to get to where we are. It’s like seeing the surface but not understanding the depth,” explains Jason Loe, co-founder of Tribe.
To showcase the economic success that is Singapore, the two-year-old company created a new tour series called Made in Singapore. Stamped with Tribe’s trademark human interest stories, the tour feeds visitors with tales that are both true and accessible and so draw them into Singapore’s own rags-to-riches story.
“You know how they say a picture paints a thousand words? Well, we believe stories make pictures come alive,” says Loe.
“That’s what we do at Tribe. We bring you all the stories that help make sense of the big picture.”
This, then, is the new age of global tourism, where people want more than to be introduced to interesting sights and instead prefer experiences that are authentic and immersive for deeper connections with the destination and its people.
And so, in designing the first in its series of Made in Singapore tours, Tribe let the story take the lead.
“We began with the idea that we wanted to tell Singapore’s economic story because it is the country’s best story and yet no one has ever turned it into something visitors could experience,” said Loe.
From that seed of an idea, the Tribe team plotted the story arc.
“Every story has a beginning, a middle and the end. And we used that to select our destinations because we didn’t want our tour to be just one attraction after another. We wanted it to have a narrative.”
So, the Singapore Maritime Gallery was picked to showcase the country’s beginnings as a successful entrepot. 1872 Clipper Tea was chosen because it epitomizes Singapore business today. To wrap up, something futuristic was included – high-tech, sustainable urban farm, Citizen Farm Penjara.
1872 Team Clipper Company Tea Tasting
Once the storyline was mapped out, Tribe fills in the details to make the experience relatable and real.
“When you tell someone about a new place, you don’t give them the bare facts – how big it is, when it was built, who built it. You tell what you thought of it, how it wowed you, nuggets of facts that make the place interesting to you.
This is what Tribe does on a larger scale and in a more deliberate manner.,” says Loe.
Tribe’s Chief (their charming moniker for their guides), Iris Ang, is a master at this. With a crowd of Russian visitors, she teased with this quiz: “Where do you think coffee comes from?”
Out came the usual answers – Columbia, perhaps? Indonesia, since this is about Singapore’s history and Indonesia is a neighbor? The answer? Ethiopia. The connection? Coffee is among the many products that come from around the way to Singapore through its world class port. This port was what allowed the tiny fishing village to thrive in entrepot trade and become a highly-free market economy and one of the most open in the world.
At the Singapore Maritime Gallery where the history of Singapore’s port is given pride of place, Ang lets these stories lead her charge to take a closer look at the facts and figures of Singapore’s achievements.
Iris Ang, Tribe’s super guide and story teller
Like the skillful story teller that she is, she divulges details about the lives of the coolies who literally bore the country on their backs, giving the faded pictures of coolies walking the planks that lead up to mammoth ship a context both rich and meaningful.
“They were the human version of our petrol stations today or the bunkers that fuel the ships now,” explains Ang.
“They were paid to carry baskets of coals on board ships to be used as fuel. Our early port success could be said to be built on the backs of these men.”
Tribe also believes in letting stories build upon one another, which is why when one of the visitors in Ang’s group chipped in with his own stories, she graciously let him take the stage.
“I have been a sailor most of my life. 50 years of experience at sea. In those days, being attacked by pirates was not a myth, it was a reality. I was held at knifepoint by pirates once,” veteran sailor, Lance Fernandes, recounts to an enthralled audience.
“It makes it interactive and inclusive. It also makes each tour unique. Even if the places are the same, the stories aren’t,” says Loe.
At the 1872 Clipper Tea office, one of the brands owned by Singapore’s oldest family businesses, the 140-year-old BP de Silva empire, stories gave visitors a glimpse of how one family represented Singapore’s migrant history and the resourcefulness that has come to mark Singapore.
“Many people know BP de Silva as a jeweller. Some people know us for our F&B or commodities business. But few people know we are a business that wouldn’t have been if it hadn’t been for a sense of family,” explains Micheas Chan, General Manager of 1872 Clipper Tea.
During World War II, Japanese soldiers looted many shops including the one Balage Porolis de Silva set up at High Street. Everyone thought the business was lost. But one sharp manager snuck the company’s valuables into a sack and buried it under a tree in his home. When the war ended, he dug up the treasures and returned it to the de Silvas.
“He could have made off with the fortune but his sense of loyalty was so strong because he was treated like family that he didn’t even want a reward for what he did,” says Chan. “This tradition of treating employees like family has continued to this day.”
With the story fresh on their minds, the visitors were taught the finer art of tea appreciation and how to sniff out good quality tea from the poor.
“1872 Team Clipper Company’s story is that of many Singapore brands’,” says Chan.
“We don’t have tea plantations but we don’t let that stop us. Instead, we buy plantations from Sri Lanka and use Singapore to do what we do best – innovate the taste.”
Citizen Farm Penjara
At Citizen Farm Penjara, stories about people link past to the future.
Here, Ang leads with another quiz: “Do you know how small Singapore is?”
To put things into perspective, she offers this answer: “It is 11,106 times smaller than the world’s smallest continent – Australia.”
And with this understanding comes the appreciation of Singapore’s decision to choose technology over farming.
“Almost one in 10 people in Singapore was engaged in farming in the 1970s. But given our land and labour constraints, we had think out of the box.,” says Loe.
“That’s why Singapore pushes so hard for technology. Technology lets us overcome these constraints. Now, that technology has allowed us to return to farming of sort. We have created a new type of farmer.”
The urban farm uses technology to grow food that is then supplied to people, restaurants and hotels. As part of its closed-loop farming system in which ingredients and organic matter are put back into the soil to minimise waste and make farming sustainable, the edible farm trains and hires adults with Down Syndrome.
“This farm is all about people and their future. We want a future where people care for the earth, eat fresher and eat safer, and care for the community,” says Christopher Leow, Urban Farmer at Citizen Farm Penjara.
Christopher espousing the eco uses of black flies at Citizen Farm
Evident throughout the visit was not only the innovations – systems controlled by smartphones, solar power and hydroponics that provide nutrients directly to the plants – but also the human relations that make the farm full of kampung spirit (communal bond).
This dedication to stories that distinguishes Tribe experiences does not come easily.
“The stories are the result of continually working with our Chiefs, the guides, and the vendors who contribute their own stories. They all know they are part of the story arc, they know they are empowered to inject their personalities into the experiences,” says Loe.
Because the tours are regularly refined and enhanced, no two experiences are alike nor can it be replicated.
“Each experience has our special Tribe DNA. You can go to the same place, but you will never get the same Tribe experience,” says Loe.
Thankfully, there are a lot more Made in Singapore experiences in the works.
“We are planning several more editions of the Made in Singapore story because the country’s economic miracle is so rich and multi-faceted, it requires more than one chapter,” says Loe.
Stay tuned, then, for more soul revealed in the glitzy story of Singapore’s success.