Like any celebrity who’s been regularly featured in the news, there are few things about Singapore you wouldn’t be able to discover just by causally surfing the Internet. Ah, but to know it like a friend, to unravel its secrets and listen in on its intimate narratives, that would require being ushered by the most artful and knowledgeable of guides.
And that’s what Tribe, a Singapore start-up that curates local experiences, offers in the latest addition to its bespoke selection of Singapore tours. Made in Singapore is exactly like being taken by the hand by Singapore’s best friend and told, with delicious details, it’s very best stories.
“We wanted something more than just a tour of Singapore’s best attractions. That, anyone can do,” says Jason Loe, co-founder of Tribe. “Instead, we wanted to give people a look at the stories that make Singapore what it is today.”
And one of the most important stories is Singapore’s meteoric rise to becoming a phenomenal economic success. In the over 50 years since it was thrust into independence, Singapore has blossomed from a Third World country into a First World nation, often coming up among the top in world rankings.
“There’s so much information about this aspect of Singapore but if you wanted to experience it, there’s nothing,” explains Loe.
“So, we decided to create a tour where people can immerse themselves in some of the facts and discover this aspect of Singapore. We wanted to include those countless did you know moments that couldn’t be captured in a history book but are what makes Singapore’s economic story so colourful.”
The Made in Singapore story begins where the city state’s fortunes began – in the waters of Singapore.
“Singapore was successful from the early 19 th century because of entrepot trade. There are few better places to understand the bustle that resulted from its strategic position in those days than at the Singapore Maritime Gallery,” explains Loe.
Sitting at Marina South Pier, the 1,000-square- metre Singapore Maritime Gallery pays tribute to Singapore’s history as a port while chronicling its plans to maintain its award-winning. Recently given a nine-month makeover to the tune of $2 million, it opened just in time for Tribe’s first Made in Singapore tour.
As Tribe’s Chief, Iris Ang, takes her charges through the new space dedicated to Singapore’s past as a trading post in the 14th century, she regales them with nuggets of information. There are tales of why the slips of token given to coolies are soot-covered (the tokens were given to the coolies for each basket of coal hauled on board to fuel the ship to be exchanged for wages) and stories of how the Singapore River was part of the cycle of life then (the river served as both a conduit for goods to be brought into the country as well as a convenient toilet and dump site for garbage). In true Tribe style, each vignette has been painstakingly sourced and compiled by the team.
“We do a lot of work beforehand so that when people look at the artifacts, they hear the stories of the every man that made the history possible,” says Ang.
Lance Fernandes, a veteran sailor who has over 50 years of experience at sea, was among the crowd of 20 or so who was part of Ang’s group. He identified in particular with the stories of the men before him who had also irked out a living from the waters.
“Seeing how the ships used to be fueled, the bumboats and tong kangs (wooden boats used to ferry goods) brought back memories,” says Fernandes.
The next stop was to a local business.
“The story of Singapore’s port looked at the trade aspect of the Singapore economic story. We wanted the next item on the itinerary to highlight Singapore’s business.
It’s a story that needs to be told because while there are so many made in Singapore businesses, not every one of them is known even within the country,” says Loe.
The search for a uniquely Singapore business was not difficult. Getting them to come on board was.
“We approached more than a dozen Singapore companies to be part of Made in Singapore. And we got turned down by about just as many.
Some didn’t want the tour to interrupt their business. Others were afraid trade secrets would be leaked. Others didn’t see the benefit of being part of the experience,” shrugs Loe.
But Singapore’s oldest family-run business saw the value of telling the country’s economic story. That was how the more than 140-year- old BP de Silva, founded by patriarch Balage Porolis de Silva, became part of the itinerary. Best known for its jewellery business, the de Silva empire extends to F&B and commodities as well. 1872 Clipper Tea is one of its nine brands.
At its office in Bukit Merah, 1872 Clipper Tea’s General Manager, Micheas Chan, hosted the Made in Singapore ensemble. Over steaming cups of local brews, the guests were told how the local team dreams up Singaporean tea flavours which are then developed in the R&D centre in Sri Lanka.
“We have bandung (rose syrup and milk) tea which we came up with while having lunch at the hawker centre nearby. We saw the local drink at one of the stalls and thought: why not? It became part of our National Day selection,” says Chan.
Chan’s team is nothing if not creative. Their concoctions have been as varied as they are imaginative – ice-cream- flavoured teas, confectionary-inspired teas (blueberry cheesecake matcha tea) and local breakfast-infused teas. Kaya (coconut jam) tea wowed the crowd the most.
“I liked it best,” quipped six-year- old Sophia Fernandez who was visiting Singapore from Belize with parents. “It really tastes like the kaya toast I had for breakfast.”
If 1872 Clipper Tea highlights the deep roots of Singapore’s business scene, the final Made in Singapore destination is a glimpse into Singapore’s business future. Set just a stone’s throw away from towering HDB (Housing Development Board) flats is urban farm, Citizen Farm Penjara. The sustainable edible farm marries modern technology with natural systems to grow fresh produce for the local community around.
“Once upon a time, Singapore was almost self-sufficient. Today, we are producing only 10 per cent of our own food.
Our hope is to return to those days of old but with new methods. Our agricultural byproducts, for example, are composted and up-cycled into fertilizer. This way, we not only eat fresher and safer, we also reduce our carbon footprint,” says Christopher Leow.
The visitors were impressed by how coffee dredges were used to grow mushroom, waste from fish used to grow kale, and insects bred to consume food waste and, subsequently, fed to the chicken in the farm.
“Citizen Farm was a gem we dug up from talking to our various contacts. They had to be included because they represent a vision of Singapore’s future as a self-sustaining and sustainable nation,” says Loe.
Citizen Farm has already turned some 50 spaces into edible gardens and envisions a future where roofs of buildings, the ground beneath bridges, even offices are used to grow food for the country.
Genevieve Xavier, who was with her family, was especially inspired.
“It makes you look at the space we have quite differently and see the potential that even our own homes can have to produce food for our table,” she says.
In fact, the whole Made in Singapore experience has given the visitors a perspective of the country they never had before.
Genevieve’s husband, Giovanni, who has lived and worked in Seattle and now resides in Belize says, “Compared to where I came from, Singapore doesn’t have many resources or a very long history. But as Made in Singapore has shown, it has managed to take the little it has to create a dynamic story.”
That is exactly Tribe’s intent – to show a side of Singapore previously not known. And there is more to come.
“There are still so many more editions of Made in Singapore we have in mind, more businesses to show, more of Singapore’s economic wonders to explore. This is just the start of the journey,” reveals Loe.