Thursday, July 21, 2011

Making Singapore more liveable

Jul 21, 2011


BRANDING maven Tyler Brule was very surprised to learn from some Singaporeans here last Wednesday that they didn't think the Republic should be anywhere near the world's Top25 most liveable cities today.

Mr Brule (say Broo-lay), 43, recalls them saying so because they were peeved about the extensive roadworks, overcrowded public areas and the general rise in prices that come with globalisation.

That was their talking point because his four-year-old current affairs and lifestyle magazine, Monocle, has just ranked Singapore as the world's 15th most liveable city, its highest score since the magazine's inception. Singapore was No. 18 in 2009 before dipping to No. 21 last year. Helsinki, Zurich and Copenhagen are Monocle's 2011 top three picks for liveability.

The Canadian-born Mr Brule, who is gay, has been by turns a BBC researcher, a TV host with his own show in Britain, and a war correspondent. He masterminded his first magazine, the ground-breaking and crowd-pleasing Wallpaper*, in 1994, while recovering from a machine-gun ambush in Afghanistan, after which he lost the use of his left arm.

Monocle, a stylish monthly 300-page brick with online and radio presence, was launched in 2007 and continues to cock a snook at naysayers of print by not only being profitable in the aftermath of Lehman Brothers, but also expanding globally.

Over coffee last Thursday, he told me how Singapore could lead in the liveability stakes and why print is still king:

• Why has Singapore yet to make it to your Top 10 list of the world's most liveable cities?

At our party here on July 13 for mostly Singaporean subscribers, there were three themes which we also think Singapore could work on harder.

One is the issue of guest (foreign) workers and their rights. Of course, it's great to be able to have this layer of the economy where guest workers help fuel people further up the chain to drive everything forward. But, as someone said, the quality of life for these workers is not great. So perhaps that is something Singapore really needs to consider more.

Two, we hear from more readers that the issue of gay rights here is a little like the United States military: Don't ask, don't tell. No one's probably going to throw you in jail if you live with your partner here, but at the same time it's still on the law books. So get rid of it altogether if you want to be a modern, progressive country.

The third thing is a funny one; people say to me, 'You're always so nice about Singapore but there's all this MRT construction going on; how about that?' And I say, 'Hey, wait a second. Yes, there's a lot of construction but at least the MRT works, so I can get to where I need to go on time. At least I knew that I could land at Changi Airport yesterday.'

So I think people in Singapore are getting a little spoilt. They sometimes forget how good things are here. You want to know what bad transport is? Go to London or Toronto for a bit.

• You say the world's best cities have to be loveable, and not just liveable. How would you make Singapore more loveable?

The first is putting a bit more life on the street, by which I mean functioning communities, so that people are able to walk from their apartments to the kindergarten or grocery store.

The second thing is useable green space. As our readers told us, Singapore is very green but it's missing epic parks that you see in European cities. Even Tokyo has Yoyogi Park.

Third is that Singapore needs to champion a new style of living. Given the way the Housing Board works here, Singapore could really lead the way and the way to move up Monocle's liveability rankings is this: Really think about what a contemporary apartment needs to be. How could, say, grandparents who are ill move in with their children after the latter's children have left home? It's not just about how this would function within four walls, but what does such an arrangement look like? Singapore can really define a new type of living vernacular because, sometimes, there is this disconnect between the fact that 80 per cent of people here live in HDB flats and 20 per cent live in sort of gated communities. How do you expand the middle ground in that?

And fourth, while the Economic Development Board and other government agencies here have done a very good job of attracting big multinationals here, there is another layer of creativity that Singapore has an opportunity to attract. How do you get, say, an Indonesian shoe designer who's based in Yogyakarta to come to Singapore? That designer may be making US$60,000 (S$73,000) and so is not a banker making millions of dollars a year, but Singapore would be a great base for this designer. Then, how does Singapore create neighbourhoods and communities in which these people can live? That is key.

• As to what is key for Monocle, why do you charge for all your content online?

What was clear to us in the beginning was that if you're spending this much money for a magazine like Monocle, we can't be giving information away for free online. What's interesting is that, five years on, many publishers are coming to us and saying, 'Oh, who helped you do the business plan to charge readers?' I mean, it's no different from looking at The Straits Times; you need to subscribe. It works well for us.

• But what is it you do that debunks the belief that everything online must be free - and that everyone's a journalist now?

Everyone's not a journalist. We need to be very clear about that. We've been through 'everyone can be a reporter, upload their pictures, blog, tweet all the time' but there's a realisation among readers that if you're going to get your facts accurately and also with a specific point of view, tone of voice and analysis, there's value in that. Of course, globally, the message hasn't trickled down to everybody. But when you talk about premium content, premium readers recognise that the business of disseminating information does not come cheap. Now, there's a big question mark over tablet devices.

• But news publishers now think tablets will save newspapers.

Advertisers are getting frustrated because the traditional media is always about someone paying them. There's value in the cover price and in taking out a page. But what's happening with tablets right now is that newspapers are saying, 'Oh, we'll just come up with a really interesting campaign and get advertisers to throw lots of money at it.' Many magazines just do not have the budget to go and put out a tablet edition, because it's a whole other skill. It's not as simple as 'let's go and upload our pages' because people's expectations in a digital environment are much higher; they expect that there's going to be six layers behind every story, not 'I go in here. I read. I put it on my shelf'. And every layer to that is really another floor of journalism that you have to add. That's why we haven't got an adventure down the road of a tablet version yet; we're very cautious about it.

• But aren't you worried that Monocle might lose its relevance?

No. I have an iPad; so do most of our readers. But that doesn't mean that every media brand has to live on every one of these devices. There are different times of the day and you have different moods for your media consumption. Is this battle between the delivery device versus the story? Our investment is in content; what Monocle is good at is telling good stories. It's a response to the fact that the media has moved into a position where everything is a conversation... I was talking to some people from the BBC World Service the other day and they were saying that, as journalists, they spend so much time now filtering comment. Comment ultimately dilutes the messages that journalists are getting across, and if their messages are getting diluted, ultimately the message of their newspaper is diluted as well because people then scratch their heads and say about the newspaper, 'Why am I reading this paper? Doesn't it value what its journalists say?'

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