To boost retail, Singapore must become more cultured

People carrying shopping bags seen walking down Orchard Road. PHOTO: THE BUSINESS TIMES FILE

The development of culture often has a powerful influence on a country's retail industry.

Anime and manga culture has spawned numerous unique products, such as character models, cafes and cosplay, that have made Japan a sought-after retail destination.

South Korea has arguably become a fashion powerhouse due to the industry's close links with Hallyu, or the Korean wave.

Singapore, however, has long taken a pragmatic view to economic development, prioritising "hard" industries over socio-cultural development.

Retail here has largely been driven by the importing of a wide range of renowned international brands.

However, these brands also have a strong presence in other regional markets.

Singapore lacks unique cultural offerings of its own. This, coupled with high consumer prices, has made the city less appealing to overseas retail consumers and it has begun to lose out in the retail sector.

If Singapore wishes to maintain its competitiveness as a retail hub, it must challenge the assumption that "poetry is not a luxury we can afford".

It should explore means of developing unique and lucrative cultural pursuits designed to appeal to an international market.

Entertainment and culture should not be dismissed as self-indulgent, but rather, be seen as a potential driver of economic growth in the light of increasing media power and a rising consumerist middle class in Asia.

The Government can destigmatise cultural pursuits by investing more in cultural projects and education, as well as opening more cultural space for budding talent.

Nurturing and marketing talented professionals will make it more likely for creative ideas from cultural practitioners to be explored and realised.

Greater cultural vibrancy and retail development arising from such development can hopefully attract more tourists and shoppers to Singapore, and enable it to continue growing as a retail hub amid regional competition.

Ng Qi Siang

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 14, 2016, with the headline To boost retail, Singapore must become more cultured. Subscribe