SINGAPORE - Open-top buses typically ply routes in the civic district, but come Dec 26, the public will be able to hop on them for tours in the heartland.
The inaugural Heartlands Festival, which was launched by Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat on Sunday (Nov 28), will also feature shopping and eating contests, all in the name of celebrating Singapore's 40,000 heartland merchants, hawkers and wet-market stall operators.
The three-month festival seeks to drum up support for heartland businesses, which have taken a beating during the Covid-19 pandemic, and boost the vibrancy of neighbourhood retail areas.
At the launch in Bedok on Sunday, Mr Heng said the Covid-19 pandemic and the rise of e-commerce have posed a challenge to heartland businesses by reducing footfall and shifting spending away from bricks-and-mortar shops.
Mr Lai Cheng Yi, centre director of the festival's organiser, the Heartland Enterprise Centre Singapore, said that footfall in heartland business areas has decreased by about half amid the pandemic, with heartland businesses located closer to the Central Business District experiencing an even more drastic fall in customers as more patrons work from home.
Citing the various forms of support the Government has extended to businesses over the past two years, Mr Heng said heartland businesses will have to adapt and transform in order to thrive.
"Digitalisation and business transformation are a continuous journey, and I encourage more of our merchants to explore new ways to grow their business. The Government will walk this journey with you," said Mr Heng.
He was accompanied at the launch by Senior Minister of State for National Development and Foreign Affairs Sim Ann, and Minister of State for Trade and Industry and for Culture, Community and Youth, Ms Low Yen Ling.
Ms Low said: "We hope the festival will revitalise the important role heartland shopkeepers play in weaving the social fabric of our community life.
"Many residents and shopkeepers have developed relationships and trust over time. The festival has online and offline activities for residents of all ages and all walks of life."
Mr Lai said he hoped the festival's online and physical presence will encourage heartland businesses to similarly operate in a hybrid manner.
He cited the heartland tours, which will be conducted both virtually and in person for towns such as Ang Mo Kio, Bukit Gombak and Bedok.
The festival also encourages businesses to offer e-payment options.
For instance, weekly lucky draws will be held for those who spend a minimum of $10 in a single receipt at heartland businesses. Customers who transact using e-payments will have their chances at the draw increased.
Ban Cheong Jewellers, a family business of close to nine decades, was one of the heartland merchants Mr Heng commended for innovating to better serve customers.
Its second-generation owner, Mr Ching Kwang Meng, went to China in 2016 to learn how to design jewellery using software and subsequently adopted 3D printing technology for his firm.
The 66-year-old said that this has shortened waiting time for customers as jewellery can be designed and made in-house instead of being outsourced to craftsmen.
His daughter, Ms Cherie Ching, said she hoped the festival would help promote the family's long-lasting business to younger consumers, who now tend to shop online from businesses abroad.
To that end, the 21-year-old, who intends to take over the business in the future, said Ban Cheong Jewellers has also established an online presence by setting up a website and social media pages.
"Going online is a no-brainer," she said. "We have two physical shops, but going online will allow us to reach many more people and they can make purchases from the comfort of their homes."
While Mr Lai did not rule out hosting the festival yearly, he said he hoped this inaugural festival would inspire neighbourhood merchants to hold similar hybrid events.
"Prior to today's launch, many local precincts remained sceptical of whether events could be held online, especially those promoting heartland businesses," he said.
"We hope local merchant associations will work with town councils to organise smaller events of their own. Such festivals are what we want to inspire."
More details on Heartlands Festival 2021 can be found at this website.