The Singapore Pavilion at Shanghai Expo 2010: An Embarrassment!

The Singapore Pavilion at the Shanghai Expo 2010 is an example of how a great concept was poorly executed, resulting in a fiasco that embarrasses any Singaporean who have visited it.

The whole concept sounded good. Publicity material describes Singapore as a cosmopolitan city with a unique rhythm, and how “the delicate harmony of our diverse cultures, urban environment and nature makes Singapore an ideal place to live, work and play…all these come together as one Urban Symphony.”

The structure of the Singapore Pavilion is designed to resemble a gigantic round music box with three levels (and quite possibly 15 to 20 meters high). Click to see the publicity video of the Pavilion. Level 1 is supposed to introduce visitors to various aspects of Singapore, such as our culture and way of life, links with China and Peranakan culture. Level 2 is a large theatre that plays a MTV named “Every Touching Moment”, performed by four Singaporean artistes well-known in China - Ado, JJ Lin, Stefanie Sun and Tanya Chua. Level 3 has a rooftop garden “Floral Finale” with the most exuberant display of lush tropical floral diversity that is symbolic of Singapore as a garden city. Just outside the Pavilion is a “DBS Fountain of Treasures” that would be the focus of occasional cultural performance. Nearby is a food outlet that give visitors a taste of what Singapore cuisine is all about.

As a Singaporean, I was fortunate that I could enter by just flashing the Singapore passport. Other visitors have to queue 2 to 3 hours to even enter the Singapore Pavilion. Many Chinese would queue to see the Singapore Pavilion, as Singapore is a country that they are familiar with and have a sense of cultural affinity to. I cannot imagine the disappointment they would feel once they visit the pavilion.

Level 1, to me, is a mess of disparate themes not only unrelated with one another but each very poorly elaborated. The Expo is an opportunity for countries to showcase not only their culture, lifestyle, industry and tourism sites, but also technology as well. Most national pavilions tell their story via state-of-the-art multimedia display, massive full-wall LED screens, theatric techniques and a whole host of technology that one finds in world class theme parks such as Universal Studio or Disneyland.

This is true not just for developed Western countries, but also for many Eastern European, Asian, Middle Eastern and Latin American countries. The Singapore Pavilion seems stuck in the era of 1970’s museum curating techniques, with placards and smallish TV screens to tell the Singapore story. Most visitors to the Expo would have visited many more impressive pavilions and queued 2 to 3 hours to get into the Singapore Pavilion. They are in no mood to read tiny captions, dull photos and watch boring documentaries on small screens.

The official publications wrote about having videos with Singapore residents telling the world about living in Singapore, but they were probably on small screens and so poorly displayed that I did not even noticed them. All I saw were a few placards on China’s links with Singapore (oh yeh, through immigration in the 19th and 20th centuries blah blah blah) and Peranakan – themes that hardly excite most visitors to the Expo.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong about these themes, but even an unartistic person like me would have presented these themes in a more exciting manner. Chinese immigration – why not set up a movie set, a replica of the five foot way of Chinatown, complete with coolies, towkays, hawkers and the like. And yes, get the hawkers serve free hawker snacks to visitors. Project onto big screen that classic Singapore serial “The Awakening” (雾锁南洋) that many Chinese have watched on their national TV years ago.

To introduce the world of Peranakan to the Chinese, bring real antiques and colourful artifacts from the Peranakan Museum and play Little Nonya on-site. Get people dressed up in Nonya costume and try Nonya curry and desserts. Denmark brought the real Little Mermaid to Shanghai and Italy, France and Mexico all brought important art pieces and national treasures from their museums. Can’t we do a bit more? Can’t we be more imaginative in presenting the Singapore story to China?

And don’t forget the other important themes – our diverse cultures, water treatment industry, Singapore as an international financial centre, our fantastic sea-port, airport and airline, how we manage to build a wonderful living environment on a tiny island, etc. These are wonderful and relevant stories to tell, but totally omitted at the Expo. I am sure organisations such as Hyflux, DBS, OCBC, UOB, PSA, SIA, CapitaLand and URA can do a fantastic job telling these stories, but why are they absent?

There were also a few trampolines for visitors to jump on. Don’t ask me which aspect of Singapore do they represent. And not all the trampolines were working…

Enough of the pathetic stone-age, boring level 1. Visitors next have to queue on a spiral staircase to get to level 2. And it’s a boring 15min to 30 min queue along almost blank walls except for placards with totally irrelevant statistics. This is the most embarrassing thing of all! Who the hell is interested in numbers such as Singapore’s life expectancy in 1970, 1980, 1990 and 2000; daily passengers on MRT in 1990, 2000 and 2008; or buildings conserved in 1990, 2000 and 2010? And to add insult to injury, these statistics are presented in very crudely cut-out cardboards, using uninspiring fonts and formats, accompanied by some strange cutouts resembling unrecognized maps or shapes. In fact, I even spotted some typo errors on the placards – look at the photos I have attached, “2009” popped out in some instances without corresponding statistics.

Guess what, we are also told that these terrible statistics placards are proudly sponsored by Osim. Yes, you will find a few Osim massage chairs and photos of Osim races. In many national pavilions, you do find occasional corporate sponsor logos, but they are forgivable when the output of the sponsorship is commendable and the display of those logos tasteful. Tell me – what do you think about Osim chairs here. Here at the Singapore Pavilion, you find corporate logos everywhere and yet not a lot to show.

Just as you think that you are about to watch a fantastic MTV, you first have to sit through a corporate video of Far Eastern Organisation. I have been to dozens of national pavilions at the Expo and watched many more better video displays and hi-tech presentations, and never have to sit through any corporate video except for the Singapore Pavilion. The Expo is an event of global significance which somehow transcends corporate and frivolous advertisements. Most countries have realised this but not our dear old Singapore.

I enjoy the MTV by our four famous singers amidst well-known Singapore landmarks; but to some the singers were grouchy and displayed considerable anxiety about going home. Furthermore, there were hardly any images of multiethnic Singapore in the MTV. See the online remarks about the Chinese wondering why these singers looked so gloomy and grouchy – see

After the MTV, one has to queue, yet again for another 15-30min, to get to level 3’s sky garden. The garden is pretty and full of orchids specially flown in from Singapore. The Chinese enjoyed taking photos up there. But wait a minute – did you notice the leaves all looked somewhat wilted and clumpy? Our poor tropical orchids are shivering in the much colder weather of Shanghai. Has it ever occurred to the pavilion planners that there must be a reason why orchids flourish in the tropics instead of the temperate countries in Northeast Asia, Europe and the Americas? If orchids can be grown in these countries, our orchid farms would not have been making so much money selling these orchids?

At this point, one leaves the pavilion through a stairway to reach level one. Near the exit is a kiosk selling Singapore food. Most national pavilions have a respectable restaurant selling their national cuisine and many even flew into Shanghai a famous chef to run it. For a country that proclaims cuisine as a highlight, all we have is a not-so-impressive kiosk run by Prima, a ready-pack sauce maker and caterer.

I pity the Chinese visitors, who queued 2 to 3 hours to enter the pavilion, and then queued again twice more within the pavilion, and all they found were third rate effort some untypical of Singapore. What atrocious impression has the pavilion created on their minds?

So much said. So, does it matter that we did a lousy job in China? Yes, it does! 50 to 70 million Chinese are expected to attend the Expo. The tickets cost about S$30 a day and many buy multiple day tickets. So the Chinese that visit the Expo are the middle class and new yuppie class Chinese. These are the people who would be spending money by visiting and doing business with the rest of the world – I saw how these people snapping up Belgian chocolates at the Belgian pavilion – each box range between S$50 and S$150. The Expo is an opportunity for them to have a quick look at the best each country can offer and form quick impressions of them. That is also why 200 countries and territories – almost every single political entity is at the Expo. And many of them go all out to woo the Chinese and to impress the world with their technology, culture, arts and beauty.

Yet, we are squandering this excellent opportunity to showcase ourselves. Most Singaporeans who have visited the pavilion felt a deep sense of disappointment and embarrassment. Why have the government spent so much to build this pavilion and yet ended up with content so poorly thought out and executed? There’s another 5 months to the end of the Expo. Can something more be done?

Other sites and blogs critical of the Singapore Pavilion:

DBS - Singapore corporatism

who is going to read all these?

Posted via email from Nomadic Republic2


hcpen said…
i had a 1-2 hr read of ur blog, u've travelled to heaps of places! very impressive:-)
Tan Wee Cheng said…
Hi, Thanks for your note & apologies for my belated response. I have been travelling the last 2 months in the Pacific. Hopped around 15 island states and I actually spent one night in Sydney on the way back. I have just looked at some of your interesting blog postings (including the one on Singaporeans and inferiority complex issue) and also noticed we corresponded in 2008. It could have been cool to meet up for a drink when I was in Sydney. Feel free to drop me a note at my personal email ( weecheng AT weecheng DOT com ) or on my Facebook ( to get in touch or exchange views on various issues.