Tuesday, April 3, 2007

Gift from Singapore

Singapore’s Very Own
The Creation Of A Gift From Singapore

Up to Singapore becoming an independent nation in August 1965, there was hardly anything that Singapore can really claim to be its own. We imported everything - our goods, our industries and even our water. There were no Singaporeans as we know today. The people were made up of migrant stock mainly from China, Malaysia and Indonesia and India.

The colonial masters had never considered themselves as local residents. They had “home” leaves and many residents returned to their “motherland” on retirement or visit them on vocation. These peoples’ hearts were not with Singapore.

After Singapore became an independent nation many of the residents like me had to build and make Singapore our home and country. We had to create new identities for ourselves and Singapore. This was an exciting but also very trying period where we could not afford to fail.

Besides building industries tourism was identified as a good growth area for Singapore. Hotels, restaurants, shopping centers , tourists attractions like Jurong Bird Park , Singapore zoo, and theme parks were built. Then it was discovered that Singapore did not have a gift or souvenir that it can call its own. Many tried their hand on extending the range of their existing products but none got the winner we needed – a true gift from Singapore.

After the numerous unsuccessful attempts to create a truly Singapore souvenir by so many parties some began to cast doubts whether such a product could be produced by us. I have no experience whatsoever in the souvenir or gift industry.

A review of the souvenirs from the various countries showed a common characteristic among many of the products studied. The souvenirs from many countries used locally produced material, local skills or technology coupled with culture which takes years to evolve.

For example pearls and silk from Japan and China in the form of Chinese Cheong Sams or Japanese Kimonos ; wood carvings from Bali and the Philippines; costume jewelry made from Paua shells from New Zealand, Pewter products from Malaysia and Batik dresses and sarong kebayas from Indonesia and Malaysia and Barong Tagalong from Philippines.

It appeared that Singapore does not have any materials or culture it can call its own. Here we are trying to create an instant Singapore souvenir in the same way as we plant our instant trees or make the instant coffees. It certainly did not look promising.

I decided we will work on the orchid first. In my own mind this may be the last opportunity I have to encase an natural orchid in gold as my wife Engeline wanted. Even if I failed I have given my best to fulfil my wife’s wish. Because of this I was very determined that everything possible would be done to come out with the gold orchid. After all we were so near to getting it now.

Besides a few of my Board members, not many of my staff in SISIR shared my passion or enthusiasm for the project in the beginning. This was to be expected from staff and people not involved in the creation of the concept initially. I was used to this type of attitude and this did not bother me.

What was important was that the gold orchid must satisfy the basic criteria which made the other souvenirs a success. I have to justify and rationalize why the orchid was chosen. This was easy. Singapore is known for its orchids especially their hybridization to produce new orchids. We export quite a bit of orchids every year. We present live orchids to ladies both at home and abroad as gifts which were well appreciated by the recipients.

I could imagine how a lady would feel to be given an orchid preserved in gold. Many would probably swoon if not become mesmerized like the ones I saw during my trip to the Eastern European countries in 1967. If my hunch is correct, marketing this product should present no big problems. I have to have a good promotion to launch the product. This I did.

We have a strong Singapore Orchid Society with many orchid enthusiasts. Singapore is known to be the leader in orchid hybridization, a past time hobby which many indulge in. The Presidency of the S.E. Asia Orchid Society has always been a Singaporean for many years. I could count on the Orchid Society and its members for their support. My SISIR Board members, especially those from the private sector were very supportive which I am very grateful.

The gold orchid has all the good attributes of a true souvenir. It uses local material (orchid) and local technology or skill ( hybridization and metal forming) and time honoured gold. The question of what product we should do was temporarily settled. The next question was How did we do it? We have to get the knowledge, develop the technology, produce the prototype, test the market, build the manufacturing facilities, expand the market, diversify and maintain the growth of the company. Doing the above was tough. What kept the project going?

It appears that we succeeded in producing an “instant” Singapore souvenir which took others, with their rich culture and tradition, decades and centuries to do. What are the important factors that made this possible? One factor is the Singapore spirit then for some people to leap frog and take the risk for a common good. Many worked with me on a honorary basis for many years probably because the “Never say die” spirit can be infectious. We had a good team whose members had contributed much to make RISIS what it is. I like to say a big Thank You to them all.

Lee Kum Tatt

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