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While waiting for a flight to Miami last month, Mr Lionel Yeo found time to study a Wall Street Journal (WSJ) article about Singapore that had been making a stir on social media.
It was a racy read. Fast cars, private jumbo jets, S$32,000 cocktails and a lavish party scene — all of which depicted Singapore as a glamorous amusement park for the world’s ultra-rich.
Soon after this, the chief executive of the Singapore Tourism Board (STB) was penning an e-mail to all his staff.
“We don’t need to apologise for introducing world-class concepts and events to Singapore. We don’t need to apologise for taking advantage of a rising Asia,” he wrote. “But we should also seize opportunities to support and feature our home-grown culture, talent and offerings.”
Going local has been Mr Yeo’s clarion call since he took up Singapore tourism’s top job last June.
The 40-year-old, who is married to Nominated MP Janice Koh and has two sons, recognises that Singapore needs its glittering integrated resorts, its exclusive nightclub scene and its shiny malls with luxury brands.
But he also recognises that these must be coupled with attractions that have a distinct Singaporean flavour.
“A lot of discerning travellers want their creature comforts, a certain international standard of hospitality,” he says, while sipping a tall glass of iced tea at an upmarket cafe nestled in Ann Siang Hill.
“But at the same time, what really makes the visitor experience special for them is if they can also tap into something which is very local and very authentic.”
The cafe chosen for his interview with The Straits Times offers a view of the area’s preserved shophouses, framed by skyscrapers in the business district. One of his minders points out a cocktail on the menu — a vodka drink inspired by the local dessert cheng tng.
Mr Yeo feels that Singapore needs to mix it up too.
He cites two models of tourism: Dubai with its faux, modern attractions and flashy hotels, and Penang, where the focus is simply on its cultural heritage.
“For Singapore, we can’t be one or the other,” he says. “It has to be a combination of both.”
Mr Yeo’s approach will require widespread support from the public, private and people sectors — some of which is already familiar ground to him after 17 years in the civil service.
He has had stints at the ministries for Trade and Industry, Finance, Community Development, and Information and the Arts. Most recently, he was the dean and chief executive of the Civil Service College and deputy secretary (development) in the Public Service Division of the Prime Minister’s Office.
“There is a very large whole-of-government operation involved in tourism development and tourism promotion — it’s not something the STB does alone,” he says. “We have to work together with a large number of agencies, whether it’s the Urban Redevelopment Authority, Land Transport Authority, or police force.
“That’s the part I was a little bit more familiar with, in terms of navigating within the public sector and I know many of the leaders in other public agencies.”
Still, he describes his first 10 months at the helm of the tourism board as “a steep learning curve”. Mr Yeo says one of his first priorities was to help the various businesses grow amid challenging times. “It cannot be business as usual,” he says, pointing to labour shortages faced by the hotels and service sectors. “If tourism-related businesses want to grow…they have to adapt, invest in new business models, new technologies.”
These problems will not go away, and Mr Yeo wants the STB and its partners to “hunker down and see how we can succeed”.
As a keen hiker who has trekked in Bhutan, Nepal, Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa and Mount Bromo — an active volcano in Indonesia — he is quite prepared for the long haul.
He is also aware that on the road ahead, the extravagant picture painted by the WSJ article must be matched with stories about Singapore’s rich, local tapestry.
“The STB cannot do our work in a way that ignores what locals care about,” he says. “It’s about striking a balance…and being respectful to how Singaporeans feel about what is going to happen to their city.”
(c)2013 Asia News Network (Hamburg, Germany). Distributed by MCT Information Services.