Friday, September 19, 2008

Mrs Night Buzz Revs Up Evening Economy

Source : The Straits Times, Sep 19, 2008

Lively nights will add extra oomph to our lifestyle and economy. But there's more to nightlife than pubbing and clubbing. Think romantic Parisienne lights, families enjoying a night out and festivals, says URA's chief executive Cheong Koon Hean. It's all happening here, she tells Insight ahead of the F1 night race.

AS SINGAPOREAN homebodies sleep, an evening economy has started to spring up around them.

Just ask Mrs Night Buzz.

Few know this but Mrs Cheong Koon Hean, 51, has for two years led a panel of policymakers to multiply round-the-clock leisure choices and nurture a new evening economy.

This will rev up the city's hip factor in the global race for mobile talent.

It also creates memories and rootedness for residents.

'If you have a great nightlife, it is really a differentiating factor for Singapore,' she tells Insight ahead of the world's first Formula One night race next week - surely the mother of all night events.

Calling nightlife a 'comparative advantage', she adds: 'Cities compete against one another and lifestyle is a very, very major consideration when people make choices of where to live or to work.'

Almost evangelical, Mrs Cheong, the zestful chief executive of the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA), highlights the value of the evening economy.

To grow this, it needs a deft interplay of government resources and the imagination of the private sector.

The best outcome? In her eyes, it will bring about a richer quality of life for all, a distinctive Singapore lifestyle and city, and national wealth too.

Plug and play

NIGHT buzz will be focused on the Singapore River, Marina Bay, the Bras Basah/Bugis enclave and Orchard Road.

'It is not realistic to expect buzz everywhere. Not everybody wants that,' Mrs Cheong reasons.

'You must have some places that are more passive for variety and contrast.'

For the four chosen zones, the complex building blocks of a lively nightscene involve 'hardware' (elegant lighting to engender a City of Lights, for instance) and more importantly, 'software' (bright ideas for a night culture).

First, the hardware: 'If you want a nightscape that is conducive for activities, you need the right infrastructure.'

This means adding public spaces and promenades for public events, and preparing a ready electrical supply.

'Organisers can just plug and play in future,' she says. 'The electricity comes out from the ground. It's very, very unobtrusive.' The days of noisy generators are fading.

A floating stage on the Singapore River is another example she cites. It can be rented for performances, and can move up and down the river.

Bridges over the historic river will also glow with new ambient lighting, in time for the F1 season next weekend.

Where neon lights beckon

THE night skyline is a big star of the planned infrastructure.

The URA formed a lighting masterplan for the city centre in 2006. It gives incentives to building owners to light up facades in Marina Bay and the Central Business District.

A total of 23 proposals have been received from owners of buildings that include Maybank, the OUB Centre and the Marina Bay Sands integrated resort.

'You can give buildings a lot of character with night lighting. It can inspire you. There's a certain appeal that is different from daytime,' Mrs Cheong says. 'Look at Paris, the romantic City of Lights.'

The key is to light up 'tastefully and elegantly' like the European cities. She feels that Asian cities tend to be overlit.

That rules out neon lights? 'Neon has its role in the entertainment districts,' she replies. So New York's 42nd Street, with its pulsating advertising signs, is ablaze with neon.

'We also want that but only for the very busy areas.

'We want to introduce that more into Bugis because it has entertainment,' says the architect-planner who became CEO of URA in April 2004 and has a hand in Singapore's urban transformation, including Marina Bay.

As for software, this means a culture of more night events. For this, the Government is joining forces with private enterprises.

'Many global cities have these 'must-sees' that create very great vibrancy and will draw people from all over the world. Some of these can happen at night,' she says.

She remembers that as a student at University College in London, she braved the cold to attend concerts in Hyde Park.

And New York has its New Year countdown in the middle of winter. Multitudes turn up to see the ball drop in Times Square while millions watch it on TV.

Singapore, too, can create such events and memories. The thousands of lit-up 'wishing spheres' that float on Marina Bay during the New Year countdown can be one new tradition, she suggests.

The private sector is key to the evening economy, she stresses. The Government plays the role of enabler by raising the right infrastructure, she says.

It will also regulate with a light touch and organise mega events on a national scale.

Old pool, new idea

SO THERE is an interplay.

'We want to work with the private sector and use its enterprising spirit to have a multiplier effect,' says Mrs Cheong.

In fact, the private sector has been busy spinning events, notably over the past eight years or so, she says. Among these are Ballet Under The Stars, now in its 12th year.

The recent SingFest - an outdoor musical festival - featured world-famous acts like Alicia Keys and also local bands in August.

And Chivas, the purveyor of scotch whisky, is using the old River Valley Swimming Pool to host a stylish party and dance act during the inaugural Singapore River Festival, which starts today.

So, entrepreneurs and food-and-beverage outlets can easily 'latch' onto such mega events organised by the Government, she points out.

Already, outsiders have taken note of Singapore's night buzz.

The island was ranked fifth globally in nightlife last year. It was No. 2 in the nightlife quotient in 2006.

These rankings, known as the Country Brand Index, have been compiled annually by global brand consultancy FutureBrand since 2005.

Mrs Cheong is not losing sleep over Singapore's slip in ranking, saying: 'If you're among the top 10 or 15 cities, you're not bad. You're on the radar screen.'

Visitors are impressed with the nightlife here. 'In our own surveys, the tourists actually give us a higher rating on our nightlife than the locals,' she says. 'Surprising, isn't it?

'Maybe visitors and foreigners make a point to find out where they can go. Maybe we need to tell Singaporeans about the places they can go to.'

She is certainly keen to show Singaporeans how possible it is to stretch each day into the cool tropical night.

'Nightlife is not only about shopping, clubbing and pubbing,' she asserts. 'It's really to encourage people to have a great night out.'

That includes families. People rarely link children and old folk with nightlife but, eyes sparkling, Mrs Cheong virtually sings out the ideas:

'A night out under the stars, night out for a romantic stroll along the waterfront or Fort Canning, night out for a barbecue, night out for a concert, night out for biking, night out for a great party!'

She adds: 'I always say a night out can be anything. It can be for people who prefer the more quiet life to the really more busy and buzzy activities.'

Night-loving families

PERSONALLY, she includes elderly family members when she takes evening walks on the Southern Ridges, a series of hill trails linking Mount Faber, Telok Blangah Hill and the Kent Ridge parks.

Here, the bridges and forest walk nature trail are fully lit. The elderly in wheelchairs show up too, she says.

'If you can wheel your disabled family member or bring your elderly parents to the Southern Ridges, my goodness, you can certainly go to the Bras Basah night festival,' she argues cheerfully.

The inaugural festival in July involved fun such as street performances, and free museum visits till 2am.

Also enjoyable for her: fishing at Changi Point or Pasir Ris ponds, where it is possible to dangle rods all night because of 'our beautiful cool weather'.

Indeed, Singapore's weather and safety are ideal conditions for an evening economy, she says.

For a sense of the potential of this evening economy, she pulls a parallel from tourist expenditure figures.

Malls taking part in the Singapore Tourism Board's late-night shopping scheme enjoyed an average rise of 15 per cent in sales, compared to non-late nights. This is for the one-year period between September 2007 and August 2008.

On Saturdays, shopping hours stretch till 11pm for participating malls.

Overall, tourists spent $8.42 billion in 2006. They lavished 56 per cent of this sum on shopping (44 per cent) plus food and beverage (12 per cent).

This is relevant, she feels, as much shopping and dining occur in the evening.

So night buzz makes sense - and makes money too. It is as much an economic component of cities as a measure of lifestyle quality.

Scanning the globe, she singles out the Spaniards, who are still out on the streets at midnight after a late dinner, as a people with a night-loving culture.

Closer home, Seoul's Daehongno University Street brims with energy by day and night. Mini-theatres abound, and also shops and food outlets. Young people play sports and perform music. There is a whiff of this in the Bras Basah/Bugis zone.

Even as the Singapore evening economy fires up over time, she could not resist this parting shot: 'Have a great night out!'

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