Over the last decade, some 20 titles have sprung up from Singapore, riding the wave of its cultural renaissance and defying the fact the city-state was once known for its tight media censorship (Singapore still ranks 154 out of 180 in the 2016 World Press Freedom Index). Over the decade or so though, the Singaporean government has pumped in millions of bucks to grow its creative sector and nurture creativity among its citizens—and an independent magazine scene has flourished from this intersection.
One publication pioneer is Underscore, founded by Jerry Goh and Justin Long in 2009. Tired that local magazines only featured celebrity gossip, home furnishings, and sexy ladies in bunny suits, the duo started their own annual creative lifestyle title. Since then, Underscore has clinched the nation’s top design award in 2011, the President’s Design Award, and two years later expanded to a quarterly newspaper The U Press. In 2015 and 2016, it organised The U Symposium in Singapore, bringing together founders of some of the world’s most popular independent magazines to share their magazine-making experience.
This thirst for mag culture is a far cry from when Underscore started seven years ago. Goh recalls that the only local independent magazine back then was WERK, a biannual fashion and arts title that creative director Theseus Chan has published since 2000. “The scene is more vibrant now, though it’s still super niche. I’m glad to see more local titles coming out too, each targeting quite a variety of subject matters,” he says.
“The indie magazine scene is a good barometer of where a city stands on its cultural maturity.”
Whether these titles focus on the creative lifestyle, literature, or design, most of Singapore’s first-wave titles are “passion projects” by individuals who work full time in the creative industries. WERK’s founder Chan runs advertising agency WORK, while the duo behind Underscore run creative consultancy Hjgher.
Another popular local title, Rubbish Famzine, was founded by Pann Lim, the co-founder of creative agency Kinetic Singapore. In 2013, Lim and his wife and two children began putting out their biannual as the family art collective Holycrap. Each issue of Rubbish uses photography, text, and handcrafted elements—be it copies of ephemera slotted between pages or having the contents of an entire issue packed into an old biscuit tin—to retell a chapter of the family’s history.
“We really wanted to document our memories together in the most creative way we can,” explains Lim, who says he finds making a magazine useful for the family to remember and consider their time together. “When you keep photos at home they are in a pile, and you don’t really look through them. Now, we’re curating them according to themes that are important to us as a family, and this also encourages the kids to do creative work.”
For Lim, who grew up in the ’90s admiring overseas designers self-publish magazines—from David Carson’s Ray Gun to Tibor Kalman’s Colors—the rise of indie magazines in Singapore today is part of the wider global design community’s longstanding interest in printed matter. Many early independent magazines in Singapore, as in other countries around the world, were started by designers just like Lim and Goh who became empowered by the rise of easily accessible desktop publishing technology.
But it’s not just designers who can make their own magazines now, says Annabelle Fernandez, who co-founded magazine distributor Magpie in Singapore four years ago. “People are now driven to create content they want to see, but do not see, in existing magazines,” she says. “And while they might have just shrugged it off as a dream before, these days, they actually see this dream through.”
This is the case for the newest wave of Singapore independent titles. Last month, a lecture in Singapore titled “What the Heck is Independent Publishing?” brought together the female founders of three fledgling publications: Emily Ong of STAPLE, Eve Yeo of The Ideology, and SAND’s Racy Lim. If the first wave of Singapore’s independent magazines like Underscore and WORK were helmed by male graphic designers eager to flex their creative muscles, this trio represents a next wave promising to inject more diversity and balance to the conversation. They bring with them magazines tackling issues such as feminism and entrepreneurship, through fresh eyes. Others include Mynah, a magazine featuring untold stories of the city, and Galavant, an art and literature annual that publishes contributions from around the world.
Underscoring this new wave of titles is an emphasis on community, as Nelson Ng discovered when he started travel magazine Lost in 2014. This venture to express his love for travel quickly connected him with other travelers with similar interests. “People need a platform to voice their opinions or connect with like-minded people, and while Facebook groups and blogs have done this pretty well for many years, using the printed form of the magazine helps bring this to a more tactile level,” says the Singaporean, who works as an art director in Shanghai.
Having lived abroad over the last decade and returning to Singapore only once a year, Nelson finds local titles very “international” in style and outlook. He attributes this to the Singapore’s English-speaking multicultural society, which encourages magazine creators to produce content that is accessible to the world. “Most Singapore indie magazines could easily fit into a store like Magculture [in London],” he says. “The downside is that they look like they could be from anywhere.”
This issue of identity is crucial for the sustainability of Singapore’s independent magazine scene, explains Ng. While a hyperlocal approach would make Singapore titles unique, it also limits sales to the city’s population of 5 million, few of whom are magazine lovers. This sales challenge is a common lament among Singaporean magazine makers, who can often only stock their publications in a handful of boutique bookstores or online, and struggle to distribute with retailers that are used to the large volume of mainstream magazine titles. As Underscore’s Goh explains,
“When young magazine makers ask my advice before they get started, I always lay all this out on the table and tell them that design or content is really the least of their concerns if they want to run their magazine as a business and not a final-year project.”
The challenging local market is also what pushed the revamp of The Design Society Journal, a six-year-old biannual published by The Design Society, a non-profit organisation that champions graphic design in Singapore. Since taking over in 2013, co-editor Yanda Tan has been experimenting with more affordable production options and an expanded editorial scope in a bid to sustain the title. The latest iteration is Paper by The Design Society, a newsprint magazine focusing solely on profiles of local designers.
“It’s hard to find content, hard to find writers. After doing ten issues, we’re running out of designers here to feature too,” says Tan.
Despite such harsh realities, new indie titles can take comfort in Kenny Leck, founder of local independent bookstore BooksActually and the annual Singapore Art Book Fair. He has rubbished the popular notion that Singapore is too small for the indie magazine scene to survive, proposing that many Singaporeans simply had never heard of indie magazines, much less local titles. “We don’t point fingers enough at ourselves,” he said. “We don’t reach out enough.”