Not to be all doom and gloom, but it appears we (and by we, I mean the tech bros running YouTube) have finally nailed the coffin shut when it comes to keeping the human brain focused for more than a mere handful of seconds, if not less.

YouTube – which is not just the new competitor against Netflix, but basically every single platform striving for human engagement – is experimenting with a new feature called “jump ahead”, which will allow members to skip to the ‘best’ part of the video. As if YouTube reels, three minute videos, nevertheless TikTok, weren’t short enough, this new feature will allow time sensitive or simply attention lacking individuals to skip ahead to the juiciest seconds of a video, and then move on to the next one. This evokes an image of the downloading sequence in The Matrix where Neo is plugged in and ‘kung fu’ is downloaded into his brain in a matter of seconds and voila, suddenly, in the words of Neo himself, “I know Kung Fu.”

This “Jump Ahead” feature may just be a “small experiment” to the tech giant, which is owned by Google, but its potential reach is gargantuan. Last month, YouTube surpassed 100 million Premium and Music subscribers, a number which includes those participating in a free trial. YouTube Premium, which is basically just ad-free YouTube, costs SGD 11.98, and as a standalone, YouTube music costs SGD 9.98.

Although many still view Netflix to be the undefeated champ of online streaming, YouTube does have more usage, although not more paying members, as Netflix has 260 million worldwide. Still, YouTube made more than SGD 41 billion last year in ad revenue.

Based on a recent study from Nielsen, the global leader in audience insights, data and analytics, YouTube represents 9.3% of TV and streaming viewership as of February 2024. Netflix came in second at was 7.8%, and Hulu and Amazon Prime Video tied in third place. But what is perhaps most surprising of all, is that standard, TV is still the most popular place to watch shows and movies at home. Streaming “only” made up 37.7% of the viewership pie.


Considering the “jump ahead” feature, one must also bear in mind that many YouTube videos contain 90% fluff, especially the guaranteed inclusion of “and don’t forget to like and subscribe”, which can become repetitively annoying, so the intentions behind this feature may not be as mind zapping as they initially appeared. For example, amongst YouTube fitness channels, many videos can reach up to 30 minutes with a title Best Bicep Workout.

As any avid gym goer can tell you, training your biceps does not require thirty minutes of explanation, and for those who subscribe to such channels, in recent years, many fitness YouTubers are making contrasting, shortened videos that get to the point much quicker, which isn’t due to lack of attention, but rather a more succinct explanation. And if you read the comments section, you’ll see an influx of reactions like, “thank you for immediately getting to the point!”

Depending on how you view the “jump ahead” feature, it can be seen as a force for good when considering the type of content you are watching, i.e. informative fitness channels. And with Elon Musk’s Neuralink raising eyebrows and interest across the internet – will it expand the possibilities of human cognition or destroy the human mind? – one thing is for certain: attention spans are dropping faster than interest in a Robin Thicke concert.

Originally published on Esquire ME

For the longest time Bassem Youssef was motivated by revenge. Not exactly of the arch kind—there were no cunning plans or dastardly schemes—this vengeance was career motivation, plain and simple. The way he looked at it, if he could succeed as an Egyptian stand-up comedian in the US—after everything he’d been through—he would prove everybody wrong. There was only one problem: He wasn’t actually very good.

“I started five or six years ago and, like anything new that you try, in the beginning you’re not good. So, yeah, I sucked big-time,” confirms Youssef via Zoom from his home in Los Angeles. “The problem was that I had come from a point of high expectations, especially from an Arab audience who had seen me on Al Bernameg. Many people would come to my show and be disappointed. I got it—I was disappointed too. I was in my mid-40s competing with kids in their 20s doing shitty open mics and stand-up comedy clubs. To be honest, it was a little bit humiliating.”

The move to stand up was meant to be Youssef’s big pivot. Well, his second one if you count the initial transition from cardiac surgeon to TV show host in 2011 (and you really should). But in 2014 he had cancelled Al Bernameg—his groundbreaking Egyptian show that dared take a satirical sideswipe at the country’s elite—as the pressure had simply become too great. The show had been a staggering success, regularly attracting 30 million viewers across a three-season run, but the country’s Mohamed Morsi-ran government was fragile in ego. In March 2013 a warrant was issued for Youssef’s arrest, claiming he had ‘insulted Islam’ as well as the current president. Four months later Morsi was deposed by military coup, but Youssef believed that his own fate was written, too. In 2014, for the safety of his family, he left Egypt for good.

Key Necklace, by FENDI. Merino Wool Turtleneck, by CH by CAROLINA HERRERA

When it came to stand up, Youssef got better. “Bit by bit things improved,” he says. “I became more comfortable with the material, and the nuance of doing the show in English.” But while the Arab audience was where his fame lay, there was a time when he refused to perform in Arabic at all. That choice feels like it stems from somewhere raw. Perhaps a subconscious kickback to the treatment he received on leaving his homeland.

“What happened to me in Egypt, when I quit for the safety of my family,” he explains. “I didn’t want to do it anymore because it was just too much pressure. But I was called a coward, a sell-out. The epitome of love [from the people] had turned into the depths of hate.”

But of course you can only deny self for so long, and eventually Youssef began performing in Arabic again. Now he tours two shows at the same time, one in English, one in Arabic. “It was hard to begin with,” he admits. “A couple of times they [the Arabic shows] didn’t go so well, but eventually I found my voice. But they are totally different, the Arabic show has nothing to do with the English one. Doing this is difficult.”

There’s a tension that often lies beneath the surface of the best comedians. A dark that fuels the light. You sense it in Youssef, too—and not just because he’s under the weather today and with a big show at the weekend. The experience with Al Bernameg almost broke him, being labelled the ‘Voice of The Arab Spring’ could do that for you. You still feel that a big part of him wants to speak out on issues surrounding the Middle East—his actions tell you that—but he hates it too. The pressure, the expectation. That kind of weight can be debilitating.

Beige Coat, Indigo FF Denim Jacket, both by FENDI

On October 18, 2023, Youssef was interviewed about the Israel-Gaza war on Piers Morgan: Uncensored. It would have seismic results.

“The producers at Piers Morgan: Uncensored had actually approached me to discuss [the situation in Gaza] twice, but at that moment it just felt like any comment would have been career suicide,” he says wearily. Youssef had appeared on the show some months earlier, speaking out on the Afrocentrism row that surrounded the Netflix docu-drama Queen Cleopatra, and had put in a typically indefatigable performance.

“But at that point it just seemed impossible to speak out against the narrative that was being told [on Palestine]. That changed when I saw Ben Shapiro’s comments going out on his show. I got very upset. When the producers called me a third time I said ‘yes’.”

The interview currently sits with 21 million views on YouTube (the most-watched Piers Morgan: Uncensored episode of all-time) and saw Youssef engage with a typically satirical approach, exaggerating all the points made before him. It was a tactical strategy that took guts.

This is how the conversation with his wife, Hala—herself half-Palestinian—went prior to his appearance on the show.

Bassem: “Hey, I’m going on the Piers Morgan show tomorrow to talk about Palestine.”
Hala: “Are you sure—what are you going to say?”
Bassem: “I don’t know.”
Hala: “Good luck.”

And then after the show (after he had joked how Hala, as Palestinian, was indeed ‘difficult to kill’)…

Hala: “Don’t do a second one.”
Bassem: “I’ll just do one more.”
Hala: “OK, do what you want.”

“This is why our marriage works,” he smiles. “We give each other the space to be ourselves.”

Shirt Dress, Trousers, Step Sneakers, POA, all by FENDI

Youssef’s strategy was something approaching shock and awe. A first, slightly-over-the-top exaggerated first interview that would lead to something deeper; a face-to-face with Morgan which duly came on October 31.

“To be honest, the whole thing really felt like a lose-lose situation to me,” he admits. “I thought, ‘If I do well I could lose my whole career, and if I do badly I could be cancelled by my own people’. But I took a chance. For the first interview I wanted to make a splash. But for the second I worked with some amazing people around the world to educate myself further on the situation. There were so many nuances we don’t know, even though we’re Arabs.

"The first [interview] was sensation, the second was education. This approach was risky from beginning to end and I can’t sit here and say that I planned it all. I could have lost everything; but I got lucky. If you look at the videos, the first is on 21 million views while the second has 11 million, but the second has more clips being cut from it, and has been viewed far more.”

The fallout from the interviews has been mixed. “It’s been mostly positive from my people,” he says. “I’ve actually been selling-out shows because people saw it. But I’ve had to tell them that one has nothing to do with the other. On the negative side, I lost a couple of jobs in Hollywood. Movie roles that got cancelled, I’m still working out whether I want to make a fuss about that yet. On a personal level, people have been extremely nice. Although I did have a couple of incidents where some comedians I had worked with were a little nasty about me. I didn’t respond. Why give them any fuel?”

There were also other issues at play here. Since leaving Egypt in 2014, Youssef had made LA his home and is now officially a US citizen—something that he remains positive about the situation. “I haven’t really worried about my position here,” he says. “I’m an American citizen and I do believe in this country. Of course, like anywhere, there are problems. But I would rather live here than any other country. I think that the people growing up in the US can make positive changes. I still believe in the idea of America.”

“I’m not a news agency, I’m not a politician, I’m not an activist. I’m just a comedian that was in a position to serve a cause in some way.” BASSEM YOUSSEF

Inevitably, since the interview, there has been the inclination to push Youssef to the forefront of the conversation when it comes to Palestine. And to an extent, he has continued to highlight the plight of the people. Things like Instagram live check-ins with Palestinian photojournalist Motaz Azaiza, for example, show his desire to do something. But there’s a level of unease you see on his face when he discusses it. The shadow of that Al Bernameg pressure creeping back into his life.

“I’m not exactly sure what I will do next. It would really be up to people like Motaz—he has to figure out that risk,” he says before trailing off… “I don’t know if it’s even helpful.”

There’s a real internal struggle at play here. In our social media age, any perceived missteps are publicly called out. And the pressure heaped on high profile accounts can be unbearable for anyone. For Youssef it’s a frustration.

“I don’t like doom scrolling or posting. If you look at my feed I don’t really put ho­rrific images there. Because, at the end of the day—and this is a problem with Arabs especially—we just want to be doom, doom, doom [mimics scrolling on a phone] and then we cry with each other. I’m not saying that people should stop doing this, maybe it is effective.

"But from my point of view, if people started unfollowing me because of that then it doesn’t matter what I’m posting, because it’s not going to be seen. I want to continue working, to become more successful, more vocal, so I will be invited and asked to talk at higher profile shows and opportunities… Piers Morgan, Joe Rogan… suddenly your message can reach a lot more people. But right now I have people cursing me, and judging me if I post about my upcoming shows. ‘You didn’t post about Gaza today’. But they forget that this is my livelihood.”

Turtleneck by CH by CAROLINA HERRERA

So the internal conflict continues. The desire to simply be himself, a comedian, and not have the pressures of a people, versus the knowledge that sometimes he cannot remain silent.

“I do what I do because you feel it’s the right thing,” he says. But then it comes: ‘you are our voice’. Basically you are putting all your expectations on a human being and, at a certain point, maybe they won’t be able to speak up. Maybe they’re tired, maybe they’re afraid. But people are so frustrated by politicians that they come to comedians, actors, footballers. There is a weight on us because people follow our work. But really, we don’t have the solution.

“At a certain point you start to become erased for it, too. For the cause. You’re suddenly responsible for talking only about this subject. I’m not a news agency, I’m not a politician, I’m not an activist. I’m just a comedian that was in a position to serve the cause in some way. Maybe I will do it again. This is life. Life is variable.”

The variable of Youssef’s life has certainly been evident since leaving Egypt; from Netflix documentaries to appearing twice last month in the UAE at COP28, to working his way up to become a successful—as he puts it—‘mid-level’ comedian in the US. But that profile has suddenly gone stratospheric. It’s an uneasy career boost, in all honesty. But he has too many years on the clock to take it all too seriously.

“Before Piers’ show I was doing well. I was filling theatres, shows in Europe, the Middle East, which is great, a good life. Then that show catapults you to a totally different level. But you remain humble. You don’t take this world too seriously. It’s better to enjoy what you have right now, and not to get too hung up about your achievements. Nothing stays forever.”

The sheer exhaustion felt by Bassem Youssef when he left Egypt for the safety of himself and his family over a show that would, anywhere else in the world, have presumably seen him honoured. How do you come back from that? The frustratingly simple answer is: with time. But the years only attach a band aid, they don’t erase. If you’re lucky, however, those scars can take you someplace else.

On November 17, 2023, Bassem Youssef’s stand-up show sold out the Sydney Opera House. Nine years, pretty much, to the day that he had left his homeland. It was a groundbreaking experience that followed a wildly popular extended tour of Australia. In those moments, when we actually get what we dream about, we’re often drawn into introspection and reflection. But when you ask Youssef if he misses Egypt you get a quick-fire “no.” Almost as if he’s trying to say the word before anything else slips out (although he does caveat it with Red Sea beaches and Egyptian mangoes). As for the haters, well those nine years have brought perspective.

V-Neck Striped Knit Cardigan, by MARNI via Ounass. Grey Wool Trousers, by FENDI. Silver & Brown Square Sunglasses, by DUNHILL

“I’ve been on a lot of rollercoasters,” he says before quickly adding the word “emotional” to ensure we don’t think he’s been obsessing over theme parks all this time. “I think when I left Egypt there was a lot of bitterness and a lot of anger. I felt that I was treated unfairly, that I had done something spectacular for the Egyptian media and was punished for it. So, you want to succeed to show the people back home who doubted you, who celebrated your failure, that you’ve still got it. But you know what I found when I did it? Nothing. When you get to that good place, you really don’t care anymore.”

At the Sydney Opera House Youssef had once again done his research. He had spoken to the Arab community and was sad to hear that they felt the Palestinian flag was becoming synonymous with terrorism. Determined to do something special in their honour, he promptly learned a traditional Dabke dance; something to perform on the night at the end of his show. And so, he duly danced with Palestinian dancers in a rare moment of hope. “It was a way of humanising Arabs,” he explains, before pausing. “Maybe if they see some of our culture (before they steal it) they might actually respect us as humans and, hopefully, allow us to live.”

And there you have the complex realities of Bassem Youssef wrapped up in just a few lines. The funny and the fundamental, the gag with a sting in its tail, his art and identity combined. It’s an internal struggle that you feel could play out for some time. Ultimately, the man from Cairo might not want to be a hero. The truth is that he looks set to play the role for the foreseeable future.

STYLING BY Laura Jane Brown
SET DESIGN BY Yehia Bedier
H&MU BY Kasia Domanska

Originally published on Esquire Middle East

He hardly looks like a man with a green thumb, let alone a whole garden. Darren Loke, who is behind Omitir, Veblen Supplies and handles operations at Aa Furniture, collects plants—mostly aroids and caudiciforms.

His interest in them was first piqued during his time with his ex. She had plants, and in those heady days of romance, he lapped up her overspilt passion. He started his own collection; a few here and there initially. Until his hobby blossomed into an obsession. When the pandemic hit, he was plunged even deeper into his garden.

“Obviously, when you start a hobby, you want to explore and understand the craft,” Loke explains. “There are plants that grow around us but then you discover others from the highlands [ecosystem] or more temperamental ones like cold-loving plants that won’t survive in Singapore. It came to a point where I had to concede to only growing plants that can thrive in our climate.”

Before the use of hashtags, interest in plants stopped short of simply knowing their general nomenclature, not even their genus. When it comes to describing a tree, most can say that it has leaves and is covered with bark, but falter if pressed for specifics.

“This would be my most expensive purchase. The plant takes decades to reach a certain size and is hard to root. If you were to get one with a 30cm trunk, it could set you back between SGD1,700 and SGD3,800. I got one for about SGD850 but it died. It’s hard to grow but I took it as a challenge. Of the three that I bought, only one has survived. They are succulents so they love dry conditions. You probably have to water them just once a week so they are quite low maintenance. The only downside is that they need a lot of light, preferably under a full sun.”

“It’s the look of the plant that caught my eye. I like the shape, the way the foliage forms. I probably got this for SGD5 at a supermarket. This was the first plant that I got in 2014. It now resides at my grandma’s but I’ve another in the office. As a climbing plant, it has grown quite tall.

Then, social media made it easier to identify plant types. COVID brought about a heightened insularity that accelerated plant interest for shut-ins. “It used to be that any plant tips you get would most probably be from a US writer with knowledge about plants in their region,” Loke said. “Now it’s more varied.”

Loke had already developed somewhat of a monastic existence a year before the pandemic. He stayed in more, which resulted in an explosion in his plant collection. (Loke also runs an IG account detailing his green wares)

Ficuses are his jam. While commonly found in Singapore, a ficus plant has different subspecies; some hail from Myanmar, others from Japan. Loke is attracted to their forms, finding them “interesting”. Driven by aesthetics, Loke would pair a plant with the pot.

You may have heard people say that having a garden helps them relax. Not Loke. It’s the opposite for him. He used to enjoy tending to his plants whenever he returned from work but his obsession led him to constantly fret about them. “If you think about it, it can be a chore,” Loke says.

One of two rented plots at Chwee Heng Nursery.

He has stopped counting but Loke reckons he has about 400 plant species. Then, catching himself, he adds a disclaimer: “But I’ve cut down a lot.” His current collection is stored in two places: at Aa Furniture showroom and Chwee Nursery in Seletar.

Plants at the nursery blossom due to the humidity. Once they are ready, Loke propagates them and transfers them to the showroom for display and sale. These plants are suitable for indoors and their presence helps customers to visualise, and inspires them to spruce up their own homes with a plant.

He waters the plants twice a week at the showroom and once a week at the nursery. Knowing that his plants are in an environment where they can thrive, assuages his fears about their survival. “I believe,” Loke adds, “that some plants thrive in neglect. Just give them the basics and let nature take care of the rest. In the end, they are plants, right? We shouldn’t be working for them.”

He tried growing a Pachypodium namaquanum but the species is found in dry rocky deserts and thrives in harsh conditions—extreme summer heat and wind. They can survive in a tropical setting, he says. “Think of it as a controlled situation. Air-conditioning with artificial grow lights just to maintain that environment but it’s not sustainable because, at the end of the day, these guys won’t reach their full growth potential.”

“This used to be a unicorn. Hard to get. In the wild, in South America, there could be less than a thousand plants. But over the last few years, several nurseries started tissue-cultivating it to boost the population. It’s easier to find now but it is a slow-growing plant. It took me eight months to get this one from Brazil to acclimatise to Singapore’s weather. But it’s a beautiful plant and worth all the work.”

“They are known for their slender leaves that are broader at the top. They used to be a common landscaping plant [in Singapore] during the ’70s. Then, for some reason, they became hard to find. I’m not sure why that is the case. I asked someone and was told they were used widely in government projects until they were phased out in favour of larger-leafed plants. The one I got is the Ficus alii, a Japanese cultivar with even thinner leaves. I had to get a friend to order it in for me. I find them to be very elegant-looking. They are statement pieces for your home and they are really easy to grow.”

To Loke, a plant is only ready when it starts flowering. “That’s when the plant goes through a full cycle of growth, which means it’s healthy in that current condition. That’s something I definitely learnt. There are a lot of expensive mistakes.”

It is an expensive hobby to get into. The pandemic brought about a price inflation in the plant market, where the entrepreneurial and, depending on who you ask, the exploitative, took advantage by flipping plants for a higher profit. These days, plants are more affordable, the best time to get into the hobby, if you ask us.

Loke doesn’t refute that this can be considered an old man’s hobby. “Gardening taught me to slow down. For the tangible side of things, there are some rare plants that only a few importers can bring in. You’ll just need to make the right contacts. With enough money, you can get almost any plant you want.

“Even so these are life forms that will come and go,” Loke says as he plucked the leaves of a frankincense plant and crushed them between his fingers. With cupped hands, he breathed in the balsamic and woody fragrance.

From the ashes of the pandemic, the local plant community has grown ever larger. While some might opine that it’s just another consideration to create a space for a garden; think about this: it was all green before we intruded. Maybe, space can be made for both.

Photography: Jaya Khidir

Eduardo Enrique

It was a decision made during COVID. To not give a damn. To not care if the brands that he worked with knew what he does in his art practice. It may seem unusual for a marketing person to take on this stance, but Eduardo Enrique isn’t the average marketing person.

“All I do for work is to convince brands to stay true to what they believe in and connect with the public in a very sincere way,” Enrique shares. 

Like many major world events—9/11, a reality-show star becoming president, the Rohingya refugee crisis, Covid—it is these sorts of grand incidents that one would be cast into an existential funk. For Enrique, he wonders if he should stop hiding who he is and what he does. 

He is no stranger to taking on a nom de plume. His earlier endeavour was Dick Worldwide, where he took fashion accessories and turned them into phalluses. Dick Worldwide blew up when Hypebae reported on his project. He didn’t give a lot of information about himself. He specifically kept away from using pronouns that might give away his gender identity. 

“I didn’t want to attach an identity to the project because it plays a role in what licences you have as an artist,” Enrique says. “It's not a celebration of masculinity. I chose penises because [they are] the oldest form of mockery where there are graffiti of penises back in Renaissance times. If I said I was a woman in the Middle East, the public will see the work in an entirely new way.” 

Identity defines what sort of roles you can have, or even what sort of roles the public expects you to inhabit. As an artist, Enrique finds it challenging to play with sexuality in his work because there’s too much tension around the subject. For Brand Love, Enrique’s last exhibition in Singapore before he left for Hong Kong, he continues questioning pop culture’s fixation with brands with a what-if: What if there was a Nike retail bondage store? 

Taking the identity of a well-known sports brand, Enrique reconstituted it and created fetish garments and bondage equipment. He made sure to keep the installations to be ‘fair’ across genders. “There were two mannequins—one male, one female. I wanted to make sure there’s a good balance between the sexes,” he says. 

“Because we’re in the age of representation, everybody represents something; [they] represent the voice of a certain thing. That’s why my identity as an artist has only to do with the fact that I’m also [a] marketer; it’s never a celebration and a critique against consumerism. It’s an observation because I’m also [a] huge consumer.”

Untitled (2020)

For New Painting, which was held at the Substation in 2020, there was a piece of work with the spray-painted words ‘God’ and ‘Gucci’ with checkboxes next to them. On the first day of the show, a woman, who was smoking mere minutes ago, came in and approached Enrique. She asked him which one he’d pick. He looked at the painting, then back to her. Both, he replied. The woman looked at him and, with a smile, said thank you and left.


“I’m a creative trying to bridge disciplines. Especially in Singapore, everything is so young and arbitrary,” he admits. 

At this point in time, Enrique feels that he is at a perfect intersection to talk about consumerism because he represents the companies in selling the product while commenting on the commercialism part of it. “There’s a love-and-hate relationship,” Enrique says. 

But does that make him a hypocrite? Or can one man embody opposites? 

Enrique funds his own shows. That keeps him free and honest; he is untainted by favours that come with other people’s money. But Enrique thinks that is just how he is. He’s never asked for permission. For his first show, New Painting, he eschewed asking people for permission lest he heard the word no. 

He’s a one-man operation, a self-starter. He chose the Substation, put up his own money, created the artwork which he mounted himself, and opened his exhibition to the public. In his head, he has calculated all possible scenarios of things that could go right and wrong. If he had dwelled on these scenarios, he’d never have put up an art show.

Eduardo Enrique’s bio on The Artling states that “the artist explicitly denies talking about his nationality, as he maintains that one should not be judged based on their geographical origin”. Fair that. But it is in this writer’s opinion that to know where you’re going, you need to know where you’ve started from.

Enrique grew up in Caracas, Venezuela. It’s a setting he describes as “very conservative”. His family model isn’t traditional: his parents divorced and his mother raised her kids by herself.

He sees parallels with his mother. “We have the same work ethic,” Enrique reveals. “She’s a go-getter and she finishes what she starts. I don’t think her parents allowed her to be creative. My mum wanted to study architecture but she was forced to choose something else. 

“But she is a fount of creativity and while she never articulated it, she taught me that, to a certain extent, there always needs to be an element of joy in what you do.” 

His childhood was idyllic, but living in a third-world country that’s prone to coups and political upheavals, he became familiar with uncertainty. His family were nomads; Enrique never spent more than four years in the same place. It’s a transient lifestyle that is rather normal to him. He remembers that when he hired someone to help him move, the person asked where the rest of the furniture was. “I’m like, no, this is it,” Enrique says. “As a minimalist, I’ve to let go. Materialism is cyclical.” 

Even the artworks?

“I think you need to be detached to them emotionally,” he says matter-of-factly. “I dispose of a lot of my artwork. I’ll tell people on Instagram that I’m getting rid of a piece and it’s up for grabs.” There is an item that he cannot abandon.

Nike shoes.

He was never much for brands, even when he was living as a stereotype of a Brooklyn hipster when he was working for the creative agency, Swell in New York. Biking, buying vinyls... Enrique was into fashion but he wasn’t into the hype of it. 

“My whole background is in fashion advertising; fashion was about vanity,” he notes. “As a child, vanity was my way of patching up a lot of my insecurities. You buy things to feel empowered, to feel cool.” 

So, when he saw a black pair of Nike Air Force 1, it spoke to him. Enthralled by the silhouette, he forked over money for the sneakers and became a returning customer. He has a collection of Air Force 1s that he can’t bear to be rid of. He lugs them around, this minimalist and his yoke of passion. 

His mother and he lived separately but they still saw each other. Enrique was working at Fabrica then. “She ended up in Singapore. She called me one day and said, hey, I’m going through breast cancer treatment. I quit [my job] and moved to Singapore.”

She got better and Enrique expected to be in Singapore for six months but it stretched to six years. During his tenure, he worked for two creative agencies and made his foray as a full-fledged artist.

"Nude Model in Air Jordans" (2020)

A friend—who prefers to remain anonymous—owns, according to Enrique, “one of his best pieces today”. It’s called "Nude Model in Air Jordans". Taken from his exhibition New Paintings, the piece is a large canvas with the title spray-painted on the back. “When I started, it was important for me to land the idea that I’m not interested in technicality. I’m a conceptual artist. I don’t care about the quality of things. I want people to feel like they could have done what I’ve done. 

New Painting was about classic themes with a twist of modern consumerism. For the front, I tried to render nude modelling or Jordans in so many different ways. But I’ve decided that the front will remain hidden. The painting only exists in your mind and that to me is the best painting I’ve done. 

“This guy looks at it and says that he loves it but can’t articulate why. I told him that I’ll sell it to him if he promises never to see what’s on the front. He agreed, and knowing him, he never did peek at the front.”

Brand Love (2022)

The original plan for Brand Love was to put up a pop-up in the middle of the street. Enrique’s name wouldn’t be on it, but it would be a pop-up that was selling these art pieces. “I’m not Banksy. I’m not somebody with a following,” he states. 

So, Enrique got local art gallery Art Now to house his exhibition during Art Week. “I wanted to make it clear that is art,” he explains. “So we put up all the signs that say I’m not affiliated with Nike. There was only so much planning we could do until Nike sends in the cease-and-desist. It would have been a much different show but I’ll be happy with that outcome as well.” 

This time, he got collaborators to design the interior. He set aside a space for Nike’s cease-and-desist letter. A space in the corner, almost like a taunt. It remained empty throughout the showing. 

Sexual liberation, a commentary on materialism, but there’s another takeaway from Brand Love that not many people will pick up. It’s about courage. “I wanted people who viewed the exhibition to tell me that it took a lot of courage,” Enrique says. Remember, this man is an overthinker and that sort of trait can eclipse that first step in doing. 

Can you imagine doing something that doesn’t shake things up? You can chalk it up to Enrique’s revolutionary South American way of thinking. But to have a true revolution in the culture, you’ll need to challenge the status quo. Love Brand is Enrique’s own little coup in the local art world. He hopes that it’ll at least inspire people to take bigger risks.

"No One Knows" (2020)

Enrique’s life is a series of happy accidents. Recently married (he met his flight-attendant wife on the plane), they are moving to Hong Kong for his new job with Edelman. “Motion represents so much of my life and Singapore is such a dream to live in. There’s no safe place than here, but I am curious about what else is out there,” Enrique says. “Hong Kong seems like a chaotic place, and having come from the chaos I need a little bit of it.”

But first, they would need to travel to Russia so that his wife can get her travel permit. It would be weeks after they arrive there that Russia would invade Ukraine. The battle reminded Enrique of his past, but what he thinks of current events will be another story of his to tell. 

Still, his life is never boring. “My biggest fear in life is to get stuck," Enrique says, "so I’m always challenging myself to just keep blooming."

Originally published April 2022

Michael Clement

I LOVE BLACK. I love leather jackets, and I like having my old favourite T-shirts. I end up buying the same outfit over and over.

I WAS NEVER Mr Hardcore. When we first started playing together, there was a big trend of who can play the fastest. And it was like, “Well, I don’t want to do that.” That’s not really musical for me. It became almost a bit macho, which is something we were definitely trying to get away from.

WE DIDN’T WANT TO be a bunch of tough guys. We would rather have bigger hearts than bigger muscles.

I’M ONE OF SIX KIDS. I’m the youngest. It was loud. Everybody was funny. Everything seemed pretty much like a normal big family, whatever that means. But then that dynamic really switched when my father passed away when I was 10.

IT WAS DARK. Everyone was sort of forced into dealing with that pain. It was that ghost that was always there. It still is.

THIS WOMAN NAMED Mrs Fiatarone taught me how to sing when I was really young, four or five. I was almost like this child lounge act. I’d sing show tunes. I would sing at veterans’ hospitals. Children’s hospitals.

I MADE A RECORD when I was five. It was called “Look for Love,” and it was recorded at Fantasy Studios in Berkeley. It got local radio play. That moment stuck with me my whole life. “Oh, you can make records.”

I MARRIED THE RIGHT PERSON. That’s a big deal. My wife really was smarter than I was. I was more spontaneous and wild, where she could be more practical and knew how to make plans better. But we were the right people for each other.

WHATEVER THE CRITICISMS WERE, though, I had enough of a chip on my shoulder that I wasn’t going to let anybody hold me down.

I’M OBSESSED WITH MUSIC. I just am. If I wasn’t in a big band, I would be working at a record store or teaching guitar lessons or doing anything to support my musical habit.

I LOVE THE BACHELOR. I love watching Bachelor in Paradise. You could play a drinking game and every time they say, “Welcome to Paradise,” you drink.

I NEVER GREW UP in any kind of religion. I tried to go to Sunday school, but it never really worked out.

SURFING IS ONE THING for me that has really been kind of spiritual. When you’re out in the ocean, it’s the most powerful force in the world.

I DO PRAY. I try and think of something out there that is a higher power, just to make sure I’m keeping my ego in check.

I DON’T LIVE IN LOS ANGELES. And when I do go to Los Angeles, you really get to know what all the perks are of being a rock star. It’s like you’re almost on someone else’s vacation.

I LIKE BEING A NORMAL PERSON. I like being someone that just lives in a community and has good friends and strong relationships that are based on the same life experiences that we’re all going through.

THEN I’LL PLAY A GIG in front of a hundred thousand people and I go, “Holy crap!” That doesn’t get old. It’s fun. But I don’t ever want being a rock star to be an excuse for being lazy.

I WAS TALKING to someone once and they asked me, “Why are you afraid of dying?” And I said, “I’m afraid of the darkness.” And they said, “How do you know it’s dark?” And I was like, “That’s a really good question. I have no idea what it’s like.”

SOBRIETY IS NOT a one-and-done kind of thing. I’ve definitely fallen off the wagon several times.

RIGHT NOW I don’t drink. And I like myself. If I was to put one thing that would get in the way of everything I wanted to achieve in my life, alcohol would be it. I make no guarantees. But right now it feels better.

PUNK HAS NEVER BEEN DEAD. It’s alive with the kids. When kids get together and want to play music together or create art or create fanzines, that’s what keeps it alive. Not what’s popular or anything like that.

Originally published on Esquire US

Photo by Jürgen Jester on Unsplash

"It's absolutely false to think that we in democratic countries have it any different to China," insists Frederic Lemieux. "The only difference is that China is open about what it does and we have a more layered, subtle approach. Governments say they’re not bad but the fact is that they have access to everything if they want it. Frankly, it's hard to grasp the scope of the surveillance apparatus today."

Lemieux is a professor at Georgetown University, US, specialising in information technology, and he uses a virtual private network. He avoids Zoom and social media; has "privacy settings through the roof". Lemieux is only "friends" online with people he’s met several times in person. He watches what he says in emails, won’t wear a smartwatch. And he is not remotely paranoid.

Just look, he says, at the mobile surveillance spyware Pegasus—technically illegal in the US. And yet the FBI has just been caught out. They are forced to cancel its arrangement with a government contractor that used the tool on its behalf. It’s the latest instance of an abuse of power. And the data breaches that underscore it are uncovered somewhere around the world every few months. Many more, one can only assume, are not. "So am I hopeful of some correction to this surveillance culture?" says Lemieux. "No."

Perhaps this culture has been a long-time coming. After all, the idea of systematic surveillance is not new. The Panopticon was the name given to an ideal prison devised by philosopher Jeremy Bentham in 1787. In it, every prisoner would—as an encouragement to improved behaviour—be observable without ever knowing if they were being observed. It would, as Bentham put it, create a "sense of invisible omniscience". And, he added, more darkly: "Ideal perfection would require that each person should actually be in that predicament, during every instant of time. This being impossible, the next thing to be wished for is, that, at every instant, seeing reason to believe as much, and not being able to satisfy himself to the contrary, he should conceive himself to be so."

In Bentham's time, this was no more than a thought experiment. Today the situation is very different. As the tech entrepreneur Maciej Ceglowski put it to a US Senate committee in 2019, "Until recently, even people living in a police state could count on the fact that the authorities didn’t have enough equipment or manpower to observe everyone, everywhere". Now, it seems, it looks as though they "enjoyed more freedom from monitoring then than we do living in a free society today."

Photo by Philipp Katzenberger on Unsplash

It’s easy to see why. The aforementioned spyware, with advanced processing power, can now collate, save and analyse truly awesome quantities of data. Increasingly prevalent CCTV has morphed into often erratic facial-recognition technology and biometrics. That includes the unevidenced idea that people’s emotional state can be read through their physical appearance. Drones have provided 'eyes in the sky'. These digital currencies—actively promoted in many nations as a stepping stone to doing away with cash—will allow the tracking of all financial transactions. So-called 'smart cities'—the UN recognised Singapore as a world-leading example—see the mass deployment of intrusive sensors to monitor its citizenry. Supposedly with the intention of improving the urban environment. And there's ever more wearable tech, RFID tags, GPS dots and the growing Internet of Things to provide anyone sufficiently well-resourced with a detailed picture of what once was considered private.

“But then we have also become largely indifferent to matters of privacy,” stresses sociologist Dr Gary Armstrong, co-author of The Maximum Surveillance Society. “Generation Facebook/ Tik-Tok / Instagram have a different perception of privacy than my generation—over 60s—and think nothing of self- revelation and self-promotion. As it stands the state knows less about me than, say, supermarket chains do.”

How so? Invariably because the greatest tool in the snoop’s armoury is, as Lemieux puts it, "our own complicity". We let Alexa listen and Ring Video doorbells watch. We sign up for loyalty schemes. Given that 86 per cent of the growing world’s population owns a smartphone, we willingly allow the means of our own monitoring. David Lyon, director of the Surveillance Studies Centre and professor of sociology and law at Queen’s University, Ontario, argues that while CCTV might remain the most powerful symbol of surveillance, to still think of it as the most powerful means of surveillance is way out of date. That's the gadget in our own pocket. Our self-imposed, frantically upgraded, style-conscious ankle monitors. He calls the result 'dataveillance', our supervision and assessment through a melding of state and corporate interests.

"And that’s been mutating and accelerating at a rapid rate," he says. Lyon cites a recent case in Canada. A user of the ordering app from a Tim Hortons put in a "freedom of information" request about its function. He discovers that, even when he thought he had disabled it, the app continued to track his movements. It even recorded when he visited one of the company’s competitors.

What he still didn’t grasp, however, was "the other uses that data was undoubtedly put to. His data was sold to and among other corporations and institutions in what has become a globally-significant economic system," says Lyon. "It's not just about being tracked but analysed, and then treated according to the profile then created and from which all kinds of judgments are made—by employers, healthcare providers, banks, insurers, law enforcement. The thing is that most people just don’t get that this is even happening."

Photo by Joshua Hoehne on Unsplash

Small wonder then that when the public reaction to surveillance is discussed it is, at best, rather muted. As Lyon puts it, "we've become seduced [through our smartphones] by the idea of the world organised around our needs, living in a very consumerist society in which efficiency, convenience and comfort have been elevated into core values"—"luxury surveillance" as it has been dubbed. And even if we give it some thought, our rationalisations justifying our acceptance of surveillance tend to be misguided, adds Juan Lindau, professor of political science at Colorado College, US, and author of Surveillance and the Vanishing Individual.

People dismiss the encroachment of surveillance because "they have nothing to hide"—"but it's a bullshit notion that they wouldn't mind if every detail of their life was out there for all to see," Lindau notes. Or they say they're too irrelevant to be of interest—"but if you ever do anything of even remote political consequence then you’re immediately not irrelevant to the state," he adds. Or there's the argument that any one personal revelation is now merely lost in a giant sea of revelations and so doesn't matter.

"But its evil brilliance... is that tech gives the veneer of distance and [us the sense of] anonymity that is entirely fictitious," he says. "It is not impersonal. We spend our lives now interacting with machines that observe all, that never forget and never forgive, such that the delineation between our inner and outer selves is [breaking down] by stealth."

It's also because thinking seriously about the boundaries for surveillance is relatively new. Before the seismic revelations of Edward Snowden, much concern about surveillance was dismissed as so much conspiracy thinking, argues Professor Peter Fussey, an expert in criminology at the University of Essex, UK. That, and because much of the surveillance apparatus is, governments so often argue, for our own safety. That's the line Myanmar has taken in the junta’s crackdown on protests. Or for more effective, worryingly "proactive", increasingly militarised crime prevention.

That's concerning. As Armstrong argues, we're well on our way to systems that look for the potentially suspicious or merely inappropriate. "Doing that requires a database of both known and potential offenders. And such schemes are always sold on the benefits of apprehending these known offenders," he says. "But these schemes are expansionist and soon develop databases of 'people of interest' too".

But it's also concerning when national emergencies are used to bring in more surveillance. We see subsequent spikes in favour of its expansion. A TNS poll conducted in 2014—three years after 9/11, but also not long after Snowden—found that 71 per cent of respondents thought the government should prioritise reducing the public threat "even if this erodes people's right to privacy".

"The idea that surveillance is for our own safety holds water, but only up to a point. Surveillance doesn't inherently make us safer. And that’s aside from the misplaced assumption that surveillance always works, as many cases of misidentification suggest," says Fussey. (He also an independent human rights observer of London’s Metropolitan Police while it trialled facial recognition technology from 2020.)

Photo by Kevin Ku on Unsplash

"The problem with people being suddenly more accepting of surveillance after, say, a terrorist attack is that the powers then given [to the machinery of state] don't tend to be rolled back later," he adds. "And then there is the fact that if we keep creating these tools that can be used for surveillance—even if that's not their intended use—they will be. There is simply just so much evidence for their misuse."

Furthermore, the expanding means of surveillance—from gait recognition to remote heartbeat analysis—are developed at such a pace that campaigners and legislators can barely keep up. It says something concerning that a hugely powerful business like Amazon has been entirely open in its ambition to create tech products with what it calls "ambient intelligence". They are always there in the background harvesting your life.

There's mission creep to contend with as well. If it wasn't bad enough the state and commerce wanting to watch us, remote working has encouraged a culture of surveillance among employers too. There was a boom in monitoring software. Tech used to map the behaviour, mood, eye movement, location, online activity and productivity of often oblivious workers. The American attorney Zephyr Teachout has predicted the coming of "surveillance wages". This is where each worker’s pay is constantly changing according to that worker's perceived alignment with their employer's expectations. Data would be used for hiring and firing decisions.

Could a new ad-free business model be devised for the web, disincentivising data collection? Could the European Union's General Data Protection Regulation be adopted beyond its borders? Even as Facebook obtusely moaned about how it and other regulations "may be costly to comply with and may delay or impede the development of new products, increase our costs, require significant management time and subject us to remedies that may harm our business".

Is there scope for a rebalancing of the interests of the surveillance industrial complex and individuals' rights? This segment makes billions from monetising data flows, with China and US the leading exporters of surveillance tech. Surely the transparency and accountability necessary for the relationship between state and citizen to function requires it? And yet, right down to how certain parts of your smartphones algorithms work, all is opaque, and getting more so.

Photo by Tushar Mahajan on Unsplash

"We have to have a much clearer sense of how surveillance will be used, whether it's legitimate and the necessary limits on its use," implores Fussey. "We're invited to think that the technology is just too complicated, but actually the standards we need to protect—standards in international law—are basic. The problem is who enforces those standards. We need the right policies, programmes and oversight."

"My concern is that so much surveillance now isn't just about watching where you go and what you do but what information you consume and what thoughts you express," adds Lemieux. "Surveillance can now be used to gauge opinion and so influence opinion too. It's not just about watching us through data but manipulating us through data."

Indeed, the instruments of surveillance only look set to get more invasive, more clever, more wily and devious. The tide might be turning. Lindau argues that after a long period of being "promiscuous with sharing our information", some of us are waking up. With low download rates for various government-driven tracking apps during Covid, the pandemic opened the doors to data collection and tracking on a scale that would have been imaginable just a few years before. Some cities— Portland, Oregon, for example—have banned the use of facial recognition in their stores and restaurants. And there’s a growing academic interest in surveillance overreach too.

And yet the more a surveillance mindset is applied, the more ordinary it seems. "Citizens are allowing greater and greater intrusion, to the point where the distinction between public and private has really broken down at this juncture," suggests Steven Feldstein, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and author of The Rise of Digital Repression. "The smartphone has normalised surveillance but it's a slippery slope. You continue to push at the boundaries and surveillance just becomes more and more acceptable. And there are no concerns about this because there is no political will [to make changes]. And there's no political will because nobody seems to care about it. We're seeing a greater level of omni-surveillance made possible and that needs more push-back."

In fact, we're moving towards TIA or Total Information Awareness. "The goal to know everything about everyone in real-time," as Lindau explains. "And so far all that has limited that most totalitarian of ambitions has been the tools."

Photo by NASA on Unsplash

The really bad news? The tools are coming. The AI Global Surveillance Index suggests that at least 75 out of 176 countries, many being liberal democracies, use AI for automated surveillance purposes. "All considerations we have about surveillance get put on steroids with AI," Lindau says. The French government, for example, has passed a law allowing the use of AI in mass video surveillance at next year’s summer Olympics in Paris. For AI to work, the data must flow. Your data. Everybody's data. "The ease with which AI will be able to amass and process information, combined with facial recognition, well, that’s ominous," he says.

He cites by way of example his recent experience of returning home from a holiday in Norway. Passing through the notoriously aggressive and prying US Immigration, he expected the typical barrage of questions. Instead, he was just asked to look into a small camera. That was it. Lindau asked if they wanted the usual details about where he had been and for how long and why. No, they said casually, we already know that.

GIVE A PIECE OF BLANK PAPER TO A KID, give them some paints, they will automatically create great work—great colour, forms, lines, space—without knowing much about art. That’s the kind of artist I want to be.

I STUDIED with Liu Kang at a very young age, 11 or 12, drawing and things. But it was Chen Wen Hsi who really inspired me. I looked at him, he would constantly stay in the studio, paint, not much socialising. I don’t think he had any bad habits. That inspired me.

INSPIRATION is more important than learning.

ART IS ACHIEVED through your own experiments, your own practice, your own hard work. It’s not something somebody can teach you. It cannot be taught. It can only be inspired.

THE MAIN THING IS you have to make a painting breathe. You have to give it life. That life makes a great painting. No matter what kind of painting it is, traditional or contemporary, all the great artists of the past bring life to their work. If it’s dead, kaput. So, I’m constantly fighting to achieve that.

I’LL FOCUS ON THE DETAILS, study a little patch, alter it. But then, you have to constantly step back and look at the bigger picture.

KNOWING when a work of art is finished is like when you accomplish a sexual encounter with a woman— when it’s done, you know it’s done.

A LOT OF EUROPEAN ARTISTS lead an exotic lifestyle, a more exciting life than most people. This kind of experience in life, I think, generates a great deal of energy that then goes into your writing, or your painting, or your music.

EXPERIENCE is the fuel for us, as artists.

EACH MAN IS DIFFERENT, each person is different, what you learn is what you are. It’s not “you are what you eat”—what you learn is what you are. So, all the things that I’ve learnt, experienced, encountered over the years, they have come to make me who I am. That’s what I’m translating into my work.

I LOVE THE FEMALE FORM. All the great artists will tell you the same thing. The lines, the textures, the curves are almost like a landscape. You’ve got hills, valleys, streams...

IT’S IMPORTANT to have good friends. Correct friends. If you have the wrong type of friends, you become the wrong kind of person.

AN ART CAREER IS A MARATHON. You’ve got to keep running, keep fighting. I had to make a living, so I did all kinds of jobs. Through this, you learn. Life is formed by your experiences.

I THINK HUMAN BEINGS are still uncivilised in many senses. Just like in the primitive days, we’re still fighting over a piece of meat—but today, a piece of meat means money and power.

YOU WANT TO BE AN ARTIST? I say, don’t get married. If you do get married, don’t have children. If Van Gogh had a wife and children, there would have been no Van Gogh.

YOU KNOW artists never have a happy life. Well, a few do, but maybe less than one per cent.

A COUNTRY WITHOUT GREAT ART, we cannot consider a great country. Simple. No matter what kind of weapons you have, it doesn’t count. Art is the thing. Think back to all the great countries in history: Egypt, China, Rome—why we consider them as great is because of their great culture.

SOME TIME AGO, they said, “Painting is dead.” That’s propaganda. You can all lay out all kinds of reasons to support any idea.

IF YOU HAVE A GOOD EYE, if you’ve been educated. If you’ve visited a lot of good artists’ exhibitions and museums, right away you know if something is great art or not great art. You know at first sight. It’s like we know if someone is good or bad, by judging through just appearance. They say don’t judge a book by its cover—that’s not true, the cover is important. You right away know good from bad.

THOSE WHO PAINT will know Jackson Pollock is wonderful, they’ll know Willem De Kooning is great. Those who don’t paint, but who have a good eye and good education will also know that these are great artists. All the truly great artists today, on the surface of this earth, they’re genuine. I’ve seen a lot of artists come and go. But the great artists stay.

SOMETIMES there’s a very thin line between commercial art and fine art—a very thin line.

PRETTY, DECORATIVE FLOWER PAINTINGS can be pleasing. But ugliness can be fine art. The German Expressionists, for example. So ugly, so naive, so childlike and yet, so very powerful.

OUR LIFE, we are only a fish splash. We are nothing, you know?

Photography: Jaya Khidir

Top, GIVENCHY. Octo Originale, 41mm white gold case with diamond on white gold strap with diamond, BVLGARI

Ayden Sng appears in the oblong box. It is a Friday evening and he has carved out a rare pocket of free time to do this interview.

Through the middling-resolution of the screen, he appears fresh-faced, beaming; even as he is in the throes of filming the Channel 8 series All That Glitters (née Road to Riches).

The Mandarin drama series begins with a murder before it flashes back to the past, where we follow the journey of three friends and the events that led to the tragedy. Starring Desmond Tan, Jeremy Chan and Sng, it was shot in Alor Setar, Malaysia; Hat Yai, Thailand; and Singapore.

Sng plays one of the three friends, but his character offers the bonus of being the series' antagonist; a role that he states that he “had been waiting for a long time.”

“Well, not necessarily waiting to play the ‘villain’,” Sng specifies, “but the thing about bad guys is that they usually aren’t one-dimensional. That’s the sort of role with depth that I have been wanting to play.”

The key is not to think of them as villains. Sng cites the Joker (played by Joaquin Phoenix) as someone you would empathise with and root for. “In some sense, I felt a lot of the self-rationalising, self-justification that the character goes through.” Sng wants to bring an authenticity to his character. There’s a backstory to his role, where his ambition is primarily driven by self-preservation; when all is said and done, Sng hopes to deliver something relatable to the audience, regardless of his character’s alignments.

High Jewelry Serpenti necklace in yellow gold set with onyx, brilliant tourmaline, fancy cabochon beryls and diamonds, BVLGARI

And if the audience were to perceive him differently when they see him on screen, Sng takes it as a win. “If you act sufficiently well that people think that’s you in real life, it’s a testament to your performance.”

There’s another reason for Sng’s willingness to take on this role, and it parallels the same motivation of his character: self-preservation. And by that, Sng is looking to prolong his career as an actor by not being typecast.

In any industry, a role is ascribed to you because you have traits that fit into the stereotype. Cast your eye at the median boy band and you’ll notice the typecasts: the wild one; the bad boy; the leader. These are formulaic functionary, easy pop-culture digestible, accessible and charming.

“It’s the same for actors,” Sng says. “When you begin, right off the bat, they’ll try to figure out what your general vibe is. Then they will label you regardless of whether it is your identity or not. Even for the show I’m doing now, the executive producers met with a lot of resistance when they announced their intention to cast me because the character is someone uneducated, uncouth; who sells satay at the hawker centre.”

Ayden is too educated, he’s too polished for this role. Ayden Sng can play someone who works in a nine-to-five white-collar job. Ayden Sng can play one of the bros or the boy next door. The good son; the good son-in-law. That’s the box he is put in. Except it’s a comfortable casket. It limits his potential to see how far he can stretch his acting wings. For All That Glitters, his role is a complete departure from the ones he’d done before. This is a part that requires him to be—in his own words—“beng”. 

“To be in that persona took a lot out of me than with previous roles,” Sng explains. “And because this is a melodrama, there are tons of emotional and violent scenes so the difficulty index for this is probably 10 out of 10.

But despite the stress, it is a much-needed invigoration. It’s this venture into uncharted territory that he rediscovers his love for acting.

If only more people were to see him that way.

Top, shorts and sandals, LORO PIANA. High Jewelry Serpenti earrings in yellow and white gold with diamonds, Octo Roma, 41mm gold case on alligator strap, BVLGARI

“My interest and commitment to this craft is sometimes eclipsed by the fact that I work with a lot of brands.” By that merit, he can be viewed as a male huāpíng (Mandarin for “vase” but it’s also slang for a “pretty but useless person”). It’s a frustrating perception but Sng understands it is not an easy thing to dispel. “It’s not something that I can demand. It’ll take time and a body of good work to justify that.

That’s usually the first impression people will have of Sng when they encounter his Instagram account. It’s understandable. His feed is filled with images of him posing with brands; film and TV announcements; some behind-the-scene stills. But Sng is proud of his interest in fashion and grooming; it opens him to a lot of brand collaborations. “This allows me to continue acting. Good roles after good roles that will hopefully lead to good performances and eventually people will see me as a good actor.”

Sng wants more opportunities to branch outside of Singapore. He wants to add a regional or even a global stage to his oeuvre. He had a chance to do so with a film called Seven Days, which is about a ghost possessing her grown-up younger brother’s body for seven days to resolve any regrets before moving on.

His first feature opened doors to other film projects that Sng is in discussion with. “As an actor, that’s something you look forward to,” Sng says. “Not because you want that regional recognition but with that level of production, you’re exposed to a whole set of different experiences.”

Last year, Sng filmed Hungry Soul in Batam. Co-produced by CJ Entertainment (the company behind Parasite), Sng saw how the production operates, which was vastly different from his experiences in Mediacorp. “It’s not necessary about who is better. It’s about being exposed to how things are done in different countries. I feel that a Taiwanese production focuses a lot more on improvisation. Whereas in Singapore, things are less fluid but that also means you do get a lot more quality control.

Citing an example of his experience shooting in Taiwan, Sng claims that each take is different but in some of those takes, Sng saw something brilliant that’s birthed from improvisation. It’s different and that’s the sort of variety that you’d want to have as an actor.

For the immediate future, Sng wants to work on more films (“Because film acting is different from TV,”) and also to take part in co-productions overseas.

It’s a promising prospect, one that Sng is optimistic about. It would be a platform where he can manifest himself into the kind of actor that he wants to be.

Top, trousers and shoes, LOUIS VUITTON. Octo Finissimo, 40mm titanium case on rubber strap, BVLGARI
Top, trousers and shoes, LOUIS VUITTON. Octo Finissimo, 40mm titanium case on rubber strap, BVLGARI

This sort of mentality shapes his identity: he eschews the blown chances, the what-could-have-beens and instead is hyperfocused on looking forward. The industry that he’s in sometimes feels like a game that he has to play, always having to prove himself according to their terms. Not many actors get to chisel out their own niche (look at Yeo Yann Yann and Anjana Vasan).

But Sng is pragmatic. This is a long game, one that you need to play well at. You can either hate the game or continue to build yourself and be certain of your identity.

“Being in this industry forces you to mature quickly. Because if you don’t, you might lose yourself.”

As he grows into himself,Sng finds that he doesn’t need to explain himself to people the way he did before. When the pandemic happened and lock-down was in effect, it didn’t impact Sng all that much, other than not being able to work for several months. His lifestyle remained the same—Sng was pretty happy about staying indoors.

“I don’t like spending time outside of my home much, but it’s not that I’m antisocial,” Sng explains. “I still talk to people online, via Zoom or whatever. You don’t have to go to a social setting to have meaningful conversations. I got to experience those types of things at home, and with my pets, and I felt content.”

People who hear this tell him that he sounds old.

“I don’t think of it as any form of judgment, to be honest. I’m ok being known for that. In the last interview that I did, I used this term called ‘the joy of missing out’. That’s one way that I live my life. If you don’t ask me out, great. I’m happy to focus on the things that I truly want in my life.”

This, according to Sng, is like creating his own joy machine. To seek out happiness in your loved ones or pets; even in the hobbies you engage in. Sng collects colognes and perfumes so whenever he has visitors, he’ll introduce them to his home-based fragrance bar. “I’ll ask them to try something that they have never had before. Are you into daytime scents, fresh scents? Are you into floral and citrusy stuff? Why not opt for amber or oud?"

Top and trousers, LOEWE. Octo Finissimo, 43mm gold case on gold strap, BVLGARI

Another source of joy comes from his cats. Growing up, his family had a German Shepherd. “But that wasn’t the most pleasant experience for me,” Sng says. “The reason I’m drawn to cats is, perhaps, my personality is a bit like theirs. I’m a huge homebody. I love to stay indoors. The thought of walking a dog outside doesn’t sit well with an introvert and a germaphobe. “Cats are really clean. They groom themselves all the time.

He’d wanted to own a cat since he was studying at Duke University (“But I didn’t want to deal with the process of bringing it back to Singapore.”) One of his best friends from university, who was also his neighbour had a cat that he would volunteer to look after. When he returned to Singapore, he planned to get a cat once he got his own place.

With that checked off, he now has three Bengals, and quite possibly more in the months to come. A pair of Maine Coons are expected to arrive at his doorstep this year.

“I don’t mind being branded that crazy cat uncle. Having cats give me a sense of fulfilment and it doesn’t matter what others think; at the end of the day, I’m obligated to myself and nobody else.”

Photography: Joel Low
Fashion Direction: Asri Jasman
Art Direction: Joan Tai
Styling: Wilson Lim
Make-Up: Peter Khor using ESTÉE LAUDER
Hair: Christvian Goh using REVLON PROFESSIONAL
Photography Assistant: Eddie Teo
Location: Bulgari Resort Bali