Why Netflix’s ‘Singapore Social’ works better as advertising than it does as a documentary

The 'real' Singapore is missing in action in the new Netflix reality series 'Singapore Social' - but it may do an even better job than 'Crazy Rich Asians' at drawing in a certain sort of visitor, says brand consultant Jörg Dietzel

So Netflix has just dropped a new reality series about life in the little red dot. Unfortunately, ‘Singapore Social’ isn’t very social, and actually not very Singaporean.

It is shot like one big ad for a Singapore that exists only in some filmmaker’s imagination or – if anywhere – in the lives of the privileged few.

There is nothing wrong with selling a colourful, sparkling, shiny fantasy of Singapore – ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ did that, too. But at least that film didn’t pretend the fairytale was real. Everything was a bit too much, a ‘Dallas’ meets ‘Dynasty’ in Asia. And that’s what made it fun.

That is not the case with ‘Singapore Social’. Mind you, the city looks great. Several drone-shots of the illuminated skyline at night, with the most happening bars and restaurants serving as backdrops. But they remain just that. Even the few shots of Singapore culture (mostly in its stereotypical form – think Lion Dance) are merely backdrops masquerading as colour and exotic flavour.

The cast is a bunch of mostly racially mixed Singaporeans who hang out in expensive dives to drink – and talk about relationships.

There’s dancer Sukki Singapura who wants to create a new art form by mixing burlesque routines with hip hop; filmmaker Vinny Sharp who cannot get over his Romanian-ex; Paul Foster who wants to clean up rivers; Tabitha Nauser working on a video for her latest single plus a few others.

But all possible topics – from women empowerment to sustainability, Asian family expectations to figuring out one’s life path – stay at the surface. The series isn’t really interested in depth. Instead, we are treated to moment after moment of ‘let’s talk about our relationship’. And tears. Lots of tears.

Also, the social issues are those affecting people who live in landed properties. There is not a single HDB flat featured; or public transport, come to think of it.

The glamour shots show a Singapore of parties, launches, big cars, jewellery shopping and drinks – lots of drinks. Which is fine – just don’t pretend it’s all that makes Singapore special. Or ‘social’.

But wait. Isn’t there another way of looking at this? What if it was never the filmmakers’ intention to show the ‘real’ Singapore? Viewed as a tourism film, this series just might work, at least for some. 

It clearly portrays Singapore as an exotic-but-safe, exciting hub in Asia that is perfect for shopping, socialising, dining and clubbing. Oh, and did I mention drinking? A place that is so decidedly Instagrammable, that you’d think it was built for social media.

The branding isn’t very in your face, but with a bit of pausing, the series can be used as a tourist map to the most picturesque settings, bars and restaurants. And one brand that features in almost every episode, of course, is Marina Bay Sands. Its rooftop seems to be the ultimate place to see and be seen.

So no quiet eateries in the heartlands, and not much award-winning hawker food. No nature trails or Wild Rice plays. But for tourists looking for some superficial fun and sightseeing, this series may be just the ticket. Even more so than ‘Crazy Rich Asians’, because this fairytale is real. Well, kind of.Jörg Dietzel was formerly global head of creative at Audi, runs his own brand consultancy, teaches branding and advertising at SMU and is based in Singapore


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