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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 October 2018

The city's rickshaw drivers and small businesses on how the F1 changed Singapore

'When the race comes I am not just a cab driver, I become an accidental ambassador,' one taxi driver tells us

A general view of the action during practice for the Formula One Grand Prix of Singapore at Marina Bay Street Circuit. Photo / Getty 
A general view of the action during practice for the Formula One Grand Prix of Singapore at Marina Bay Street Circuit. Photo / Getty 

Apart from the hundreds of chequered flags waving madly on main roads and from buildings across the city, the other sure-fire sign that it’s Singapore Grand Prix time is the explosion in the number of rickshaws.

With traffic closures around the city circuit precinct and heaving taxi lines, it is the country’s legendary rickshaw drivers who reap the benefits of the annual event.

“The race is good business,” says Jerry, who takes me down Victoria Street on a morning tour of Singapore a few days before the year’s big race.

With the humidity moistening my shirt more and more with every passing second, the 74-year-old rickshaw driver brushes off my suggestion that I’m wearing him out with this trip.

“I been doing this 36 years, sometimes with three people in the seat. You are easy. This is Formula One time, a very busy season for me. Everybody benefits, everybody is happy.”

If you’ve been to Singapore and experienced the only night race on the GP calendar, you will have recognised the breadth of this event, far beyond the racing.

Orchard road in Singapore.
Orchard Road in Singapore.

During its 11-year run, the Singapore Grand Prix has proven to be a uniting force for the population and a powerful tourism draw which capitalises on the thousands of visitors who descend on the city each year.

And with the Abu Dhabi event sharing similar societal and tourism goals, I travelled to the island city state to discover how it has made such a success of its race. The first thing that stands out is how everyone is involved in putting on a grand experience for the punters. From the independent rickshaw drivers to Singapore’s glistening five-star hotels, there is a sense of keen collaboration between all sectors.

One of the results is a platform for young entrepreneurs to show their latest ventures. Take Singapore Sidecars, for instance, which launched a few weeks before this year’s race.

It is a perfect marriage of the business and tourism worlds. From an hour to a whole day, tourists can sit in the side car of a late-1970s Vespa motorbike as it zips through the city’s cultural hots spots, including the Islamic – and now uber hipster – district of Bugis to the splendour of Orchard Road, home to the city’s wealthy fashionistas. The lead driver and business owner Simon Wong says the idea came to him more than five years after he saw a friend drive a Vespa down a tourist alley. Excited by its potential, he got a bunch of investors together and bought about a dozen bikes to kick-start the tour.

Caption: Singapore Side Cars allows you to check out the city while zipping along on a late 1970’s Vespa.
Singapore Side Cars

In consultation with the Singapore Tourism Board there were changes made to the country’s stringent driving laws to allow Wong’s Vespas and guests to motor freely around the city.

“I have found that if you have a good idea then people will generally support you,” Wong says. “But you need to have a good idea – in Singapore it is all about quality.”

This sentiment is echoed by Cathy Chia of Singapore’s ultra lavish hotel, The Fullerton. Not dissimilar to Abu Dhabi’s Yas Hotel, the venue hugs a corner of the F1 track, making it an ideal viewing location for race enthusiasts.

Chia, who works in the communications team, explains that The Fullerton has been offering F1 visitors “an experience” in addition to a comfortable stay. This means a range of city and cultural tours which come as part of their F1 accommodation packages.

Although the tours were always part of the hotel’s offerings, Wong explains that she and her team worked with the Singapore tourism body to make sure their excursions are in line with the board’s latest slogan – Passion Made Possible.

“We really believe it’s a win-win,” explains Jean Ng, the director of sports for the Singapore Tourism Board. We are having dinner at the race circuit’s Sky Suite which, 11 years on, remains one of the premiere network gatherings for the government and business sectors.

“Whatever our stakeholders do, if they really put in the effort to do something special then STB, through our Grand Prix campaign, will feature them as part of the activities taking place beside the Formula One.”

But more than the untold tourism opportunities the Singapore Grand Prix presents, its biggest achievement, perhaps, has been to change the perceptions of tourists and locals.

“To be honest with you, a lot of us Singaporeans didn’t know what the Grand Prix was when it came here,” recalls cab driver Wong Dhak. “But, with time, we have come to appreciate it. We are excited that the world is looking at us for the weekend and we can show that we do know how to party and we are not just a boring business place. When the race comes I am not just a cab driver, I become an accidental ambassador.”

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