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‘The softer voices and personalities can often be the most powerful.’
Gems in this
Eshan Ponnadurai has worked around the world for 14 years, his career taking him to New York as the Global Head of Youtube Music, then to the Asia Pacific region as Head of Brand for Google and now Marketing Director for Uber.
Born in Sri Lanka, he grew up in Melbourne, Australia, and is currently based in Singapore for the second time in his life. We spoke to Eshan on his view of creativity in Asia, global ideas and inside tips for travel, food and culture from modern Singapore.
On where you’re from
I was born in Sri Lanka back in the ’80s, which was a period of civil unrest and violence, where minority ethnic groups (us) were attacked by government-backed mobs. We were really fortunate to have the opportunity to leave that situation; the Australian government granted us residency. I was three years old when it all happened.
On where you grew up
I grew up in the eastern suburbs of Melbourne in Glen Waverley/Vermont South. My family arrived in Australia with pretty much nothing; my parents had to work multiple jobs for a number of years to be able to afford a deposit for a home. I remember back then, being able to live in a middle-class suburb with a house and a yard was a big achievement for our family. My brother and I often refer to it as our ‘Fresh Prince’ moment, similar to the time Will walks into his uncle’s house for the first time in Beverly Hills (only our house was a normal house).
On cities you’ve lived abroad
I left Australia soon after graduating university. Since then, I’ve had two stints in Singapore, lived in New York for a few years and recently returned to Singapore. Having had regional roles throughout my time in Singapore, it’s allowed me to spend time in a number of cities across Asia.
On where you’re living in Singapore
I moved to Singapore straight out of school with a junior marketing role. At the time, I couldn’t afford an apartment on my own; thankfully I made some good mates who I shared a number of different apartments with.
As things changed, I finally could afford a place on my own. I previously lived in a shop house (think colonial-style, heritage-listed homes) in a cool part of town very close to the downtown in an area called Tanjong Pagar. Right now, we live in Sentosa, which is a little island off the main island of Singapore. Singapore is a busy non-stop city; we chose Sentosa as it’s a little quieter and you get to live close to the water.
On your relationship with Singapore
I originally moved to Singapore thinking I would try it out for a year (it was my first time moving away from Melbourne) and see what happens. That was almost 14 years ago.
At times, I’ve had a love/hate relationship with the place and itched to move elsewhere but there have always been really interesting opportunities that have continued to come up that have either kept me here or brought me back here.
I met my wife here (who also relocated to Singapore from Korea) and some of my best friends…in many ways Singapore will always be home, irrespective of where the road might take me, and I will always be thankful for my times here.
On how working in Asia has influenced your work
It has allowed me to become much more understanding and empathetic to different cultural nuances and how they can manifest themselves. In the past, I’ve perhaps gravitated to the personalities and ideas that are more overt, working in a region where communication can often be very subtle and non-verbal. Now I often ‘listen’ for the softer voices and personalities, which can often be the most powerful.
After a number of years in Asia working at technology companies, it’s allowed me to appreciate how Asia in many ways is leading the world when it comes to innovation and creativity — particularly in emerging parts of Asia where difficult and unique problems are resulting in powerful ideas and technology. Even in roles where I’ve worked in a global capacity, I’ve often found myself looking to Asian brands, companies and creators for inspiration and ideas. Before I arrived in Asia, I assumed western trends influenced Asia; now in many ways I see it the other way around.
‘Asia in many ways is leading the world when it comes to innovation and creativity... Before I arrived in Asia, I assumed western trends influenced Asia. Now in many ways I see it the other way around.’
On the best new word you’ve learned in Singapore
The Singaporeans have learned to utilize the English language in interesting and efficient ways, creating what they call Singlish. I’ve learned that the word ‘can’ is able to be used in a much broader sense here.
For example: ‘Shall we go out for dinner tonight?’ You can reply with ‘can’. ‘Shall we watch this movie instead of the other one? You can reply with ‘also can’. ‘You ready for lunch?’ You can reply with ‘can can’ (double affirmative). As a result, it’s become part of my vocabulary.
On how working in New York influenced you
I grew up with a love for hip-hop/R&B and American sports, so in many ways American culture had influenced me well before I ended up living over there. Having the opportunity to work very closely with the music community, world-class creatives and creators and artists was a dream come true. It also allowed me to truly understand how an unwavering purpose and hustle is a key ingredient for success, which is synonymous with NYC. I had always believed this notionally (and rapped along to numerous lyrics that suggested it) but this was my opportunity to see up close and in action. It’s something I took with me out of the experience.
On launching Uber in Asia Pacific
It’s definitely had its challenges…We’ve often been seen as the big US company in this part of the world, with a global-developed technology vs something created here in the region. We’ve had a lot of success by truly understanding our consumers and customers to spark new innovations and creative ideas that resonate with folks in this part of the world. Our first effort on this was our campaign of ‘unlocking cities’, which tapped into the troubles of congested cities and car ownership across Asia. Now that sounds pretty serious, but we tapped into what consumers find interesting and took a complete comedic take on it.
On whether creativity is growing more global
Definitely. In times past, creativity was restricted to your physical space, in terms of your creative inspiration and potential partners and collaborators. Today that’s much different — you draw inspiration from any part of the world and can find ways to collaborate with people across the world. Creativity is truly globalized. As a result, ideas by default are global now — we are rarely restricted by geographic limitation. Powerful ideas now transcend boundaries.
‘You draw inspiration from any part of the world and can find ways to collaborate with people across the world. Creativity is truly globalized.’
On creative inspiration
My wife’s a talented marketer so I bounce a lot of ideas off of her…she generally gives me better ones!
Having generally worked across the region, if I’m working on a project for a specific country, I find traveling to that country or city can bring you new ideas.
Singapore is quite different to its neighboring countries. I find travelling to a specific country, walking the streets and meeting new people inspires new ideas. Outside this, music has always been an inspiration — my go to songs are ‘Juicy’ by Biggie Smalls and a relatively unknown song called ‘You Will Know’. While it might feel a bit old school, I also watch a lot of content from the past — I watch a lot of award reels and go back to iconic pieces of advertising to get new inspiration.
On a cultural difference to expect in Singapore
The interesting thing about Singapore is that due to the size of the island and relatively large expat population, it’s quite easy to live here and never actually have a cultural exchange or understand the local culture. Many people often describe it as ‘Asia Lite’. I have been guilty of this in the past but have since made a conscious effort to step out of my little bubble to truly understand the culture here. I would encourage those that move here to venture out and expose themselves to the culture.
On something people should do when they move to Singapore
For me, playing sports was a great way to build a new community. My sport of choice is cricket, but every sport on the planet is basically played here in Singapore at an amateur or social level. It’s a great way to make new friends fast. On the creative end, there are a ton of great upcoming creative communities and places here in Singapore that are worth getting to know…one such place is The Projector at the Golden Mile, an old cinema that was taken over by a creative group here in Singapore. They’ve restored the entire venue, which includes an amazing bar called The Great Escape — a converted car park with amazing views and greet beer.
On good food
For more traditional cuisine, try Por Kee eating house in Tiong Bahru. After eating there you can wander over a bunch of nice bars and coffee shops.
For burgers (my favorite), try Three Buns in Keong Saik Street, a cool little burger joint situated near China Town.
On good coffee
I’ll be honest, I’m a sucker for instant coffee! But if you’re not, there are tons of good places around Singapore. As a Sri Lankan, I have huge affection for tea — very strong (two tea bags) sugar and milk. My wife usually makes it the best. For coffee worth travelling for, try Jimmy Monkey in the One North/Buona Vista area.
Watching the Premier League live on Saturday nights — the games air during primetime so you can always watch it with a lively crowd. Football is incredibly popular here.
On a good drive
I’m biased, but Sentosa is a great place to drive to….otherwise check out the Seletar airbase — a little bit out of the way but worth a visit. A boardwalk runs parallel to the airport, perfect for watching planes take off and land (a favorite pastime of my two year old). Situated next to it is a cool little café called Wheeler’s Yard.
On beating the Singapore humidity
Lots of showers, and get used to running the aircon all night!
On something from Australia you need a fix of
Vegemite was a little more difficult to find when I first moved here years ago…thankfully much easier to find now! I literally carry a travel tube of Vegemite so I can always get my fix!
On window seat or aisle
Generally the aisle. This way I never feel like I’m bothering anyone when I get up…I hate being one of those passengers that annoys others.
On Singapore in one word
Surprising (in the best way possible).