Portraits in Diversity

Tom Soper (right) with one of the 50 personalities featured in Soperʼs photo book.

Photographer Tom Soper talks about his fascination with the cultural depth in Singapore, a place he once called home.



ritish commercial photographer Tom Soper, 43, first came to Singapore in 2009 when he visited his sister who was working and living in the island state. In 2010, he and his wife moved here because they liked its high living standards and proximity to other Asian countries they wanted to visit. Having lived in Sri Lanka previously, the couple were also eager to leave the bustle of London behind to experience life in a foreign land once more.

When Soper had to return to the United Kingdom five years later, he decided to work on a coffee table book that would serve as a parting gift to Singapore, which was turning 50 in 2015. He wanted the book to celebrate Singapore’s diversity, which was the aspect that fascinated him the most. “In Singapore, I met people from all over the world, which didn’t seem to happen as often in London. For some reason, all the nationalities seem to mix together more in Singapore,” he says.

“Singapore has a reputation for being a sterile place. But there is so much variety and colour in both the new and old parts of the city.”

Tom Soper, commercial photographer

Titled Singapore: A Portrait In Diversity, the book features portraits and thoughts of 50 people from 50 countries residing in the city state. It was published in November 2015. He says: “My ambition was twofold: I wanted to build a strong portfolio of portraits for my work back in the UK, and I was very keen to celebrate the experience of living in such a diverse and welcoming city.”

While working on the book, Soper, who was born in Suffolk, England, came across an intriguing story involving his own links to Singapore. His mother, who lives in the UK, was researching their family history at the same time he was working on the book. She discovered that some of her relatives had actually resided in Singapore more than a century ago. These ancestors had worked in a variety of professions, including laying telegraph cables across the sea for the Eastern Telegraph Company and as radio operators during World War II.

CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: Personalities featured in Soperʼs book include Abdul Khaeer Mohammed Mohsin, who is the editor of a Bengali newspaper in Singapore; Adriana Garrett from Slovakia worked as a project manager in Singapore; Lertkiat Chongjirajitra from Thailand, who plays the section trumpet in the Singapore Symphony Orchestra; and George Kiosedakis from Greece was a restaurateur in Singapore.

Soper says the first of his relatives arrived in Singapore in 1879. They were three young children whose father had been sent by the British Government to work as a chemist on the island of Labuan, off the coast of Sabah, which was deemed too dangerous for the children, so they were sent to live in Singapore on their own. Says Soper: “It seemed really coincidental that my sister and I were living in Singapore and following in the footsteps of relatives we had not until then even heard of.”

The first thing that struck Soper about Singapore was how a small country could be such a captivating blend of cultures and architecture. He says: “Singapore is such a melting pot of nationalities, religions and ethnicities. It is also amazing that all these different people live in relative harmony with very little tension.”

He was also delighted by its abundant greenery. “The more I explored, the more diverse I realised how the city was. In one day, you can go for a meeting in a sophisticated skyscraper with views of the Marina Bay, then go for coffee in a charming old shophouse in a back alley and take photos of giant lizards in a remote nature reserve in the afternoon,” he says.

“I also learnt that Singapore provides a lot of opportunities to foreigners. A number of the people I photographed for the book ran their own businesses. Singapore is a great city to be an entrepreneur, and the Government is really supportive of foreigners with interesting business ideas. While Singapore could, of course, continue without any foreigners, it would undoubtedly weaken economically. And there is no doubt that the majority of foreigners love working in such a vibrant city.”

Igniat Milenkovis from Serbia was a student in Singapore.

While it has only been less than two years since he left Singapore, Soper says he misses the cleanliness and efficiency of the city. He adds: “Singapore has a reputation for being a sterile place. But there is so much variety and colour in both the new and old parts of the city.”

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