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How a skate park came to represent Singapore's cultural spirit

As Singapore rings in its 51st birthday on Tuesday, one of the island's most well-known sights is also celebrating a key anniversary.

It may not top the list of tourist attractions but a public skate park in the midst of a central shopping district has become a cultural iconic for skaters and non-skaters alike. The Somerset Skate Park turned 10 in January, and is widely recognized as a manifestation of the island-nation's multicultural spirit.

Somerset Skate Park
Por Vida Skateboarding

As one of the world's most religiously diverse nations, according to the Pew Research Center, Singapore's population consists of predominantly Chinese, Malay and Indian ethnic groups as well a large circle of expatriates—a mix that's consistently reflected at the skate park.

On any given day, skaters from various age groups and backgrounds can be seen practicing tricks, cheered on by a crowd of bystanders-some of whom skate, others who simply hang out at the park for the "good vibes."

"There have always been a mix of cultures at the park but everyone is cool with one another, there are always positive energies. I've never seen any nasty things go down," said Tan Lepham, a skateboard instructor and founder of Por Vida Skateboarding.

Tan, who's been a regular at the park ever since it was built, notes that the zone is home to a range of communities. "Graffiti artists, break-dancers, bikers, and rollerbladers all hang out there too," he pointed out, noting that skateboarding's carefree lifestyle is a big draw to those who don't practice the sport.

As one of the most densely populated countries in the world, Singapore has limited street space for skaters to perfect their skills, underlining the need for specialized zones. Since the National Youth Council (NYC) Skate Park was shuttered in 2004, the Somerset Skate Park became the de-facto spot for the new and experienced to hone their craft when it opened two years later. A second skate park was opened in 2009 on the eastern side of the island to meet rising demand.

Youths skateboard in the central business district in Singapore.
Edgar Su | Reuters

The government-run NYC, which operates the Somerset Park, told CNBC there were plans in the pipeline to improve the park's overall layout and make it more inclusive to youths with other interests. NYC said that it would be consulting youngsters for their feedback before going ahead with any changes, adding that the park was not in danger of closing anytime soon.

"The park brings people of diverse backgrounds together and fosters a community spirit," explained Irwan Idris, a veteran skateboarder who recently directed NS23, a documentary about the island's skate culture. Named after the Somerset subway station, the film features interviews from a range of well-known Singaporean skaters and narrates accounts of friendship and teamwork at the park.

The thriving scene has produced top-rated pro skaters, such as brothers Firdaus and Farris Rahman, who regularly compete abroad. Firdaus, who counts Billabong and Vans as sponsors, has represented Singapore at Tampa Pro—one of the sport's oldest competitions, according to ESPN—and the Kia World Extreme Games, where he took home gold last year. Farris meanwhile is on the Red Bull team and landed second place at the Asian X-Games in 2011.

So now that skateboarding is officially an Olympic sport at the 2020 Games in Tokyo, will a Singapore skater make the cut?

"We have a good number of skateboarders on this little island. It will be a long shot but hopefully our representatives could bring an Olympic gold for Singapore," said Idris.

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