Facade of Escobar restaurant at China Square Central. Picture by Straits Times.

Why Colombians are denouncing this Singapore restaurant themed after drug kingpin Pablo Escobar

by Natalia Angel

Colombians in Singapore are taking a stand against a restaurant concept that is causing indignation in the city-state by showcasing a theme with everything from its name, to its menu and decor, centered around the late drug kingpin Pablo Escobar.

Upon the opening of the China Square Central bistro-bar late last month, concerned members of the community reached out to the business owner, Stan Sri Ganesh, to express their sentiments and offer him advice of the sensitive nature behind his establishment’s name and concept. Remaining outwardly defiant over these concerns, Mr. Ganesh was inundated by negative comments on the restaurant’s Facebook page showing overall discontent with the handling of the brewing controversy.

The Colombian Embassy in Singapore sent an official note to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) on February 2, condemning the Escobar restaurant, saying its theme “pays tribute to the worst criminal in the history of Colombia”. The embassy expressed that the Colombian community in Singapore “feels indignation towards this case” and appealed for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to reach out to the owner to reconsider its harmful image as “Escobar was far from being a reputable model and Colombian citizen”, the letter explains.

The restaurant in question also found itself in a delicate situation after the Central Narcotics Bureau (CNB) took issue with its theme as it features advertisement designs with white powder-like substances and the Spanish saying “plata o plomo” as their slogan, meaning “money or die”. A CNB spokesperson said that the manner in which Pablo Escobar’s name and image are being used to promote the bar is highly objectionable and runs counter to Singapore’s zero-tolerance approach towards drugs and to the Government’s efforts in preventive drug education. “The glamorization of a drug kingpin and associated drug use is irresponsible and insensitive,” the CNB spokesperson told TODAY.

Advertisement from Escobar Singapore Facebook page.

Even though the Escobar name has managed pop up in the F&B industry in various other parts of the world, the truth is that Colombians abroad and especially in Singapore, simply don’t want to be categorized and associated with this infamous character. Escobar’s resurgence into the mainstream, now as a popular TV character, has Colombians expressing their shame to the restaurant’s attribution in the island known for its reputable anti-corruption index and strong-handed policies on drug trafficking.

This type of establishment being associated with Colombia or its culture is deeply disheartening to the efforts of Colombians in Singapore, who are not only invested in being hard-working professionals and exemplary ambassadors, but who have also ventured and invested in the F&B industry in attempts to bring authentic Colombian food to Singapore. Hence, anyone looking for this type of cuisine in the island will likely be perplexed and disappointed to know that this restaurant is just another place that plans to thrive on the hype of antiquated reputations but lacks comradery with real Colombians.

Somehow, few local publications still allude that “Escobar is deeply popular in Medellin, where he is regarded as a saint and anti-hero — souvenirs with his face on them do brisk business” writes AsiaOne, when in fact the core sentiment is one of deep resentment and disgrace. His selfish political moves to buy votes, people and influence, could not be further from philanthropic “charity”. As such, due to this lingering sensationalistic focus on narcotrafficking, it is largely unknown by many that this same city of Medellin has actually received the honor of “Most Innovative City in the World” in 2016 by none other than the Lee Kuan Yew World City Prize.

Following the engagement of Mr. Ganesh by the CNB and the Singapore Police Force on Wednesday February 7, a notice was posted on the restaurant’s Facebook page acknowledging the branding concerns brought forward by the Colombian embassy and community in Singapore, whilst issuing an apology reiterating “it was never our intention to glorify or condone the actions of Pablo Escobar. Anyway, we heard you and we’re working on revamping our logo.” However, some members of the community find his statements dissonant from the murals that adorn his establishment, one depicting Escobar next to Jesus and another of him sitting on large stacks of cash.

I knew that (some) would hate the idea that I called it Escobar, but I also knew there would be a big segment that would love (it)… If you enter the bar, you will realize for yourself that there is nothing that glorifies him as a hero or a legend or someone who is a saint.

Stan Sri Ganesh has been advised by Singapore authorities to change the profile depicted on his logo but the restaurant name will remain, so far. Colombians in Singapore look to gather community funds to make a formal complaint with the Accounting and Corporate Regulatory Authority of Singapore (ACRA) to address the actual business name registration.

To put it into local perspective, it’s doubtful the Singapore government would allow a business name like Annabelle Cheong’s Longest Rice Noodle or Amos Yee’s Liberty Cafe to even get registered, let alone hang a signboard! So, why should registering a business under the name of a notorious international narco-terrorist be any different?

While Colombian’s recognize that there is still a lot to be done in educating the general public abroad about the revitalization of their country and shortcomings perpetuated by outdated reputations and narrow-scoped TV-sponsored boasting, those of us who have lived abroad –even after twenty years– are still compelled by the moral responsibility to dispel harmful character associations and remain motivated with humble pride to share a more encompassing view of Colombia where its innovative achievementsartistic talentsnatural diversity and virtuous people can better demonstrate the true Colombian culture and spirit.

This was first published at colombianosensingapur.wordpress.com and reproduced with permission.