The Unhinged Aftermath of Sentosa Sky Lantern Festival
All images courtesy of Steven Lau / Asian Couture and Boutique

When lifestyle content creator Natasha Conceicao pulled up at Sentosa Sky Lantern Festival on February 21, her expectations were already pretty tempered. Having witnessed the magic of Chiang Mai’s sky lanterns firsthand, she was under no illusions that this would be the same experience. 

What she didn’t expect was confusion and chaos. 

Event organisers Asian Couture and Boutique had promised festivities featuring floating paper sky lanterns—the same kind typically released up into the sky in Taiwan and Thailand. (Honestly, the first red flag should have been that the organisers sounded more like a fashion company). 

In any case, the lanterns were supposed to be lit with a candle and tethered to the ground for safety. Instead, the festival attendees—who’d paid $50 each, mind you—were offered the paper sky lantern, an LED light to simulate the candle, and markers to pen their wishes. 

With no flames involved, instead of glowing in the night sky, the flaccid paper lanterns hung from barricades around Palawan Green, looking as deflated as attendees’ spirits.

Sentosa sky lantern festival

Besides a DJ who valiantly forged on and a booth hosted by numerology company COSMOK, there were no other vendors at the venue. 

“You had people sitting down on the ground just making do with the LED lights. You could sort of tell that everyone was kinda disgruntled but had no choice but to make do with the situation,” Natasha tells RICE. 

More than a month on, there’s finally some semblance of a resolution. 68 event attendees who reported the issue to the Consumers Association of Singapore (CASE) will receive full refunds, CASE President Melvin Yong said in a media release on March 27th

To report the issue and receive follow-ups from CASE, though, consumers must pay a membership fee of $27.25 and a $10.90 administrative fee (unless they’re NTUC union members or PAssion Card holders, who enjoy fee waivers).

Say the complainant bought one $50 ticket—they’re effectively only getting $11.95 back. Better than nothing, but is it worth the trouble?  

The police have also gotten involved and are looking into the matter, though it’s not clear who filed the report and why. After all, the event did take place. It was just massively underwhelming. 

How could this Fyre Festival-esque failure happen in Singapore, the region’s event capital

Just like the recent botched Willy Wonka experience in Glasgow (which left children crying), there’s something about an event so badly executed that captures the attention of the masses. It’s hard to tear our eyes away from car crashes.

Red Flags All Around

According to a now-deleted Facebook post by Shiermie Bautista, owner and founder of Asian Couture and Boutique, 2,500 people attended Sentosa Sky Lantern Festival. A Straits Times report estimates that “hundreds” were there. In any case, that’s a surprising number of people sucked in by some of the shoddiest event marketing I’ve seen. 

The first red flag should have been the pixellated stock images on the event’s Eventbrite page. 

The second should have been the marketing copy hyping the event up as the best thing since sliced bread: “A program that filled [sic] with fun, positivity, happiness, unity, hope, love and great memories that could last a lifetime.”

“Families, lovers, friends, neighbours, and others come together to create a cheerful, unforgettable experience.”

There were also apparently supposed to be “surprise guests” and speeches from “honourable guests”. 

At least Fyre Festival, the luxury getaway turned barren island trip, had effective ads, which featured Bella Hadid, Emily Ratajkowski, and Hailey Bieber. 

To be fair, the event was hyped up by a number of local publications, including The Smart Local, Time Out, Must Share News, and Mothership. That probably helped lend the event some legitimacy and promoted it to readers who’d otherwise remain unaware. 

Natasha was one attendee who found out about the event from the online articles. 

“After reading about how the lanterns would be released—tethered then brought back down—we thought it must be quite smart for someone to have worked around Singapore’s strict regulations, and we wanted to see how it will unfold,” she explains. 

Even though the event marketing wasn’t the most polished, her curiosity was enough for her to purchase a ticket. As a lifestyle content creator—she also runs Onericepleace on TikTok—she wanted to review the event on her channels. Unexpectedly, she ended up with a front-row seat to one of Singapore’s biggest event fails in a while. 

sky lantern festival attendees

Failure to Launch

Things came to a head on the day of the event. Upon arrival, attendees only found out that they wouldn’t be able to light up their lanterns. Instead, they were supposed to make do with LED lights. 

The root of the problem was the organisers’ failure to comply with fire safety regulations. A trial run two days before the event had resulted in a small fire and was hence deemed unsatisfactory, a Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF) spokesperson told media. Organisers also didn’t have proper tethers for the sky lanterns, enough fire extinguishers, or safety marshals, said SCDF.

As if the disappointment wasn’t enough, attendees were told on the event day that they wouldn’t be able to get refunds if they redeemed their lanterns and LED lights, Natasha confirmed. 

When RICE reached out to Steven Lau, the director of Asian Couture and Boutique, the interaction was puzzling, to say the least. The only explanation Lau gave was that the LED lights had to be ordered at the last minute because the lanterns had to be “without fire 🔥for safety for the public”.

Steven Lau Asian Couture and Boutique

Steven didn’t respond to our questions on the event planning process, the absence of permission from the authorities to proceed with the event, and the lack of food stalls. 

(Instead, he sent us lantern photos from the event. Unfortunately, these lanterns were just hanging from metal barricades, decidedly unphotogenic, and did not really help his case.) 

Sky lanterns

Meanwhile, attendees faced more confusion as it became clear that Steven and Shiermie weren’t on the same page. Shiermie said on Facebook that no refunds would be provided. Ticket holders could attend a rescheduled event or resell their tickets if, by some miracle, they found someone willing to buy the tickets off them. 

On the other hand, Steven told RICE and other media outlets that the company was asking attendees to fill up online feedback forms before making a final decision on the refunds. 

Sentosa sky lantern festival feedback form
A screengrab of the online feedback form Steven asked attendees to fill up. 

Sentosa, which had nothing to do with the event planning and merely rented the venue to Asian Couture and Boutique, also became the target of consumer ire. Its brand sentiments took a dip in the wake of the sky lantern controversy, Marketing-Interactive reported

Sentosa Development Corporation (SDC) told RICE on February 28th that Asian Couture and Boutique reached out to express interest in holding another event similar to the sky lantern festival. 

“We reiterated to them on the need to apply for all necessary licenses/permits and abide by all requirements from the authorities before engaging us on a possible venue.”

Event organisers must show proof of approvals from the relevant agencies before an event is allowed to take place, SDC also mentioned.  

A Second (or Third) Rodeo?

Even after CASE announced that attendees who’d filed a report with them would receive refunds, Shiermie isn’t giving up on her sky lantern dream. 

She told RICE that the rescheduled sky lantern event would be “available in the next upcoming months”. 

The lanterns would be “in five different areas of Singapore for the whole year round”, she said, but did not respond to our request for clarification. Which five areas? Are there going to be permanent sky lantern tethering spots? Is this just a ruse? Your guess is as good as mine. 

Shiermie did claim, though, that participants seeking refunds were a minority and that they made up just 30 percent of total attendees. Asian Couture and Boutique didn’t suffer any losses as a result of the event, she said. 

It does seem like Shiermie has tried to pull the same stunt in Dubai before. She was behind a similar sky lantern festival that was to be held there in 2023 but was postponed due to “last-minute issues”.  

Shiermie did tell CNA that the Dubai edition of the festival will be held on April 9th, but there have been no updates on the event page or any other information online. 

Is this a case of incompetence, wily business practices, or both? We’ve been trying to get answers from the organiser for the past month, and we still haven’t the foggiest idea. What is clear, though, is that it was obvious the event was going to be a bust from the start. 

It was almost as if Asian Couture and Boutique had taken a leaf out of Fyre Festival mastermind Billy McFarland’s book: Big promises, few concrete details, no results. 

And like Billy, they’ve got this strange, misplaced confidence (undeterred by a prison stint, the man announced Fyre Festival II in April 2023). 

It’s easy to say consumers should be more discerning, but we’re in a time when even legitimate brands rely on Artificial Intelligence for their ads. By the time you’ve paid $50 to stand in the middle of a field with a deflated paper lantern, it’s too late.

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