Culture Vulture

Rediscovering Singapore's place in South-east Asia

Singapore is finally embracing its place in the region in spaces such as the National Gallery Singapore and festivals like the Singapore Writers Festival

At the grand old age of 50, Singapore finally seems comfortable enough to settle into its place in the South-east Asia region.

I have been musing over Singapore and her relationship with her neighbours recently, thanks to an illuminating visit to the new National Gallery Singapore's UOB Southeast Asian Gallery and looking back at the programming of this year's Singapore Writers Festival and the Singapore International Film Festival.

Any academic in any field, be it archaeology, art history or politics, will tell you that South-east Asia is a problematic construction, a convenient colonial catchall to describe a disparate clutch of countries loosely defined more by geographical proximity than shared cultural commonalities.

Yet this South-east Asia label persists and, this year, has reached something of a political apogee with the signing last month of the Kuala Lumpur Declaration on the Establishment of an Asean Community.

The Declaration endorses a road map that will draw the 10 Asean nations closer in terms of economic development over the next decade, hopefully improving the lot of the 625 million people in the region.

Creating a community, however, will be a much thornier issue. A wander through the UOB Southeast Asia Gallery is instructive in this respect.

The curators have put in a Herculean effort to create a coherent narrative and have wisely chosen to go with a loose chronology and certain broadly unifying themes. The show Between Declarations And Dreams is loosely divided into four areas: Authority And Anxiety (19th to early 20th century); Imagining Country And Self (1900s to 1940s); Manifesting The Nation (1950s to 1970s); and Re:Defining Art (post-1970s).

Gallery 1 pulls together how colonial-era artists, working in Western media and utilising Western techniques and styles, sought to demonstrate their mastery of a form admired by their political masters.

The most striking work here is the large-scale, dramatic Forest Fire (1849) by Indonesian painter Raden Saleh. The dynamic composition of snarling tigers commands immediate attention from the far end of the room. Like two other Filipino works I am drawn to in this gallery - Juan Luna's Espana y Filipinas and Felix Resurreccion Hidalgo's Christian Virgins Exposed To The Populace - Saleh's work, on first glance, looks completely Western.

What intrigued me about the subsequent galleries were the similar experiences of national awakening and assertion of cultural identity in the art of artists spanning the region.

The first Singapore work to appear in the South-east Asian galleries struck me particularly vividly because I had never thought of it in this context - Chua Mia Tee's Epic Poem Of Malaya (1955).

The China-born artist, like the other pioneer artists in the influential Nanyang School, fled China in the 1940s to settle in Singapore. Like his artistic peers, he embraced his new home and sought to clarify his geopolitical identity through his early works.

Set in a gallery full of nationalistic works such as Indonesian Baharudin Mara Sutan's series of vivid linocuts of Indonesian faces and everyday life, Epic Poem Of Malaya is the relic of a time when Singapore was an integral part of Malaya.

To someone born post-1965, whose national identity has always been Singaporean, the work is a vivid testament to how fresh, and new, the Singaporean identity really is.

Set in the context of other nationalistic struggles to define an identity post-colonial rule, it is also a good reminder of what common ground Singapore shares with her neighbours - a struggle with colonialism and the battle post-independence for social and economic progress.

Yet these areas of commonality are matched, if not outpaced, by the differences that the UOB gallery also highlights. The longer artistic and cultural traditions of other South-east Asian nations are evinced by the wealth and variety of works that dominate the first five gallery spaces. Chua's piece appears only in Gallery 6, a good midway into the narrative.

It is a humbling reminder of Singapore's modest place in the cultural space of the region, a mere stripling among the giants.

In this respect, the gallery joins the smattering of cultural programme niches that help remind Singaporeans of our cultural place in the region.

One stalwart of South-east Asian programming is the recently concluded Singapore International Film Festival (SGIFF) which, since its founding in 1987, has always made it a point to have a strong regional focus. The festival was where I sampled fare as diverse as Malaysian James Lee's surreal debut The Beautiful Washing Machine (2004) and Filipino Lav Diaz's epic 10-hour Evolution Of A Filipino Family (2004).

The other example is the Singapore Writers Festival, which this year emphasised its commitment to acknowledging Singapore's place in the cultural life of the region. Hence this year's programme included the puckish Indonesian writer and activist Goenawan Mohamad and the ground-breaking Thai sci-fi writer S.P. Somtow.

The theme of the writers' festival next year is Sayang, the Malay term of endearment which could also connote loss and regret. The choice bodes well for a deepening exploration of the region's languages.

All these programming choices highlight how Singapore can play a more vibrant role in promoting the cultural capital of the region.

The film festival is the exemplar of this approach. Its programming dedication drew international film festival directors who came here to see the best and brightest of the region's film talents. Singapore's much-vaunted infrastructure and technical expertise could be the key to unlocking South-east Asia's rich resources, not just for Singaporeans, but also for the rest of the world.

In doing so, these very Singaporean cultural institutions could also help build a sense of Asean identity beyond just the economic pragmatism of a political agreement. It is at events and places such as the film festival and the National Gallery that ordinary citizens get a chance to peek at the souls of their neighbours and understand the humanity, hopes and aspirations that unite us, rather than the differences that divide us.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 15, 2015, with the headline 'Rediscovering Singapore's place in South-east Asia'. Print Edition | Subscribe