SINGAPORE - I got to the Asian Civilisations Museum front door 15 minutes before it opened last Friday (June 26). I was half hoping there would be people waiting to get into the museum. But realistically, I knew a stampede to the museum (as opposed to destinations such as Ikea and bubble tea shops) was highly unlikely.
Still, I had a flash of hope which was promptly snuffed out when I realised the three women chatting in front of the building were museum docents. In fact, there were about eight docents by the time the museum doors opened at 10am. Everyone logged in using SafeEntry, had their temperatures taken, and queued up in socially distant fashion. Despite the hassle, everyone seemed happy to be back in the museum after more than two months away.
I gave a mental shrug and thought, at least I have the whole place mostly to myself. That was something I remembered from my growing up years. While my parents took me to the library, they never bothered with museums. The closest we came to a heritage institution was the mandatory annual Haw Par Villa trips.
I remember sneaking to the old National Museum after school when I was supposed to be studying in the library. I would often be the lone soul, other than the odd tourist, rattling around the empty husk of the building.
I thought empty museums were the norm until I went to a blockbuster exhibition at London's Tate Britain. I was completely flabbergasted to step into a gallery that was so tightly packed that everyone had to shuffle in tiny steps in order to see the paintings. I marvelled at how seriously Westerners took this museum-going business.
To be fair, Singaporeans have developed more of a museum-going habit over the years. Numbers from the Cultural Statistics Report show that since 2006, when visitorship first breached the million mark at national museums and heritage institutions, the number has grown. It has hovered around five million from 2016 to 2018, peaking at 5.4 million in 2017.
Part of the growth has to be attributed to the expansion of infrastructure - the number of museums and heritage institutions doubled over the same period.
The confluence of economic prosperity and higher educational levels probably also aided the growth. Museum-going is an aspirational affair. Parents take their offspring with the hope that the next generation has access to the better things in life.
Arts and culture, for most of human history, have been the domain of an elite class who could afford leisure pursuits. It was only with the Industrial Revolution that leisure became a mass commodity and accessible to all levels of society. The class consciousness about the arts as a luxury, an indulgence, has deep roots.
Much ink has already been spilled about the recent uproar over a survey published by this newspaper, in which "artist" topped a list of jobs deemed to be non-essential in the context of the coronavirus pandemic. Given that the precarity of Singapore's arts companies has been brutally laid bare by the circuit breaker closure, it is no wonder that artists were upset and furious.
As a longtime arts lover, I was dismayed but not surprised by the survey results. I worry though about what this implies for the survival of Singapore's arts companies and institutions.
This little red dot has always had a fraught relationship with arts and artists, from imprisoning playwright Kuo Pao Kun, to censorship of controversial works, to a transactional approach that demands - to this day - that the arts pay for itself.
I would argue that this rocky relationship demonstrates beyond the shadow of a doubt how vital artists have been to this country's evolution. Kuo, who was finally awarded the Cultural Medallion in 1989, is the fount from which today's vibrant theatre scene sprang. Without him, there would be no multi-million-dollar arts sector since he personally mentored many of the artists who founded Singapore's best theatre companies.
The constant tug-of-war over censorship also shows how artists have grappled with social issues that concern the average Singaporean and expanded the space for discussion in the process. Works here have dealt with thorny topics from mental illness to domestic abuse to LGBTQ rights. But equally, other works have told stories that are uniquely Singaporean, from kampung childhoods to national service.
The arts sector has even answered the economic demand placed upon it by the state by contributing some $1.79 billion to the economy in 2017.
Yet the lingering perception of the arts as frivolous and peripheral remains. Which brings me in a roundabout fashion, back to last Friday when I happily wandered through the ACM's new galleries, which I had yet to see in their fully formed glory before the circuit breaker, and the National Gallery Singapore's Latiff Mohidin show.
Four pairs of shoes for bound feet intrigued me the most at ACM. Even as I marvelled at the size of the shoes and wondered how anyone could possibly balance on the high heeled embroidered silk versions, I was also reminded of how far women's rights have come and how far society still has to go to protect those rights.
At Latiff's show, I thought about how much harder South-east Asian art has to fight for international recognition in a post-modern art world dominated by Western discourse. But then I re-considered the notion of why South-east Asia should crave recognition from the West at all. Shouldn't the priority be recognition from a homegrown audience?
Such thought processes might seem "frivolous", but the objects I saw and the thoughts they trigger help me to think about my privileges, my context and my place in the world. In a world turned topsy turvy, arts and heritage institutions play an even more vital role in anchoring a people's history, and opening up new ways to think about future directions. I would pick a museum over a bubble tea shop any day.