Former NMP Calvin Cheng: Government should stop funding the arts

Former Nominated MP Calvin Cheng said that instead of funding the arts, the government should instead galvanise the private sector to do so through donations.

SINGAPORE - Former Nominated Member of Parliament Calvin Cheng has waded into the online debate on who should fund the arts in Singapore.

In a Facebook post on Tuesday night (July 25), Mr Cheng argued that the Government should not be expected to fund the arts with taxpayers' money, but instead galvanise the private sector to do so through donations.

"The principle is that the Government should not be using taxpayers' money to fund what is essentially a subjective exercise - one person's art is another person's garbage," he wrote.

He added that the Government is placed in an "impossible situation", especially if the subject is controversial. "If it decides not to fund a project, or worse still withdraw a grant (...) it will be accused of censorship and get criticised. If it goes ahead and funds it, other groups and taxpayers will get their knickers in a twist, and lampoon the Government regardless."

His comments come on the back of the controversially-withdrawn funding of graphic novel The Art Of Charlie Chan Hock Chye, which was thrust back into the spotlight after its creator, Singaporean artist Sonny Liew, won three awards at the prestigious Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards last Friday.

The National Arts Council (NAC) congratulated Liew, 42, in a brief Facebook post on Monday, but drew flak from netizens for not mentioning the book's title.

Many suggested it was because the NAC had withdrawn an $8,000 publishing grant when the book was published by Epigram Books in 2015, citing its "sensitive content". The book depicts founding premier Lee Kuan Yew and his political rival Lim Chin Siong.

Some members of the arts community dismissed Mr Cheng's comments. Mr Janek Schergen, the artistic director of the Singapore Dance Theatre, called Mr Cheng's comments "foolish".

"If someone is truly interested in the arts in Singapore, they wouldn't make a comment like that. Overseas, people understand that their patronage of the arts is their community service. In Singapore, that concept of community service is there but it's not as strong. Without funding from NAC, you would destroy the arts scene because the burden wouldn't be picked up by anybody else."

He added: "Any kind of funding comes with conditions."

Singapore Chinese Orchestra executive director Terence Ho said, however, that he agrees with Mr Cheng that the arts should rely more on private funding than the state, although this cannot happen overnight "like cooking instant noodles".

He observed that in other countries such as the United States, orchestras began by relying on government assistance, then progressed to running more independently. Singapore, he hopes, is moving in that direction.

"When we talk to potential corporate and individual donors, we don't just want them to donate dollars and cents," he said. "We hope to see them as our audience at the end of the day, which means they will appreciate it and continue to advocate it. That's how the arts can blend into business."

He adds that he would like the Committee on the Future Economy, a high-powered committee of Cabinet ministers and members of the private sector tasked with producing a blueprint for economic growth, to look into how the arts and culture can play a more integral part in the country's development.

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