By Invitation

The arts power on

From 'cultural desert' to a city with 66 arts performances a day, Singapore has come a long way. A week of half-price tickets for local shows sponsored by companies could help bring the arts closer to average families.

Two weeks ago, in my capacity as chairman of the National Arts Council, I dropped by to see the 15 Stations exhibition presented by O.P.E.N.

It was billed as a "pre-festival of ideas", a curtain-raiser for the upcoming Singapore International Festival of the Arts.

Many young people were bustling around, following a memory tour in the cavernous Tanjong Pagar Railway Station.

They downloaded an app to trace a narrative drawn from archival material, at their own pace, connecting with small doses of historical Singapore.

It was evocative, experimental and interesting, reminding the visitor that Singapore artists are setting out to be innovative and meaningful.


Since returning from the United States in 2012, I have been struck by the explosion of activities and energy in our arts scene and marvelled at how far we have come as an arts nation.

When I was growing up in colonial Singapore, culture and the arts came in silos.

The "arts" were what the different ethnic communities would support and sponsor, be it Chinese dialect operas, Malay bangsawan, or Indian dance.

The newly-elected People's Action Party Government, with

Mr S. Rajaratnam as Minister of Culture, promoted the Aneka Regam Raayat, a variety show featuring Chinese, Malay and Indian performing arts on the same stage. Singaporeans were exposed to the art forms of the other ethnic communities. The arrival of television in 1963 helped.

'Cultural desert' to Sota

In the 1960s and 1970s, the focus of the Government was on economic development, defence, housing, healthcare and education.

The arts were not a priority, though along the way the Government built the National Theatre on the slopes of Fort Canning Hill. Visitors to Singapore saw a successful economy but a "cultural desert".

Things started to change from 1988. The watershed Advisory Council on Culture and the Arts was set up to look at how to transform Singapore into a culturally vibrant society. It provided a blueprint for developing the arts and culture landscape.

The National Arts Council (NAC) was launched in 1991. The combined leadership of George Yeo as Minister of Information and the Arts, and Tommy Koh , the first chairman of NAC, gave the arts scene a strong boost.

The next big push came in 2000 with the roll-out of the Renaissance City Plan. It emphasised the importance of the arts in enhancing the quality of life in Singapore, by nurturing creativity and innovation in order to make the city more liveable and attractive.

This was timely, as the growing arts community then was looking for more support for their works and to hone the emerging cultural identity. The ecosystem for arts development was put in place, bit by bit: we established the teaching institutions, grew the art spaces and art housing, and provided many arts grants and scholarships.

These built on the work of the two longstanding arts institutes, the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts and Lasalle College of the Arts.

The School of the Arts opened in 2008 to great excitement. In 2010, an Arts and Culture Strategic Review gave an extra push to the arts and the work of the NAC.

Cultural diplomacy

A few indicators will show just how the arts have developed in Singapore. Government spending has increased. In 1991, when the NAC began, its operating budget was $3.7 million, increasing to $6.4 million in 1992. In 2013 it was $89.7 million. Total government spending on arts and culture, including heritage and libraries, was $677.3 million that year.

The NAC's programmes have deepened and broadened. We support various art forms - performing, visual, and literary, contemporary and traditional.

We also introduce arts programmes in housing estates, community centres and libraries.

It may come as a surprise to many that, in 2013, there were 66 arts performances and exhibitions held daily. For the entire year, there were 22,378 arts activities, including library activities.

Last year, another step was taken. Minister Lawrence Wong announced that the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth would allocate $20 million over the next five years for cultural diplomacy. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs put in another $5 million.

While there were efforts in the past to assist our artists to perform and showcase their works abroad, they were intermittent. The designation of "cultural diplomacy" signals that there will be an institutionalised effort, working with our embassies, of promoting our cultural and creative assets and including the arts community as a partner in the role of projecting Singapore internationally.

Other countries do this and have been long in the game. Britain has won much goodwill through the British Council, Germany through the Goethe Institut, Japan through the Japan Foundation and France through the Alliance Francaise and the Institut Francais.

The Cultural Diplomacy Fund supported percussion group NADI and singer-songwriter Inch Chua to perform at the Incheon Asian Games last year, local bands Seyra and The Summer State to the JB Arts Festival last year, the Bhaskars Arts Academy to the Ramayana Festival in India, Ding Yi Music Company to Berlin and artist Charles Lim and curator Shabbir Hussain Mustafa to the Venice Biennale.

Numerous writers and publishers were supported for the London Book Fair. The Singapore Symphony Orchestra's well-received performance at the London proms and a couple of four-star reviews stirred our pride.

Both the Singapore Chinese Orchestra and Toy Factory had successful tours in China, winning over a critical audience.

Is this Singapore deploying "soft power"? I think soft power works best when not actively pursued. When Singaporean arts and icons are admired and loved overseas, then it's soft power.

Painting in prison

Singapore's efforts in the arts resonate with our people. A 2013 survey conducted by the NAC reported that 76 per cent of people interviewed said the arts give them a better understanding of people from different backgrounds; 71 per cent said the arts help them to express their thoughts, feelings and ideas; 67 per cent said the arts inspire them to be more creative in their work or studies.

I believe people instinctively understand the value of the arts to society.

If we were to suddenly repurpose our museums into shopping malls and got rid of the art or stopped all theatre and music performances, a rich dimension of life in Singapore would be gone. We will feel bereft as a nation.

The arts also have tremendous economic value. Global cities like London and New York generate a flourishing arts industry - music, opera, ballet, theatre, films and the sale of art where artists and agents can make a decent living. And it is argued that creative and innovative industries benefit from proximity to a lively arts and culture scene.

We also know of the healing power of the arts. The Royal Philharmonic runs workshops for people with dementia and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic puts musicians-in-residence to work with adults with complex mental-health issues.

At the height of the Sars epidemic in 2003, an ensemble of SCO volunteered to go to Tan Tock Seng Hospital to perform for staff and the patients. This led to the Caring Series in which SCO performs 10 times a year in hospitals, old folks' homes and in the hospice.

I was at an art exhibition in Changi Prison and met a young man who had taken the life of another young man. He told me he had great anger in him.

In prison, he learnt to draw and paint; he was good at it. He told me that when he leaves prison, he will paint as a career.

He produced two paintings. One was of an angry young man at war with his family. The other painting showed a happy young man graduating from college and a beaming family surrounding him.

I bought his joyful dream. He made his first sale.

If we value the arts and culture in our society, we need to come out to support it. Artists need an audience. It reaffirms what they do. The NAC is working hard to help grow the audience for the arts.

I have two ideas which I hope will take off.

First, we should declare one week in Singapore during which tickets are half-price for all Singapore-produced art films, concerts, theatre and dance performances. This will encourage families to attend the events.

Who pays for the other half? The Government has already declared free entry to museums on the weekends and there are many kinds of concessions. It isn't feasible for arts companies, which already struggle with funds, to discount their tickets. Instead, we should get private companies to step up during this week to pay for half the ticket price.

My second suggestion involves encouraging well-to-do individuals and corporations to gift to the arts.

Unfortunately, the arts do not come cheap. We need philanthropists for the arts. We are considered a generous people by those who study philanthropy.

We are seeing a few who take the lead. We need many more. It would be a rich legacy to leave behind.

•The writer chairs the National Arts Council and the Lee Kuan Yew Centre for Innovative Cities in the Singapore University of Technology and Design.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 04, 2015, with the headline The arts power on. Subscribe