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Speculations on Openings, Closings, and Thresholds in International Public Media

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Posted by Patricia Zimmermann at 11:39AM   |  11 comments
The Esplanade Theaters on the Bay in Singapore

Most countries have slashed arts funding over the last decade.

But not pragmatic Singapore.

According to a recent article published last week in the International Herald Tribune (IHT) Singapore doubled its support for the arts from $55.1 million Singapore dollars to $110.3 million Singapore dollars. And that’s only from 2005-2008.

In the last decade, arts funding here has increased tenfold. 

Result: In January 2011, Art Stage Singapore will open, organized by Art Basel Switzerland redesigner Lorenzo Rudolph. It will function, as the IHT points out, as a hub for the sizzling Indian, Chinese, and Indonesian arts scenes and the new market for contemporary Asian art.

Compared to when I last lived here in 2003, my cultural life requires quite a bit more navigation. It’s a major research project to coordinate all the activity here: I have a collection of brochures, flyers, websites, arts calendars, Time Out Singapore, and a variety of real and virtual maps to plot my arts adventures.

And that of course does not include the never-ending exploration of the myriad cuisines here, like Putian, Hakka, Hokkien, Peranakan, Malay, Indonesian, Singaporean, South Indian, North Indian and so on.   It’s a heady experience--and not what some might expect from a place with a bad rap about gum and cleanliness.

The Esplanade has more concerts—and not just the Singapore Symphony Orchestra, but Branford Marsalis, tango from Argentina, singers from India, indie rock from all over Asia, Europe, Latin America and the US.  Yo Yo Ma is coming to perform with his Silk Road Ensemble (I won’t miss this) but so is DJ remixer Karsh Kale and the MIDIval Punditz, billed as the top of India’s electronic a dance scene with synthesized soundscapes layering tabla, bansuri, programmed sounds and live vocals from Papon ( I won’t miss this one either).

In a report released this February 2010, Singapore’s planners in the government’s Economic Strategies Committee (ESC) recommend that Singapore become a “leading cultural capital” and a “distinctive global city.”

Given Singapore’s penchant for marrying high technology with transparency, I found the report online. The ESC Subcommitee Report on Making Singapore a Leading Global City puts the arts, multicultural diversity and international economic development front and center.  

The report observes that Singapore’s cosmopolitan identity derives from its multiculturalism (which here means four languages a Chinese, Malay, Tamil, and English and diverse ethnicities). Singapore’s ministers want to leverage its hybridities to become a creative industries pinnacle for international events in sports, culture and cuisine.  


In case you are wondering, no, Singapore is not abandoning its prowess in technology, transportation and sustainable urban development to refashion itself as the new 21 century city state version of the MacDowell Colony. And yes, there are still some restrictions on what can be done in the streets and what kinds of films can make it through the censors. Some concerts and arts events here are not exactly buzzing and SRO. 

As the ESC report argues in its multiple, concise, bold-highlight bullet points, the New Asia means that the “leading economies of the future will be innovation intensive and ideas-driven.” 

As I read the report, I wondered what an arts policy in the United States might look like that had a  regional, grounded focus, a clear set of goals for implementation, and a no-nonsense approach to the mixed media ecology possibilities of a hybrid landscape of profit and nonprofit, arts and commercial design, urban revitalization and urban street culture, local/regional artistic expression and a global conversation, arts enclaves and tourism.

One of those only-in-Singapore-everything-must-be-ranked-and quantified- moments happened to me as I read the report: the government report notes that although it is ranked 7th in the world in terms of business and human capital, it is only 37th in the world in terms of cultural experiences. It compared itself to competing arts sectors emerging in Asia, like Hong Kong, Seoul, Abu Dhabi.

I must share, it is hard for me to imagine any US government economic agency worried about its rankings in culture. 


Despite the Herculean efforts of non profit organizations with a big, new vision of the linkages between arts, culture and economic recovery like Americans for the Arts, the National Alliance for Media Arts and Culture, and Grantmakers in Film and Electronic Media, the United States has a long way to go before national public policy can produce crystal clear bullet points to implement a creative economies plan. Do you think there is even ANY possibility that Obama will call a press conference and announce he is DOUBLING arts funding?

Last week, we journeyed downtown to the Esplanade (built as part of a previous arts initiative here)and heard an extraordinary, transcendent recital of Korean soprano Jeong Ae Ree and Singaporean pianist Shane Thio that combined Mozart, Weill, Barber, Kim Sung Tae, and folksongs from Xinjiang China.

With the theme "Birds of Paradise," the programming pushed the edge. It was utterly exhilarating and moving. The performances were passionate and engaging—Jeong Ae Ree wore a white gown in the first half and then a red gown (to celebrate, I believe, Chinese New Year, but she also played it out as the western connotation of passion in a rather hybridized twist). She even waltzed with one member of the audience. Her voice was ethereal, complex, and searing.

At the end, I stood up and yelled BRAVA. I was a one person, ang mo (Singaporean term for white person) standing ovation. I was a bit embarrassed, wondering if I was importing my western classical music sensibility honed in Hockett Recital Hall at Ithaca College and Symphony Hall and Ravinia in my native Chicago to a more restrained Asia.

The applause was continuous: the performers did two encores. But the audience was tame and rather sedate. It got me thinking that emotional engagement with performers here has a way to go. It's not yet the New Orleans Jazz Fest or the Morelia International Film Festival in Mexico, both places where arts meets people meets passion.

The ESC subcommittee report had a sentence that leapt out at me like a chilli padi in mee goreng after this recital experience.

Singapore, it states, needs to go beyond the “hard” environmental factors to the “soft” engagement factors working at a deeper social and emotional level.   Pragmatic, problem solving, hyper planning Singapore has governmental reports on stimulating engagement and connections with the arts.

Obama, take notice. 

Book a non-stop flight from Newark on Singapore Air, Mr. President. Maybe a trip East to this global city in in order. I'd suggest benchmarking how a cogent arts policy stimulates the economy and creates new jobs. Better the arts than the war in Afghanistan, I think.

If you come, I’ll treat you to mee goreng and sambal kang kong at one of the hawker stalls before we catch one of those Indian remix electronica concerts.




The arts in Singapore have certainly received quite a bit of attention from the government and this no doubt has something to do with the Esplanade (durian, bug's eye, or whatever other nicknames the two thorny domes have) being built. I'm also glad that internationally renowned acts have been brought in for the benefit of people who have read about them but are unable to have the pleasure of enjoying such performances simply because they are staged overseas.

However, I can't help but feel sometimes that certain local and more grassroots forms of art have been lost or neglected. Not to derail the conversation, but I can't help thinking about the Chinese opera performances staged on wooden temporary stages that used to make their rounds around the heartlands during the lunar 7th month, also known as the Hungry Ghost Festival. My mother used to enjoy these performances and made it a point to travel around the island to catch them.

However, due to a lack of funding, such operas during the 7th month have dried up. My mom hasn't been making her usual rounds in the last few years. Wouldn't it be great if the government could channel some of that money, used to import arts into Singapore, to support a local art form that has died out?

I'm glad that the arts scene is changing for the better in Singapore, but just another point to add, i think that Singapore needs more than funding with regard to the arts. It needs a mindset change if it wants to see growth in local talent in the arts. Despite the efforts on the part of the government to channel more funds to art schools, the arts is still very much viewed as inferior to the science in a our society. Too many local students with great potential in the arts, be it fine art, film or design, give up the opportunity to grow their talent because there isn't enough for them here. "How far can i go with a arts/design qualification in Singapore?" was the question my cousin asked when she completed her degree in fashion design in London. "If i come back, i'll be paid low and the opportunity for me to grow is non existent."

The question parents ask when one wants to apply to an art school is whether art could feed a family in Singapore. Pragmatic as it is, it is sad.

Singapore talks about importing foreign talent, and generating creativity and innovation to stay sustainable in the twenty first century. Yet it is either losing it's local talent, or hindering it's development.
This is a real issue that will take decades to resolve, but something has to be done.

In response to Zi Liang's suggestion, I am all for preserving the traditional local artforms, but other factors should be considered as well - primarily, audience (how many people actually wants to watch them?) and inheritance (how many people are willing to pick up these artforms?)

And I think the loss of traditional artforms (or bastardisation, for lack of a better term, for tourism etc.) is a problem in many parts of the world.

And in response to the article, I would just want to say I am skeptical of the government's agenda in art funding, which is mainly geared towards an economical end; albeit having a desirable socio-cultural outcome.

I agree with Koon Yen's skepticism - it does seem as if the equation is that art funding = economic revenue but maybe that's just me being cynical.

But this brings me to Emma's argument that we need to change the Singaporean mindset when it comes to the arts. The government may be putting in more money to bring in international artists to Singapore or to give students more opportunities to explore and learn about the arts but if we don't follow through, Singapore might end up being a platform for foreign artists rather than for our own. Pragmatism is the way of life in Singapore and till we decide to break the mold, I think it will be awhile before we see change coming our way.

in singapore, everything is about ranking. the government worries about the nation's ranking against other countries, companies worry about their ranking in the corporate world, schools worry about their ranking against other schools, and the people worry about their ranking amongst their peers in terms of academic qualifications, the type of house they live in, their salary etc etc.

having said that, i find your account of your behavior at the concert rather amusing! you're right to notice that the asian audience rarely gives in to outbursts of passion. i remember being at a rock concert once and i was seated amongst singaporean audience who were literally glued to their seats, occasionally tapping their feet. a few rows back, there were caucasian audiences who were rocking and dancing to the music, yelling out the lyrics and really enjoying the performance.

I guess my point is that no matter how much we enjoy what we're seeing or hearing, the idea of 'face' is rather important. we'd rather stay cool then to show any emotion because any fits of passion would seem embarrassing.

Sometimes I feel like even with the increased funding to the arts scene, it doesn't make much of a difference if people can't or don't know how appreciate it. After all, majority of Singaporeans are too pragmatic to spend money to indulge in such activities.

What's worse? Cynical support or savage cuts?

Go figure.

In response to Phoebe's remark that Singaporeans are too pragmatic to spend money in the arts, I think that is a misconception, seeing as there no lack of full-houses of theatrical productions like Cats and Phantom of the Opera. But the gist is that Singaporeans remain open to foreign productions than local ones, which kind of defeat the purpose of increasing arts funding to grow the local arts scene.

As for our citizens not being able to appreciate arts, I say let us go even if we do not know what is going on half the time, and slowly we will learn.

And Shazzer, I would go for cynical support: we never know what sort of unexpected outcome we might find. Better to have money than not!

The govt’s arts funding policy is the right move, especially so after decades of policies that focus on developing the science and engineering sectors. Of course there’s an aim in the end that the arts can bring in money and differentiate ourselves from other emerging Asian economies. I would hope that it can also instill a culture growth, which is lacking. A culture and identity that we can identify and which binds us together. It’s an exciting time to be in Singapore, to see the changes being made and how it would affect the future of the island-state.

I think it's about high-time the government re-invested in the Arts. After the policies which literally ended our early local music and film industries, it is time the government recognize that the growth of our arts culture was stunted very early on. And this has resulted in our hollow, apathetic sense of the world.

The economic slant in the development of the arts here in Singapore definitely seems nefarious, but then again, if our Dear Leaders were not pragmatic and efficient, we would not be able to enjoy the (physical) standard of living available to us. So we should make the best of this investment, and guide it to where we want to go, from within the system - nothing in this world is free, but we can make it so we don't pay the full price.

It's definitely heartwarming to see the government putting in so much effort in promoting Singapore into another hub; the arts and cultural hub of SEA.

After returning to my homeland from a 6 months exchange programme in Europe, I can't help but to compare the local art scene with that of the 'pros'. Take Prague for example, I can never be more intrigued by the architecture of the old town. I felt as though i was in the wonderland of medieval Europe during my visit there. Prague, is one of the major city where a 'free tour' (tipping basis) is conducted every day for tourists. Other cities include Berlin, London, Hamburg, Amsterdam and Paris. The tour guide will bring you through a historical walking trail within the city with interesting and intriguing tales about the city itself. It is call the Sandeman's Free Tour. I enjoyed every single free tour I had been to and would always tip the guide at the end.

Maybe the government should invest in this instead.

I once again find myself spending a lot of time both reading and posting comments.

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