The Growth of Singapore Arts Between 1997-2007

The year 1997 did not look bright for the arts in Singapore. A full-blown financial crisis had descended upon Asia, starting from Thailand and quickly spreading to South Korea, Hong Kong and Southeast Asia, including Malaysia, Indonesia and Philippines, with ripple effects being felt in Taiwan, Japan, United States and beyond. Although Singapore was spared the worst of the contagion affliction, due to its prudent financial policies, the adverse impact on its economy was nevertheless significant and prolonged. Some of these cash-strapped countries had to be bailed out by the International Monetary Fund and they were compelled to accept very harsh terms imposed by it as a solution to their dire problems.

In the views of leading economists, this Asian Financial Crisis was the worst since the world’s Great Depression of the late 1920s and 1930s. In Singapore, the fear was that this would severely curtail the governmental and corporate budgets for the arts, being its main backers, and retard its development in the near future. Fortunately, later events showed that the arts did not wither away and managed to weather this financial turmoil and resume its growth path.

In the midst of gloom for the arts here, the more optimistic among us, myself included, felt strongly that the headway made by the arts during the past decade must not lose its momentum and stagnate. We felt confident that the government and other major sponsors would have the vision to continue to exert their considerable financial weight to nurture the long-term growth of the arts, despite the temporarily unfavourable economic climate. To do my bit to rally public support for the arts, I wrote an article, which was published in the newspaper, in which I appealed for non reduction of the current spending on the arts, so that it could move forward in future. I ventured to predict that, given adequate funding for the increasingly more active arts scene and continuing rise in the artistic standards, Singapore should see the blossoming of its arts in the new millennium.

My enthusiasm and optimism for the future of the arts here was, and will continue to be, influenced by six main factors:

First and foremost, there was a greater awareness that the arts was gradually but steadily becoming an essential component of gracious living and a hallmark of a nation’s civilisation. Therefore the need for a flourishing arts scene would be consistent with Singapore’s economic elevation from a Third to First World country.

Second, I was especially glad that the younger Singaporeans were in the forefront of this potential cultural renaissance through their active participation as spectators, organisers and practitioners in various creative endeavours. This had led to the formation of more cultural groups representing increasingly more diverse art forms with enhanced public support for their more varied and creative outpourings.

Third, more talented and highly educated young men and women had the gumption to forsake their more stable and better paid jobs to become full time arts professionals because of their passion for it. They would include well-known names like Ong Keng Sen, Lim Kay Tong, Lim Kay Siu, Neo Swee Lin, Selena Tan, Ovidia Yu, T. Sasitharan, Low Sze Wee and others. This trend is likely to continue.

Fourth, the level of arts appreciation had been raised and should rise further as Singaporeans become increasingly better educated and sophisticated. This would be catalytic in encouraging and stimulating the arts profession and arts groups to reach for greater artistic excellence in their creative efforts and expand their organisational capabilities.

Fifth, I am sanguine that the Government and other major arts supporters would continue to pour in more financial resources in order to achieve the national goal of making the arts an integral part of a gracious and progressive society which Singapore aspires to be.

Last but by no means least, the strait-laced censorship law and its application had been relaxed gradually over the past years. I expect the Government to liberalise it further to allow for greater freedom of artistic expression which is a vital ingredient for the full-flowering of the arts here, as has been proved else where.

As financial sustenance is the lifeblood of the arts industry, the arts community must, on its own volition and with the help of the National Arts Council (NAC), which is the principal promoter of the arts and through whom the Government channels its financial grants and subsidies to the artists and arts groups, begin to look beyond the traditional sources of sponsorship and explore other avenues to finance their growing artistic activities and devising new strategies in this quest.

A relatively under tapped source was the large number of Singaporean multimillionaires who must be assiduously courted and persuaded to become significant individual arts patrons, and their participation will help to propel the arts to its next phase of advancement. The experiences of other culturally more developed countries in the West and Japan had amply shown that their patronage was indispensable for a thriving arts scene. Among the influential arts patrons whose legacies are still fondly remembered by posterity are illustrious names like the Chinese Emperor Qianlong, the Medici family of Renaissance Italy, Pope Julius II, King Louis XIV of France, and in more recent times United State’s Peggy Guggenheim, Andrew Melon , Paul Getty, Jacqeline Kennedy and Japan’s Sazo Idemitsu.

The urgent need to attract the financial support of Singapore’s hard-headed and down-to-earth millionaires can be seen from these telling official statistics. In 1987, of the top 82 arts donors who collectively forked out $3.7- million to support the arts , only 2 were individual donors. By 1997, out of the much larger $37.6-million collected from the 100 top arts donors, the number of individual arts patrons had increased to 5. However, these 7 individual arts patrons’ combined contributions amounted to only a small percentage of the total donations, and the rest still came from the private sector companies, charitable foundations and government-linked corporations and organisations.

Why were there so few heavyweight individual arts patrons, given that the abundance of rich people here as a percentage of the population compares favourably with the other wealthy countries? To put things in historic perspective, individual patronage of the arts had never been an established tradition with our rich and famous. They would rather give generously to education and charities because this would reach a far larger number of people and were therefore more worthy causes. Furthermore, the arts had generally been perceived by them as an elitist leisure pursuit, and hence would only benefit a privileged minority.

To win them over, it was essential to change their mindset with regard to the value and benefit of helping the arts. As an important first step, the arts community must go beyond the oft-repeated cliché that the arts should be supported for its own sake and no further justification was necessary. Such an idealistic and self-righteous approach would strike a discordant chord with these practical-minded business tycoons and top professionals and unlikely to influence them to part with their hard-earned money. I believed that it would be more pragmatic to convince them that the arts is an important component of an enlightened community, with resultant benefits for the country and its people. Additionally, that the arts organisations managed their affairs efficiently and professionally, and that the funding sought would not only enhance the growth of the arts but would also be spent prudently and with proper accountability to their givers.

Another way to interest individual sponsors would be to create more avenues for them to make contributions beyond that of outright donations to the arts bodies. These could include sponsoring a play, an art exhibition, a concert, an arts lecture series or endowing a scholarship to enhance the creative skills or technical expertise of the arts professionals and so on.

Other meaningful ways would include naming important arts facilities after substantial donors in perpetuity. Yet another novel approach would be to extol the virtue of making a bequest to an arts group in a testator’s will. The family could also set up an arts trust fund in honour of its patriarch or a departed loved one and jointly administering it with other appointed outside trustees if it so preferred. The arts groups could and should play their part by organising well-conducted and well-publicised award ceremonies to express their sincere appreciation to arts donors, in addition to acknowledging their generosity in their other publicity channels. The Government should, on its part, further enhance the tax incentives to make it even more attractive for substantial individual arts donors to give more generously to help the arts to grow.

Finally, it would certainly uplift the value and standing of the arts, its practitioners and benefactors if Singapore’s highest arts accolades, namely the Cultural Medallion and the Distinguished Arts Patron awards, were conferred by the President or Prime Minister personally, instead of by the minister in charge of the arts as has been the practice, following the examples of many developed countries.

I concluded my article with the hope that while Singapore’s economic prosperity had been universally acknowledged as a great success story of Asia, I would like to see the day when the country and its people would also earn the admiration of others as a cultivated society in which culture and the arts would assume its rightful place as an important marker in the spiritual life of the community. Ten years have elapsed since I wrote the above article. I would now examine if any of my aspirations or predictions for a more vibrant and accomplished arts scene have happened here.

In my view, the arts has, on the whole, reached a new level, both in qualitative and quantitative terms, during the past decade despite being severely tested by the economic earthquakes of the Asian Financial Crisis, SARS and the vicissitudes of times. This makes the full-flowering of the arts here a distinctly achievable national objective, and no longer a pious hope as some skeptics would have had serious reservations ten years ago. Despite my own favourable general assessment, I believe that we still have some distance to go before Singapore can join the ranks as a culturally advanced country. So, all concerned with the promotion of the arts here must not rest on their laurels and must continue to press on relentlessly …

Are there concrete evidence to back up my above glowing appraisal? First, over the decade the total number of arts groups has increased from 413 to the current 730. The pool of arts professionals has expanded considerably, with more meaningful employment opportunities increasingly within their reach. Simultaneously, the total number of arts activities held also went up from 6600 to 21,000, with more breadth and artistry. In tandem with this, the ticketed audience-base, too, has been enlarged substantially from 705,000 to 1.29 million between 1996-2006. At the same time, the NAC’s financial grants and subsidies to the artists and arts groups were increased from $3.6 million in 1997 to $12.7-million in 2006. To cater to the growing demand of the performing arts lovers, Singapore’s premier arts event, the Singapore Arts Festival, which started as a bi-annual show in 1977 was converted into a yearly happening in 1999. The Festival has been able to attract more world-renowned artistes and arts companies to perform in it, as well as showcasing the best artistic talents that Singapore has to offer. Its attendances have increased from 314000 in 1996 to the current 718,000.

The opening of the Esplanade in 2002, being Singapore’s first world-class performing arts complex, was a momentous milestone in its arts calendar. Since then, other significant new performing arts venues including the Cultural Centre of the National University of Singapore(NUS), the Drama Centre at the new National Library building and the Arts House at the old Parliament House have been commissioned. Together with the existing performing arts facilities, they have contributed to the growing vibrancy of the local arts scene as well as attracting more world celebrities to perform here regularly, thus stimulating their local counterparts to enhance their own artistic standards.

The opening of the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music (YST Conservatory of Music) at the NUS in 2003, the first of its kind here, has got off to a very good start. Its first batch of graduates are of a calibre comparable to graduates of leading music schools abroad. Some had already won coveted international music awards in competition against the best from other countries, and others are pursuing higher degrees to better prepare themselves for a career in the arts here.

The older arts colleges are also doing well with higher enrollments and some of their top graduates have augmented the expanded local arts industry. The Republic’s first arts school for secondary school students came into operation recently, and had attracted many bright students who are also potential recruits for the arts profession. Another welcome sign is that more and more schools here are urging their pupils to take an active interest in the arts and are creating conducive environments and opportunities to inculcate their love for it. These encouraging developments augur well for the future of the arts here.

Has the quantum of annual public arts sponsorship been increased over the preceding decade, and are more significant individual arts patrons coming forward and be counted? Compared with the $37.6-million collected in 1997, the total sponsorship per year, between 2002 to 2006, varied between the low of $29.5-million and the high of $33.5-million, with the exception of the bumper year of 2003 when the unprecedented $77.7-million was contributed. Against these, the total sponsorship in 2007 amounted to only nearly $33.6-million, more than $4-million less than 10 years ago.

Over the corresponding period, while the total number of substantial individual arts patrons, including several very prominent ones referred to below, had exceeded the total of 7 between 1987 and 1997 who were conferred the coveted Patron of the Arts awards, no individual arts patrons, however, made it to this top category in both 2006 and 2007. Will they surface in 2008 and in subsequent years? I hope so.

The lackluster annual public sponsorship figures of the last 6 years, except 2003, was a disappointment to me as the yearly collection was even lower than the amount prevailing in 1997, which was a difficult time for arts promotion. This is far from encouraging, especially in view that Singapore’s economy grew robustly in the past three years and the arts scene has become more and more vibrant and diverse and needs greater funding to scale new heights. I very much hope that it is not indicative of the future trend in arts philanthropy.

Apart from the above significant individual contributions to the arts , other substantial individual arts patrons had, over the past ten years, also given their largesse’s to the arts in various different and novel ways. I mention below only some of the more memorable givings:

  • The Yong Loo Lin Trust gave the colossal sum of $25 millions, with a matching amount by the government, to establish the YST Conservatory of Music at the NUS in memory of the benefactor’s beloved daughter, a dedicated music teacher, whose name this Institution now proudly bears. This is the largest single gift ever made to an arts institution in Singapore. Hopefully, it will lead to more large donations by other affluent individuals to the arts, especially to the smaller and poorer non government-affiliated arts groups.
  • An avid art collector Mr Tan Tien Chi, who is a friend and admirer of one of Singapore’s best known artists, Tan Swee Hian, had at his own cost, acquired a premises and donated his large collection of the artist’s works to set up an art museum, bearing the artist’s name, for the free enjoyment of the public.
  • Mr Tan’s arts patronage may have inspired a Singapore lawyer, Mr Woon Wee Teng, a consummate collector of Buddhist artifacts, to also set up his own private museum to house his collection for public viewing. His museum, which has a fabulous collection of 40,000 items of Buddhist art, is said to be one of the largest such collections in the world. He also bore the cost of the museum’s upkeep and operating expenses.
  • When Mr Woon later found that to keep his museum going was too burdensome financially, another Singaporean collector of Buddhist art and a millionaire business tycoon, Mr Oei Hong Leong, approached the former and offered to buy over his entire collection, to which Mr Woon accepted. Mr Oei, too, would set up a private museum to benefit the public. The museum will house both his own considerable collection and the newly acquired collection. Mr Oei would soon purchase a suitable premises and has already appointed a curator and will recruit other staff to help run this museum at his own expense.
  • Another major collector, Mr Kwee Swie Teng, opened yet another private art museum to house his collection of renowned Chinese and Indonesian paintings in commodious and well-designed galleries with funds provided by him. A full-time curator, a former NAC senior executive, and his staff run this museum. The public are admitted free of charge. Mr Kwee pays for its upkeep.
  • Talking of the long arm of coincidences, another rich and cultured lady, Madam Agnes Tan, who is the sister of the late Tun Tan Siew Sin, a former Finance Minister of Malaysia, gave $4-million to the NUS to purchase and restore a rare century-old Peranakan house to be used as a centre for Peranakan culture in order to perpetuate its uniqueness for posterity.
  • Mrs Ho Lienfung, a well-known author, newspaper columnist, long-term arts supporter and entrepreneur, set up a substantial arts trust fund to finance annual arts and culture lectures by experts in these fields drawn from overseas and locally. These bilingual lectures are highly successful and are open to the public without charge.
  • Two other prominent Singaporeans gave their valuable art collections to the Singapore Art Museum. The late pioneer artist, Mr Liu Kang had, in his lifetime, given most of his own precious works to it. This was followed by another generous donation by Mr Koh Seow Chuan, a leading Singapore architect and the current chairman of this Museum, comprising his large collection of two of his favourite local artists. These two important gifts have augmented the Museum’s collection of local artists’ works.
  • The local museums seem to have found favours with affluent individual arts patrons to give their support to. Yet another well-known collector of Peranakan art, Mr Edmond Chin, also gave away his rare and high quality collection of Peranakan artifacts to the Asian Civilisations Museum in honour of his parents. In appreciation, the Museum named a gallery, which houses the collection, after his parents.
  • In remembering the above large benefactions., mention must also be made of the numerous individual and corporate supporters of the arts who have been giving regular donations to their favourite arts groups with amounts ranging from tens of thousands to hundreds of dollars which contribute in no small measure to their operating expenses, and help to keep them financially afloat.
  • Finally, since 2006 the annual Cultural Medallion award, the nation’s most prestigious accolade to the arts professionals of various fields, has been conferred by the President himself, instead of by the minister in charge of the arts as in the past. I am certain that this would not only lift the value and standing of the arts, but would also place its recipients on par with the other top national award winners in other spheres of excellence.

For separate assessments of the current state of the local arts scene compared with a decade ago, I have obtained the considered views of two discerning arts enthusiasts. Mr David Tan Sing Hwa, a retired oil company director and Ms Sharon Tan Kheng Huay, a senior administrator of a local university, are of different age groups and they attend arts events here regularly. Their views are given below:

The Performing Arts Scene in Singapore between 1997 and Now — David Tan

It would have been difficult to imagine in 1997 that in a matter of ten years, the performing arts scene in Singapore would be as vibrant, diverse and creative as it is today.

Although Singapore was in the midst of the Asian financial crisis in the late nineties, there was a tinge of excitement and anticipation with the construction of the Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay. After many years of gestation, numerous cultural, economic and architectural controversies, the construction of the Esplanade, a state-of-the-art performing arts centre, was finally on its way, albeit in an unfortunate truncated form. Critics screamed that the Esplanade would be a white elephant as the population was just not big enough to continually fill its halls. Others questioned whether the arts in general can really develop and flourish in Singapore with its limits on freedom of expression, its religious and cultural sensitivities and strict censorship laws.

Looking through the current events calendar at the Esplanade, one cannot but be amazed at the number and variety of performances that include both local and foreign. The performances that I attended in 2007 were generally very well attended, with a high percentage of young people. At one event I could only get a seat behind the orchestra! What also amazes me is that top class international performances have little difficulty in selling tickets, regardless of price. The sold-out performances in 2007 by the Royal Shakespeare Company and the concert performance of Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro by the Vienna State Opera, conducted by Seiji Ozawa are just two examples. It would appear that culture loving Singaporeans indeed have deep pockets and are prepared to pay high ticket prices for good performances.

While the Esplanade certainly gave a boost to the growth of the performing arts scene in Singapore, the government also played a big part by its subsidies and business corporations and multinational companies by their generous sponsorships.

Today there are many theatre groups and also venues for concerts and plays. Some theatre groups are venturing into untried territory with varied degrees of success. In fact one can legitimately complain that with such a wide range of events, it is very difficult to choose which performances to attend. Here again one can also legitimately complain that the local media is not helping enough. In most major cities, the local newspapers would have on one day in the week a comprehensive arts section with a diary and advertisements of current and forthcoming events and a whole assortment of commentaries and reviews.

For Singapore to become a cultural hub, for a start in Asia, more needs to be done. For many of the smaller theatre groups to thrive, more encouragement in the form of financial assistance needs to given by both the government and charitable foundations. There also appears to be a lack of venues for rehearsals and practices and perhaps the second phase of the Esplanade can be launched. More importantly, censorship laws need to be revised to give more space and freedom for the arts to experiment and grow.

The Performing Arts Scene in Singapore between 1997 and Now — Sharon Tan

I believe that the art scene has flourished tremendously, both in terms of quantity and variety, in the the recent years. What is sorely needed to sustain this is the development of greater depth, with regards to more critical space and stronger management in the arts. The former is the need for more art critics, discourses, dialogues and documentation. The latter is the recognition for the role of strong administrators/managers behind the productions.

Lam Pin Foo
31.12.07

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