Singapore’s Substation Arts Centre Celebrates its 25th Anniversary in 2015

How time really flies. Singapore’s first independent multi-disciplinary arts centre will be celebrating its eventful first 25 years’ of founding in September this year. I look back to my past close association with The Substation with a mixture of fond memories, nostalgia and more than a touch of stressful recall of its initial years of seemingly unending struggles for survival as an arts centre in the then Singapore society that was still not too hospitable to the role of the arts as an integral component of life in Singapore, compared to its more rapid growth from around 2000 onwards.

The Substation in 2006 (Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

The Substation in 2006 (Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Kuo Pau Kun, the Republic’s leading bilingual playwright and theatre director, was invited by Singapore’s Ministry of Community Development in 1989 to convert an old no longer functioning power sub-station into an independent arts centre under its newly introduced Arts Housing Scheme in order to spearhead the development of the arts and undertook to substantially refurbish it at the cost of $1.07m SGD, a formidable sum at that time. Apart from the government bearing this building cost, no ongoing grants would come from the Ministry thereafter, except arts project grants given to all arts groups on a case by case basis. In other words, this arts centre must continually raise funds from the corporate sector, non-profit foundations and the public who were empathetic and willing to support the arts. Major arts patrons were then few and far between and mainly multinational foreign corporations, while the non-profit foundations were dispensing the bulk of their annual giveaways to educational and charitable organisations. Wealthy individual arts supporters were hard to come by as they tended to regard artistic pursuits as the preserve of the elites and not deserving of their had-earned financial benefactions.

Kuo accepted the Ministry’s offer and decided to name his new arts centre The Substation in order to preserve its past history and he also believed that such a name would be unique and quite refreshing. He became its founding Artistic Director. His staunch friend and admirer Tan Beng Luan resigned her well paid civil service job around mid 1990 to be its General Manager at a greatly reduced pay in order to help Pao Kun administer the new Home for the Arts with the barest minimum of staff for cost effectiveness because of financial constraints. Pao Kun’s own arts company, Practice Performing Arts School (PPAS), which was established earlier by him and his wife Goh Lay Kuan, an accomplished ballet teacher, would, henceforth, be largely run by the latter, while he would devote most of his time to nurturing and developing The Substation into a multi-faceted arts centre, with special emphasis on experimental arts, in fulfilment of his cherished plans for it. Initially, The Substation would be deemed a part of PPAS, but was separated from it later.

Before the official launching of this new arts entity in September 1990, members of the first Substation Board of Directors, mostly drawn from PPAS, and an additional couple of others were invited by Pao Kun to join it. All accepted their new appointments because they admired him for his indefatigable devotion and championing of the arts as an essential part of civilised and enlightened living. I was one of them. Prominent among them were well-known architect Mr Tay Kheng Soon, who became the founding Chairman of its Board, and Mr Ong Pang Boon, a former Cabinet Minister. Pau Kun also succeeded in inviting Professor Tommy Koh, an Ambassador-At-Large and Singapore’s former Permanent Representative to the United Nations and later Ambassador to the United States to be its Patron. Professor Koh has always been an ardent supporter of the arts in Singapore and had helped to promote it in the US untiringly during his 19 years’ tenure there.

The facilities of The Substation comprising a 120-seat Black Box theatre, a dance studio, two classrooms, an art gallery, a meeting room, an art shop, a spacious open-air and tree-lined walled garden and an office space to house the staff. These facilities can be rented out to arts groups , artists and others to generate monthly income and for its own in-house events.

Prior to its official opening in September 1990, the Substation was already settled with a pre-opening debt in excess of $100,000 SGD. These were incurred in equipping its facilities to be ready for use by the arts groups and the public and other necessary expenses. After its opening, the monthly income from the rentals of its facilities were insufficient to meet the operating costs and staff salaries. It had no spare funds whatsoever to generate even the basic publicity materials urgently needed for the benefit of the public, such as display banners, brochures and fly sheets of forthcoming activities and programmes there. Fortunately, one of Pao Kun’s long-standing friends and active arts supporter, Madam Li Lienfung, an entrepreneur and well-known writer, made a very generous donation to this nascent arts centre as well as lending it a much needed loan to tide it over this crucial period. A couple of Board members and several well wishers followed suit by making substantial donations too, among them was my wife. These came at the nick of time and enabled The Substation to pay off a large portion of its debts and other necessary expenditures.

By 1991, the remaining financial reserves were fast being depleted and The Substation would soon have no more available funds to pay staff salaries and other running costs. To remedy this impending financial tsunami, several of us Board members volunteered to pledge our fixed deposits as collaterals with the bank for an indefinite period in order to secure an overdraft for it to carry on until fresh funding came along. We did that because we did not wish to see this newly constituted epoch-making Home for the Arts come to a premature end.

Then something beyond the widest expectation of all of us at The Substation happened, not long before mid-1991, which saved its financial fate for the first decade of its existence. A relatively newcomer foreign multinational company of worldwide reputation, Guinness Asia Pacific, set up its operation in Singapore and was eager to promote its softer public image by endowing a worthy arts project in a significant way. After their careful and considered appraisal of the arts scene and the various arts groups here, including sending their management personnel to attend their performances and other activities, they were impressed by what The Substation had set out to achieve in order to uplift the arts to a new level. They came to a tentative conclusion that it should be the preferred choice for their benefaction.They then began to attend more arts happenings there, took a closer look at its multiple facilities and talked to a good cross section of the public to gauge their responses to its manifold arts offerings. They finally became convinced that this new multi-disciplinary arts centre was worthy of their financial support for its future progress.

The CEO of Guinness personally telephoned the General Manager of The Substation to arrange for a meeting between him and colleagues and our board members to discuss how his company could extend its substantial financial help to us and to be briefed about our plans for its future growth. This miraculous turn of events brought a tremendous relief and joy to the staff and Board members of The Substation, after having experienced nothing but nail-biting anxieties and struggles for survival confronting this new arts centre during its first year of existence. The meeting was duly arranged for the Guinness management to meet three of our Board members and our General manager at our meeting room. I was there because of my active involvement with the arts even before I joined this Board and my legal training.

At the first meeting, Guinness’ CEO disclosed to us that they would give The Substation a donation of $1.1m SGD, a good part of it to help us set up an endowment fund for its future needs and the rest to be used for its multi-disciplinary artistic events and activities. This sum would be paid to us in instalments over a number of years. In return for this grant, we would name our theatre Guinness Theatre and appoint their CEO to our Board and a legal document would need to be drawn up by their lawyers to put these and other terms and conditions into effect for the signatures of both parties. We thanked Guinness for this very generous benefaction and would call a Board meeting and revert to them on their terms soon.

The Substation in 2012 (Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

The Substation in 2012 (Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

At our lengthy Board meeting, the Guinness offer was discussed and freely debated. Pao Kun was initially strongly against naming the theatre after Guinness for fear that this would commercialise The Substation and against his firm artistic principles. The majority of Board members emphasised that no private enterprise would give away such a large amount without getting some tangible benefits out of it and that this donation would ensure its viability and ability to pursue its varied artistic goals in the years ahead, not to mention that this might also be a catalyst for other corporates to fund our programmes. He finally but reluctantly relented but suggested that this naming privilege should be restricted to a ten-year period only. Some Board members then counter proposed that Guinness should be given the option to renew this naming right for a further period, subject to an additional grant to be negotiated and agreed upon at that time. These two important conditions were unanimously agreed to by the Board and accepted by Pau Kun too.

At the Subsequent meeting with the Guinness management, it was another lengthy meeting and intense debate on the counter proposals of the Substation Board. It was the turn of the corporation to seek a mandate from its own Board of Directors on this matter and would need another meeting with us to finalise its final stand whether to accept these counter proposals or not. A few days later, Guinness informed us that its management had decided to accept our offers and would need to obtain its Board’s final approval before the agreement could be signed by both sides. They assured us that their recommendation should be endorsed by the Board.

What happened next took us by complete surprise and dismayed us at the Substation. Guinness’ CEO informed us that his Board had decided to withhold its grant approval because someone influential there had come to know that Pao Kun was once a political detainee under the Republic’s Internal Security Act for his political activities in the 1970s which were considered prejudicial to the security of the nation and was released after four years. He therefore appealed to us to assure his Board that all that was water under the bridge and that he was eminently suitable to lead this innovative new arts centre to its future success.

Our Board immediately sought the help of Professor Tommy Koh who was, and still is, highly regarded in Singapore and internationally for his advice on this unexpected development. He met some Board members and after a thorough review of Pau Kun’s past activities, he spontaneously offered to pen a letter to Guinness’ Board Chairman to assure him that Pao Kun’s detention was a thing of the past and that his artistic achievements and high standing in the arts community made him eminently suitable to lead The Substation. This was most fittingly demonstrated by the Ministry of Community Development inviting him to operate Singapore’s first multi-disciplinary arts entity.

In addition to professor Koh’s spontaneous and timely intervention, our Board member Mr Ong Pang Boon also took the initiative to host a lunch which was attended by Mr George Yeo, the newly appointed Minister for Community Development, and several other Board members for us to brief him on this Kuo Pao Kun episode. After a prolonged discussion, the Minister also spontaneously offered to speak to the Chairman of the Guinness Board to reassure him and his Board that Pau Kun was the best choice to achieve success for The Substation. Not long after this luncheon meeting, we received the eagerly awaited good news that the Guinness Board had finally endorsed the $1.1m grant to The Substation. The sponsorship agreement was executed shortly afterwards. It was the largest single donation ever made to any arts organisations in Singapore then and paved the way for the nation’s subsequent sustained development of the arts.

The Substation was formally launched on the 15th September 1990 at the newly renamed Guinness Theatre, followed by a reception in its brightly lit and spacious walled garden. It was attended by Mr George Yeo and his Ministry officials, Guinness Board Chairman Mr Micheal Fam and colleagues, its top management staff, the arts community, The Substation Board members, Pau Kun and his team, among other guests. This important event marked a new milestone in Singapore’s arts development and it was well publicised in all the local mass media.

Guinness’ most generous grant to The Substation at a crucial time enabled it to pay off its remaining existing debts and freed the Board members concerned of their outstanding guarantees for its bank overdraft, enabling it to recruit more essential staff to enhance its administrative support more effectively as well as staging more of its own important artistic programmes planned by our Artistic Director and his colleagues. Another resultant bonus was that, largely through the continuing efforts and connections of several of our Board members, three charitable foundations and other corporations, also lent their monetary support encouraged by the fine example set by the reputable Guinness Asia Pacific. Thus encouraged, the Board made ongoing fun raising a priority goal in order to gradually build up the endowment fund for The Substation’s future expansion needs. In addition to that, due to Pao Kun’s pole position in the arts circles, more arts groups and individual artists as well as self-employed arts teachers also began to promote their own artistic activities by using our multiple facilities rather than elsewhere because Pao Kun felt strongly that our rental rates must be kept more affordable to suit the users’ limited financial resources. The monthly income of The Substation was, unfortunately, still insufficient to cover the total monthly expenditures of running it and these would keep rising as time goes by.

At practically all subsequent monthly Board meetings, Board members would devote much of their time and effort to find ways and means to increase The Substation’s future income through all suitable means to help realise Pao Kun’s artistic goals and in order not to use up its precious financial reserves too rapidly. By late 1991, the Board was augmented when Professor Leo Tan, a renowned university don, and Dr Jennifer Lee, CEO of Kandang Kerbau Women and Children Hospital, were appointed to our Board. Professor Tan later succeeded the outgoing second Chairman Ho Kwon Ping who resigned from the Board because of his heavy other commitments. Leo and Jennifer brought with them new ideas and energies and they were certainly most useful additions to the Board.

By the end of 1992, Tan Beng Luan decided to leave The Substation to return to her less stressful old well paid job in the civil service, after having served it well for close to three years. Her subsequent replacement Sharon Tan, another avid arts lover, became The Substation’s General Manager. Like Beng Luan, she worked very hard to streamline its administrative support to Pau Kun’s artistic activities with commendable results. She worked long hours, often into the night and during weekends too, and was still cheerful and seemed to enjoy the manifold challenges of a complex arts body and dealings with the sometimes temperamental arts practitioners.

The Board, with the help of the senior administrative staff and Pao Kun’s support, decided to embark on several ways to improve its financial position further. They first implemented the Friends of The Substation scheme which would give members attractive benefits for an annual subscription fee. They can be enrolled as individual or corporate members with different rates applicable. This got off to a slow start but gradually becoming more popular as The Substation’s activities became more diversified and its fame grew with time. The Board also decided to hold a large fund-raising gala dinner to generate more significant funding for the fledgling arts centre. Thanks to the untiring efforts of Professor Tommy Koh, Mr Ong Pang Boon, other Board members and well wishers to persuade corporates, leading professional firms and their affluent friends to financially support the occasion, this event was a significant success beyond our expectations.

In addition to the above, and, with the endorsement of Pau Kun, the Board then embarked upon three other arts projects with more popular public appeal to generate further income for The Substation. Three Board members, Professor Leo Tan, Dr. Jennifer Lee and myself, came up with the ideas for these projects and undertook, with able administrative staff support, to put these into effect.

The annual Forum for the Arts lecture series, which we co-organised with the world renowned Sotheby’s and Plum Blossoms Gallery of Singapore and Hong Kong , with internationally known art experts from several countries delivering them for art collectors and others on both Asian and Western fine art topics, was a tremendous success. In many of these annual sessions, extra foldable chairs had to be brought into the Guinness Theatre to cater to the demand of those who refused to be turned away and filled it beyond its normal seating capacity. The gate takings from these lectures contributed a significant amount to The Substation. This annual event continued successfully for many years to come and they were generously sponsored by Shaw Foundation and supported by Mandarin Hotel which provided complimentary hotel rooms and some meals for these lecturers during their stay in Singapore.

This was followed by an annual evening Garden Festival series, held in our spacious open-air walled garden. These novel and varied shows, with their musical, dance, Chinese opera, well-known story tellers, celebrity speakers, etc, were also very well supported by the audiences. One of these was a highly entertaining talk by Mr David Marshall, Singapore’s former Chief Minister and diplomat. His spoke on the pre WW2 colonial Singapore society with his hallmark wit and humour, and it attracted an overwhelmingly large crowd that those who couldn’t gain admission were quite contended to stand outside the garden walls throughout the long session. In the audience were several top foreign envoys and the British High Commissioner was among them.This event was given prominent coverage in the local media the next day. The nightly admission charges collected for these annual series while they lasted also contributed well to our funds.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

The third and final Board initiated project was a Sunday Flea Mart held at our garden every week. Individual stall holders would pay a rental fee levy and they would sell their antique items and other old second-hand household items as well as rare old stamps and coins at prices lower than in the shops. Some Board members and well wishers donated part of their own art pieces and the sale proceeds went to The Substation. The mart was well patronised by both locals and some tourists and the vendors found it quite profitable for a few years and then it gradually fizzled out and had to come to an end as similar flea marts had sprung up in many other places. Nonetheless, these Sunday marts did add colours to our garden and contributed to our finances too.

Pau Kun finally decided to leave the Substation after five years to return to his own PPAS to spend more time teaching and writing new plays and directing them, after making sure that he had firmly and painstakingly nurtured The Substation, his very own brainchild, into a successful multi-disciplinary arts centre, with special emphasis on experimental art forms and affording raw artistic talents a hospitable platform to gain public exposure and to sharpen up their skills. This was what he had set out to achieve. Several of these raw talents later became accomplished arts practitioners in Singapore. The Board and staff were sad and reluctant to let him go. Before leaving, he recommended his long time arts collaborator T. Sasitharan to succeed him. Sasitharan was duly appointed by the Board and proved himself to be a worthy successor and innovator too. Despite his leaving, Pao Kun continued to take a keen interest in The Substation’s development and would readily offer his professional advice to his successor, and also to the Board, whenever it was sought. The Substation had firmly built up its reputation among the arts lovers in Singapore under the watchful eyes of its founding Artistic Director and Sasitharan as well.

What was it like to work as a Board member alongside Pau Kun to ensure that The Substation would succeed as the Home for the Arts in Singapore? The Board got on well with him and fully shared and supported his firm conviction that the arts would enhance the quality of life in Singapore and that The Substation was a much needed vehicle to help bring it about. We did not interfere with his exclusive function to direct and achieve the artistic goals that he had set out to accomplish during his tenure. However, most Board members, including myself, felt that his unshakable view that major corporate and individual arts donors should give their financial support to the arts for its intrinsic value to society and not to demand tangible benefits in return as too idealistic and not in tune with the realities of prevailing trends in public philanthropy elsewhere and in Singapore. As concrete examples, the naming of public institutions or their important components after the principal donors, be they in education, charity or the arts, has been well established in the US and UK and in our own Singapore too.

Pao Kun passed away in 2002 and I joined numerous other arts supporting fellow Singaporeans in mourning his demise and in saluting him for his pioneering dedication and significant contributions to the advancement of the arts in Singapore.

I left The Substation Board towards the close of 1997 after my eight years’ close association with it. As it celebrates its 25th anniversary of founding on 15th September this year, I send my best wishes to The Substation for its continuing contributions to the arts in Singapore in the years to come.

In writing this article, I acknowledge the most useful assistance given by Prof. Leo Tan and Ms Sharon Tan in helping me to recall and to ensure that those important events referred to therein are factually accurate. Nonetheless, there might be some gaps and omissions in the event sequence because these took place 25 years ago.

Lam Pin Foo

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