The Popularity of the Long-Running Shell Friday Lunchtime Cultural Programme

In my working career spanning almost 36 years in both the public and private sectors of Singapore, I now look back to those years with mostly memories of fond recall. I have already written about my close to 11 years as a government legal officer, and about 7 years of which as Registrar of the industrial Arbitration Court were the most satisfying and rewarding posting and will long be cherished by me (please see my article of November 2016). I decided to resign from government service to join the Shell companies in Singapore mainly due to its significantly higher financial compensation, which would have eluded me unless I reached the top echelon of the legal service many years later, if this did eventually materialise.

Shell recruited me as its Industrial Relations Manager in order to ensure that its existing good industrial relationship with the powerful and demanding industry wide union, United Workers Petroleum Industry(UWPI) and two of their top officials were Members of Parliament, one of the most influential among the trade unions in Singapore, would be maintained if not further enhanced. Shell had been operating in Singapore since 1891 and its Pulau Bukom Refinery was the third largest within the Shell international conglomerate and the largest in Asia. It was by far the biggest investor in Singapore and employed more than 2000 employees. In my close to 8 years in this job, I believe that I had not let the Company down, thanks to the support of management and my colleagues from other departments as well as the co-operation of the union. After my long stint in this demanding and somewhat thankless job, I was glad to be appointed its Public Affairs Manager in 1979.

Among the manifold responsibilities of this new posting, I was expected to enhance Shell’s relationship with the Government, the mass media, the opinion leaders, the public institutions, and to discharge its social contributions as a caring and responsible corporate citizen. In doing so, It would help to project a softer and more benign public image of this international oil conglomerate. My department was also responsible for employee information service and published a monthly newspaper for circulation to all staff and Shell retirees. In addition, one of my staff would conduct regular school visits to its offshore Pulau Bukom Refinery to help the young understand the workings of the oil industry.

The enhancement of Shell’s public image in Singapore was an important aspect of my work and I found it to be both a satisfying and challenging part of it. My departmental team and I had to formulate concrete and suitable plans that would suit and benefit the community at that particular stage of the nation’s economic and social development. For the record, Shell had always been a generous patron and supporter of science and technology, education, road safety awareness and campaigns, charitable organisations and, to a lesser extent, of culture and the arts. My team and I were of the view that there was  a growing need for Shell to substantially enhance its patronage and support for culture and the arts, especially as Singapore was becoming an economically and socially more developed society. By doing so, it would help to transform it into a more gracious and maturing community in which to live, to do business and to visit. This would most certainly contribute to Singapore’s international image and be beneficial to the citizenry.

Soon after I assumed this post, I was able to convince the top management to set aside greater financial grants for the promotion of culture and the arts in Singapore. From then on, the Company became the principal sponsor of the annual Singapore Drama Festival, a major donor of the Singapore Arts festival, the Singapore Symphony Orchestra (SSO) as well as giving financial assistance to the museums, the cultural institutions, the schools and tertiary institutions in support of their cultural activities. Shell also actively purchased local artists’ works for display on Company premises to help the growth of art in Singapore. Its efforts were duly recognised by the Government a couple of years later when it was conferred the coveted Patron of the Arts Award, one of the very few corporations to be so honoured. This was repeated for many years thereafter.

The Singapore Symphony Orchestra Familiar Favourites.

The Company’s head office Shell Towers, which was located in Raffles Place, Singapore’s financial and commercial hub, had a well equipped 120-seat theatrette on its premises, which was used only a few times yearly by the management team to present the company’s trading results and other important developments to a group of senior staff. Thus, my team and I focused our attention on this and came to the conclusion that this valuable theatrette space could be better utilised to generate some Shell-initiated cultural and artistic activities in-house, besides serving the company’s existing internal needs.

With the growing public appreciation for drama and other artistic activities, there was an acute shortage of performing venues in Singapore to cater to the increasing number of cultural and drama groups. Many of them would be financially unable to meet the high rental charges at these competitive public performing places. The government was fully aware of this, and a huge concert hall and performing arts complex was already being mooted in the Marina Bay area but this ambitious project would take many more years to plan and build before it would come into operation. Hence, Shell could extend its much needed help to the smaller performing arts groups by inviting them to stage their performances free of charge at its theatrette and to extend some financial support to encourage their artistic endeavours.

We sounded out the performing arts fraternity and others closely connected with the arts promotion about the Shell plan, and they enthusiastically endorsed such a scheme and were sanguine that this would serve an urgent need in Singapore and would spur the growth of the performing arts and assured us of their full co-operation and support.

Confident of the positive  response mentioned above, my team and I then brainstormed if this concept would go down well with the target audiences working in the vicinity of the central business district of Raffles place and Shenton district of Singapore, most of whom were white-collar workers. We believed that they should find this a pleasant diversion from their usual lunchtime routine. We finally concluded that such a venture must take place within the one hour lunch break and the performances must be completed within that space of time so that those interested to come would have time for a quick lunch so as to make it in time for our 45-minute show. This is how the idea of this Shell lunchtime cultural programme came about and how it became a regular feature for the cultural entertainment of those working in the vicinity of the city centre. To sum up, this would be a bold and novel attempt to promote lunchtime cultural activities in Singapore.

The Shell management, headed by Chairman and Chief Executive Dick van Hilten, enthusiastically supported our proposal and had it endorsed by his fellow directors together with a generous budget sought to match.

A pilot scheme to use the Shell Theatrette for lunchtime cultural performances was drawn up by my team and in December 1983 the first Shell Lunchtime Cultural Programme was staged at its revamped Shell Theatrette with adequate on and back stage facilities for the performers.

This maiden performance featuring chamber music by musicians from the Singapore Symphony Orchestra (SSO) was an instant success. It was targeted at both Shell employees and the general public and admission was free on a first-come-first-served basis.

The very enthusiastic and favourable response to this inaugural concert signalled the beginning of a series of monthly SSO “Familiar Favourites” chamber concerts. Their continued popularity provided Shell with the concrete evidence it needed that there was indeed a demand for lunchtime cultural activities in this downtown area and that the Shell Theatrette is a suitable venue for such cultural pursuits.

Encouraged by the success of this pilot scheme, and the full support of the performing arts fraternity, Shell took the bold decision in August 1984 to launch a weekly cultural programme every Friday at the Shell Theatrette with two main objectives, namely to help stimulate a greater awareness and appreciation of culture among Singaporeans and to provide a platform for artistic talents, particularly the up and coming amateur talents, to gain public exposure and recognition.

Flower and Leaves.

The Shell Friday Lunchtime Cultural Programme, administered by my department, came into being with ambitious plans to present a wide range of the performing arts and cultural programmes to the public. Music, drama and dance would be the staple and fringe activities such as poetry reading, painting and martial art demonstrations, flower arrangements and illustrated talks on a variety of topics and others would also be featured to add more flavours to the programme. The performing talents would be drawn not only from the cultural and performing arts groups but also from the schools and tertiary institutions in Singapore.

Singapore-born pianist Seow Yit Kin.

To give guidance to Shell, an advisory committee comprising prominent and knowledgeable personalities from both public and private sectors together with me and my colleague Chua Swee Kiat was set up with the main objectives of providing guidance and advice in order to ensure high quality and a balanced programme mix and to set new directions in order to keep abreast with changing needs.

Within one year since its launch, the Shell weekly offering had firmly established itself as a regular feature of  cultural life in downtown Singapore. It had been seen and remembered by many Singaporeans and expatriate office workers, housewives, senior citizens, students and even tourists. Almost all the programmes attracted full houses and the more popular ones had standing room only, and late comers were content to stand at the sides and the rear of the Shell Theatrette. Many of the familiar faces came back week after week from different parts of  Singapore.

The Singapore media took an increasing interest in these weekly Shell lunchtime shows and gave them wide publicity from time to time which greatly helped to generate even more public interest in these scheduled weekly shows.

The Shell Friday Lunchtime Cultural Programmes received added status and dimension when the Singapore Festival of Arts’ organisers designated the Shell Theatrette as a venue for its fringe programmes. Several cultural bodies also approached us to include visiting artistes of international standing in our shows so that local audiences could enjoy cultural excellence outside the more formal setting that these artistes are normally associated with. Also, more and more arts performing groups had applied to us to be included in our shows and were prepared to wait for months for their turns to come.

Professor Edwin Thumboo, poet and Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, NUS.

The success of the Shell Friday Show had inspired some artistically inclined Shell staff to form a drama group, the Shell Players (which will be the topic of my May 2017 posting). It made its debut at the Shell Friday Lunchtime Show in 1985 before a full audience comprising both their shell colleagues and the public who thoroughly enjoyed their maiden effort.

Among the many artistes and cultural personalities who had participated in the Shell Friday Lunchtime Cultural Programme and the Festival of Arts Lunchtime Theatre at the Shell Theatrette were Singapore’s Professor Edwin Thumboo, an eminent university don and famed poet, Lim Kay Tong, a leading drama and television actor, Ong Keng Sen, a talented theatre director and current Festival Director of Singapore International Festival of Arts, Dr Earl Lu, a well-known and versatile cultural veteran, Mrs Kazue Kim, a renowned Japanese flower arrangements expert and Lee Siow Mong, a retired Permanent Secretary and noted Chinese culture exponent; and from overseas came Seow Yit Kin, a London-based internationally famed concert pianist, world-acclaimed Vienna Boys’ Choir, Dorothy Brooks and Gary Harger from Broadway New York, The Krokodiloes from Harvard University, The Delos Quartet from London and St Dominique Girls’ Choir from Tokyo.

A touch of Broadway from two famous stage personalities, Dorothy Brooks and Gary Harger.

During my time with Shell, the local drama groups had often lamented that there was a dearth of plays written by local playwrights which would be suitable for them to perform. This led to the National University of Singapore (NUS) Arts Faculty and Shell to co-organise a Short Play Competition with a view to providing works that can be staged at the Shell Theatrette. The Competition was a great success and winning entries were published in two volumes and some were later selected by the drama groups for presentations at the Shell Friday Lunchtime Cultural Programme and allied shows. In a different direction, having its own readily available in-house theatrette space also influenced my Company to sponsor and organise the Shell Discovery Art Exhibitions aimed at providing a free platform at the Shell Theatrette twice a year for talented budding artists to exhibit and to sell their works to the public after their careful selection by a Shell appointed committee comprising leading artists and art educators. Both these schemes fulfilled the needs and purposes which led to their implementations.

GuZheng virtuoso, Au Yong Leong En.

In December 1987 I left Shell after about 16 years to join a law firm as its partner in the final lap of my working career. It was sad saying farewell to my Shell friends and colleagues and the many cultural and performing arts people that I had come to know in the course of work.

The Singapore Chinese Girls’ School Dance Group.

The Shell Friday Lunchtime Cultural Programme continued its popular run to bring its weekly show to the public for many more years and came to an end when Shell moved to  its new premises which did not have an in-house theatrette.

The sustained popularity of this Shell cultural contribution owed its tremendous success to many in various ways and capacities. They included:

  • Mr Dick van Hilten, the retired Shell Singapore Chairman and Chief Executive, for his unwavering and unstinting generous support and encouragement.
  • Members of the Shell Advisory Committee on the performing Arts for their precious time and guidance.
  • The performing arts groups and other individuals for their talented efforts and contributions.
  • The audiences from downtown and other parts of Singapore, without whose continuing support this programme would not have been possible.
  • The media  for believing in the objectives of this programme and helped to publicise it.
  • The Ministry of Community Development for their useful advice and assistance.
  • Shell employees for their support, co-operation and understanding, especially on days when the seating capacity at the Shell Theatrette was severely tested.Last but not least, Staff of Shell’s Public Affairs Department for their long period of dedicated hard work in manning the Shell Theatrette on performance days efficiently and cheerfully, particularly Chua Swee Kiat and Angie Gan who did more than their fair share of it voluntarily and happily, in addition to helping me to plan the programmes ahead.

Lam Pin Foo

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