“From invisible to explosive” was the New York Times’ assessment of Singapore’s art scene…in 1990. Nicknamed the Switzerland of South-East Asia due to its economic prosperity and multicultural society, boasting no less than four official languages (English, Tamil, Malaysian, and Mandarin), the island hasn’t always been considered a hotspot for culture and the arts. In the years following the city-state’s independence (1965), employment and housing were the government’s top priorities. Art was considered a mere promotional tool, part of the “pro-multiculturalism” narrative that aimed to promote harmony between the different ethnic groups of the country – Chinese, Malaysian, and Indian. All this changed however, during the recession of 1985, with research into new avenues of economic development identifying the sector as a potential area for growth. Since then art has become a veritable godsend for the tourist industry, and a key player in the economy of the city-state.
Art as an economic and political tool
Today, the creative arts are at the centre of the Singapore’s economic policy. For the ‘Switzerland of South-East Asia’, culture represents a competitive advantage for a nation whose power lies in its creative industries. According to Paul Romer, a professor at Stanford University, this “suggests that an economy cannot achieve fast long-run growth merely by having a high savings rate and investing lots of physical capital, or accumulating lots more buildings and machines. It must have in place policies which encourage new discoveries, new improvements and techniques.”
It was in 2000 that the city-state first started to take notice of the potential growth in the sector, when the Ministry of Information, Communication, and the Arts (MICA) published a report entitled Renaissance City Report: Culture and Arts in Renaissance Singapore. The report suggested that Singapore had the potential to be at the forefront of the South-East Asian renaissance. Moreover, in 2001, following the publication of the report, Singapore participated in the Venice Biennial for the first time in the nation’s history. The success of this event sparked a number of other milestones in the following years, including the Singapore Biennial in 2006, and even creation of the National Art Gallery, which is due to open this year. The new museum, set to be the crowning glory of Singapore’s flourishing visual art scene, is vast, measuring 64,000 m², rivalling the likes of Paris’ Musée d’Orsay in size. Hoping to position itself as the region’s cultural epicentre, the museum will host an important collection of South-East Asian works from the 19th century up to the present day.
MICA’s report also highlighted the role of art as a tool of “soft power”, that Singapore can use to its advantage in the increasingly globalised economy. In the words of Simon Anholt, it is a case of “place branding”. In the eyes of Singaporean policy-makers, the country’s image has the power to influence potential investors, and as such they aim to establish the city-state as a global platform for goods and services through its cultural and artistic scene. Local talents are used as ambassadors to secure Singapore’s place as a key player on an international level. The report also touches on the role of cultural diplomacy as a means of promoting national events through cultural exchanges, highlighting the extent to which the initiative has already taken root in countries such as the United Kingdom, France, and Japan. The underlying idea is to cement Singapore’s position as the go-to destination for the South-East Asian art market.
The National Arts Council and the “Global City for the Arts” project
The turning point in the nation’s cultural policy, which dates from the end of the 1980s, was accompanied by rapid returns on investment. Over the next ten years, the country saw a 150% increase in the number of art events and exhibitions (1989-1998).
Singapore has witnessed the establishment of many museums, such as the Singapore Art Museum (SAM – 1996) and the Asian Civilisations Museum (ACM – 1997). The country has also hosted many pioneering exhibitions such as; “Masterpieces from the Guggenheim Museum”; “The Origins of Modern Art in France” at the SAM in 1998; and “Eternal Egypt: Treasures from the British Museum” at the ACM in 1999. The aim of these was to position Singapore as the city of the 21st century Asian Renaissance.
In fact, the MICA report also suggests that the state as well as the private sector must support the artistic scene as much as necessary, especially favouring the support of emerging cultural spaces, contributing to the development of a particular group: students. In order to encourage creativity amongst the younger generation, the National Art Council, a governmental organisation focused on the promotion of art in Singapore, started the Arts Education Programme (NAC-EAP). This is a platform for the purchase of artistic presentation – dance, theatre, music, visual arts, literary arts, film, and multimedia – for educational purposes. Three programmes are offered: Arts Exposure, Arts Experience, and Arts Excursion. This initiative was created in the hope of helping students develop a pronounced aesthetic sense that would stay with them for the rest of their life. The Ministry of Education’s Tote Board Arts Grant is of a similar vein. This is a programme designed to award grants to educational institutions, from the smallest schools to large universities, offering financial help of up to 50% of the price of a NAC-EAP programme.
21st century Avant-Garde art in Singapore
In Art Cities of the Future: 21st Century Avant-Gardes, Phaidon publications class Singapore amongst the 12 Avant-Garde cities of the 21st century. The other cities are: Beirut, Bogotá, Cluj-Napoca, New Delhi, Istanbul, Johannesburg, Lagos, San Juan, São Paulo, Seoul, and Vancouver. Nowadays, Singapore is bustling with numerous art fairs such as the Singapore Art Fair, Affordable Art Fair Singapore, and the recently founded Art Stage Singapore. The fifth edition of Art Stage Singapore, which took place between 21 and 25 January during Singapore Art Week, welcomed 51,000 visitors and attracted 197 galleries. The last edition of Singapore Art Fair, the city’s other major Contemporary art event, which took place between 27 and 30 November 2014, was the initiative of, Laure d’Hauteville and Pascal Odille (artistic director of the Beirut Art Fair in Lebanon). As stated in the report Les Échos, their project was to create an event aimed to promote artists from the Middle East, Northern Africa and South-East Asia. “We wanted to show a wide range of art, displaying works as affordable as those at Art Basel Hong Kong, priced between $1,000 to $300,000,” said Pascal Odille.
A challenge remains…
However, there still remains one concern: sensitive subjects must be avoided in art, particularly anything political. The ghost of censorship has haunted the country since the controversy in 1993, which took place during an Artists’ General Assembly meeting. This one-week-long art festival, which took place at the 5th Passage Gallery in the Parkway Parade shopping centre, was co-organised by two different groups: 5th Passage Artists Ltd. and The Artists Village. Following a controversial performance given by the artist Josef Ng, the NAC decided to suspend the funding of all performances. A law was also voted stating that an official authorisation had to be obtained for all public performances as well as a monitoring of the scripts, which need to be approved before being performed. This censorship lasted for about a decade.
There remains nothing else for Singapore to do other than to adopt a strategic position in Asia, making itself into a neutral platform from which anybody can conquer other countries in the region. Following its expansion and its quest for prosperity, the Merlion city positions itself, bit by bit, as the new hub of the Asian art market.