Posts Tagged ‘art’

Tay Kay Chin

Jeff Chouw is a dangerous and crazy man, the sort that you probably will avoid, or at least be advised to stay far away from. If you were to run into him in the ‘happening’ side of Geylang, you will automatically assume that he is a seedy man there for unsavoury reasons. In person, Jeff alternates between good English and Hokkien profanities. On Facebook, at least half of his postings are not family-friendly. And by his own admission, he knows some ‘interesting’ people. You know, that kind.


With his beard and tummy, Jeff could pass off easily as a baddie in Hong Kong triad movies, though not quite the street-fighter. When he dons a bow-tie, tuxedo and black-rimmed reading glasses, he resembles a mafia accountant or lawyer, the kind that fixes things and people, without actually getting his fingers dirty. The kind that smiles wryly, but is someone you don’t really want to mess with. Simply put, there is something mysterious about him.

But Jeff is really quite an ordinary Singaporean. Trained in Australia as a marine biologist, he then spent five years working in a research institute in National University of Singapore, where his main responsibility was environmental impact assessment. He tendered his resignation a year ago, citing boredom as the main reason. The other reason was that he wanted to try to make a living as a photographer. A decade ago, a Singaporean man quitting a ‘decent’ job to make pictures would have been extraordinary. These days, full-time photographers in Singapore are a dime a dozen. But Jeff doesn’t just want to be a photographer, he wants to be a really a caring documentary photographer.


I first got to know Jeff, now 33, when a mutual friend told me about his first solo photo exhibition at The Substation in 2007. His topic was opposition leader Chiam See Tong and his quest for his sixth term as MP of Potong Pasir during the 2006 election.

The sea, no doubt, is Jeff’s first love; and politics was far from his mind until his return to Singapore in early 2001. “I was fined for not voting in a General Elections,” he said, “it was strange because I was studying in Australia.” Instead of just paying the fine, the incident piqued his interest in local politics, the players, and the processes. “I thought I should spend some time finding out how things work.” As for the project on Chiam, he shrugged it off as “no big deal”. Getting access to the opposition chief was really easy, according to Jeff. “I just called someone close to him and the guy just said, ‘Sure, come’, and the rest was a matter of just showing up and keeping his eyes open.


Recently, he started a project called ‘Car Head Photos’, also known as ‘Lorry Photos’. Jeff’s research suggested that a lot of people in Singapore die without a decent portrait of themselves to be used at the funeral, or for mounting at the front of a hearse Jeff wants to use his photographic skills to make good portraits for that specific use. And I offered my little advice: “You can use this tagline on your name card, ‘Nobody Should Go Ugly’. Substitute the word ‘Go’ with ‘Leave’ or ‘Die’ if you prefer.” I know from his past works that the lorry photo idea is an extension of his desire to map out the changing demographics of Singapore. I told him that I had started a blog at nationalportraitgallery.wordpress.com, for all kinds of portraits done locally and that his series belonged there.


Jeff has just found out that the full-time photography job he applied for was officially a no-go, so now, it is back to the drawing board. Our mutual friend had wisely pointed out that his works are not suitable for commercial photography. “But is that even what you want to do?” I asked. He replied, “Not really.” “Then don’t even think about it,” I said, “Maybe you can turn this ‘lorry photo’ venture into a real business. Perhaps you can work with social welfare groups and bring this service to lonely old folks staying in nursing homes.” That seems to be the best compromise since documentary projects are not financially rewarding in Singapore. Being a commercial photographer will, sooner or later, just kill his enthusiasm for making pictures. He needed to find a way to make some money to sustain his projects, without giving up his desire to use photography as his tool for social research.


At a talk I gave recently, I was asked for my assessment of the state of photography in Singapore, and whether the fear of getting into trouble has discouraged people from attempting to tackle some of the more controversial issues. My view was this: In terms of technicality, Singapore photographers are high up there with the best in the world. But in terms of subject matters tackled by Singaporean photographers, I would say there is nothing much to crow about here, which I found worrying. Of the Singaporean portfolios that I got to see in the past five years, less than a handful made me sit up and ask, “Hmmm, just who is this photographer?” Most were forgettable mixtures of pretty travelogues masquerading as social documentaries; and I also saw a lot of ‘big’ projects that I didn’t understand.


I have heard Singapore subjects/topics don’t sell in the world stage – they will thus not receive recognition. If every photographer here only cares about the fame and recognition he stands to receive if he works on a project that has a big market appeal, then who is going to reach deep inside them to find stories that are close to the heart? Surely there has to be social issues worthy of our Canons, Leicas and Nikons? And please don’t tell me the authorities will hunt you down if you work on something controversial.

Jeff joked about wondering if he would have to spend a few days in a cell for his project on Chiam, but otherwise, he agreed. I am worried that in 50 years, there would not be any meaningful archive of imageries that would be reflective of our living conditions. And who can we blame but ourselves, the people with the power to make a difference? Doesn’t anybody believe in the power of photography to tell personal stories anymore?


Perhaps a reminder is in order that history is actually a ‘big’ word made up of two smaller ones – his story. It is not too late to believe your pictures of void decks, of corridors, of hawker centres, well done or not, are as important as winning that international award. Try using your lens to write the first draft of history. Enough people out there care. But most of all, you should care. I am looking forward to look at Jeff’s lorry photos. You should too.


Tay Kay Chin, a former newspaper photographer and design director, splits his time these days on his personal documentary projects, teaching photojournalism at the university, and selected commercial projects. Jeff’s works can be seen at http://www.illuminate-photos.net/

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Jason Wee

Editors: this essay was originally written for the catalogue of Raised, a mini-art carnival that was part of the Singapore Art Show 2007 [see postscript]. See the Raised blog for documentation by the project artists, Amanda Heng, Shenu Hamidun, Siti Salihah bte Mohd Omar, Sriridya Nair, Nurul Huda Farid, Joshua Yang, Justin Loke and Cheo Chai-Hiang. Pictures here are from the project blog.

When I think about one of the subjects raised by this project, I think about the year 1987 and the state’s previously antagonistic relationship with social justice, especially with regards to foreign workers. In the early hours of 21 May 1987, sixteen people were arrested under an Internal Security Department swoop known as Operation Spectrum. At issue was their alleged foment and participation in a ‘Marxist conspiracy’. In all, twenty two people were detained without trial and, until the last orders were lifted in 1990, all had their movements restricted under various forms of suspension orders and house arrest. Among these men and women The Straits Times had tendentiously called ‘the new hybrid pro-communists’[1] were a number of Catholic church workers working in the Geylang Catholic Centre for Foreign Workers, as well as members of a theatre company that made its name with socially conscious productions such as Esperanza, a dramatization of the lives of Filipina maids working in Singapore.[2]


At this point I could try to exonerate that state action by tracing a history of occasional liberalization in the intervening decades, a trace that is itself only possible if the state is at least willing to retrieve this episode from collective amnesia. But this will not be a bumper-sticker essay, where ‘Things Are Better Now’ trumps ‘What You Don’t Remember Can’t Hurt You’. Instead, I suggest that this figure we call the foreign worker is not here. This is not the same as being invisible. If anything, the migrant workers are all too visible. If Little India is as a Member of Parliament once suggested, so dark you can hardly see or drive through it, perhaps it is because black is an additive consequence of too much colour. And unlike our white-uniform politics, which the state sternly classifies as privy to political parties only, crime and sex suffer no out-of-bound restrictions on commentary. The foreign worker makes an appearance when he or she is victim, witness or perpetrator in misdemeanors and vice, as often as the papers think their readers demand, but not as a person vital to our claims of hospitality, fairness and equality.

To say that the foreign worker is not here is to trace a dispossession. My claim requires a detour through events in Singapore law after 1987 (If you bear with me, the pertinence for art that raises this subject will come through towards the end). Chng Suan Tze, one of the detainees, brought a case against the Minister of Home Affairs in the Court of Appeals. Chng appealed against her re-detention after releasing a press statement detailing the conditions of her detention. The statement includes the following:

Most of us were made to stand continually during interrogation, some of us for over 20 hours and under the full blast of air-conditioning turned to a very low temperature.

Under these conditions, one of us was repeatedly doused with cold water during interrogation.

Most of us were hit hard in the face, some of us for not less than 50 times, while others were assaulted on other parts of the body, during the first three days of interrogation.

We were threatened with more physical abuse during interrogation.

We were threatened with arrests, assault and battery of our spouses, loved ones and friends. We were threatened with INDEFINITE detention without trial. Chia Thye Poh, who is still in detention after twenty years, was cited as an example. We were told that no one could help us unless we “cooperated” with the ISD.[3]

Remarkably, Chng’s appeal resulted in a landmark ruling which found the Minister of Home Affairs providing insufficient evidence for the detention of the accused. This will not be the last time that a member of the judiciary calls for court-admissible evidence in the case of any ISA detention. In his 2003 reading of the case, the former Chief Justice of Malaysia Tun Mohamed Dzaiddin Abdullah saw that the ruling placed the onus on the Executive ‘to justify the legality of the detention of the Appellants by producing evidence that the President acted in accordance with the advice of the Cabinet or the authorized Minister … The evidence required must be cogent as would be admissible in trial’.[4]

By inviting the light of trial to an often secretive process, Chief Justice Wee Chong Jin achieved two outcomes: First, he empowered the judiciary to act as a check on executive decisions regarding national security matters. How the state decides what exactly constitutes national security is outside the purview of the courts, but Wee in his judgment writes in favour of ‘the judicial function of determining whether the decision [to detain] was in fact based on grounds of national security’[5]; Second, the ruling gave detainees a viable channel through the courts to challenge the grounds of their detention, a significant victory considering that their earlier appeals for writs of habeas corpus were dismissed.


The rollback was swift. Within a year, legislative amendments to the Singapore Constitution and the Internal Security Act effectively annulled that ruling. Subsequent legal challenges brought on by a second detainee proved that subjective, discretionary powers of detention have been further ascribed to what is already a powerful executive,[6] and any wisp of a case in court against the grounds for detention evaporated into despair. Throughout this, the application of the rule of law or a respect for due process was never in doubt. Letters of concern regarding the current round of detention prompted a letter from the Ministry of Home Affairs giving reassurance of due process, but due process is so moot it is almost beside the point. We should notice instead the paradox that the legal challenges and appeals suggested in that letter are extra-judiciary. The ISA Advisory Board, while looking like a court of law, able to hear a detainee’s representation and summon witnesses, is patently not a court of law, and the legislation is careful not to name it as such. The Advisory Board operates as an exception from the judicial system. For one, members of the public are not allowed to witness the proceedings. For another, it is not possible to lodge an appeal to a higher court against any ruling by the Board.[7]

In the meantime, the Catholic Center for Foreign Workers closed; the resignation of the head priest broke this camel’s back. Religious organizations were instructed to move away from social justice towards pietistic charity or risk ‘serious repercussions’.[8] Advocacy on behalf of foreign workers was tarred with the perilously red brush of Marxism. Foreign workers are fiercely discouraged from getting organized. In late 1990, Chief Justice Wee Chong Jin retired after 27 years of service to be replaced by Yong Pung How.

An inverse relationship between the situation of the foreign worker and the power of the executive emerges. While one is dispossessed of advocates, the other increases in discretionary power. The image of foreign worker threatens its messengers; sought out as a threat the image emboldens the state. The exceptional power of the state – aided by a law of the ‘special case’, the ISA – conjugates with an attack against an exception, a foreign element, within it. The detainees were allegedly abetting foreign worker unrest as well as orchestrating the whole operation with headquarters in the ivy-laden danger-room known as Oxford University. And is it too crude for my analysis to add that while the foreign worker is currently defined in law by a maximum wage (no earnings more than a stated amount), the executive is measured out by a different cup (no earnings below a top-tier benchmark)?


What we also understand from this bit of legal history is that state action concerns less with securing particular conditions for citizen agency; it is aimed instead at securing the discretionary power of the executive. To raise the subject as this project does is to begin thinking about the conditions of agency. The dispossession affects every citizen, and to the surprise of art practitioners then and now, them too. To say that the ISA is for special cases only is to forget that the law is written to apply to all of us. This law does not discriminate and it does not require detention to be publicly explained. Those with discretionary power decide where and how the shackles fall.

We begin thinking about our positions as subjects – how do we act the way we do, and how are those actions defined for us? Sometimes the knotted paradoxes are the most productive of answers. For example, three persons or more together in public could be charged with illegal assembly in Singapore. Protesters could walk the fine line by setting out in independent groups of two or three. In these cases, a current strategy of protest management involves police linking elbows to isolate an individual protestor. Yet, does not that very act of isolation free the protestor from the charge of illegal assembly? And does the delinking of elbows reconstitute that charge? If so, does it make those police party to wrongdoing?

Raising the subject has the double meaning of provoking a topical conversation as well as lifting into view persons and individuals, resurrecting a subject that has not been given a place at the table nor the urgency of being present, here. I thought it was highly suggestive that the schematic drawing in the catalogue is of a platform that is also reminiscent of a coffin The Lazaruses are not here, they are outside the gates. Not that I am intent on only these other people; raising them as subjects raises ourselves as such, a parallelism understood in the end of the movie-musical Love’s Labours Lost directed by Kenneth Branagh. The very moment the foreigners are finally welcomed, they are compelled by circumstance to leave, and it is only at that point these singing and dancing bodies, vectors of lightness, accept guilt and self-consciousness and become subjects. The film ends in the words of the immortal script, ‘you that way, we this way’.


On the other hand, you can retort that these sociological and political ways of talking and thinking ignore the way that those involved in this project are raising the subject as arts, that I have critically elided these projects as art and saw them as ethical-political acts. What I am actually suggesting is that a hybridity is necessary in our approach to these installations, projects and performances, that it is not adequate to resort to either-or, but to grant an admixture without drawing down the divide. I am thinking back to last night’s dinner conversation, when a friend explained how his Peranakan gatherings are coming to question the category of Peranakan as strictly between the ‘pure’ ethnographies of Malay and Chinese, instead choosing to see the term as a mélange of a variety of Southeast Asia ethnicities. Perhaps we could consider that the blurring is not a convenient explanation, but a critical one.

Abandoning continuities from this approach to others in history is not necessary when it is a matter of picking one’s parents, so to speak – Robert Smithson, Littoral and Jean-Francois Lyotard over Anthony Caro, John Currin and Rosalind Kraus. A critic named Grant Kester has called this littoral art, beautifully associating it with the constantly shifting zone between high and low tides. Among other things, Kester asks that we evaluate such art practices on the ‘condition and the character of dialogical exchange itself’.[9] Kester places a great premium on communicative catalysts for change and action. Dialogue, participatory conversations and exchanges are key terms within these practices, and he offers these as one basis for criticizing whether an effort succeeds or fails. To talk about enjoying this art is almost offensive (imagine enjoying a conversation on employer abuse), unless we are thinking of enjoyment along the lines of a demanding empathy, or in Slavoj Zizek’s reworking of the golden rule, of a demand to love your neighbour more than yourself.

I want to say two more things on not being here. In a way, foreign workers are not here because they have never been included even in Marx’s model for economic change. Given that Marx’s proletariat is presumed to be found belonging to various social bodies (the factory, the city, the nation), the foreign worker is excluded from the count for barely registering its presence in any given place; its stay in any given site of production is variable and short, limited by restrictive work permits. Marx would have considered them lumpen, a nebulous neo-class that includes secret society conspirators, prostitutes, service workers, persistent unemployed and beggars.[10] Marx has variously railed against the lumpen for obstructing his revolution and demurred over its significance.

I think that the lumpen is not completely out of Marx’s picture. Instead, I argue that the lumpen is a supplement to social change, a small but crucial nudge to his complicated and often unwieldy systemic theory. Before I provoke an unwelcome red scare with that statement, I will repeat what I wrote recently in the exhibition essay to ‘extra ordinary’. Forget revolution. Even incremental change may be asking too much (I feel like Bart Simpson, writing this on a blackboard for an invisible disciplinarian). But if we are to ask for respect for what is common, shared and public, in other words, for an extra dose of what is ordinary, then the lumpen is one consideration of that ‘extra’, both as excess and sub-par to the original working class. In this case, we can read Marx against himself and see the lumpen as signifying not only the failures of a proletariat revolution, but the foregone possibility of an alternative organizing principle around which a different vision of the future can be vitalized.

Finally, this is me saying as Lucy Davis, the editor of focas: Forum On Contemporary Art & Society, once did. In her essay on the desire for real interactions, Lucy writes of the artist as anthropologist, heading outside the gallery ‘to find and interact with the ‘real’ hybrid’.[11] As she pointed out, it is not more real out there than it is in here. I am not foolish enough to think that through my writing I will raise the subject to a face-to-face exchange with me, or that I could even pin down who a ‘real’ foreign worker is.


It seems that some of the artists in this project are cognizant of this difficulty of speaking to real subjects. After all, a monument to foreign workers will be presented with inscriptions in a language a great number of them will not be able to comprehend. Two artists re-inscribes the name Raffles as a chain[12] linking persons up in progressive solidarity, thereby presuming the name Raffles to be as free a signifier for us artists as it is for the ‘real’ foreign workers. One crucial decision facing the artists seems to me to be the mode and time of address; addressing the subject directly or by way of another audience, for example, and if the response should be deferred or timely.

Maybe raising the real subject is not the right question to ask anyway, of the efforts in this project, or of this essay. The ‘real’ foreign worker is not here reading this. With a nod to Kester, the questions to ask may be, who is talking (are you talking to them), and who is talking to whom (are they talking to you)?


[1] ‘Marxist Plot Uncovered’, The Straits Times 27 May 1987.

[2] Chris Lydgate, Lee’s Law: how Singapore crushes dissent (Melbourne, Scribe Publications 2003), 200.

[3] Francis Seow, To Catch A Tartar, (New Haven, Monograph 42, Yale Southeast Asia Studies, 1994), Appendix 1.

[4] Tun Mohamed Dzaiddin Abdullah, ‘National Security Considerations under the Internal Security Act 1960 – Recent Developments’, Malaysian Law Journal. First presented at a conference on “Constitutionalism, Human Rights and Good Governance” at Kuala Lumpur on 30 Sept to 1 Oct 2003.

[5] Chng Suan Tze vs. Minister of Home Affairs, Singapore Law Report 132, C.A.

[6]Teo Soh Lung vs. Minister of Home Affairs, Singapore Law Report 40, C.A.

[7] Internal Security Act 8B(2).

[8] The Straits Times quoted in Chin Kin Wah, “Singapore: Threat Perception and Defense Spending in a City-State,” in Defense Spending in Southeast Asia, ed. Chin Kin Wah (Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 1987), 246.

[9] Grant Kester, ‘Dialogical Aesthetics: A Critical Framework For Littoral Art’, Variant 9.

[10] Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, in Marx & Engels Collected Works: Volume 10 (Moscow 2005).

[11] Lucy Davis, Natural Born Vandals (Or The Desire For Real Interactions With Real People), focas: Forum On
Contemporary Art & Society
No 1 Jan 2001, 130.

[12] See chain of equivalence in Ernesto Laclau, On Populist Reason, (Verso, London 2005).


An essay I wrote for Raised, a festival revolving around foreign workers, has been pulled from publication by National Arts Council. Raised is a major component of the Curating Lab, part of this year’s Singapore Art Show. 8 artists are involved, and three of them corresponded with me as I wrote my essay – Amanda Heng, Cheo Chai Hiang and Justin Loke.

It began early last week, when NAC called for a meeting regarding the publication of the catalogue. It was originally going to include my essay, artists’ interviews as well as images. Amanda and Chai Hiang were called, but I was strangely omitted. Lim Chwee Seng, Phillip Francis, Director and Assistant Director of visual arts in the Council were present. Amanda and Chai Hiang were told that the essay cannot be published. Amanda had asked if the essay could be published if they suggested areas for rewrites, but the directors were firm on their request for no rewrites, but no publication. According to Amanda, they offered a few rationales to her and Chai Hiang, one being that a single catalogue essay will overwhelm any other interpretation of the artists’ work. Amanda, that dear woman, replied that speaking as one of the artists involved, she has no fear that Jason will overwhelm her work. Another rationale was at five pages, my essay was too long in comparison to the shorter artists’ interviews, but again, they were firm on suggesting no rewrites.

When I’ve gotten word of the meeting, I called Phillip up to talk over a coffee. Phillip was careful to avoid framing the removal of the essay from publication as censorship. Whether he is reflecting his boss’ opinion, or his own, I cannot tell. He says that NAC will look for alternative platforms to place the essay.

A few questions came to my mind. In deciding between publication platforms, does Chwee Seng and Phillip have some kind of division between publics, between a critical one and a non-critical one, for example, or between a populist readership and a marginal one? And what does pulling the essay the week before the Art Show opens say about the possibility of re-publication? Also, it is hard for me to determine the level of sensitivity that the two directors have taken issue with. Is the essay threading on sensitive territory because I connected the ramifications from 1987’s Operation Spectrum to the contemporary engagement with foreign workers as a social cause? Or is it because I footnoted Francis Seow? Or is it because I discussed the dreaded Internal Security Act? Or is it simply because I suggested possibilities of seeing socially engaged work as art, where the social engagement is evaluated as a crucial criteria of the work’s artistic success? Finally, since my writing is part of the meeting’s agenda, isn’t it professional courtesy to call me to the meeting?

That is the problem with bureaucratic positions that suggests ambiguity in place of censorship. I understand the desire for wiggle room, but I also wonder if it might be better for the council to hold a press conference for every future time they decide to withdraw a license, pull a publication, cut lines or images. Publicly announce the decision and the rationale. If there is no rationale, just say exactly that. At least it acknowledges how the requirement for justification is, in reality, low, and it preempts journalists going to artists to ask difficult questions that the council might be unhappy about.

On hindsight, looking at this from 2010, the offer to find alternative publication is a deceptive misdirection. I have not received any offer in the intervening period to re-publish, and I have not received any apology for they not being able to find opportunities to do so

Jason Wee is an artist and a writer. He also runs Grey Projects, an alternative arts project space, www.greyprojects.org

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Michelle Loh

First-World Leaders

Every year, after the examination results come out, many graduating students in the top five junior colleges in Singapore would receive bundled information on various scholarship schemes. They must decide which scholarship to apply for, which will then determine their career paths for the next ten years. After they bag a scholarship and come back to work, as long as they do everything ‘right’, it is almost safe to assume longevity and prosperity in the civil service for the next twenty years or more.

This is Singapore’s system: If you yearn to work in the civil service, the Cambridge GCE ‘A’ Level results can either make or break you.

The installation of top brains at age 18 to civil servitude has been one reason behind Singapore’s great economic success over the last thirty years. This system created a leadership educated in the areas that are identified as critical to economic success: the sciences, mathematics, engineering and economics. Many of these top students pursued their studies in top universities overseas with government scholarships and returned to work in Singapore, holding important posts in the public sector or key roles in government-linked companies. It was a well-calculated structure, ensuring high probability of successes.

Singapore’s system of civil service was so successful, that The Monocle Singapore Survey 2009 suggested that one of the Singapore brands that could go global was “Singapore’s civil service”. Imagine the day when Singapore franchised its civil service to the Netherlands, Italy and maybe even the United States. By the way, only the Central Provident Fund was deemed a more prominent brand for Singapore (Monocle, 2009, pp10).

First-Class Report Card

Singapore has a first-world economy. It boasts of many achievements: world-class infrastructure, great wealth, and a high quality of living (see the World Economic Forum 2009, The Globalisation Index 2007, The Monocle Singapore Survey 2009 and the World Competitiveness Report 2008).

There is one thing, however, that Singapore has not managed to score an A plus in: its arts and culture. It is not difficult to understand why.

Singapore’s education system is structured mainly according to the country’s manpower needs. The government predicts the number of professionals required in each industry, projecting this ten or even twenty years ahead. Singapore’s educational institutions would then react to the government’s forecast, and managed the number of graduates produced in various fields as projected by the government. Which industries are on the rise, and how many people – or as Lee Kuan Yew says “digits” – are required to satisfy the quota? By default, the system should churn out the necessary tools (brains, hands, legs and all) to meet the demands of the industries that will propel Singapore’s economy in the future.

Third World Culture

What about Singapore’s culture? What about music, dance, theatre and fine arts? The level of appreciation and expectation we have for the arts are so much lower than that for money. If we compare the level of passion and energy that the Singapore government and its people have in making money and with that devoted to the arts, the difference is glaring.

We have world-class buildings, state-of-the-art performing and arts exhibition venues, an efficient transportation system, high-quality healthcare, finance, and legal institutions and the essential economic wheels. When it comes to culture and the arts, all Singaporeans want are free cultural events in the community (Kong, 2008). In other words, we expect culture to be sent straight to the doorstep, free-of-charge. Then, we will decide whether we want to watch it or not. For many Singaporeans, getting to know your neighbour’s culture or learning to appreciate an art genre is dispensable.

From an official perspective, the Singapore’s government began to pay attention to the arts only from 1991 onwards when it set up the National Arts Council (NAC). What have been done during these eighteen years that can be considered impactful?

The transformation of Singapore’s arts industry was rapid, especially so from the view of the government. Singapore had resolved infrastructural and institutional issues for performing and visual arts. In the last few years the NAC with the other agencies such as the Media Development Authority have enlarged the scope of their work to include other areas of the so-called ‘creative industries’ such as architecture, design, and game design, which are considered income-generating (Renaissance City Plan, 2008). In our position in the globalised world, where economic matters, societal issues, political concerns and cultural networks are closely linked together, Singapore has chosen to move with the international trend to bet on the next wave of economic prosperity deriving from the creative industries.

Unfortunately, we do not have enough people to front this endeavour. Most of the nation’s senior civil servants enter the public sector immediately upon graduation. They tend to be highly educated and have been trained to think, with a strong inclination towards left-brain skills. Many have been trained in law, mathematics, engineering and the sciences. No matter how risk-adverse the government is, the reality is this: the economy is now heading towards a greater dependence on creativity.

The ‘Cultured’ Minister for Culture

Could Singapore use the same scholarship and educational system to produce the next generation of leaders, teachers, and workers to build its creative industries? It may be too late now, in order to ride the ‘creative industries wave’.

At a recent town hall meeting of artists to select possible nominees for an “arts Nominated Member of Parliament”, someone asked when Singapore would have our first minister for culture who is an artist. Perhaps now is the time. Why? It is because the arts can earn its keep. People may argue that arts should not be viewed as an alternative route to a country’s economic developments. Here are the facts: the creative industries (which also comprised the arts) produced a multiplier effect of 1.66 in the year 2000, which was more than the banking, and petrochemical industries (RCP I, 2000). So the stark truth again: there is money in the creative industries, in the arts.

Taking from the above meeting, the government may wish to consider having a Minister for Culture who is an artist, a person equipped with artistic knowledge, and one who knows how the industry functions. One who understands the artists, their temperaments and their concerns. There were predecessors whose primary training may not be in the arts, but other creative fields such as journalism and architecture.

Singapore’s first Minister for Culture, S. Rajaratnam, put in place the ‘Music for Everyone’ series and the first South-East Asia Cultural Festival. Ong Teng Cheong, Acting Minister for Culture from 1978-1981, was an established architect and also an accomplished pianist. Under his governance, the Cultural Medallion Awards and the Singapore Arts Festival were instituted.

On the contrary, there were others who were not trained in the arts, but fully represented the arts and culture of Singapore during different times. George Yeo was a double-first graduate in Engineering. He was also the longest serving Minister for Information and the Arts (1990-1999), seeing through the restructuring of the Ministry as well as the formation of the various councils.

This does not mean to imply that artists are better in handling events, and engineers are better for organisation and order (though it very well may be true!). What it means, is that the ‘Cultured’ Minister for Culture is just another part of the bigger picture. Where do the arts stand at the current junction? Is it time to create new identities in the arts or is it time to review the responsibilities of the arts council? How is Singapore positioned in the regional context? Is it still relevant to promote an Asian collectivism? He or she may be bound by issues that affect the priorities of the arts, the government, and the society.

All the above different styles and personalities of governance have contributed to the overall artistic landscape that we have today. But wouldn’t it be good if Singapore has more right-brainers as policy makers instead of only using artists in advisory boards and consultative panels?

Jack Lang, the Minister for Culture of France for ten years, was the guardian of the country’s cultural and artistic heritage, especially the French language. He was an actor and producer. Not only did he strengthen the French national identity, he also prevented the infiltration of the English-language. In other countries such as UK and Japan, the Ministers for Culture are still very much trained in the more scientific areas. They and their predecessors have also created a first-world culture that promotes the creation of new identities, yet maintain a high level of appreciation for the traditional arts.

A minister who sets policies that will nurture and encourage the development of various arts forms, and who preserves and creates new identities in the arts: that is what Singapore needs. But does having a Minister for Culture who is trained in the arts (or is an artist) mean that Singapore’s policies for the arts and creative industries would change for the better? Does an artistic leadership mean better policy making for the arts? In order to build an open society with high tolerance for diversity and a people who are receptive to nurturing the ‘old’ and creating the ‘new’ in the arts, it may take more than one person’s effort.

However, a ‘cultured’ Minister for Culture may be a symbol that distinguishes a first-world culture. He may represent a first-world culture where the nation embraces change and the creation of new identities in the arts. A first-world culture in which the environment is fertile for seeding ideas and facilitates the preservation and development of various arts forms.

Singapore need not follow in others’ footsteps. We can create our own artistic landscape. But I feel that by having ministers and Members Of Parliament with professional arts backgrounds do make a difference. Already, there are some top civil servants and leaders of the society who have received training in various artistic competencies. Together, they can contribute to a collective voice that calls for both the strengthening of roots and the pushing of boundaries to build a first world culture. A collective voice of different opinions is the step towards an open society, one that embraces change. A collective voice that acknowledges that by taking the risk to fail, is to allow us a chance to learn, to explore.


Notes Across the Years (2005). Paul Abisheganaden, UNIPRESS, The Centre for the Arts, National University of Singapore (pp 168, 254)
The Monocle Singapore Survey (2009). Monocle.
Give it up for the Surgeon General (October 2009). Frank Ferri, Reader’s Digest, p. 72.
Renaissance City Plan I, II and III (2000, 2005 and 2008). Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts.
Study on the Value of Arts and Culture and Public Engagement Strategies, Professor Lily Kong (January 2008). Department of Geography, National University of Singapore
World Economic Forum (2009). The Global Competitiveness Report [Online].
http://www.weforum.org/en/initiatives/gcp/Global%20Competitiveness%20Report/index.htm (Accessed 2 November 2009)
ETH Zurich (2009). KOF Globalisation Index [Online]. http://globalization.kof.ethz.ch/
(Accessed 2 November 2009)
IMD (2009) World Competitiveness Yearbook 2009 [Online].
http://www.imd.ch/research/publications/wcy/World-Competitiveness-Yearbook-Results.cfm (Accessed 2 November 2009)
Economic Development Board (2009). Singapore Rankings [Online].
(last accessed 27 October 2009)

Michelle Loh is teaching Arts Policy at Lasalle College of the Arts. She is also a full-time PhD candidate with Goldsmiths University of London, and a full-time mom. Her arts background is in music.

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