The Singapore arts scene has been marked by the recent opening of the Esplanade as the largest theater in the region, as well as new theaters like the Arts House and the Drama Center. And, the “Renaissance City Report” presented by the Singapore government in 2000 stressed the importance of the arts and brought new funding that has invigorated the arts scene. To learn about the status of these new developments, we spoke to the Singapore National Arts Council’s Senior Director of Arts Cluster Development and director of the Singapore Arts Festival, Ms. Goh Ching Lee.
(Interview: Ken Takiguchi)
What is your view of the recent developments in Singapore performing arts scene?
I think the obvious developments are a kind of outcome of the policy made in the late 1980s about developing Singapore into a culturally vibrant society. In the last 10 years, with the formation of the National Arts Council (NAC), we have been pursuing the mission of developing Singapore as a distinctive global arts city. So, the development in terms of infrastructure and funding can be traced back to the mid 80s and it was the time, I think, when the arts became a part of the national agenda. Before that, Singapore has very much focused on establishing economic foundations, trade development, education, housing and basic infrastructure. Right after our independence in 1965, Singapore’s GDP was less than some of the African countries’. We tend to forget these facts when we see Singapore today but, at that time, these were the pressing, urgent needs.
Only in the 80s did we start to feel that we had come a long way and now there was more time for us to look into things other than material achievement. People had become more educated and they requested different kinds of things, including the arts. That was the origin of the recent developments.
Before the government’s “Renaissance City Report,” there was another important report, called “the Report of the Advisory Council on Culture and the Arts,” which was released in 1987. The report committee was chaired by the deputy prime minister, so it was a very high-level committee. They studied the needs of the
arts—aspirations of the people, requirements to implement the vision of a culturally vibrant society. It was this report that recommended the formation of the National Arts Council, the building of the Esplanade, government funding for the La Salle polytechnic institution to train young practitioners and establishing new museums.
Without this report, the landscape of Singapore arts would probably be quite different from what we have today. The government developed a lot of infrastructure based on the recommendations of this 1987 report. The National Arts Council was established in 1991 and the Esplanade company was formed in 1992.
Another important development was the Arts Housing program. We have taken over a lot of heritage buildings in areas of the city such as Little India, Chinatown and Waterloo, and converted them into premises for artists. They can work, rehearse there and even convert these houses into performance spaces. They only need to pay 10% of the rent—the government subsides 90%.
And NAC has been playing a major role there.
Yes. But in the 1990s, our focus was more on the infrastructure. However, later on, more focus was put on the software aspects. The “Renaissance City Report” came with a special funding of over 50 million [Singapore] dollars over five years to support artists’ works by strengthening artist companies, developing artistic works and engaging our artists more in international projects.
Especially, the grant scheme for the major theatre companies has had a great impact on the local theatre industry. Can you explain about it?
This 2-year Major Grant scheme was also established as a result of the “Renaissance City Report.” Although the companies were funded even before this scheme was introduced, the level of the funding was lower. There was a clear shift towards support for the artists at that time. The budget that came with the Report enabled us to create the grant structure, which gives more stable funding to the arts companies.
And NAC itself was restructured in 2004. What was the aim of the restructuring? Any changes in the policy on supporting the arts?
In the last couple of years, also as a part of the “Renaissance City Report,” there was awareness that the arts had become a part of the wider creative industry. The arts are not only for their own sake. Arts can also support the economy, the community and nation-building. Sometimes we call it “the ABCs of the arts,” namely Arts for the Arts, arts for Business and arts for the Community. This is quite a new concept in Singapore, but it reflects recent international developments in a way. Now, the commercial sectors like music, film, publishing and new media technologies are interconnected and create an industry that can make an impact on Singapore as a society.
With this philosophy, NAC has taken a different kind of approach to support for the arts in the last two years. It is a holistic approach to the arts as a part of industry. And, our support is not only directed towards the key players, but also for the small companies with potential who also have roles to play. They should support each other. Although most of our support goes to the non-profit sector of the arts, we work quite a lot with commercial companies who want to venture into the arts, like art galleries and auction houses. Occasionally, we help them to organize arts-related events. This is not in terms of funding, but engaging them in the arts and, at the same time, helping them to improve their product.
The whole idea is to make Singapore a vibrant place with multiple levels of players—artists, venues, intermediaries, independent producers, organizers and public schools.
I’m sure that the Singapore Arts Festival is a part of the vision of a culturally vibrant city. The Festival is now recognized internationally as one of Asia’s leading arts festivals.
Yes. The character of the Festival was set based on the vision of the NAC, “to develop Singapore as a distinctive global city for the arts.” The keywords are “distinctive” and “global.” Global means that we want to be engaged internationally. Maybe previously we tended to say that Singapore was catching up and getting global players. That’s still very important. However, now we feel that we have reached the stage where we can share what we have achieved. Not just importing, but exporting artists of potential as well.
And we find ourselves being very comfortable working with the East and the West because we are in a very special position in between East and West—Asia and rest of the world, and because Singapore has a multi-cultural background. We can play a role of interfacing both and that is reflected in our culture and the works created by our artists. Ong Keng Sen, the Artistic Director of Theatre Works, is an excellent example of one who is creating a new kind of hybrid artistic sensibility.
And that is why [international] collaboration is considered very important in our festival. It is a reflection of what we are and what we hope to contribute to the cultural scene.
As the Festival Director, how do you put together the program? What is your selection policy?
There is a very clear identity to the Festival—we focus on Asia and contemporary works. We are also quite interested in technology. I feel all these elements reflect what we are in Singapore and are quite natural to us. A lot of young people here are very connected to the new visual world and they have no baggage, meaning cultural baggage, which prevents them from accepting a lot of new ideas freely.
The audience always wants to see what is different and new. We have a very young audience. I think the age of most of the audience, 60-70% of them, is below 35. So, that governs the way we program. But, of course, as a national festival of Singapore, we need programs that are more accessible to the general public. So, there is a mixture of different kinds of programs, but I would say Asian programs and contemporary programs are the majority.
We are quite interested in looking at the process of each project—unique and interesting processes of creation. We also consider the context—discussing some issues that are pertinent to us. Our selection criteria are a combination of these two elements. I feel that “innovation” is the keyword in our festival. We are always looking for original movements or processes of creation. We are also looking for intercultural aspects—collaborations with and between different countries and cultures—and interdisciplinary projects such as collaborations between dance and theatre, music and theatre or dance and multimedia. These works sometimes break down conventional ideas of category.
In terms of the theme, we are interested in issues about identity, such as the issue of migration and diaspora, and history. Revisiting historical context is an important theme for us.