Cultural Policy in Singapore

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CULTURAL POLICY IN SINGAPORE: NEGOTIATING ECONOMIC AND SOCIO-CULTURAL AGENDAS1

Lily Kong Associate Professor Department of Geography National University of Singapore Kent Ridge Singapore 119260

Email: lilykong@nus.edu.sg Fax: 65-7773091

Geoforum For Special Issue on “Culture, Economy, Policy”

2000

This paper was written while I was Visiting Fellow at the Institute of Oriental Culture, Tokyo University. I would like to record thanks to Assoc Prof Tong Chee Kiong for facilitating my attachment at the Institute of Oriental Culture. I am also grateful to Professor Takeshi Hamashita for taking time off his extremely busy schedule to extend hospitality. Thanks are also due to the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science for financing the fellowship and the National University of Singapore (NUS) for the travel grant.

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CULTURAL POLICY IN SINGAPORE: NEGOTIATING ECONOMIC AND SOCIO-CULTURAL AGENDAS

INTRODUCTION At the opening of a local conference titled “Art versus Art: Conflict and Convergence” in 1993, Ho Kwon Ping, Chairman of the Practice Performing Arts Centre, a private arts school, made the following observation about the increased attention paid to the arts in Singapore in the late 1980s and 1990s: We are moving so very rapidly in a national effort to change this underdeveloped state in the Arts. It was only in 1988 when the Ong Teng Cheong Advisory Council on Art and Culture completed its extended study. The change that has taken place in the last five years has been phenomenal: We now have a Cabinet Minister for the Arts, a National Arts Council, half a dozen professional performing companies, a National Gallery under renovation, arts major degree programmes in both universities and as much as $500 million set aside to build a world class arts centre scheduled to open before the year 20002 (Art vs Art, 1995:7). Indeed, the Singapore government aims to make the city-state a “global city of the arts” by the year 2000 and has spared little effort to achieve this. What has brought on this vigour in cultural policy and action which was lacking before? As Liu Kang, one of Singapore’s pioneer artists noted, the lack of support for the arts in the post-World War Two and early post-independence years was stark: the government spent tens of millions on secondary and primary schools, but nothing on an arts academy (the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, then the only arts academy in Singapore). It spent huge sums building structures like the National Stadium but did little to channel the funds to developing the arts. Even in the mid-1980s, as Koh (1989:736) pointed out, the government still held the view that Material and social welfare, earning a living, and economic survival have always been Singapore’s mostly immigrant community’s primary concerns, and the arts have never been seen as a “basic need”.

The arts centre in question is named the Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay. It would include a 2,000 seat concert hall and a 1,800 seat Lyric Theatre. The projected opening date has since been revised to 2001.

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As Liu articulated, it was because the government was very good “when it came to things related to business (the airport, the harbour), but negligent when it comes to the arts” (Art vs Art, 1995:13). Yet, he, like the state, accepted without question a dichotomy between "business" and "the arts". In this paper, my first intention is to examine the role of cultural policy3 in a newly industrialised economy which is at the same time a state with a short history4, and only nascent beginnings in nation-building and efforts to construct a distinctive cultural identity. As Dunn (1997:7) advocates in the context of Australia, I take “cultural policy” beyond the narrow conception of “policy development, government process and consultancies” to include a “focus upon power, upon the forces of oppression and strategies of resistance”, “stressing the role of everyday places, of landscapes, in the...
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