A Singapore Serenade
By Pema Choden Tenzin
For any metropolitan city, the onslaught of flashy malls, luxury brands and majestic skyscrapers often overshadow its rich cultural treasures and local nuances that lay hidden either in a museum or the isolated outskirts. But for Singapore, the arts hold a special place in the country’s multicultural space. It is indeed everywhere-you just have to turn your gaze towards it.
When you visit Singapore, you can’t help but feel like you’ve been transported to the sets of the Hunger Games or Avatar. Whether it’s the giant floating ship on the Marina Bay Sands Hotel or the durian-resembling giant Esplanade theatre- Singapore is a hub of mega insfrastructural marvels. The artchitectural magnificence that the city has achieved is in itself an ode to design and the arts.
But mostly, Singapore’s vibrant arts scene stems from the country’s multi-cultural space. The diverse artistic inspirations range from the rich and diverse influences of some of southeast Asia’s most vibrant cultures.
Support for theater, museums and other cultural activities has been moving up the official agenda of the city-state in recent years. “The government has made a conscious effort to promote the arts, setting aside generous grants and subsidies every year,” says Michael Chiang, creator and chief editor of Singapore’s weekly Arts Magazine, ‘The A List’. “The Singapore arts scene now is extremely vibrant and dynamic, compared to 15-20 years ago. There are more arts events and festivals now than there ever were.”
But rightly so, many argue that moving its priorities in promoting the arts comes easy for a country having met most of its economic agendas. But it isn’t only the aesthetics of a city that becomes pleasing to the eye-but rather, it encourages its people to appreciate and engage in the world of art.
Installation artist, Donna Ong, on the Creators’ Project, talks about how the city’s interest in the arts was a more recent evolution. “Singapore has been without an art market or proper art spaces for a long time. All this suddenly changed in the last few years. Before, artists were used to creating what they wanted and finding the means to do it, themselves.” Singapore’s more avant-garde side is indeed a new phenomenon. But owing now to the country’s vision to become a global Arts City, Singapore’s artistic landscape has since then grown to new horizons. But it wasn’t always easy for artists. Painter Ruben Pang, also on the Creators’ Project, says he was raised to look forward to a white collar job and that the art world was basically looked at as a hive of delinquents- a story not so different from what Bhutan is facing today.
So how important are the arts in a society? Katerina Gregos, an arts curator, describes the role of the arts, at a TED event, as a medium that strive to prove a counter point to the prevailing images of power and stereotypes that are fed to us by media and society. “Art is about one person’s expectations and use of their own freedom to act. Art is optimistic because it makes a statement that one person can change the world even if it that world exists in a tiny piece of paper five by seven inches. Art as an act of shared communication is in a small way saying I make the world. I don’t simply inherit it.
Michael Chiang, believes in the reflective influence, an often undermined facet of the arts. “The arts provide insights into how we, as individuals and as a community, think, behave and feel. The arts also document a certain period in a society’s development. So I feel artists have a crucial role in helping society take stock of values, of changes, and serve to make us pause and question where we’re headed.”
From colorful unique street art along the houses of Haji Lane, the echoes of screaming monologues at the Vicotorian theatre to meetings with some of Singapore’s greatest creative artists in the publishing industry- my Singapore experience definitely made me look at the metropolitan city from a different perspective. Trust me, I’m no art connoisseur and honestly I don’t claim to understand it fully but I guess that’s its beauty- its ungraspable value.
It is impossible to both quantify and qualify how art affects those who see it because it works in a mysterious, latent and very subtle way. That’s why it’s always an uphill struggle to convince society of encouraging the arts among our children– to convince that the value, the importance, the significance and the merit of art cannot be judged by popular consensus and numbers alone. In this day and age, I believe arts should not only be promoted for arts sake but for the mere importance of individual expression. It should be promoted to conserve a cultural form that is often looked at as uneccessary and a luxury for only the elite. And Singapore’s realization of this inherent social need will prove beneficial in their ultimate quest to becoming a true Renaissance city of Asia.