發文作者:Albert Tzeng | 2012/11/27

Three Constraints for Art in Singapore

“Why is Singapore not able to breed and support many local artists?" A girl asked me the question after we met in a conference on “Rethinking Asian Century with Art" yesterday. I wrote a long reply, in which I attributed the relative absence of artistic or cultural creativity in Singapore to three factors: the urgency to forge one nation in a multiracial environment, the preoccupation of economic pragmatism, and the obsession with political stability.

Hers’s my reply:

Dear Lei-shi, well it’s nice that you raised the question. First of all I have to point out that there exist some forms of art that is distinctively Singaporean- for instance the multilingual drama by Kuo Pao-Kun. But in general I think you are right that Singapore is not a country known for its achievement in either fine art or pop industry, especially when compared with Taiwan and Korea.

I think three particularities of Singapore explained its relative absence of artistic or cultural creativity: the urgency to forge one nation in a multiracial environment, the preoccupation of economic pragmatism, and the obsession with political stability.

First, artistic creativity need to be cultivated in an environment rich of cultural resources. The multicultural setting of Singapore, in this regard, should have been an advantage. However, the past effort to forge one nation out of four (or more) ethnic groups involved deliberate suppression on the passage of ethnic-specific histories and cultural heritage, depriving its citizen the intellectual, philosophical and aesthetic resource necessary to resist the domination of Western materialism.

Let’s just focus on one basic thing-language, the bearer of thought and a significant portion of human civilization. In a conference organized to commemorate Tan Lark Se on Oct 28, Mr Tharman Shanmugaratnam said that the language education in Singapore is aimed at training the majority of its citizen to learn both English and their ethnic language to a level that is “functionally capable". This standard set is admittedly practical given, but it’s also far from enough to cater an audience keen to appreciate any text-based forms of art– let alone creative minds.

Second, the preoccupation of economic survival has led to a penetrating national ideology that prioritizes efficiency over many other values. This economic-efficiency ideology can be observed in many aspects of how the society is structured.

The education system, for instance, is designed to differentiate its students and to fit them into different occupational roles in an efficient way. It is not, however, designed with the students’ need of self-exploring and cultivation in mind. The cultural values reproduced in the school system is also characterized by pragmatism toward employability and economic competitiveness, rendering artistic work and risky and unblessed endeavor.

The HDB is another manifestation of such ideology. Housing an entire nation was indeed a remarkable achievement. But the preoccupation on systematic efficiency in the construction and functionality of HDB had a serious price. This preoccupation leads to the penetration of planning rationality and practices of standardization on many aspects, from its spatial layout and numbering. The consequence was the large-scale built environment blessed for its functional convenience but cursed by its giant, inhumane structure, its spatial predictability, tedious outlook and lack of character. Being raised in such environment, I tend to believe, makes it more challenging for the nation’s younger generation to develop a sense of human agency (ability to change the structure), aesthetic sense and creativity.

Finally, political constraints are natural rivals of artistic expression—although admittedly, sometimes such a pressure could be a source of inspiration. I still remember how the 1987 lifting of martial law in Taiwan entails an outburst of a wide range of artistic works. The improved of confidence on the freedom of expression encourage waves of creative workers to test the new boundaries of possibilities, if there should be any. This sense of liberty, surely you know, is not yet a part of Singaporean life. The pupils here are systematically disciplined to observe the explicit or hidden rules and a permit or approval is needed to do a wide range of things. The conservative, suppressive climate simply turned the expedition of artistic possibilities a risky endeavor to take. Remember, most of the cutting edge art is subversive in some sense.

Hope this view helps. Best, Albert

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