An Open Letter to newly elected President of the Republic of Singapore, Tharman Shanmugaratnam
Dear President Tharman,
Congratulations on your resounding victory! You are clearly loved and genuinely respected by all in Singapore. There is so much to look forward to under your presidency.
It was heartening to hear the arts receive prominent mentions in both yours and Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s speeches at the inauguration ceremony. This was indeed a momentous signifier for the future of all in the arts scene here.
More than 30 years ago when I first dived into the visual arts as a teenager, infrastructure was sparse. There was no Singapore Art Museum (SAM), no National Gallery of Singapore (NGS) or STPI. The National Arts Council (NAC, est. Oct 1991) and the National Heritage Board (NHB, est. Aug 1993) were not even formed. Our dedicated art museum then consisted only of a couple of exhibition halls located at the site of the current National Museum of Singapore, accessible from an inconspicuous door along Fort Canning Road. On the initiative of Kuo Pao Kun and with state support, The Substation on Armenian Street opened its doors (est. Sept 1990) and soon enough, became the center of my world as an aspiring artist. There, I became acquainted with artists from The Artists Village and students from LaSalle. I saw local bands, from folk to punk play original materials and watched local theatre groups perform at its outdoor garden and intimate blackbox theatre. I met poets, writers, and photographers. Later, a guerilla film editing workshop tucked in a small room in the building brought aspiring filmmakers into the mix.
Although economically challenged, and without formal structure, the creative and artistic spirit was very much alive. I was proud to witness and follow the birth and development of highly experimental and influential groups such as Theatre Ox and Metabolic Theatre Laboratory. And thanks to the National Library on Stamford Road and ‘traditional’ coffeeshops in proximity, artists and art workers often met to discuss plans for their next project, had friendly debates, and shared information and knowledge between their visits to the art museum, library, and The Substation. This was a time when the roles of curators and art managers were beginning to take shape, mostly out of necessity.
Through published opinions, interviews, and critiques on visual arts in mass media, thought leaders such as Kuo Pao Kun, T.K. Sabapathy, Kwok Kian Chow and T. Sasitharan provided much to chew on for the community. Their ideas were informed, relatable, and delivered with much conviction. As persons, they were consistently present and extremely approachable. So were figureheads such as Tommy Koh, and Joseph McNally. To date, I have lost count of the number of reassuring anecdotes on encounters with Joseph McNally from students who studied at LaSalle in the 1980s and 1990s.
Prior to his role as the President of Singapore (1993-1999), the late Ong Teng Cheong chaired the Advisory Council on Culture and the Arts (ACCA, 1989) in his role as the Second Deputy Prime Minister. As we all already know, the ACCA report and later, his role in initiating the groundbreaking Renaissance City Plan 1.0 (2000-2004) led to the establishment of the NAC and NHB. Construction of dedicated arts venues ensued, along with improvement to arts education.
Today, Singapore boasts of world class visual arts infrastructures such as the NGS and the soon-to-open, newly refurbished SAM at the old St Joseph’s Institution on Bras Basah Road. We have STPI, a cutting edge and internationally renowned printmaking workshop and gallery. NAC continues to award various grants and scholarships amongst its other endeavours. Alongside various art programs at Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (NAFA), LASALLE and Nanyang Technological University (NTU), we now have a University for the Arts (UAS). There is the Singapore Biennale, an international biennale for contemporary art, and Art SG, the nascent international art fair succeeding Art Stage Singapore. We also represent ourselves as a nation at the prestigious Venice Biennale. These large and remarkable visual arts framework from our ‘little red dot’ is indeed impressive. On the surface, they place our visual arts landscape on par with the best in Asia and many cities around the world.
Yet, for all that has been built and achieved, I have met an increasing number of despondent and disillusioned artists, curators, art writers and other visual arts professionals here. This has been happening more and more since the last 5 years. These members of the visual arts community are fellow citizens who have invested a large part of their lives in the arts and passionately contributed to the growth of our visual arts scene. They are academically trained, with degrees from accredited institutions in Singapore and prestigious foreign institutions. Many have even had their work shown and received recognition overseas. But even with their specialised skills, experience, and seniority, many feel that the collective path ahead here is clouded with considerable ambiguity.
While their perennial gripe circle around stagnating (and incommensurate) incomes, prohibitive access to developmental facilities, a general lack of local patronage and opportunities, the underlying matter appears to be frustration over the dearth of professional cognition amongst personnel in decision-making positions.
The recently published Our SG Arts Plan (2023-2027) by NAC focuses heavily on unlocking public spaces to socialise art, to launch art programs as a means of social engagement, and a push for an economy of ‘competitiveness’ and international recognition of Singapore as a creative centre. The development of the artistic, or creativity, as is often mentioned in the plan, revolves around these strategic thrusts without specifically spotlighting the needs and welfare of artists themselves. There was also no mention of initiatives for leadership development or regeneration. And while the plan mentions an ‘ecosystem approach’, the place and enrichment of pivotal and holistic roles such as management, curating, programming, critical writing, dealership, and other off-stage occupations such as conservation, art handling and research were not sufficiently articulated. I agree that our society may hunger to be entertained, inspired, and engaged by art, but a continued lack of attention toward these necessary parts risks our arts scene devolving into a one-dimensional and centrally directed existence.
In all fields including the arts, sound management is naturally desired and work well-done duly recognised. In the arts, although great managers may be construed as capable leaders, they rarely equate to an expansive vision in its governance.
This visionary leadership I speak of is not one that is singular, private, individualistic, or belonging exclusively to those in high office. Visionary leaders dream, motivate, disrupt, challenge, yet are also able to conciliate. Convenient segmentation and mimicry of otherwise tiresome conventions belie their conviction for originality of creation, presentation, and communication. Such leaders defend utopian ideals, provide room for chance, brave formative experiments and invest in futures. Their disposition is one that evolves not only through experience or academia, but personal and genuine care and passion. For them, a status quo is only as relevant as wearing t-shirts instead of suits in sweltering tropical heat just to look the part.
Sustainability is an often-used buzzword when planning the arts. We may suppose that one of its key objectives is economic independence, so as not to burden public spending. To achieve this, a plan that is seeded with investment from state organs would require the commitment to accountability, with clear and present leadership to instill confidence, provide depth, character, and substance. An arts plan also requires voluntary buy-in and active participation of artists, arts professionals, and patrons who believe in a shared and unambiguous vision. Then comes the matter of distinctive curation and programming to attract, sustain and cultivate an empowered audience. Without leadership, a plan remains a concept and its management only symbolic of intent and ambition. To cite a few, below are some implemented plans that may have misplaced their bearings and came with both financial and psychological costs for our visual arts community and the public.
In 2013, after sitting out its participation for the 55th edition of the Venice Biennale for visual arts, Singapore returned in 2015 with a commitment to a 20-year lease for a 250 square meter space at the 16th century Sale d'Armi building at the Arsenale. In 2024, it is on track to present the 5th out of a total of 10 country pavilion editions there. However, how its selection committees are formed, and how artists and curators are chosen is still much of a mystery to our visual arts community. Closer to home, the Singapore Biennale, inaugurated in 2006 with acclaimed Japanese curator Fumio Nanjo as Artistic Director appeared uncertain at various points of its being. The biennale skipped the years 2010, 2015, 2018, and 2021, almost suggesting that it was metamorphosising into a triennale, or worse, that it may abruptly and unceremoniously expire. In contrast to the 20-year commitment to the Venice Biennale, no long-term plans or revised strategic objectives for the Singapore Biennale seem to have been made public. In 2012, the Economic Development Board (EDB), JTC Corporation (JTC) and NAC relaunched Gillman Barracks as a 6.4-hectare, international visual art galleries enclave. Soon after it was launched, its founding director was relocated to head the NGS. Without a replacement of leadership and much needed support for the then nascent project, international galleries such as The Drawing Room, Equator Art Projects, Space Cottonseed, Tomio Koyama Gallery, Silverlens and Galerie Michael Janssen that took the chance to root in Singapore began to ship out. Gillman Barracks is an example of a potential economic fairground for visual arts that failed its own management and sustainability exams. In April 2023, it was reported in The Business Times that Gillman Barracks will be transformed into a “creative lifestyle precinct” with at least 17,000 square feet of its property occupied by incoming private businesses offering food and beverage, retail and wellness services, including 4000 square feet as showrooms for iconic motorcycle brands.
While none can deny the millions of dollars invested in festivals, institutions, facilities, education and arts funding over the years, it is perhaps time for a deeper reflection. We need to augment long-term independent initiatives and partnerships with private patrons; recognise, nurture and regenerate arts leadership; encourage investigative, original and hybrid thinking and methods in consideration of a western centered one; platform international knowledge, skills, and network exchange programs, and be less fearful of criticality.
The needs and impact of the arts cannot be designed with pure data. In such a contemporary and competitive society like Singapore, its value and contribution cannot be confined to ‘likes’ on Instagram, Facebook, X, or Tik Tok. These ‘likes’ do not reflect quality, meaning or any form of cultural maturing or introspective social benefit. Meanwhile, actions based largely on audience demand may corner artists into a client – contractor relationship with society and art commissioning agencies. A sophisticated and globally exposed society such as Singapore must be ready to not only encounter art but also adopt the propensity to meaningfully contemplate and question with creativity. This is why our art scene need to also embrace critiques, not only chatter, for without it, we may only louden the echo in our chamber.
Along with the nation, our arts scene is one that can evolve to reach and touch beyond the vernacular and cursory. It should promote creative and positive disruption. For its audience, it should induce a culture for thought and acumen for style; encourage responsible authorship; foster an appreciation for craftiness and purpose; and bring unity through creativity.
Dear President Tharman, many in Singapore have been touched by the compassion and positive impact of your insightful leadership. I sincerely believe that today, with your guidance, the quality and character of arts leadership here could do better to benefit for all.
 National Arts Council, Singapore, https://www.nac.gov.sg/about-us/oursgartsplan  Singapore signs 20-year lease on Venice Biennale pavilion, The Straits Times, 6 May 2015, https://www.straitstimes.com/lifestyle/arts/singapore-signs-20-year-lease-on-venice-biennale-pavilion  Nearly a third of Gillman Barracks galleries have decided not to renew their leases, The Straits Times, 11 Apr 2015, https://www.straitstimes.com/lifestyle/arts/nearly-a-third-of-gillman-barracks-galleries-have-decided-not-to-renew-their-leases  Wheeler dealers set to roll into Gillman Barracks, The Business Times, 14 Apr 2023, https://www.businesstimes.com.sg/lifestyle/wheeler-dealers-set-roll-gillman-barracks?mibextid=Zxz2cZ