Nusantara: essays: Singapore Sweepstakes

the Singapore art scene circa 1988, i
article originally appeared in FEER, 3 March 1988

The article is quited dated, and a bit embarrassing

in its crude use of Chinese/Western dichotomy, but I offer it nonetheless.

"It's a slap in the face. In other countries, the major art projects would never be given to foreign artists. Here we get others to tell us what culture is. Their culture. It's ridiculous."
-- local artist Thomas Yeo

headline in FEER

For the past 10 years, the single biggest draw at Singapore's community centres has been courses in children's art. The network of centres, run by the People's Association statutory board, was crucial to the government's efforts to consolidate political power in the early 1960s. Still important politically, the centres today offer air-conditioned classrooms, squash courts, and a wide range of of recreational facilities and services to residents of government-built flats.

The People's Association employs 200 art teachers and reached 16,000 children in 1986. "on-the-spot" art contests are organised at centre and national levels. Other children's art competitions are organized around national campaigns. Smoke-free Singapore has proven to be a popular theme.

The local art scene is also dominated by competitions, an important one being the United Overseas Bank Painting of the Year Contest. Government ministries, statutory boards and corporations sponsor competitions, often around a specific theme, and an "on-the-spot" contest for adults was recently held at Boat Quay to commemorate the completion of a 10-year project to clean up Singapore's rivers.

Despite the large number of competitions, there is little art criticism in the media, and an apparent lack of critical awareness among artists. This subject was addressed at a recent talk which was well-attended by local artists. University professor T.K. Sabapathy, one of Singapore's two practising art historians and the leading critic, put part of the blame on local art education which he said "emphasises the technical. It is oriented to craft."

Another limited factor is that the prestige of both Western and Chinese art is often difficult for Singapore's artists to compete against.

The problem came into sharp focus early this year with a controversy over the large number of foreign artworks commissioned by the developers of the city's two largest hotel and shopping centre projects.

Local artist Thomas Yeo was quoted in the The Straits Times newspaper as saying "it's a slap in the face. In other countries, the major art projects would never be given to foreign artists. Here we get others to tell us what culture is. Their culture. It's ridiculous."

There was particular resentment because the two large developments in question were large prestige jobs designed by big-name American architects, John Portman in the case of Marina Square and I. M. Pei for Raffles City. Some Singapore architects have come to resent the number of big foreign names including Japanese architect Kenzo Tange, who along with Pei will plan land use for the massive Marina South land reclamation project.

Soon after the foreign commissions were publicised, the Clean Rivers Steering Committee announced the largest-ever local art commission S$ 200,000 (US$ 99,010) to sculptor Elsie Yu to celebrate the river clean-up efforts. Then, Communications and Information Minister Yeo Ning Hong announced that Singaporean art would grace six new MRT (Mass Rapid Transit) stations. "After all, Singaporeans are going to be the people who use the stations most."

THe National Museum's decision to buy works by Taiwanese sculptor Ju Ming again raised the issue of foreign versus local art. The museum, limited by a S$ 25,000 annual acquisition budget, appealed for assistance in raising the S$ 150,000 needed for a brightly painted bronze casting of five figures, titled Seated Living World. Trans-Island Management and Engineering Services, operators of the country's second major bus line, agreed to donate the S$ 120,000 renegotiated purchase price.

essay continues: what are Singapore's artists producing?