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The coming culture contest

11 Apr The coming culture contest

Signs are that questions of culture are returning to Singapore, albeit differently.

The Government is continuing and growing programmes for the arts, sports and heritage, and each of their intrinsic worth must be recognised. But these are also important components of a larger picture about what makes us Singaporean.

During the recent Budget debate, this was recognised by Mr Lawrence Wong, the Acting Minister for the recently-formed Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth. He said: “As a people, we are searching for deeper meaning … We want Singapore to be more than just a vibrant city; we want Singapore to be a home.”

Can our efforts at the arts, heritage, sports and other activities take on that broader mission? How? What are the dangers?


Take an experience like visiting a museum or watching a popular movie like Jack Neo’s Ah Boys to Men. There can be a moving response, intrinsic to the art or movie.

But there is also a broader social element involved when the viewer learns to situate the art piece or the story in the context of Singapore’s history.

And, if we see the museum as part of the public space or admire Mr Neo’s movie-making, there is also a sense of civic and national pride.

These different elements about art — intrinsic, social and civic — should be equally recognised. Otherwise, there is the danger that art might become precious, captured by an elite few. Or, if the social and instrumental values of art are over-emphasised, artists and professionals will feel alienated and we lose sight of the art.

Yet, if these elements can be balanced and combined, a more robust foundation can be developed. It will be critical for the Government to seek that balance and synergy, if art and other programmes are to be framed in the wider context of culture.


In returning to questions of culture, the Government must adjust to changes. In this arena, more than any others, it must acknowledge that it has no monopoly over the answers.

Today’s Singapore, as our 50th anniversary approaches, is considerably different from that of the founding generation.

People are more educated, and a cadre of practitioners and sophisticated consumers for the arts and culture has developed. Top-down policies and propaganda will be resisted.

Artifice will be recognised and rejected. Take, for instance, the orchid batik shirt that was once seen at many official ceremonies but which never won broader acceptance and now seems to have disappeared.

What is welcomed is the Government’s recognition that the effort to shape culture must be made not just by the State but, in Mr Wong’s words, as a “whole-of-society partnership”.

And just as the Government cannot provide the solutions, artists and citizens too must concede that they also have not generated a broad and clear agreement about what makes up our national identity.

There is popular culture pastiche like Phua Chu Kang; nostalgia for the Kallang Roar; and many might emphasise local food, family and friends.

But while these may be parts of the answer, Singaporean-ness as a whole needs further consideration.


In this, the conversation about culture must be more than a singular feedback loop between Government and the governed. Society is not singular but diverse, differentiated and assertive.

The liberals in the arts and culture community have to reckon with the viewpoints of more conservative citizen groups, and vice versa.

Take, for example, the debate on the decriminalisation of sex between gays. The strongest expressions of opinions — both for and against — emerge not from the Government, but between different social groups.

In these and other examples, even as we proceed to look at Singaporean culture, we need to be mindful of the danger that “cultural wars” might emerge. I do not mean debates and differences, which must be accepted and even facilitated. But I would be concerned where starkly different opinions clash without basic empathy or even respect between fellow citizens and residents.

This can affect how we relate to one another, with the result that the questioning and search for a Singaporean culture might quite unintentionally lead to schisms.

Singapore has a history of tolerance of differences and diversity, and this will need to be reinforced as we move forward.


A third key dimension in this debate is how Singaporean identity sits with the non-Singaporean.

The process of distilling Singaporean-ness will almost inevitably define our identity and character in relation and comparison to others outside. Yet, we should hope that the debate will not be xenophobic and anti-foreigner.

Singapore as a whole has been an open society and our communities in arts, sports and heritage are among the sectors most open to outside influence. Many non-Singaporeans have committed themselves to this place and made significant contributions.

For example, the recent passing of veteran actress-director Christina Sergeant allows us to acknowledge how much a non-Singaporean has contributed to the growth of the theatre scene here.

The discussion of Singaporean culture and identity in this regard must proceed within the context of two further identity debates.

One is about Asian-ness. The rise of Asia brings more hope and pride in being a hub in the region. Yet, Singaporeans can sometimes be scathing about other Asians, whether those who take on the jobs we do not want to do or those who drive expensive Ferraris.


The second and associated framework is about Singapore as a global city.

The question of Singaporean-ness must resist the notion that a global city has to be homogenised, with interchangeable buildings and landscapes.

We would do better to instead seek out authenticity, so that there is a special essential character — make ours a unique city, both Singaporean and global, and not one or the other.

In connection to Singapore as a global city in Asia, we would do well to discuss the commensurate responsibilities that Singaporeans may have to the rest of Asia and also as global citizens.

Culture, nation-building and the Singaporean identity will not be easy topics to carry forward.

Yet, they must be re-emphasised if Singapore is to be a global hub and open society and have the essence and essentials to be a home.

The Government has called for a Singaporean core; a discussion should evolve to also consider what makes us Singaporean at our core.


Simon Tay is Chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs and Associate Professor at the National University of Singapore. The SIIA will be embarking on a project to look at the 50-year future for Singapore in Asia and the world, including its social dimensions in engaging the world. This article first appeared in TODAY.