Response of Mr David T E Lim at Committee of Supply Debate 2003 in Parliament on: The Arts - Investing in Cultural Capital

20/03/2003

The Arts - Investing in Cultural Capital

Mr Chairman

The Arts, as many members have noted, plays an important part in increasing our cultural capital, and in growing our creative industries. That is good enough reason to continue to develop and support the Arts, our artists and audiences.

I thank members for their support for the arts, and their suggestions to promote them further. Let me recount our progress and reply to members' queries and suggestions.

But before I do so, let me assure Ms Penny Low who asked earlier on our creative industries, i.e. whether we will continue to support the arts for arts' sake. As I told the House last year, the Arts plays three important roles in our society. Firstly, it is a foundation of our cultural heritage; secondly, it is a source of aesthetic inspiration and intellectual stimulation; and thirdly, it is a resource for our creative industries. MITA values each of these roles that the Arts play, and we will nurture all of them.

So yes, we will continue to promote the Arts for Arts sake. But we will also use the Arts wherever we can to build up our reputation as a lively and vibrant city. We will use the Arts to enhance our image of a hip and happening place to live and work and play.

Mr Seng Han Thong has noted that the opening of the Esplanade was the most significant event of our Arts Calendar last year. More than 1 million people turned up. Even more significantly, the event made headlines in the international press and arts magazines. Net of ticket sales, we spent about $7 million on the opening.

Ms Penny Low asked was it worth the money. Yes, it was. The publicity we gained from articles and editorials written up on the opening festival were by themselves worth the equivalent of $18 million of paid advertising, and paid advertising does not have as much credibility as articles and editorials. The real value we gained from those festivals were the endorsements from world-class performers and international arts critics. These are immeasurable in value, for they have now placed Singapore on a must-tour venue for world-class artists.

Benson Puah, CEO of Esplanade told me that in the past, it was hard to get world class orchestras to play in Singapore - and even if they were willing to come, they would ask for very high fees. At the Esplanade's opening, not one but two of the world's top orchestras played - the London Philharmonic and the New York Philharmonic orchestras, in addition to our own SSO. Now, Benson tells me, they get enquiries from top artists and troupes asking when there is a slot available, when they can come and perform in Singapore. Though they still ask for high fees, but now he has got a bargaining chip to haggle a little over their fees!

The Esplanade has also increased the value of the Singapore brand name, and can do for us what the world famous Opera house has done for Sydney. This will be an enduring asset, and have a tremendous impact, not just on the arts community but on the whole economy. This again, is the reason why we must continue to support and maintain the Esplanade as a world class facility.

But significant and impactful as the opening of the Esplanade was, it was only one of many things that we have done to promote the Arts in Singapore.

Several members raised suggestions on what more we can do to promote and support the arts. Three years ago, my predecessor, Mr Lee Yock Suan, presented to Parliament the Rennaisance City Project (RCP) Report to make Singapore into a Global City of the Arts. Parliament approved a budget of $50 million to be spent over 5 years to further promote what some members would call the "software and customer aspects" of the arts.

Sir, I am glad to report that this project has yielded dividends. Although I will not have time to recount all the successes, I will mention some highlights.

Last year, for the first time ever, the number of ticketed attendance for performing arts events crossed the 1 million mark in spite of the gloomy economic climate. This was about 6% higher than the year before, very creditable given the economic conditions.

There are many reasons for this greater interest in the Arts. For example, NAC has worked hard to create greater awareness of the Arts, and the quality and variety of the arts performances offer something to suit every taste.

But another reason I would single out is the rising quality and fame of our own artists. Our Arts companies are making a name for themselves globally. For example, the Singapore Dance Theatre (SDT) performed to 8000 people at the Cervantino International Festival in Mexico in 2002, the first time a Singapore arts group took part. In 2001, four of our young artists, Suzzan Victor, Matthew Ngui, Salleh Japar and Chen KeZhan, were invited, again for the first time ever, to the Venice Biennale, which is the most important visual arts exhibition in the world. This year, 3 more artists - Tan Swie Hian, Francis Ng and Heman Chong - have been invited to Venice Biennale. Tan Swie Hian also received the prestigious Crystal Award by the World Economic Forum in Jan this year, the first Singaporean to do so. Ong Keng Sen was invited to curate a Berlin arts festival, In Transit. The plays of the late Kuo Pao Kun were performed to sell out audiences at the Biennale Asian Arts Festival in Japan.

Sir, there are many more deserving artists and Arts groups that I am unable to acknowledge for lack of time. But as you can see, Singaporean artists are making a name for themselves and for Singapore. MITA will continue to help source new opportunities for our artists to gain international exposure. For example, we are working on an MOU with China this year that will pave the way for our artists to perform there regularly every year.

I assure Ms Penny Low and Mr Zainudin that we are very mindful of helping our local artists to grow and excel. We have talents, and as we continue to nurture them, recognise their talents, take pride in their work, and attend their performances, I am sure we will have even more successes to report in the years ahead.

Sir, we are already entering into the 4th year of Renaissance City Project. Demand for RCP funding is strong, because of the rapidly growing interest in the arts, both by the public at large, and the private sector.

MITA is therefore working on plans for a second a Renaissance City Project 2. We should move quickly into this next phase and build on the momentum that the first RCP has created. Other countries in Asia have been quick to see the importance and benefit of the Arts, and have implemented or are implementing major Arts projects. Hong Kong has embarked on a 40ha West Kowloon Reclamation Project that will house Hong Kong's new cultural belt. Three major arts shows have established themselves in Asia, in Shanghai, Guangdong and Guangju, which practically overnight, have become the most important art shows in Asia. Shanghai opened its Shanghai Grand Theatre five years ago and is now developing its Oriental Arts Centre at Pudong, which will feature 2000-seat hall and a 1800-seat Theatre. We must move with equal speed and confidence if we are not to lose the standing and goodwill we have earned from the Esplanade and our RCP programmes.

Sir, let me now address specific issues members have raised.

Dr Teo Ho Pin and Mr Zainudin wanted to know what we will do to promote community arts and culture. I agree with Dr Teo that we must do more to bring arts to the people, and people to the arts, so that all Singaporeans can enjoy the Arts, not just the wealthy. We have various programmes to do so. The Esplanade, for example, has made an on-going commitment to stage community arts performances that would appeal to a wide spectrum of people. Last year, the NAC sponsored some 90 community arts programmes, and many community groups took part. I don't think we should just set aside 1 week a year, but have arts activities and performances throughout the year that are accessible to the people. We will also encourage more corporations to follow the excellent example of the LTA, to make more provisions for Arts to be displayed in their corporate buildings and premises.

Ms Penny Low suggested that we should simplify our rules for busking and allow buskers to keep more of their earnings. These ideas have also surfaced in the Remaking Singapore discussions. I agree. Buskers add liveliness to our city and neighbourhoods. I will ask my officials to work with relevant agencies to make it easier for buskers to busk, but without creating too much nuisance and disruptions for the community.

Ms Penny Low also asked whether we have plans to build new performance theatres. I am happy to inform her that the new National Library at Victoria Street, to be completed by end 2005, will house the new Drama Centre. This new centre will comprise a 642-seat theatre for mid-sized productions, and a 120-seat black box theater for experimental theatre. If we compare ourselves with other countries, we can say other cities have more facilities, especially the larger, older countries. But we are not short of facilities, and we would need to make full use of our hardware and find clever ways to make use of the facilities we have. By co-locating it with the new National Library, we will be able to make full use of the space, and open up new synergies between the Library, the Drama Centre and the other Arts institutions in the Waterloo Street district. The strategy is to cluster these activities and groups together for greater synergy.

Mr Zainudin wanted to know whether funds will still be available for local arts groups, in view of the limited money we have in our budget. Sir, I am glad to let Mr Zainudin know that MITA will maintain our existing arts schemes to support our local arts groups. Our funding arrangements for the Esplanade will not draw on funds already set aside for other arts programmes. We are in the midst of difficult economic times, I hope that all Arts groups will understand if we have to tighten our belts a little.

We will continue to look for new sources of support. Our private companies very supportive of the arts. Our goal is to work with the private sector to see how the arts would be of value to them, i.e. to get more value of the arts to businesses. Then we can ask businesses to contribute more to the Arts. I am glad to tell this house that despite the difficult economic conditions last year, private corporations gave $37.1 million, about same as the year before, to the Arts. Given the difficult conditions, that is good support.

Finally, Mr Chairman, Ms Penny Low and Mr Zainudin asked about Arts education in our schools, and whether MITA intends to start an Arts School. Sir, I agree that we should have a stronger emphasis for the Arts in our schools and I am glad to see the various measures MOE has taken.

In 2002, NAC's Arts Education Programme reached out to 98% of our schools and provided 60% of our total student population with an opportunity to get in touch with the arts.

But as interest in the Arts grows, it is timely that we look at the feasibility of setting an Arts school or some other means to provide an enhanced curriculum in the Arts, in tandem with an academic program. I am not sure that an arts school will follow the model of the sports school. Our goal is not only to prepare some students to become professional artists or to take up arts careers. The arts school should also produce students who have a strong foundation in an area of the Arts they enjoy, who will go on to develop careers in other fields. In this way, we will be able to give our students who have a bent for the Arts more career options, while nurturing their artistic talents. MITA will set up a committee to look into this matter shortly and we will work closely with MOE.

Mr Chairman,

Although we have made progress, there is still much that needs to be done to support and grow the arts, and I will ask NAC to look into the many suggestions members have raised.

Last year was milestone year for the arts. But it was also a sad year, with the demise of two of our most outstanding and well-loved artists, Brother Joseph McNally and Kuo Pao Kun. The arts community mourned their passing. But at the same time, we celebrate the foundation that they and others have laid, and the legacy they have left, for future generations of artists.

On the foundations of all who have laboured to build the Arts so far, and with the support of this house, MITA will endeavour to make Singapore a Global City for the Arts. I don't know whether we will become the New York, London or Paris of the East, but I think if we all contribute, we would help to build up our cultural capital, for a more gracious society, and a more vibrant economy. I think this will be a city we will all want to live in.

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