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Saturday, July 15, 2000

Singapore seeks its own artistic future

Staff writer

Singapore is known for being a clean country full of sunshine, greenery and delightful people. But although it offers great shopping, gourmet dining and sightseeing, it is not frequently associated with the art world.

The Singapore Arts Festival, however, is trying to change all that. SAF emerged as an annual event last year after combining the biennial Festival of Arts and the Festival of Asian Performing Arts, both on since 1977. With a flourishing arts scene throughout the country, core-program performances from all over the world and exhibitions featuring local artists, Singapore was filled with a vibrant atmosphere and excitement during the festival's run June 1-25.

Apart from the core program, this year the Waterloo Street Arts Belt was alive with performances, exhibitions, jam sessions, workshops and talks presented by arts organizations such as the Young Musician's Society, Dance Ensemble Singapore, Singapore Calligraphy Society and the Sculpture Square. A late-night series in Clarke Quay showed cutting-edge performances, and as part of the "Arts on the Move" program, there were free festival shows ranging from street theater to multimedia presentations in parks, town centers and along pedestrian malls.

But art is not the only thing Singapore hopes to promote with the festival. Although a majority of the total budget for the festival (S$5.6 million) is subsidized by the National Arts Council and private corporations, a large portion of the funds also comes from the Singaporean Tourism Board. Clearly, the government hopes the festival will help showcase the country in general.

Of the 32 groups performing in the core program this year, 11 were Singaporean and more than half were from Asia: Pappa Tarahumara from Japan, the Chandralekha Group from India and the Peking Opera Troupe of Beijing, to name just a few. But in spite of boasting a strong Asian flavor, some of the festival's programs to which invited journalists were taken had no Asian content at all.

In a country as diverse and multicultural as Singapore, cultural identity can be difficult to define. It is easy to see, however, how certain aspects of the culture, such as the fact that the country has four official languages (English, Malay, Chinese and Tamil), have had a strong effect on theater.

Kuo Pao Kun, a Singaporean playwright acknowledged as the most significant theater practitioner in the country's arts scene, put on double-bill performances in each of the four official languages for this year's festival: "The Coffin Is Too Big for the Hole" and "No Parking on Odd Days." These plays, written in the 1980s, are said to have paved the way for the development of a uniquely Singaporean style of writing.

Kuo believes that if government funds were as generously provided to the arts as they are to tourism, theater would be at a much higher level in Singapore.

NAC's track record is not all bad, however. The Arts Housing Scheme, introduced in 1985 by the government, provides practice and administrative space for arts groups at subsidized rent, with the aim of providing a home in which they can pursue their activities and help foster a culturally robust society. NAC also supports as many as eight theater, music and dance companies with an annual S$5 million subsidy. But many in the theater world believe this is simply not enough.

"Things are changing, but not quickly enough," says Kuo.

He believes that one of the problems is Singapore's lack of directors and actors strong enough to draw a significant audience. Kuo insists that in order to foster theatrical talent, the country must offer proper arts training.

Kuo has trained an entire generation of directors and actors and cofounded the current Practice Performing Arts School. At present, Singapore has two private arts colleges that benefit from government funding: La Salle-SIA College of the Arts and Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts. Moreover, in 2001, an Institute of the Arts offering a performing arts degree course will be set up at the National University.

It is now a question of whether the training is good enough to nurture available talent. Leading theater director Ong Keng Sen is optimistic about the future of Singaporean theater, but also points out that Singapore needs to explore its Asian identity. "Singapore is a crossroads of export and import where people come and go. Singapore never had anything indigenous," Ong says. "The issue for the next five years is whether the NAC should be supporting something local or global."

Perhaps now is the time for Singapore to think about cultivating something indigenous in the local art scene if it is to make a mark in the international arts world.

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