Is Singapore creative

Singapore has a reputation for cleanliness, clockwork efficiency and a well-behaved citizenry. Your baggage has arrived on the airport belt before you have cleared immigration. The route into the city was the first in the world to be completely tree-lined and boulevarded and it exudes a contagious calmness. Shanghai has followed the example. These constitute positive first and last impressions. Things work: the metro is on time, wireless internet connections are nearly ubiquitous, electronic sensors in cars seamlessly monitor when you enter the charging zone or car parks and the city is clean and safe. The West sneers at its apparent conservatism: haircuts for long-haired male arrivals, the ban on chewing gum. You still hear much about fines for jaywalking, littering and spitting. But the day-to-day reality is that you don't feel a heavy-handed government presence. Often the same people that sneer hanker after the sense of security Singapore offers. Yet there are dilemmas for a city brought up and built up with a culture of nation-building, national security and social discipline, even though Singapore is so far the 'most extraordinary case of economic development in the history of the world, which launched itself by a deliberate strategy out of abject post-colonial poverty into first-world affluence within one generation'. That in itself is an act of creation, intellect, determination, strategy and focus. 'Singapore, so far, has experienced no real crisis, no fundamental break in its remarkable economic progress ... the government, conscious that this is a city-state completely dependent on its global trading function, has sought to keep ahead of the action, moving the economy out of basic manufacturing into high-technology production and finally into advanced services.'18 Yet how will Singapore cope moving into the creative age?

Singapore, like Dubai or Hong Kong, is an exceptional case. A country-island-city-nation-state, a port-city and regional hub, it has no hinterland or, rather, 'the world is its hinterland'. There is a relative absence of an overarching ancestral culture and traditions. It has a dominant one-party government that is interventionist and a strong emphasis on political stability and economic development.19

Historical background

We have reached a stage in our economic and national development when we should devote greater attention and resources to culture and the arts in Singapore. Culture and the arts add to the vitality of a nation and enhance the quality of life.

So responded PM Goh Chok Tong - then first Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Defence - to the Report of the Advisory Council on Culture and the Arts in April 1989. That report was widely regarded as a watershed in the development of the arts, heritage and cultural scene in Singapore. Its main thrust affirmed that 'culture and the arts mould the way of life, the customs and the psyche of a people' as they 'give the nation a unique character, broaden our mind and deepen our sensitivities, improve the general quality of life, strengthen the social bond and contribute to our tourist and entertainment sectors'.20

In the Singapore way this vision of a culturally vibrant society 'whose people are well-informed, creative, sensitive and gracious' was to be achieved by 1999. Note here the tone, in contrast to Dubai: the word 'gracious' appears, whereas in Dubai 'decisive advantages . will neutralize, marginalize and even punish rivals'. It highlighted that Singapore's multicultural heritage, whose 'excellence in multi-lingual and multi-cultural art forms should be promoted' made it unique. Indeed, as the world has switched emphasis to the East, its Chinese-English bilingualism may become its key advantage.

In moving away from advanced manufacturing, Singapore identified international gatherings and linked performance and exhibition spaces as key to projecting an image of world-class style and attractiveness. The most visible accomplishments since 1989 have been the Singapore Art Museum (1996), which is now about to move, the Asian Civilizations Museum (1997), the Singapore Film Commission (1998) and the Esplanade (2002) - a multipurpose performance centre.

The Esplanade is seen as the 'star in the firmament' and was intended to be an icon comparable to the Sydney Opera House. The reality is that it probably has regional rather than global drawing power. After 30 years of planning and 6 years of construction, it seeks to 'entertain, engage, educate, and inspire'. Only five concert halls in the world possess its state-of-the-art acoustic features. The Esplanade's two outer shells resemble durians, a prickly fruit loved by Singaporeans. In the evening, 'its two "lanterns of light" sparkle upon Singapore's marina. It houses Singapore's first performing arts library and an arts-centric shopping centre'. It claims to 'herald the entrance of a cultural renaissance'.21

This phase of cultural development focused on traditional cultural institutions and approaches without linking them to the underlying economic and social dynamics that could project Singapore as a creative, innovative city. Containers on their own do not guarantee creative content, especially if they are institutionally focused and without links to the informal sectors where much creativity starts. Furthermore, big structures swallow resources at an exorbitant rate. One could ask: How about 50 more small projects instead of one big structure? Which would generate more creativity potential?

The Renaissance City project22

By 1999 many commentators argued that the emphasis should shift from 'hardware' to 'software' or what they called 'heartware'. A potentially enhanced role for culture and the arts in the future development of Singapore's society and economy was foreseen. Various government agencies had already mapped out plans to ensure that the strategic concerns of Singapore in areas such as education, urban planning and technology were being addressed. But there was not a holistic, comprehensive re-examination in Singapore of how the arts and cultural scene would fit in.

The Renaissance City project sought to fill that gap. It began by undertaking an audit of facilities, activities and arts groups and assessed audience profiles. It noted a general burgeoning of activity. Whereas Singapore was generally written off as a sterile cultural desert, the New York Times on 25 July 1999 described the Singapore arts scene as having gone 'from invisible to explosive'. Time Magazine's cover story for the week of 19 July 1999 featured the loosening up of Singapore - 'Singapore Lightens Up'. It noted Singapore was getting creative and even 'funky', with its society transformed 'in ways that until recently seemed impossible'. Today, in-flight magazines extol the virtues of Singapore's 'bohemian edge'.23

The city state began a vigorous benchmarking process, targeting world cities - London, New York, Tokyo, Shanghai, Hong

Kong, Barcelona, Austin and Melbourne. This process highlighted the 'war for talent', the notion of 'buzz' and vibrancy in creating the intangible value of fashionability that needs to be backed up by real substance. This might be the presence of world-class institutes of higher learning and research laboratories, productivity and industry if the goal is to get beyond hype. The benchmarking indicators used tended to define talent in narrower and more quantitative terms, such as numbers of arts organizations or 'creative class' professionals, rather than including social innovation and creativity in terms of organizational culture. It noted instead that London had double the amount and New York three times as many arts facilities, activities, performances and expenditure. 'While we are in the top league of cities in terms of economic indicators, we are not in terms of culture.'

Culture was seen as the next step and competitive tool in urban growth. Drawing on thinkers around the world, the Renaissance City report concluded:

In the knowledge age, our success will depend on our ability to absorb, process and synthesize knowledge through constant value innovation. Creativity will move into the centre of our economic life... Prosperity for advanced, developed nations will depend on creativity, . more on the ability to generate ideas that can then be sold to the world. This means that originality and entrepreneurship will be increasingly prized.

Singapore had recognized this encroaching reality relatively early. The 1991 Strategic Economic Plan singled out the need to nurture creativity and innovation in Singapore's education system as a key strategy to realize its vision. Yet the link to developing the city's cultural capital only happened at the end of that decade. As Deputy Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong noted in 1996, 'Creativity cannot be confined to a small elite group of Singaporeans. In today's rapidly changing world, the whole workforce needs problemsolving skills, so that every worker can continuously add value through his efforts.' Later the Renaissance City Report noted:

We will need this culture of creativity to permeate the lives of every Singaporean. This will have to take place in our schools and in our everyday living envi ronment. We have to be wary that we do not merely equate creativity with a narrow form of problemsolving. The arts, especially where there is an emphasis on students producing their own work as well as appreciating the work of others, can be a dynamic means of facilitating creative abilities.

Such an approach would encourage virtuous circles of 'arts development and business formation loops' that improve both the economic and artistic environment. Business-friendly administration and facilities are necessary but not sole guarantees of attracting talent. For this, a cultural 'buzz' is also needed: 'By calling for a Renaissance Singapore, this is not an attempt to replicate the conditions of post-medieval Europe. Rather, it is the spirit of creativity, innovation, multi-disciplinary learning, socio-economic and cultural vibrancy that we are trying to capture.'

The vision was a projection of the type of Singapore person, society and nation that Singapore could aspire to. This is a society where people are at ease with their identity and one which encourages experimentation and innovation, whether it be in culture and the arts or in technology, the sciences and education.

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