Singapore’s transformation from a perceived cultural desert to a global city with a vibrant arts and culture scene was shaped by state-led planning with a view to foster creativity, generate economic value and build a more inclusive society.
In the first two decades of independence, the government used culture in a propagandist manner to promote racial harmony, cultivate graciousness and aesthetics, and guard against ‘decadent and immoral’ Western influences. Publications depicting violence and sex were banned, as was broadcasting of rock ‘n’ roll music, and men were discouraged from having long hair given its association with deviance and hippie sub-culture.
Singapore’s first recession in 1985 marked a watershed, with a committee identifying the arts and entertainment as a service amid a larger push to make the city a vibrant place to live, attract tourists and skilled talent. With studies by local universities showing that money spent on arts and culture would generate more economic value than industries like banking and petrochemicals, government agencies began grooming creative sectors.
This dovetailed with efforts to revamp and build new infrastructure for the arts. The 1986 Conservation Master Plan led to the preservation and redevelopment of colonial-era establishments as well as entire districts in the city centre, with private developers being offered incentives to facilitate progress. Modern infrastructure such as the $600 million Esplanade Theatres on the Bay was built, art and design education institutions were expanded and housed in the city centre, and flagship festivals added to make Singapore a Global City for the Arts.
A shift towards the information and knowledge economy at the turn of the millennium only increased the importance of nurturing creativity and innovation to give Singapore a competitive edge. Artistic skills could translate into capabilities across industries including design, media and entertainment, further complementing the city’s technological and economic progress.
Renaissance City Plans devised in the 2000s elevated Singapore’s ambition to be an outstanding cultural capital. Recommendations included a top-class cultural and entertainment district, and using arts and culture to engage the public in building a more gracious and inclusive society. Arts and cultural activities increased, with nominal value-add of the sector rising from $1.42 billion in 2009 to about $1.7 billion in 2014.
Beyond policies, however, there remains a balancing of the state-artist relationship. The government, which in the past took a forceful stance when dealing with artistic and social critiques, has become more accepting of issues once deemed taboo. Its equation with artists continues to evolve and be tested periodically.