First-World Economy, Third-World Culture

Michelle Loh

First-World Leaders

Every year, after the examination results come out, many graduating students in the top five junior colleges in Singapore would receive bundled information on various scholarship schemes. They must decide which scholarship to apply for, which will then determine their career paths for the next ten years. After they bag a scholarship and come back to work, as long as they do everything ‘right’, it is almost safe to assume longevity and prosperity in the civil service for the next twenty years or more.

This is Singapore’s system: If you yearn to work in the civil service, the Cambridge GCE ‘A’ Level results can either make or break you.

The installation of top brains at age 18 to civil servitude has been one reason behind Singapore’s great economic success over the last thirty years. This system created a leadership educated in the areas that are identified as critical to economic success: the sciences, mathematics, engineering and economics. Many of these top students pursued their studies in top universities overseas with government scholarships and returned to work in Singapore, holding important posts in the public sector or key roles in government-linked companies. It was a well-calculated structure, ensuring high probability of successes.

Singapore’s system of civil service was so successful, that The Monocle Singapore Survey 2009 suggested that one of the Singapore brands that could go global was “Singapore’s civil service”. Imagine the day when Singapore franchised its civil service to the Netherlands, Italy and maybe even the United States. By the way, only the Central Provident Fund was deemed a more prominent brand for Singapore (Monocle, 2009, pp10).

First-Class Report Card

Singapore has a first-world economy. It boasts of many achievements: world-class infrastructure, great wealth, and a high quality of living (see the World Economic Forum 2009, The Globalisation Index 2007, The Monocle Singapore Survey 2009 and the World Competitiveness Report 2008).

There is one thing, however, that Singapore has not managed to score an A plus in: its arts and culture. It is not difficult to understand why.

Singapore’s education system is structured mainly according to the country’s manpower needs. The government predicts the number of professionals required in each industry, projecting this ten or even twenty years ahead. Singapore’s educational institutions would then react to the government’s forecast, and managed the number of graduates produced in various fields as projected by the government. Which industries are on the rise, and how many people – or as Lee Kuan Yew says “digits” – are required to satisfy the quota? By default, the system should churn out the necessary tools (brains, hands, legs and all) to meet the demands of the industries that will propel Singapore’s economy in the future.

Third World Culture

What about Singapore’s culture? What about music, dance, theatre and fine arts? The level of appreciation and expectation we have for the arts are so much lower than that for money. If we compare the level of passion and energy that the Singapore government and its people have in making money and with that devoted to the arts, the difference is glaring.

We have world-class buildings, state-of-the-art performing and arts exhibition venues, an efficient transportation system, high-quality healthcare, finance, and legal institutions and the essential economic wheels. When it comes to culture and the arts, all Singaporeans want are free cultural events in the community (Kong, 2008). In other words, we expect culture to be sent straight to the doorstep, free-of-charge. Then, we will decide whether we want to watch it or not. For many Singaporeans, getting to know your neighbour’s culture or learning to appreciate an art genre is dispensable.

From an official perspective, the Singapore’s government began to pay attention to the arts only from 1991 onwards when it set up the National Arts Council (NAC). What have been done during these eighteen years that can be considered impactful?

The transformation of Singapore’s arts industry was rapid, especially so from the view of the government. Singapore had resolved infrastructural and institutional issues for performing and visual arts. In the last few years the NAC with the other agencies such as the Media Development Authority have enlarged the scope of their work to include other areas of the so-called ‘creative industries’ such as architecture, design, and game design, which are considered income-generating (Renaissance City Plan, 2008). In our position in the globalised world, where economic matters, societal issues, political concerns and cultural networks are closely linked together, Singapore has chosen to move with the international trend to bet on the next wave of economic prosperity deriving from the creative industries.

Unfortunately, we do not have enough people to front this endeavour. Most of the nation’s senior civil servants enter the public sector immediately upon graduation. They tend to be highly educated and have been trained to think, with a strong inclination towards left-brain skills. Many have been trained in law, mathematics, engineering and the sciences. No matter how risk-adverse the government is, the reality is this: the economy is now heading towards a greater dependence on creativity.

The ‘Cultured’ Minister for Culture

Could Singapore use the same scholarship and educational system to produce the next generation of leaders, teachers, and workers to build its creative industries? It may be too late now, in order to ride the ‘creative industries wave’.

At a recent town hall meeting of artists to select possible nominees for an “arts Nominated Member of Parliament”, someone asked when Singapore would have our first minister for culture who is an artist. Perhaps now is the time. Why? It is because the arts can earn its keep. People may argue that arts should not be viewed as an alternative route to a country’s economic developments. Here are the facts: the creative industries (which also comprised the arts) produced a multiplier effect of 1.66 in the year 2000, which was more than the banking, and petrochemical industries (RCP I, 2000). So the stark truth again: there is money in the creative industries, in the arts.

Taking from the above meeting, the government may wish to consider having a Minister for Culture who is an artist, a person equipped with artistic knowledge, and one who knows how the industry functions. One who understands the artists, their temperaments and their concerns. There were predecessors whose primary training may not be in the arts, but other creative fields such as journalism and architecture.

Singapore’s first Minister for Culture, S. Rajaratnam, put in place the ‘Music for Everyone’ series and the first South-East Asia Cultural Festival. Ong Teng Cheong, Acting Minister for Culture from 1978-1981, was an established architect and also an accomplished pianist. Under his governance, the Cultural Medallion Awards and the Singapore Arts Festival were instituted.

On the contrary, there were others who were not trained in the arts, but fully represented the arts and culture of Singapore during different times. George Yeo was a double-first graduate in Engineering. He was also the longest serving Minister for Information and the Arts (1990-1999), seeing through the restructuring of the Ministry as well as the formation of the various councils.

This does not mean to imply that artists are better in handling events, and engineers are better for organisation and order (though it very well may be true!). What it means, is that the ‘Cultured’ Minister for Culture is just another part of the bigger picture. Where do the arts stand at the current junction? Is it time to create new identities in the arts or is it time to review the responsibilities of the arts council? How is Singapore positioned in the regional context? Is it still relevant to promote an Asian collectivism? He or she may be bound by issues that affect the priorities of the arts, the government, and the society.

All the above different styles and personalities of governance have contributed to the overall artistic landscape that we have today. But wouldn’t it be good if Singapore has more right-brainers as policy makers instead of only using artists in advisory boards and consultative panels?

Jack Lang, the Minister for Culture of France for ten years, was the guardian of the country’s cultural and artistic heritage, especially the French language. He was an actor and producer. Not only did he strengthen the French national identity, he also prevented the infiltration of the English-language. In other countries such as UK and Japan, the Ministers for Culture are still very much trained in the more scientific areas. They and their predecessors have also created a first-world culture that promotes the creation of new identities, yet maintain a high level of appreciation for the traditional arts.

A minister who sets policies that will nurture and encourage the development of various arts forms, and who preserves and creates new identities in the arts: that is what Singapore needs. But does having a Minister for Culture who is trained in the arts (or is an artist) mean that Singapore’s policies for the arts and creative industries would change for the better? Does an artistic leadership mean better policy making for the arts? In order to build an open society with high tolerance for diversity and a people who are receptive to nurturing the ‘old’ and creating the ‘new’ in the arts, it may take more than one person’s effort.

However, a ‘cultured’ Minister for Culture may be a symbol that distinguishes a first-world culture. He may represent a first-world culture where the nation embraces change and the creation of new identities in the arts. A first-world culture in which the environment is fertile for seeding ideas and facilitates the preservation and development of various arts forms.

Singapore need not follow in others’ footsteps. We can create our own artistic landscape. But I feel that by having ministers and Members Of Parliament with professional arts backgrounds do make a difference. Already, there are some top civil servants and leaders of the society who have received training in various artistic competencies. Together, they can contribute to a collective voice that calls for both the strengthening of roots and the pushing of boundaries to build a first world culture. A collective voice of different opinions is the step towards an open society, one that embraces change. A collective voice that acknowledges that by taking the risk to fail, is to allow us a chance to learn, to explore.


Notes Across the Years (2005). Paul Abisheganaden, UNIPRESS, The Centre for the Arts, National University of Singapore (pp 168, 254)

The Monocle Singapore Survey (2009). Monocle.

Give it up for the Surgeon General (October 2009). Frank Ferri, Reader’s Digest, p. 72.

Renaissance City Plan I, II and III (2000, 2005 and 2008). Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts.

Study on the Value of Arts and Culture and Public Engagement Strategies, Professor Lily Kong (January 2008). Department of Geography, National University of Singapore

World Economic Forum (2009). The Global Competitiveness Report [Online]. (Accessed 2 November 2009)

ETH Zurich (2009). KOF Globalisation Index [Online].
(Accessed 2 November 2009)

IMD (2009) World Competitiveness Yearbook 2009 [Online]. (Accessed 2 November 2009)

Economic Development Board (2009). Singapore Rankings [Online].
(last accessed 27 October 2009)

Michelle Loh is teaching Arts Policy at Lasalle College of the Arts. She is also a full-time PhD candidate with Goldsmiths University of London, and a full-time mom. Her arts background is in music.