Oh change, how will it come?

Yesterday, a meeting of four of us. Another discussion, another depressing conclusion: Singapore had become even less liberal in the last three, four years. The question is whether there is hope for the future and where that will come from.

First, the tightening of space in politics, the media, the arts, and academia since about 2013. After the 2011 general election shock, there was a brief desperate experiment by the government to free up. That only led to more dissent as naysayers with becoming emboldened. Government, either as a whole or individual ministers, saw that this was not helping them politically (never mind the question of whether more diversity is better for the country).  How tiresome and tiring all that accountability and explaining and answering!

A crackdown followed about two years later.



No, not a meeting of the Cabinet but of  activists/artists. (Source: https://blog.vanillaforums.com/community/dos-donts-making-changes-community/)

The early casualties include Alex Au and Roy Ngerng. Even people ostensibly on their side who dared to voice different opinions were publicly censured in ways that have not been used since the mid 1990s. Understandably and as intended, a chilling effect ensued. The proverbial monkeys have been frightened.

In academia, there is the case of Cherian George. Donald Low is a recent case.

In the arts, groups and individuals have been censored and some punished with withdrawal of funds or worse: publisher Epigram (for the Sonny Liew comic) , Amos Yee (in my books anyone who claims to be an artist, as Yee does, should be considered an artist), Tan Pin Pin, The Necessary Stage’s annual Fringe Festival, the Singapore International Festival of the Arts.  The very public statements last year by the National Arts Council chairperson and CEO that funding will be used as a weapon of control is unequivocal testament of the new modus operandi.

In media, conservative forces have taken over the big two conglomerates, and the little room that had been won over the years were readily, willingly given back. The independent online-only media have had new regulations slapped on them.

The above are only the public manifestations of a wider set of actions. Activists and artists have been denied work in academia. Arts groups who do “difficult” work are closely monitored, artists censored behind the scenes. Dissenters in the mainstream media newsrooms have been purged. Atomised, the actors struggle on on their own.

As one of us said yesterday, “They don’t even bother with the wayang anymore.”

The regression to a stricter past is made possible by the big majority of the population who don’t care for more than their own livelihood and having a good time, people who are happy that non-political individual freedom has increased (you have choice on how you live, whether hippy, homosexual or any other “alternative”) and who don’t see the roll-back elsewhere. People have been so depoliticised that when those at short of end of the capitalist stick don’t know how to make their lives better by collective action. Handouts (welcomed in their economic effect of mitigating out horrible inequality) also have the political effect of assuaging dissatisfaction.

Where is the hope for the liberals, the progressives?

Dare we hope for the rise of a Big Man who will herald in sudden and sweeping transformation? Well, we hoped for George Yeo for a long time until he sailed into the political sunset and was no more (how innocent we were!) And now some of us are hoping (futilely, of course) that He Who Should Be PM would be PM. And among the new men in waiting (sorry, no women there)? So far, different flavours of the same old cookies.

Some of us at yesterday’s meeting thought hope must be with the young people. They saw the new generation as more interested in activism and politics. Another one among us begged to defer.  The children who are from their teens to the early thirties he knows – nieces, nephews, kids of friends – are all uninterested in politics and society. These will be the future majority that will keep the status quo going.

Some of us saw hope in another direction: all the civil society things that are happening despite the pall. What Function 8, Future of Singapore, Living with Myths, and individuals such as Jason Soo and Braema Mathi have started or continue to do.

Another said these activities are important (gestures in the dark may not change things but have meaning in themselves), they had little political consequence. This was because these activists and artists are speaking to the converted. The general elections are the ultimate end game for the government. Hence what it is afraid of is numbers. Change would only come if enough people say ‘No, this is no good.” (This is where the liberals have to learn from the much more effective Christian right).

The fundamental, most important task for the moment is for progressives is to change the values of the unknowing, uninterested, unpolitical.  Giving knowledge to this people is important, but changing their values must be the first step. If your values are such that you don’t care about the truth, about justice, about freedom, about the wider society beyond yourself, about more than fun and food and a full wallet, then knowledge is useless.

How to change the values of people? This is of course the hard part. By the time our kids come out of the schools the vast majority have been so socialised to be apolitical and atomised that re-socialising them is a gargantuan task. None of us there had any idea how it could be done.

On that note, the meeting broke up.



How to build an audience… and how not to

One of the worst shows I have ever attended was a play put up in a gigantic school hall at a primary school somewhere in Jurong. It was bad not for its aesthetics, but for the total unsuitability of a school hall as a performance venue for a play, with its open doors, horrible acoustics and the impossibility of seeing and hearing anything clearly for those students sitting further back. That performance alone probably turned off a few hundred young children off from theatre. Imagine that repeated in one school hall after another. But under the numbers game played by the government, it would have been recorded as so many students being ‘exposed’ to the arts.

Contrast this with a puppetry play I saw recently at the Esplanade. Called “Samsui Women: One Brick at a Time” and put up by The Finger Players (Singapore). The restaging of a 2015 show is a simple yet  engaging tale of two girls growing up in China and then making the long and dangerous journey to Singapore to become construction workers. And it is performed in a proper theatre by the talented Myra Loke, Jasmine Xie, Zee Wong and Darren Guo. I particularly like the feminist take and how the story neatly intertwines with the Bukit Ho Swee fire.

I don’t think I had as much fun as the full house of young ones in the audience from Opera Estate Primary School. I guess the feedback they gave (left column for what they felt before and right column for after the show) speaks for itself. I bet some of them will be part of our future theatre audience.

Look out for hints of a future MDA employee and the one about the happy cardboard collectors doing it as a form of exercise.


samsui a 1samsui a 2samsui a 4samsui a 3samsui a 5samsui a 7samsui a 8samsui a 9samsui a 91samsui a 92


Absorbing play on difficult issues

main main

Part of the talented cast (from left) Munah, Farhana and Suhali (Source: Teater Ekamatra)

Main2 is an absorbing, excellently acted and deftly directed play on till this Sunday offering an intriguing and controversial take on why people do bad things to themselves and others. Director-playwright and Young Artist Award winner Aidli Mosbit writes that her 2002 work –  which intertwines heartbreaking stories about physical abuse, incest, drug abuse, divorce, extramarital affairs –  is:

“my personal observation and meditation about the lives of certain groups of individuals who are not ‘serious’. They live ‘playfully. Playing with luck and playing with destiny… In Main2, we see tragedy in fun, and fun in tragedy.”

The understated message is, of course, “Jangan main main” or “Don’t play, play” in the words of Phua Chu Kang.

The first question that arises is whether her thesis is indeed true, that the psychological motor driving the characters’ dysfunctionality is their weakness for irresponsible “fun”. The second is that, if this reckless-escape theory is true, whether there are other possible perhaps deeper explanations which the play but only hints at and which is debated outside of the theatre: class, prejudice, disadvantage, or as posited by some, culture. Consider, for instance, that the characters are all Malay. Would the play be different if they were Chinese, Indian, black Americans or Russians?

It is the purpose of art to raise these important issues and that Main2 has done. But art can’t replace and can’t be a sociological study. However it can provide glimpses into the ­–  indeed reveal more fundamental –  truths about the human condition than any sociology tome.

Mounted by the well-known company Teater Ekamatra as part of the Esplanade’s Pesta Raya season, the versatile and outstanding ensemble cast played a dozen or so characters, called often to to sing and dance. YouTube sensation Munah Bagharib and Intercultural Theatre Institute graduate Al-Matin Yatim share the limelight with Farez Najib, Farhana M Noor, Hatta bin Said and Suhaili Safari. Their guitar playing and singing provided a spare but magical soundscape under James Lye’s sound design. Certainly it had me and it would seem last night’s full-house last night ­–  a third of whom was a bevy of excited students in multi-coloured tudung – absolutely rapt.


Pink Dot is boring

I went to the inaugural Pink Dot in 2009. I even bought my first pink shirt just for it. But to be honest, I found it rather boring.

Late-afternoon notwithstanding, it was still hot and humid. There was no food or drink. There were too many people (I know, what was I expecting, the usual Hong Lim crowd of a 100?). Pam Oei, Neo Swee Lin, Lim Kay Siu and other artists provided entertainment, but the acoustics and the set-up made it hard to get into it. At the end when the organisers sheparded the 2,500 give or take people into the shape of a giant pink heart for the photo taken from somewhere up the Furama Hotel across the road, it was very sweet and also orderly in our Singapore way, but it still look a long time. I had doubts about its very (intentionally) depoliticised message. Except for a few whiners like me, most people though seemed to have fun that day.

I didn’t go to next eight Pink Dots.


Source: aspirant.sg

Pink Dot is a wonderful idea though. It is uniquely Singaporean. The growing attendance each year is a simple statistic that sums up Pink Dot’s success. It shows the power of one, of at last count 26,000 ones.

But the Government, with the urging, aid and support of the intolerant religious conservatives, has made it increasingly difficult for the organisers. Yet, the brilliant Pink Dot leaders have always overcome the rising restrictions on them. This year they surmounted what I thought was an impossible obstacle: getting local sponsors.

Sometimes clicking “Like” on Facebook is not enough. Sometimes you have to show face, because by doing so you show a digit at hate and repression.  Sometimes you have to do what is not all that fun.

Time to take out that shirt from the closet again. It will be such a chore, but I will be there tomorrow at Pink Dot.


1987’s Scar Literature and Scar Art

What do these people have in common:

Alfian Sa’at, Vincent Cheng, Russell Heng, Teo Soh Lung, Tan Jing Quee, Aileen Lau, Gwee Li Sui, Lau Siew Mei, Sonny Liew, Suchen Christine Lim, Seelan Palay, Jason Soo, Joel Tan, Jolene Tan, Jason Wee, Wong Souk Yee, and Robert Yeo

They are artists whose creations have dealt directly with or referenced the 1987 alleged Marxist plot against the government. I previously wrote about the scar literature and art that deals with the detention without trail of the “Marxists” when I discussed Wong Souk Yee’s novel Death of a Perm Sec:


“Wong’s novel and especially her play add to the slowly growing body of what is probably best termed Singapore’s “scar literature” (used for works dealing with China’s Cultural Revolution.) In our own scar literature I include not just novels and short stories, but also non-fiction, films, poetry, etc, which deal directly or indirectly with the period of the “political ISA”. By this I mean the time up till the late 1980s, during which the government locked up without trial politicians, social activists, and playwrights, journalists and other intellectuals (some for unimaginable years and years.)”

The above writers, editors and other what we call “Artists for Marxists (Alleged)” (disclaimer: including myself) are part of a as complete as we know list of the scar books, plays, sculptures, installation and other art works that a few of us compiled in commemoration of the 30th anniversary of Operation Spectrum arrests on May 21 ( click on the link below for the PDF):

1987 artists final

Artists for Marxists (Alleged)

Let me know if there is something we have left out.

The anniversary has been marked by the launch of “1987: Singapore’s Marxist Conspiracy 30 Years On” (available here:). Publishers Ethos Books describe it as:

“Survivors of Operation Spectrum—the alleged Marxist conspiracy—speak up in this volume. For many of them, this is the first time that they cast their minds back to 1987 and try to make sense of the incident. What they did in that period was meaningful and totally legitimate. Their families and friends share the same view.”

Other anniversary events such as talks are on-going. Look up Function 8, the group behind them, to find out more.

Crowd at launch of 1987 book

The overwhelming response to the launch of the 1987 anniversary book (source: Function 8)


Do festivals really kick-start places like Bras Basah?


Night Festival in Singapore (Source: http://www.familystaycationsg.com)

A little debate between Mr Kennie Ting, Group Director of Museums, and myself in a magazine published by the Centre for Liveable Cities (CLC), over the effects of festivals on places and spaces.

Mr Ting, who oversees major festivals run by Singapore’s National Heritage Board, including the Singapore Night Festival, Singapore Heritage Festival and River Nights, argues that festivals bond people to places meaningfully. I contend that their effects are often transient and superficial.

Our pieces are published in ‘Public Spaces’, launched on 18 May in Suzhou, China at the World Cities Summit Mayors Forum 2017. It has also been digitally circulated to over 30,000 people in our mailing list. The full issue can be accessed here: www.clc.gov.sg/Publications/urban-solutions-issue-11-public-spaces.htm


Yo and Lucia #1: Chicken

“(Yo sits at a garden table in a balcony high above the glinting sci-fi city. Heavy clouds threatening rain hang low. They seemed closer to him than the tiny cars below. A brilliant bolt of lightning flashed nearby, its clap and the the rumble in its wake rattling the sliding doors.

Lucia comes out with a Tiger and two glasses. She sits.)

Lucia: (Pouring.) Why that face?

Yo: (Mimes typing) Fear.

Lucia: Still?

(Yo gestures “You know how it is.”)

Lucia: Another play?

Yo: (Shakes head) An article. And another I don’t know what yet.

Lucia: Exposè? (Yo nods.) Political? (Yo looks at her) Stupid question.

And the problem is..?

Yo: It’s all hearsay, circumstantial.

Lucia: Never a paper or email trail.

Yo: They’re good.

Lucia: Damn good.

Yo: So I ask myself, “Heh, why are you still so afraid? When was the last time anyone got into trouble for writing anything?”

Lucia: Exactly. When was the last time?  (The other looks at him, not answering. He searches his memory. Finally:) I see. (Pause.)  Scared for your job?

Yo: House paid for, children working, I’ve always lived simply. You know I don’t really need it anymore.

Lucia: But?

Yo: They can take the house, the CPF.

Lucia: When was the last time they did that to anyone? (He thinks as the other looks at him.) I see…

Yo: They don’t use their stick often –

Lucia: ­ – “but it’s a big, big stick.”


Yo: Thinking of getting a divorce.

Lucia: What!? But the two of you look so… permanent.

Yo: “Permanent” (He’s smiles. Pause.) It’s not because of that. (Lucia looks at him.) We divorce, I give everything to her, after that, I can do anything. They won’t be able to touch a single cent because 一无所有. There’s nothing for them to take away.

Lucia: You serious?

Yo: Thinking, thinking…

Lucia: You are serious.

Yo: We could still live together after that. In sin, as it were.

Lucia: Haha, just like when you guys started.

Yo: Haha, yes.

Lucia: A crazy idea… but not a bad one.


Yo: But…

Lucia: You would still be afraid.

Yo: Yes.

Lucia: Yeah…

Yo: Chicken.

(Lucia makes to contradict Yo, but then stops herself. She lifts her glass. Lucia waits for it to roll away.)

Lucia: Cheers.

(Yo lifts his glass and clinks Lucia’s. He takes a sip. Then as Lucia looks on he downs the whole thing at one go.)”


The Smiling T Rex

Which is the T Rex? (Source: The Straits Times)

Thank goodness for our Arts Nominated Member of Parliament Kok Heng Leun and his predecessors Janice Koh and Audrey Wong. The House is never the same when they are in it.

If you were following the Heng Leun (https://www.facebook.com/groups/ArtsNMP/) in the Budget debate recently you will see why. Ditto for Janice (2012 and 2014) and Audrey (2009 to 2011).

Their speeches and their other activities show breath, depth, honesty and integrity, originality, courage, passion, compassion, feeling. In other words: humanness.

In the first year of his appointment, Heng Leun has spoken on topics ranging from the death penalty to gender bias, marital rape, the Public Order Act. The arts is only one of the many subjects they tackle in Parliament. The Arts NMP speaks not just on the arts or for the arts community but on a host of other issues and for all Singaporeans.

Ms Don’t Mess with Moi

The Arts NMP operates within constraints, sometimes quite forbidding, which we needn’t go into here. These limits are drawn not very far out. But as true artists they see these barriers as something to test and perhaps break and change, not to siam. No flower vases, these.

Our Arts NMP don’t just make great speeches in Parliament. That’s only the most visible aspect of their work. They meet regularly with different groups from freelancers to film makers, writers and visual artists. They make representations behind the scenes to authorities and lobby sympathetic politicians and civil servants. They sit on committees. They spread the message about the centrality of the arts to a flourishing life to schools and universities.

“The Pioneer” at an Institute of Policy Studies talk on her Arts NMP work (Source: Institute of Policy Studies)

Hence, it is evident that Arts NMP is almost a full-time position (I don’t know about other NMPs). The NMP allowance is small. Their core constituency – the artist community – is often quarrelsome and demanding and unappreciative. Let’s not even talk about Singaporeans in general. Then there are some who don’t believe in the whole idea of Nominated Members of Parliament, and with good reason. But if we take what is on offer, then our representatives have taken it and done something brilliant with it.

So being an Arts NMP seems like a thankless job. BUT, HENG LEUN, JANICE AND AUDREY, THANK THANK THANK YOU!!!

(A shout-out also for those who stepped up for the contests and face the arts community. They include Loretta Chen, one of the two with Audrey whose names the community submitted as candidates to be the first Arts NMP in xxx after an open, democratic process. And of course to the interns, artists and other who provide support for them behind the scenes.)

The word is that after this term there will not be an Arts NMP. Let’s hope it is not true. Otherwise it would be a loss – a loss for Singapore.

P.S. Janice’s speeches are on her Facebook page (see https://www.facebook.com/296770460367988/photos/a.319066304805070.78971.296770460367988/501880413190324/?type=3 about her virtual NMP office and a nice shot of her and her interns). Both she and Audrey hope to eventually get their texts up on the Arts Engage website, which has a running update of Heng Leun’s speeches. Now the transcripts for all three are searchable on Hansard of Parliament.


Death of A Perm Sec – Worth a read


Former ISD detainee Wong Souk Yee’s novel is an absorbing read. The draw for me though is not so much the mystery surrounding the titular murder?/suicide? as the character studies of the four feckless children struggling to cope with their suddenly fallen circumstances. Part of the fun is trying to guess which of the main political characters ¬– from the iron-fisted prime minister (no prizes there) to the Chinese-helicopter sole Opposition leader of 1980s Singapore and even the Perm Sec (shades of Teh Cheang Wan) ¬¬– correspond to which person or amalgam of persons in real life. There are many things this novel offers, but I am particularly impressed by the lyricism of Wong’s pen, for instance, in describing the multiracial love story of one of the daughters and the epiphany of one of the sons on a visit to Hong Kong to look up his father’s mistress.

EBFP-DeathofPermSec-300_1024x1024Wong was one of the so-called Marxists of the late 1980s whose drama group Third Stage’s plays on mistreated maids and other socially-conscious themes landed them in jail. The government has made efforts recently to erase their contribution to Singapore’s theatre history.
Wong was behind bars for 15 months without trial under the Internal Security Act, an experience she mined for her 2013 play Square Moon and which forms a small part of this prose work.

The novel is a much more accomplished work. It was actually completed in 2004 as part of Wong’s PhD in creative writing and literature at the University of New South Wales in Australia. But no publisher wanted it so (the time was perhaps not right then). So it sat in Wong’s drawer until she submitted it for the $20,000 Epigram Book Prize in 201 and it made the short list of final four.

Death of a Perm Sec is now in its second printing. The original less sexy title was “Expelled”. I understand that the authorities do not at all like the new title. (See https://guanyinmiao.wordpress.com/2016/09/15/wong-souk-yees-death-of-a-perm-sec/ for a full and perceptive review of the book).

Wong’s novel and especially her play add to the slowly growing body of what is probably best termed Singapore’s “scar literature” (used for works dealing with China’s Cultural Revolution.) In our own scar literature I include not just novels and short stories, but also non-fiction, films, poetry, etc, which deal directly or indirectly with the period of the “political ISA”. By this I mean the time up till the late 1980s, during which the government locked up without trial politicians, social activists, and playwrights, journalists and other intellectuals (some for unimaginable years and years.) The government has revealed that between 1959 and 1990, 2,460 people were locked up (though not all were for political reasons) under the ISA and its predecessor law.

Another notable scar literature book of 2010 is Beyond The Blue Gate: Recollections of a Political Prisoner, Teo Soh Lung’s moving memoir of her two years and seven months over two periods from 1987 to 1990 in Whitley Detention Centre. She was another so-called Marxist conspirator. A scar book about the earlier ISA swoop, which I have yet to read, is The 1963 Operation Coldstore: Commemorating 50 Years, edited by Poh Soo Kai, Tan Kok Fang and Hong Lysa.

Scar films include the documentaries Tan Pin Pin’s To Singapore, With Love (banned from public showing) and Jason Soo’s Untracing the Conspiracy (which continues to be shown at The Projector). Older works such as Haresh Sharma’s play Gemuk Girls, Russell Heng’s play Half Century and Boo Jun Feng’s feature film Sandcastles also belong to the same genre though their treatment is tangential to actual events, like the even more tangential Death of a Perm Sec. But they are no less powerful.

Arts research in Singapore

Kudos to the National Arts Council (NAC) and its Director (Strategic Planning) Kenneth Kwok for organising the “Inaugural Sharing and Networking Session on Arts & Culture Research in Singapore” that will be held next week.  It is open to artists, academics and arts researchers “to share their research findings on arts in Singapore, as well as to address the challenges of arts research in Singapore”. One thing to look forward to is the possible headline speakerProfessor Kwok Kian Woon, one of our best brains and a person with integrity, honesty, and deep links to the arts (including being on the NAC Council).

The event is a great idea.

The first reason is that the NAC commissions quite a bit of research either through its research grant or directly through one of its operational units such as Arts Engagement. (The Institute of Policy Studies has been funded for research under both schemes.)  A check with the government procurement portal GeBiz shows that NAC commissioned six studies (mostly surveys) in the six-month period up till January 2017.  Some research is published here, but many appear not to be. I know of two recent ones that have not been made public. So I am glad some of the research will be disclosed at the upcoming event.

And this is linked to the second reason why the “sharing and networking session” is a long overdue:  It will allow for the airing some of the critical issues surrounding the conditions of doing research for the NAC.

These include:

  1. Openness and transparency. The NAC’s default position on all research it commissions (indeed undertakes) should be to put the results in the public domain. Unfortunately, this is not the case. The only reason that the government might withhold information and knowledge is because of national security. Since the domain is  cultural rather than, say, defence, security or policy, I don’t see the NAC having to apply this rule. The reality is that the default for the NAC is to not release research findings. Hence, precious little research gets shared, discussed and made use of by arts groups, arts businesses and academics.
  2. Ability to take criticism and willingness to hear what you do not want to hear. Research findings can serve to confirm your hunches, or pat yourself on the back if it shows that all is well. But research findings that tell you what is wrong (specifically what you are doing or have done wrong) and what you are not hoping to hear (for instance, that your policy is not working or that your assumptions are unfounded) – are equally if not more useful. Indeed, one should expect to find (especially in complex policy areas like that of cultural policy) some short-comings or unexpected and undesired effects in every area.  In most reports there will be some good, perhaps mostly good, and at least some bad.
  3. Access to data. Researchers need access to information that NAC has to make their work better. But at times, NAC has been head-scratchingly unforthcoming with helping the researcher that it has commissioned.

I am not sure if I have left out any issues – let me know if I have. I am also not sure how general the above three problems are (for the very reason of the lack of openness and transparency).

I have faced some of the three issues when I did cultural policy research for the ministry that the NAC is part of, then the Ministry for Information, Communications and the Arts and now the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth. Indeed, the problem is government-wide: thin-skinness and an unwillingness to hear challenges to their world view.

I hope that all researchers, especially the new ones, deal with all three issues upfront, difficult as it might be. I know that insisting on openness and access holds the danger of not being given the research project. But it should at least be raised as a possibility, if not insisted on as a necessity on the chance that they might agree.

I also know that being “difficult” and  writing the full truth in the reports might mean locking yourself out of future grants, a worry for independent researchers especially. But my fear is that the less scrupulous researchers might even “massage the message” or even hide unwelcome findings in their reports to please their paymasters. I hope not. Fortunately, I myself have not had a commissioning agency telling me to be less than completely truthful. They have been very unhappy with what I have reported, but that is a different matter.

The future of the arts depends on us researchers telling the truth (sermon alert here). Of course, we should do it in as nice a way as we can, in the same manner that a doctor who delivers bitter but necessary medicine should.

I think that things have improved somewhat in the NAC. Of late, for instance, some NAC officers have been admirably ready to face scrutiny, coming to speak at events that I have organised where artists and others have given them strong criticisms of policy. This is to be applauded.

Also, look at some of the people who are running the departments or units that make or implement policy. We can see some new thinking. Let’s hope that it is infectious. We even find some artists or arts lovers among them. It is not that artists and arts lovers are better people or sharper thinkers;not by any means for this government is run by some seriously brightest people. But at least the artistadministrators know enough about the arts. That is, they would not be spending the first part of their tenure mastering the domain (attending school, as it were).  And at least most of them really care about the arts. Unfortunately, they are inheritors of a system not of their own devising. But this does not mean change, however slow, cannot happen.We on the outside can help give things a little nudge.

PS: Here is the line-up of panelists:
Session on Academic Research on the Arts in Singapore
•         Creative Place Making  (Speaker: Dr Cho Im Sik)
•         Arts Management and Cultural Policy  (Speaker: Ms Audrey Wong)
•         Arts Education (Speaker: Dr Charlene Rajendren)

Session on Arts and Practice Based Research in Singapore
•         Theatre (Speaker: Mr Kok Heng Leun)
•         Music (Speaker: A/P Eugene Dairianathan)
•         Visual Arts (Speaker: Prof Ute Bauer)
•         Dance (Speaker: Dr Stephanie Burridge)
•         Traditional Arts (Speaker: Ms Nirmala Seshadri)


In no mood for risk for the future economy

Economist Manu Bhaskaran of Centennial Asia Advisors wrote this article on the report of the Committee for the Future Economy. It was sent to Centennial’s  private clients in its regular newsletter. He has kindly allowed me to published it here. When the committee was formed, Manu wrote also wrote another article saying that it had its work cut out.

Singapore’s Committee for the Future Economy report abjures bold moves

The Committee on the Future Economy (CFE), chaired by Ministers Heng Swee Keat and S Iswaran, released its set of recommendations to chart Singapore’s economic strategy for the next five to 10 years. It aims to set the stage for the Singapore economy to benefit from emerging opportunities and equip its people and firms with the deep skills and knowledge to succeed in the long run.

Two key questions are raised by our assessment – what specific policy changes might emerge out of the CFE report and whether the CFE’s modest goals be achieved. On both these, we have a cautious take.

Key features of the CFE Report

The CFE lays out seven key points which it hopes will gear Singapore up for success, leading to an average annual growth rate of 2-3% and culminating in good jobs and meaningful careers for all Singaporeans while also ensuring that manufacturing continues to play a large role in its economy.

The seven broad and “mutually-reinforcing” strategies by the CFE are:

  1. Deepen and diversify our international connections
  2. Acquire and utilise deep skills
  3. Strengthen enterprise capabilities to innovate and scale up
  4. Build strong digital capabilities
  5. Develop a vibrant and connected city of opportunity
  6. Develop and implement Industry Transformation Maps (ITMs)
  7. Partner each other to enable innovation and growth

What policy changes should we now expect?

The CFE report carefully sticks with existing policy approaches, with few bold new initiatives, as noted by the Government itself in its press conference releasing the report. Virtually all the recommendations involved validating existing policy approaches such as:

  • Same old favoured growth sectors: Companies should look to high-growth sectors in Singapore such as finance, hub services, logistics, urban solutions, healthcare, the digital economy and advanced manufacturing, with the Government taking on a more active role to support growth and innovation.
  • Continued commitment to retaining a large manufacturing base: There will be stepped up efforts to ensure that manufacturing in Singapore is globally competitive and maintains its share of GDP at 20% over the medium term. The CFE’s strategy to do so is through the Industry Transformation Maps (ITMs) that were announced last year – industry-specific platforms to integrate planning and implementation in 23 industries and about 80% of the economy. Six have been launched to date.
  • No change to economic openness: Not surprisingly for an economy utterly reliant on external demand and foreign investment, the CFE reiterated Singapore’s commitment to economic openness in terms of trade and investment. Singapore will focus on progressing negotiations for the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) as well as fully utilising the privileges stemming from the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) which is already in effect. No new initiatives for regional integration appear to have been contemplated.
  • Deregulation to spur innovation, digitisation and entrepreneurship: This was one area where some interesting policy moves were hinted at. The government will simplify the regulatory framework for venture capitalists and encourage the entry of private equity firms to provide smart and patient growth capital. It plans to design a regulatory environment supportive of innovation and risk-taking, such as through regulatory sandboxes and by issuing “no action” letters assuring disrupting companies that they would not be penalised if in pushing the envelope with new ideas they brush up against Singapore’s infamously rigid regulations. The Government will also act as a source of “lead demand” to support up-and-coming industries, particularly those which intersect which strategic national needs. It will also set up a Global Innovation Alliance to link Singapore’s institutes of higher learning and companies with overseas partners in major innovation hubs and key demand markets. Government to promote the adoption of digital technologies across the economy with a dedicated focus on building strong capabilities in data analytics and cybersecurity.
  • Scaling up and internationalising: Government to support the scaling up of high-growth local enterprises as well as the commercialisation of research findings and intellectual property of research institutions. The government will make a big push for agglomeration gains through enhanced international connectivity as well as by developing districts such as Jurong and Punggol into synergistic and vibrant clusters.
  • Tax reforms: The Government to maintain a broad-based, progressive and fair tax system while remaining competitive and pro-growth. This could be an intriguing reference to a hike in the goods and services tax (GST) in the near future.

Several commentaries in the usually pro-government media have noted the Report’s penchant for tweaks and expansions to existing policy approaches and the glaring paucity of new ideas and initiatives. Essentially, the CFE has brought together policies which are already in the pipeline or already being implemented into a coherent report. The Government is clearly in no mood to risk shaking things up through a bolder approach.

Can the objectives outlined by the CFE be achieved?

That means that the Government might struggle to attain its goals of 2-3% growth and the retention of a large manufacturing role in the economy.

First, without fundamental changes to Singapore’s economic model, it is not clear how these goals can be attained.

 The average annual 2-3% growth target is a marked downshift from the 3-5% range posited by the 2009 Economic Strategies Committee. Even so, it is difficult to see the Singapore economy hitting this target given lacklustre productivity growth and an ageing population.

  • Productivity gains have been abysmal in recent years with productivity barely growing.
  • Headwinds will grow in demographics as the population ages. Even though importing foreign workers and accepting immigrants are possible solutions to a greying Singapore, there are political constraints to doing so.

Since long-term economic growth is a function of productivity growth and labour force growth, it is difficult to see Singapore hitting the 2-3% growth target.

Additionally, external challenges could compound Singapore’s challenges.

  • A more hostile global environment beckons as the US and China jostle for hegemony in Singapore’s backyard. Should US President Donald Trump follow through with the rest of his anti-trade, anti-globalisation policies, export-oriented economies such as Singapore will be adversely and significantly affected.
  • Greater competition from unsympathetic neighbours will challenge Singapore’s status as the premier hub in the region. Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur are emerging as significant rivals to hub services which Singapore has focused on as a high-growth industry.

Second, the push for a large manufacturing base does not have sufficient under-girders.

Manufacturing, particularly for exports, has powered the initial stages of Singapore’s growth story and remains an industry integral to the economy. However, in light of rising costs, it has become uneconomical to manufacture most items in Singapore. Indeed, it is a wise choice to focus on advanced manufacturing which will be focused on high value production activities.

Yet, the question is whether a goal for the manufacturing sector to comprise 20% of the Singapore economy over the longer-term is feasible. A quick look at other advanced economies which are also production powerhouses (see chart) shows that maintaining a robust manufacturing base as part of the economy is very possible. Germany, Japan and South Korea are cases in point.

Chart 10
Singapore as compared to other advanced economies

Source: Calculated by Centennial Asia Advisors using CEIC Database

Singapore’s manufacturing share of GDP has been on a long-term downtrend from 26% in 2000 to 19% in 2015 – in line with economic experience around the world – while Germany and South Korea’s have remained largely unchanged while Japan’s has ticked down from 23% to 20% over the same period. Germany can count on its world-class Mittelstand while Japan and South Korea have strong national champions to undergird their respective manufacturing bases. However, Singapore has an unhealthy reliance on MNC-led growth and foreign direct investment and has not been making great inroads at nurturing a strong core of SMEs.

It remains unclear why Singapore should deviate from economic orthodoxy and attempt to sustain a relatively large manufacturing base even as costs rise and many production activities become uncompetitive. To this end, the ITMs appear to have a key role to play and we expect more sector-specific support schemes to materialise soon.

A big worry is that in the pursuit of this 20% target, the government will ramp up its big-ticket giveaways and sweeteners to entice MNCs to remain in or come to Singapore. This means more investment incentives, tax breaks, etc, pointing to a higher cost of attracting foreign investment and potentially skewing the cost-benefit analysis against Singapore’s favour.

Third, nary a mention on the overarching challenges Singapore faces

  • High cost structure inhibiting entrepreneurship and growth of SMEs: Costs in terms of rents, wages and compliance are mounting in Singapore resulting in a loss of cost competitiveness. High costs are also stifling entrepreneurial spirit and inhibiting the growth of local start-ups.
  • Rejuvenation of the local bourse: The Singapore Exchange (SGX) has seen stock turnover volumes plummet in light of the penny stock crash in October 2013. Average daily volume of stocks traded on SGX has declined to the SGD1bn level or less. There is a lack of liquidity in the equity market, resulting in uncompetitive valuations for firms thinking of listing on SGX. In light of the government’s pursuit of smart and patient capital from VCs and PE firms, rejuvenating our local bourse is imperative so that these companies have viable exit strategies from the start-ups they invest in.
  • Fiscal and social policies in age of upheaval: The CFE alluded to the more challenging global environment which Singapore finds itself in now; this is a time of technological change and a darkening of the mood against globalisation. Digitally-driven disruptions and dislocations will likely affect large parts of the economy and the working population and the Singapore Government needs to ensure that while the economy benefits from these changes, workers who are affected are, to some extent, protected and given assistance to transition.

All of which raises this critical question: Is the Singapore “premium” still deserved?

For some time, Singapore could charge a premium to activities that sought to locate in Singapore, because of a number of reasons:

  • First, Singapore had a clear edge in the quality of our regulatory and physical infrastructure, political stability, policy certainty, rule of law and incorruptibility.
  • Second, the economy delivered a premium return to investors so investors did not mind paying a higher entrance fee to be in Singapore.
  • Third, in the age of globalisation, Singapore was the paramount globaliser: we had a liberal immigration policy and emphasised heavily on free trade and FTAs.
  • Fourth, the Singapore Government offered tax and other inducements to businesses to locate here.
  • Fifth, the Government’s astute foreign policy won us advantageous FTAs and military alliances, Singapore could even befriend geo-strategic rivals such as the US and China at once, without having to choose between the two. We had the best of all worlds.

Now, some of these advantages are disappearing or fading. Singapore does not offer such a large premium return as before. Other regional hubs can offer enough of a good deal, even if they are wanting in some details, to pry companies and talent away from Singapore. Globalisation is reversing as well. Our tax arbitration offer to MNCs is now viewed with suspicion by large countries that we depend on, as part of the global shift against Base Erosion and Profit Shifting (BEPS). Our (tightening) immigration policies have made MNCs anxious. Key elements of our cluster are beginning to lose vibrancy – eg. the equities market – and if more of these lose their mojo, the entire cluster could weaken. Finally, China is deeply suspicious of Singapore while the US has become an unpredictable and undependable ally.

Most tellingly, the economy is not keeping up with changes. In an ageing society, where growth and dynamism depend more on innovation and productivity growth, Singapore does not seem to be able to deliver either. The country’s vaunted capacity to confront challenges head on and devise innovative solutions seems to have weakened. For example, policymakers knew that demographics would be a problem 30 years ago but could not come to grips with effective solutions.

The CFE ought to have addressed these issues and offered compelling ideas to take Singapore onto the next phase of economic development – a phase where economic growth might be slower but of higher quality, where traditional jobs might be disrupted by technology. Singapore needs to remain special in order to continue being competitive and adaptive in the ever-changing global economy.

It is not clear that the CFE report will bring Singapore sufficiently close to achieving that.

Censored pages in NLB’s Script & Stage show

Went to the exhibition on Singapore’s theatre history called Script & Stage at the National Library.

It is a shame that an important chapter from the 80s has been excised for evidently political reasons: The history of the pioneering and politically- and socially-conscious group called Third Stage. Its members were jailed without trial in the alleged ‘Marxist conspiracy’ of 1987, namely, Wong Souk Yee, Chng Suan Tze, William Yap, and Tay Hong Seng. Look at the panels below for the sanitised version in which Third Stage is not even mentioned (they mention Kuo Pao Kun’s arrest in the 70s, but I guess he has been rehabilitated):

Let me quote from Wong Souk Yee’s article (http://s-pores.com/2010/03/third-stage/):

Third Stage was at its most productive from 1983 to 1986, staging a total of eight plays, all written and developed by its members, on issues and themes that affect Singaporeans, such as the graduate mothers’ scheme, education policy, in particular the destructiveness of the early streaming of school children, marginalisation of the lower-income and foreign domestic workers. Literary critics might consider the plays counter-discourse to Singapore’s nation building. Because of the group’s predilection for creating plays that depict human frailties and destabilising official narratives (such are the staples of any number of theatre groups in the world — with the exception of some dictatorship regimes), it was considered a security threat in the insecure minds of the government.

Shame on whoever who is trying to whitewash history in the NLB show. Now, am I to trust the other things presented and not presented in the exhibition?

Some of Third Stage’s plays have been published, including the play Esperanza, one of the first and still one of the few (I don’t know of any others, so please let me know if there are others) to talk about how badly some of us treat our domestic workers. See


The Substation and the arts community

Wrote the  following in December last year in response to the concerns Zai Kuning and others about possible staff and  policy changes at The Substation.  It might be relevant to the Townhall chaired by Sasi:

2016-03-31 09.47.55.jpg

“Substation staff and what happens to them. My view is that the boss has the final say about who to keep and in what form as long as it is fair and follows good practice. For instance, you can ask people to go, but you need to do so with due process: adequate reason, a system of feedback so people have the chance to improve, compensation for time served. And if it unfair then the arts community should be concerned because we care about everyone who work with us. This is an important matter. I don’t know the facts of the case as it stands whether what is happening now was done properly. But I trust the Board Of Directors in this, and I do trust it will do the right thing if they found out that things had not been done properly.
The more difficult question is whether the arts community in general should have any specific say in what happens in and to The Substation in terms of its artistic side? That is, does The Substation belong to itself (and is hence accountable to only to its board, its funders, its staff and the people it works with). Or does it also belong to Singapore and the arts community (in which case, it is also accountable to all of us artists and Singaporeans in general). In other words, is The Substation like any arts group which can do what it likes within the demands of its direct stakeholders (most arts groups belong to this category), or is it special and belongs to everyone (like Singapore Art Museum of The National Gallery and other public institutions)? Of course, The Substation is administratively configured to be like any arts group, unlike the public institutions such as the two museums. Nevertheless, it seems to be more than any arts group. I am not sure my position on this, and it also depends on the answer to the next question.
Another question is does The Substation see itself as belonging to everyone or just itself. Pao Kun, it seems to me, ran The Substation like it belonged to everyone. The first part of what he said in the following suggests that: “The Substation should be anything anyone wants it to be: Open and flexible enough to do things his or her own way.” That is, a shared aim or aims negotiated with the whole community but (this is necessary) autonomy in how to realise it. I think Sasi too agreed with this. And under Weng (and Audrey) too, who definitely involved everyone, not just the artists but also academics and activists, in the programming. I am not sure about Effendy. Neither am I about Alan’s position.
So many of us were transformed by The Substation. We all (rightly or wrongly) want to make a claim on it, not just of its past but also of its present and future. We care. We also make a claim on just on its programming but also its spaces (including the rental question).
Should Pao Kun’s vision be the eternal vision of The Substation? (To have an eternal vision does not mean you do the same things, but that the purpose remains the same, and sometimes you have to do things differently to achieve the same purpose.) I think so. But this is no where written in stone. It all comes down to the Board of Directors and the Artistic Director. Do they see themselves as custodians of Pao Kun’s vision, or just keeping The Substation going while changing the vision and mission as the times change?
Maybe the problem is that different people have different notions about what Pao Kun’s vision was. “A Home For The Arts” is a very flexible idea. To me, it seems that Pao Kun’s vision of The Substation is to be at the fringe and cutting edge. I have never worked with him and done anything artistically at The Substation. The difficulty is that yesterday’s fringe is not today’s fringe. Neither is the cutting edge. In the new context of today, I see his vision of that The Substation as being home to the fringe of the fringe, the most cutting edge of the cutting edge. I wish the logo ran something like “A home for the fringe and cutting edge”. Unlike many of today’s veteran artists, my contact with Pao Kun is very little, a couple of conversations here and there. So my opinion is based on the programming then, the people who came to The Substation then, what I know about him largely through reading, and what people tell me about him. But that is just my view. The Board of Directors calls the shots in this. As it should. Unless The Substation belongs to all of us. In which case we are back to square one.”