Growth Without Risk
Critics accuse the establishment of unnecessary caution

Originally published by CNN


            PERFORMANCE ARTIST LEE WEN painted himself yellow -- "the color of the river that runs in the old country." In the heart of Chinatown, an old shophouse was the setting for an emotionally draining saga of an immigrant Chinese family. And new director Zai Kuning staged a challenging installation-art piece, "Growing Madness: The Day After."

            These were all part of the cheekily titled "the cutting edge (no, not the arts festival . . .)" presented in March by TheatreWorks, Singapore's premier English-language theater company -- a group that will definitely not be taking part in the coming Festival of Arts. TheatreWorks' artistic director Ong Keng Sen had proposed entries, but pulled out because he says the organizers would support only projects that were considered economically viable. "They wanted no cutting-edge material because they thought it was too high- brow and Singaporeans wouldn't come."

            For all that, few would disagree that the cultural scene has blossomed beyond recognition in recent years. "In the 1960s," says Professor Tommy Koh Thong Bee, president of the National Arts Council, "the number and type of arts performances were limited." Last year, there were more than 2,000 activities. "On any day of the year," he says, "people had a choice of exhibitions, dance and drama productions, opera and music performances by local arts groups and by foreign artists." The government is also building a major center, The Esplanade -- Theaters on the Bay, which will include a 2,000-seat Lyric Theater and a 1,800-seat Concert Hall.

            But some argue that the cultural scene has developed along mainly commercial lines -- to attract tourists and to make the middle class feel comfortable. "That's a very consumerist way of thinking," says Ong. "Art is not just an outlet for the community to relax and have a better quality of life. It's about molding future leaders to become a developed nation."

            Veteran playwright Kuo Pao Kun agrees that the arts have a core role to play in Singapore's growth. "The 'dare to think and do' attitude built this place. Where is the next wave of creativity coming from?" he asks.