Several years ago, the powers that be in Singapore decided that a thriving arts scene was perhaps the most vital prerequisite to developing a mature and refined society. Since then, both the public and private sectors have worked hard to transform the island into a center for all varieties of arts and culture. It may not be an Asian version of Greenwich Village just yet, but Singapore's progress in the arts is nothing short of astounding. With a population of a little over 3 million, Singapore now offers more than 3,000 cultural activities each year - up from 1,000 a year just a decade ago. Audience growth is also impressive - about 800,000 a year compared to 500,000 in 1989.
''Every night, there are about five to eight events going on, which is quite marvelous for such a small island,'' says Choo Thiam Siew, executive director of the National Arts Council (NAC). ''And we have experienced a leap in both quantity and quality.''
Like everything else the island republic undertakes, aspirations in the arts arena are ambitious, and the government envisions the island as a cultural hub, ''not only for Southeast Asia but also for North Asia,'' says Mr. Choo.
The government has already decided to switch the Singapore Arts Festival from a biannual to annual affair, and the directors want to have it rival such internationally acclaimed events as the Edinburgh Festival in Scotland.
Another big biennial event is the Nokia Singapore Art Festival, a visual arts celebration that this year will coincide with the island's millennium celebrations (Dec. 4-Jan. 30). The festival aims to document the development of visual arts in Singapore and showcase the latest in contemporary art. It will feature works by internationally recognized artists and serve as a platform for the discovery of new talent.
Besides organizing quality local and foreign performances in Singapore, the NAC is also attempting to promote Singapore performers and artists abroad. Two years ago, a Singapore production about the famous Siamese twins Chang and Eng became the very first full-length English-language musical performed in Beijing. Since then, Singapore groups have performed by invitation at the Hamburg Summer International Festival and the House of Cultures in Berlin.
The NAC currently runs three major theaters and several smaller venues, with a total seating capacity of 25,800. This will get a big boost in 2001, when the 600 million Singapore dollar ($353 million) Esplanade Theaters on the Bay complex opens. The complex will include a theater, concert hall, studios and outdoor performance space.
Mr. Choo admits that Singapore's recession has affected sponsorship money and ticket sales. ''But strong corporate sponsors are still there,'' he says, ''and those companies badly affected were honest enough to tell us early so we could work around the problem and maintain links.'' The NAC was pleased that close to 85 percent of all tickets for the recently concluded Singapore Arts Festival were sold.