The Prime Minister on Arts and Culture

verbatim from the 1999 National Day Speech

We have not devoted much resources and attention to developing arts and culture until recently. We had other more urgent priorities, like upgrading our economy and building up the SAF. But in recent years, the arts scene has taken off, especially after we formed MITA under George Yeo in 1990. There are now many groups staging plays and musicals, putting up exhibitions and concerts.

Lee Yock Suan tells me that MITA is developing a vision for Singapore to be a renaissance city. Artistic creativity is an important element of a knowledge-based economy. He will get more funds to promote the arts.

I asked MITA for a list of Singaporeans who have made their mark in the arts. MITA could produce just over 30 names, many of whom are based overseas. Violinist Siow Lee Chin, who performed at this year’s National Day Parade, is in the US. Glen Goei of M Butterfly fame is in the UK. Dick Lee, the "Mad Chinaman", works out of Hong Kong.

Among those based in Singapore we have playwright Kuo Pao Kun, painters Liu Kang and Tan Swie Hian, actor Lim Kay Siu and writer Catherine Lim, whose novels have been translated into several languages. Her latest book, "The Teardrop Story Woman" is a best-seller in London.

A number of Singapore works have toured internationally in the last two years. Ong Keng Sen’s ‘Lear’ combined Japanese noh, Beijing opera, Vietnamese dances, Sumatran martial art forms and Singaporean talent. This powerful production was a big hit in Japan.

‘Chang and Eng’, a musical about the famous Siamese twins, performed to full houses in Singapore. It toured Beijing in December 1997. The producer, Ekachai Uekrongtham, is a Singapore PR of Thai origin. He studied in NUS on an ASEAN scholarship more than 10 years ago, and stayed on in Singapore after his graduation.

How many outstanding musicians, artists, directors, dancers and actors can a 3-million population produce? We are not like the Israelis, who are already naturally talented, and furthermore draw on a large pool of talented Jews from all over the world, to be artists, musicians and writers. After the Soviet Union collapsed, 600,000 Russian Jews emigrated to Israel. Every Russian immigrant coming off the plane in Tel Aviv carried some musical instrument – either a violin or cello, or perhaps a french horn. Occasionally you would see somebody carrying nothing. He was probably a pianist.

So in the arts, as in everything else, it is talent that counts. We can be neither a first-world economy nor a world-class home without talent. We have to supplement our talent from abroad.