'Singapore is in need of a new urbanism; a new civic urban culture. We have at present an urban environment without a civic urban culture. In the new urbanism, there has to be diversity of new leaders to make it happen. Leaders who have a free spirit and who can inspire responsible free action in others. As it is, the present situation is characterised by a mentality that is small and self-serving. It is timid and fragile. Easy to take offence; relying on rules and procedures and the ritual of derived authority imported if needed.'
Urbanism, art and spirit are always intertwined. They constitute the total environment, which either supports or depletes creativity, art and the human spirit. In Singapore these elements are arrayed in ways which our brand of pragmatism tends to cancel or coarsen in fields other than in politics. Thus in politics there is much creativity but in other fields it languishes. The prevailing values reflect the nature of the economy. The economy and thus the politics of the past 3 decades are dedicated to disciplining the society towards the service economy and serial production. Thus Singapore has excelled as middlemen and sub-contractors to the multinational corporations and for the infrastructure building of Singapore.
Singapore is now faced by global and regional circumstances to consider entering into a new economy, a knowledge based economy. The new economy needs a new mindset, a new set of values, a spirit of adventure. Can Singapore re-imagine new possibilities, reinvent itself? It is something we are not used to. We have had no need. What is called for now is to look outwards as well as inwards. It is a time for circumspection and introspection. It is well to take as wide a perspective as possible in this new enterprise if such be the case. The engineer's and administrator's perspectives must be informed by the arts and humanities to offer new perspectives on culture, technology, the sciences, finance, and global linkages. There are no convenient hard boundaries anymore.
Stepping outside the box is necessary to see the total situation. It is worth bearing in mind also that no place is a directly relevant model. Models only offer contrasts and perspectives. We must do the linking, the imagining ourselves. Anywhere will do provided we can imaginatively detach from current preoccupations to see our own reality afresh. Copying others has problems too.
I was recently in Boston and New York. Boston's metropolitan population is 3.8 million, same as Singapore. It however has 50 universities, countless museums, art schools, and a lively civic urban culture. This culture has been evolving for the past 200 years. Boston set itself up to illuminate the new land; America. Boston is the product of a dream; of ideals. It is Puritan Governor John Winthrop's visionary city on a hill in the new land. It was to be, "America's first and brightest beacon, always testing, measuring, valuing, illuminating". And this is what it has become. This reminds me of our own ACS's anthem which proclaims that the school is, "...an emblem of grand endeavour, a beacon of truth and light...". Such was the dream of its founders. It inspired generations of students ever since. Thus, even in practical Singapore, dreaming is not so alien after all. But we need to dream again. We should not be so proud of our pragmatism.
My acquaintance with Boston is at the St. Botolphe Club, a gentleman's hostel in Back Bay, a salubrious city-centre residential district for the best and the brightest from Boston's founding days. It has remained the live-in cultural conscience of the city. St Botolphe is tellingly dedicated to "conversation". Strangely, I recently discovered that there is a connection between St Botolphe and Singapore. It was there that the artist, John Singer Sargent exhibited his portraits of Boston's luminaries among whom he was regarded an equal. We too possess a Sargent in our National Art collection; it is a portrait of Sir Frank Swettenham. Unlike the proudly preserved paintings of Sargent in the City Library at Copley Square and in the many Museums of Boston, ours languished in our stores, left to deteriorate. The sleeve of Swettenham was unprofessionally patched with cheap paint to hide the damage. Sargent was sought out by Isabella Stewart Gardner as many artists and intellectuals were and formed part of her entourage in her travels to the East at the turn of the century. That is how we have come to have a Sargent in our possession.
The Gardner Museum in Boston stands out as an emblem of private initiative, of love and passion for things beautiful. It is just one of the many such institutions of Boston. This is how Boston now has the ambience of a great city of culture and scholarship. And Route 128 is a vibrant Hi-Tech corridor the rival of Silicon Valley. Fenway Court is Isabella's gift to Boston and America. All we can say is that it is the total culture of a place that engenders directly and indirectly a penchant for creation. Scientists are not mono-dimensional creatures. They too need to breathe the air of freedom and creation. Fenway Court thus remains among many museums an inspiration for all time.
Fenway Court was museum and home for the Gardner's. A place of learning, an illumination on the American landscape. It was host to international luminaries, great poets, artists and intellectuals. Even Tagore visited. Isabella did not just collect. She studied the collection; she became an icon of educated tastes even if at times controversial.
There was another chance encounter. I had visited the Metropolitan Museum in New York many times but somehow missed a particular sculpture on the main axial space. There is there a commissioned marble sculpture consisting of three figures, two sprawled and one bent over, watching over the other two. It was by Lorenzo Bartolini, a work dated 1845. The artist's inscription reads, "...stretched out across the plan of the World is Cupid (the bent-over figure), god of regeneration, sustaining and watching over the symbolic genius of dissolute wealth-without-virtue who snores in his sleep ... dreaming of past diversions and pleasures. Left to himself, the genius of ambitious rectitude in work sleeps the agitated sleep of misfortune and glory ... his head extending beyond the periphery of the world".
It struck me like a thunderbolt. Bartolini suddenly dispelled my view of human nature that though it is able to prevail against adversity, it is powerless in the face of wealth. It is a fear that I have harboured of late as I look at Singapore in what it has become. Bartolini made me realise that my view is but a peculiarly Singaporean one. The combined effect of the inscription and the memory of the Gardner Museum taught me that love, scholarship, art and philanthropy are the only guards against wealth-induced degradation. Love, art, philanthropy and scholarship are the only means to dispel dissolution; the 'dreaming of past diversions and pleasures and the agitated sleep of misfortune and ambition'. There are thus grounds for hope against the frenetic erasure of historical continuities whose values we blithely discard, the wiping out of graceful landscapes, the filling in of the entire landscape with mundaneity, the kitsch that arises from desperate seeking of identity without patient learning, the filling of every moment with amusement and loud musiak all justified by necessity and emptiness.
Thus, when we lack love, art and scholarship, we have no impetus for true sentiment and art is only decoration and triviality. If there is no joy in scholarship, only pragmatic necessity, duty and profit rule. What do we have left of authentic values? Only philanthropy. But it is a hands-off kind of giving that we know. Still, how do we build on this to seed a new informed and involved generosity and big heartedness that goes beyond duty and conscience-salving to imagine and activate initiative and empower the recipients of our gifts? We must feel free to do so. Volunteerism must not be systematised.
Thus, Singapore is in need of a new urbanism; a new civic urban culture. We have at present an urban environment without a civic urban culture. In the new urbanism, there has to be diversity of new leaders to make it happen. Leaders who have a free spirit and who can inspire responsible free action in others. As it is, the present situation is characterised by a mentality that is small and self-serving. It is timid and fragile. Easy to take offence; relying on rules and procedures and the ritual of derived authority imported if needed.
Urbanism and, I dare say, art exist only when there is freedom to act-out our sensibilities, our civic conscience and our joy in life. A society of groups and individuals concerned with issues which extend beyond the narrow confines of self and family and powers and pieties must be free to arise. We need leadership policies from behind not from in front. Only then can concern for issues of the social good, humanity, the environment, human decency, gender equality, freedom and responsibility of expression and action, consideration and care in the public domain arise authentically. And the result is joy, beauty, and spirited philanthropy and penetrating scholarship; in short, a new Singapore, a beach head to the new Asia.
Is not Art, in the context of the city, a reflection of the state of society and its civic culture? We must take risks with our power, our money and our selves.