Retaining the soul of Singapore through art and music
How does a structure with a four-legged stand, a wooden middle and a large ceramic head shaped like a saga seed represent the relationship between art and national identity?
(Image: Ceramic Artist Ahmad Abu Bakar’s artwork, as featured at Singapore Utopia)
For artist and Singapore permanent resident Ahmad Abu Bakar, 56, his artwork depicts pathways between his birthplace Malacca and his current home Sengkang, multiculturalism in Singapore and Malaysia, and “the complexities of the relationship between two countries, two societies, two politics”.
His thought-provoking piece was one of 15 creations presented at the 2019 Singapore Utopia exhibition exploring the relationship between national identity and art, covering multiculturalism, intimacy and diaspora.
Art can serve as a reflective, forward-looking and versatile form of expression for Singapore’s national identity. They help draw Singaporeans of all backgrounds into the national conversation about our shared values and heritage. This equips the nation with the will and creative resources to thrive.
As Singapore develops into a vibrant cosmopolitan hub and global city, more citizens engage and participate in different forms of artistic expression to articulate what being Singaporean means to them. One example was the communal artwork created by 40,000 members of the public to commemorate Singapore’s 51st birthday during the National Day Parade. Artist Sun Yu-Li gathered these 40,000 different personal interpretations of Singapore in a mosaic displayed with sculptures outside Suntec City and the Singapore Art Museum.
Such collective efforts to craft a Singaporean cultural identity help to strengthen the people’s sense of belonging to the place we call home. In the same way, music is a powerful means of bridging generations and ethnic groups and bringing families and communities closer together.
Many Singaporeans still enjoy listening to xinyao, a genre of Chinese songs unique to Singaporeans in the 1980s and early 1990s. The music invokes nostalgia and a sense of pride in a more confident cultural identity as Singapore developed rapidly into an Asian powerhouse.
Getai (which translates to song stage) is another musical form that resonates with Singaporeans. It is performed in a mix of Mandarin and predominantly the Hokkien dialect during festive occasions, the most well-known of which takes place during the Hungry Ghost Festival. Getai has been popular for decades and remains relevant and entertaining even for younger generations today, with the introduction of new songs and styles. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Getai performances took place in studios and were broadcasted over livestreaming on the internet, with some attracting audiences of hundreds of thousands. In 2022, in-person Getai performances were resumed with the relaxation of COVID-19 safe-distancing measures. However, the number of Getai bookings received by artistes has recovered to only 40 per cent to 50 per cent of pre-pandemic levels, according to Shin Min Daily News.
Singaporeans’ pride in the quality of its artists and artistic productions has risen over the years, as seen in the popularity of renowned singers like Stefanie Sun and JJ Lin. Many also applaud the accomplishments of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra, which was the only Asian orchestra to win third place at the prestigious Gramophone Orchestra of the Year 2021. Through Our Cultural Medallion Story at The Arts House, we celebrate the artistic achievements and contributions of 130 individuals whose artistic excellence and contributions have enriched Singapore’s arts and cultural landscape.
That national pride extends to Singapore’s growing reputation as a regional arts and culture hub. Over the past few decades, the National Arts Council (NAC) has created a vibrant cultural scene in Singapore by building an ecosystem for arts development with teaching institutions, art spaces, art housing, and supporting institutions and individuals with arts grants and scholarships.
A strong foundation was built over the decades through the seminal Report of the Advisory Council on Culture and the Arts (ACCA) in 1989, and the 2000 Renaissance City Plan (RCP), which emphasised the importance of the arts in enhancing the quality of life. Updated versions of RCP and the 2010 Arts and Culture Strategic Review further deepened and broadened the Government’s commitment to Singapore’s arts development, especially in expanding arts access for different segments of the population, including the underserved, and providing more support such as arts spaces, grants and scholarships for different areas of artistic expression.
In 2018, NAC launched the 5-year Our SG Arts Plan (2018 – 2022) which was developed in consultation with the arts community and stakeholders. Some of the key initiatives under the Plan included forging new partnerships and establishing Arts & Culture Nodes island-wide to engage communities across demographics, cultural backgrounds and abilities. These have helped forge community partnerships and created shared experiences for Singaporeans through the arts.
The Esplanade’s Arts for Change campaign which aims to make arts more accessible to all Singaporeans has been successful partly because 70 per cent of their performances and activities in the realms of music, dance, theatre and visual arts are made free by the Government. The National Gallery Singapore is also committed to making art accessible and inclusive by working closely with a range of corporate partners to enable all to experience the National Collection and positive impact of art first-hand.
Making arts more inclusive also extends to talented Singaporeans with special needs, supported through charities like The Art Faculty Singapore to cultivate careers in the arts. Their contributions to the country’s arts scene are vital to deepening Singaporeans’ appreciation of their multi-faceted national identity.