In the 1990s, four 20-somethings—Jackson Tan, Melvin Chee, William Chan and Alvin Tan—rented a small space in a Pagoda Street shophouse. There, they set up two tables, two clunky Macs and four chairs. After clocking out from their day jobs, they would head to the shophouse and make art late into the night, riffing off ideas like a rock ‘n’ roll band improvising.
These recent graduates from the visual communications programme at LaSalle College of the Arts called themselves PHUNK, which was eventually to become an internationally recognised art and design collective. But back then, “nobody had any expectations for us”, Jackson says. “We were left alone to do whatever we wanted.”
Though they couldn’t see it at the time, they were about to catch a major wave. A crippling recession nearly a decade earlier had jolted the government into focusing serious attention on stimulating the arts. Advisory councils and heritage boards were established to oversee arts development, schools like LaSalle were set up, and a belt of museums broke ground downtown in 1989.
“Any artist here could tell you that the value in art is intrinsic, as is its connection to the wider world, regardless of its price tag or potential virality”
Alternative spaces were springing up, too. The Substation was the only place in Singapore where radio-unfriendly music, such as ska, thrash and pop, could be heard pouring out of the courtyard every weekend, and one of the best places to serendipitously meet other young, creative hotshots. Tower Records and comic book shops were “like galleries” to Jackson and his friends.
At times, Singapore stumbled over drawing definitional lines. In its early days, PHUNK had trouble getting funding from the National Arts Council (NAC), which said the collective were designers and so sent them to the DesignSingapore Council, which called them artists and sent them back again.
The art that is promoted and shown to the general public exists in a narrow category. Work that is deemed provocative or dissident is swept under the rug; performance art was banned for a decade. A painting’s price tag often equates to its perceived ‘goodness’. No unapproved graffiti exists out in the wild. You have to apply for a permit to busk on the street.
Singapore is still struggling to reckon with its creative population. Though much infrastructure to support artists has been approved and erected here over the last 30 years, the intangible qualities that fertilise creative growth—a progressive social mindset, freedom of expression, and space for burgeoning and unrecognised talents—are still developing. Nevertheless, the new generation of Singaporean creatives are thriving by working with what they have, adapting to what they don’t and defining for themselves what their lives will be.
Creativity and capital
When Aun Koh joined the NAC in 2004, he got to work redrawing some of those invisible lines. Back then, it had a strict definition of literature. “It was only what they called serious fiction, poetry and short stories. So I started asking questions: ‘What about non-fiction? Isn’t that literature?’ And I was told no,” Koh says. “‘What about graphic novels? Romance and science fiction and fantasy?’ And again it was no. I spent a lot of time internally campaigning to change the definition of what counted as literature.”
The arts were being afforded more attention in Singapore like never before in the early noughties. In 2014, Roy Chua, an associate professor at Singapore Management University, returned home after a decade of living in the United States. He was “quite amazed by the number of start-ups and new shops”, he says, that had sprung up in his absence. “There was suddenly a lot of creative energy.”
Chua studies links between culture and creativity. In his research, he’s identified a phenomenon he’s named cultural tightness, where a country has strong social norms and regulations, and a low tolerance for deviant behaviours, that systemically limits creativity. So how was there so much innovation in a tight culture like Singapore?
“We have so many of these new cupcake shops, bubble tea places and cafes. Those are great, but they are not going to change the world, per se. There’s creative energy, but it tends to be more incremental, rather than radical innovation,” Chua says. Worse still, he adds: “What I’m concerned about is that even if someone has a more radical idea, the environment kills it. The environment tells you that maybe you should not go so far. Maybe you should not try such big experiments.”
“The main barrier to pursuing what we do is imagining that it’s not practical; people thinking that it doesn’t serve a purpose or a social benefit. It’s an old-school way of thinking, that art is only about self-expression or that it’s selfish”
For a country so vocally intent on promoting modernisation, Singapore remains a culture intent on prioritising the greater social good, as defined by its authorities. This is a quality that can end up, for better or for worse, stifling the individual, and the parts of the spirit that are most unconventional and freethinking. That said, Koh, who now (among other jobs) helms a popular local column where he interviews and profiles young creatives, hasn’t had trouble finding young artisans or entrepreneurs. Rather the opposite, in fact. There have been so many distinct personalities, chocolatiers, harpists and leatherworkers that the column was bumped up from being published fortnightly to weekly.
In the end, though, which creatives get the spotlight (and the money to continue their work) in Singapore often still comes down to those who are already successful, well-connected, wealthy or all three. “Knowing Singapore, the way we measure success is through numbers,” Jackson says. “The greater purpose is always there, but it’s easier to evaluate who will succeed via dollars and cents rather than happiness, for example.”
Koh saw that same discourse at play when he worked for the NAC. “There was always that tension of whether we should support anyone who has an interest because we should be supporting the people, versus whether we should be hedging bets on the best-possible artists who can make a name internationally.”
Outside the box
According to Chua’s research, everyone is born with the potential to be creative. But whether it blossoms within you or not is often down to timing, audacity and if anyone put a paintbrush or a pen in your hand at a young age.
Melissa Quek grew up with the strong support of parents and teachers encouraging her to pursue her love of dance. When she was a kid and taking her first dance exams, her ballet mistress sent her in with a reminder that it wasn’t about getting a good grade. “It was about just doing it, to see how you could do,” she says.
Not every creative in Singapore was bolstered the same way. Lenne Chai, a freelance photographer, was rejected from taking art in secondary school. Her vice-principal told her that, based on the still life test she had turned in, the highest grade she could hope to achieve was a B3. “They were very clear that the priority was hitting the bell curve and making sure that the school looked good as opposed to nurturing your personal interest,” she says.
Left to her own devices, though, Chai continued to create. She ran a fashion blog, and made bracelets and rings to sell to her friends at school. Around 2009, she also started borrowing clothes from local designers to photograph. Chai and a group of friends would drive out to Changi Coast Road and stage guerilla fashion shoots in the forest. These were the beginnings of her portfolio, which she has since expanded with shoots for Esquire, Elle, Teen Vogue, Spotify, H&M and more.
Quek, now the head of LaSalle’s School of Dance & Theatre, tries to encourage her students the same way she was supported, but long-standing societal expectations still persist. “The main barrier to pursuing what we do is imagining that it’s not practical; people thinking that it doesn’t serve a purpose or a social benefit,” the dance-artist says. “It’s an old-school way of thinking, that art is only about self-expression or that it’s selfish.”
Because of this disheartening perspective, a lot of artists leave. Many come back to—if they’ve found recognition abroad—a form of validation and celebration that’s as ironic as it is part of a strange postcolonial hangover, but just as many stay overseas, often based in the world’s cultural capitals. Chai left for New York City in 2018 after getting signed to an artists’ agency there. However, she still feels that she creates her most interesting work when it’s about Singapore.
And perhaps distance is key. The winter of the year she moved to New York, Chai put together a series called A 377A Wedding, a gauzy ’80s fantasy shoot imagining a Singaporean lesbian couple’s marriage ceremony. It generated immediate, largely positive buzz for the Singaporean magazine in which it was published and gained exponential traction internationally. A year later, the shoot was exhibited at Objectifs Singapore as part of a group show. “I had never seen my photography as fine art before that,” Chai says. “So that was shocking for me.”
The road less travelled
Keenly felt by artists in Singapore is the pressure to follow a path laid out for them by the government, well-trod by generations of Singaporeans before them. “From day one, you’re told where to go. Kindergarten, primary school, secondary school, university, then get a job, get a house and have kids,” Chai says. She’s a self-identified queer woman with, she adds, no viable plans to qualify for an HDB flat before she turns 35. “So I guess just growing up, not being able to partake in this government-planned initiative that is life, made me question it.”
Veering off that path isn’t easy, but it presents the opportunity for you to find your creative tribe, overseas or at home. Rachel Loh quit her job at a marketing agency three years ago to control her own time and pursue her creative passions. She supports herself through her photography, but has several side projects.
“There’s no such thing as a good piece of art or a bad piece of art. If it connects with someone, I would say that that is successful art”
One such project is The Starving Artists, a platform that supports under-represented artists. “I think more people are seeking a creative life or to have something that fulfills them more spiritually,” Loh says. “But the main issue is that our systems in the creative sector are very hard on you if you don’t have connections.”
The Starving Artists, run by Loh, tries to build a creative community both online and in real life. The group puts together art shows and discussions in offbeat locations: a hostel, a warehouse, someone’s cramped apartment. The shows are always ‘slow art’ experiences, where you can sit down, touch the art, talk to the artist. “Whenever you visit, there’s your community. It’s a different way of processing art,” Loh says.
Though paradigm shifts are always slow-going, Singapore continues to expand opportunities for artists. Today, open calls for residencies, heavy rent subsidies and generous COVID-19 relief schemes designed to help artists digitise their work are common features of the local creative landscape.
The country is more determined than ever to grant value and vitality to artists and the work they do, in spite of what the results of any public survey might report. But any artist here could tell you that the value in art is intrinsic, as is its connection to the wider world, regardless of its price tag or potential virality.
“I try my best to remind the artists in the community that just because you’re not showing in galleries and institutions doesn’t mean that your art isn’t good. There’s no such thing as a good piece of art or a bad piece of art,” says Loh. “It just depends on how much your art can connect with someone. If it connects with someone, I would say that that is successful art.”