Aerial view of Singapore. Photo by Heman Chong for ArtAsiaPacific.


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On February 16, 2013, more than 4,000 people turned up at Singapore’s Speakers’ Corner, a small patch of greenery nestled in the city’s downtown that has, since 2008, been the only space where demonstrations can be lawfully held within the city-state. This rare display of public dissent was a response to a government white paper projecting population growth from the current 5.3 million to 6.9 million in 2030. Given the country’s persistently declining birth rates, this target is to be achieved by a massive flood of foreign labor.

Against this backdrop, Singapore’s surging ambition to become the cultural nexus of Asia has never been more pronounced. In fact, one could locate the country’s cultural policy over the last decade within the same economic logic driving its immigration policy—one that seeks to sustain, above all else, an influx of foreign capital. Culture in Singapore, in short, embellishes the country’s projected image of itself as the “Gateway to Asia.” If, for businesses, the city is a safe place from which to exploit the resources of a thriving but still politically uncertain Asia, for collectors, it is a petri dish offering a rarefied, sanitized sample of its cultures.

The most prominent instance of this is Art Stage Singapore, the international art fair that started in 2011, which in its most recent edition adopted the unabashed slogan, “We Are Asia.” Among the new elements introduced was an Indonesian Pavilion that brought together the works of established and emerging Indonesian artists, offering itself almost as a dioramic display through which one could comfortably consume an experience of Indonesia without having to step onto the archipelago.

Similarly, the Singapore Biennale, now in its fourth installment and newly under the directorship of the Singapore Art Museum, has readjusted its lens to focus exclusively on art within Southeast Asia—a marked departure from earlier installments, which featured an international lineup. While it remains to be seen how the Biennale will negotiate the pitfalls of taking an ostensibly regionalist approach to contemporary curation, the fear is that it may wind up merely rehashing tired tropes of Asian identity originating from the outmoded “Asia Pacific” model seen at the Asia Pacific Triennial in 1993 and the Fukuoka Asian Art Triennale in 1999.

Of course, the instrumentalization of cultural policy to promote a neoliberal capitalist agenda is not a new phenomenon, in Singapore or elsewhere. In fact, the Renaissance City Plan (RCP), the city-state’s master plan for the arts first unfurled in 2000, makes such a relation explicit by emphasizing how building up the city’s “cultural and creative buzz” can help attract an affluent, innovative class of professionals. It is also no coincidence that this master plan was implemented in the same decade that Richard Florida’s theories on the “creative class” gained traction. What is new today is the confidence and determination with which the city-state pits itself against other cities vying to be Asia’s cultural capital. The first edition of the RCP compared Singapore to Hong Kong, Melbourne and Glasgow; the latest edition, published in 2008, refers almost exclusively to such Asian cities as Hong Kong, Seoul, Beijing and Abu Dhabi.

Within the arts scene, anxiety is mounting that this relentless push toward making Singapore a center of consumption for Asian art risks creating a grossly unbalanced cultural landscape. It seems unimaginable that a country bold enough to call itself a “Renaissance City” does not offer a single undergraduate program in art history, while the only postgraduate program run by LaSalle College of the Arts is limited to Asian art histories. In contrast, diplomas and degrees in arts management are available at several institutions of higher learning. It is unsurprising that critical discourse on the arts in the country is so impoverished.

However, there is room for cautious optimism. The Arts Creation Fund inaugurated in 2009, for instance, is dedicated entirely to funding the creative process—an encouraging sign that policymakers recognize the importance of investing in process rather than just churning out commodified images for the global market. Furthermore, the recently established Centre for Contemporary Art (CCA) within the Gillman Barracks arts precinct is intended as a center devoted to promoting research, education and dialogue on contemporary art, filling a major gap within the landscape.

But still, in both initiatives, Asia continues to be the center around which works are produced and discourse is spun. While there is an urgent need to stimulate more critical discussion on Asian art, the worry is that, in a climate governed by the prerogatives of neoliberal economics, the subject of Asia may instead be used to designate the limits of this discourse, with the aim of validating rather than interrogating prevailing modes of production and consumption. Perhaps the only viable solution is to constantly decenter the discourse from its subject, such that any stable conception of Asia is thrown into question—an undertaking too difficult and too important to be left in the hands of institutions.