- Singapore has one of the world’s most intensive systems of urban planning, with 80% of its population living in public housing
- In 2015 a new National Gallery opened in the city, focusing on Southeast Asian art
- A new network of Community Arts and Culture Nodes will help to develop grassroots participation in the city
City data: Key facts
Geographical area: 718.3 sq. km
Total population: 5,469,724
Total national population living in the city: 100 %
Education level – with degree level or higher: 27.3 %
GDP (PPP) million: US$ 425,155
Creative industries employment: 1.8%
Singapore has long been a meeting point between cultures. In the early 19th century it became a British possession and trading post, and over the following decades its population boomed with new Malay, Chinese and Javanese residents. Singapore’s status as a major British naval base made it a target during World War II, when it was occupied by the Japanese. It achieved independence from the British in 1959, as part of Malaysia, and became an independent city-state in 1965.
Today Singapore has a population of over 5.5 million, of whom about 60% are citizens. The city retains the diversity of its trading days, with a population that is ethnically 74% Chinese, 13% Malay and 9% Indian. As a new country, Singaporean cultural identity is still developing. The government has made integration a priority: for example, public housing units are allocated to ensure that neighbourhoods reflect the ethnic makeup of the city as a whole. Yet the city’s multiculturalism leads to an eclectic arts scene, drawing inspiration from a unique blend of influences.
Since its independence, Singapore’s economy has grown rapidly, built upon its openness to trade and global capital and its friendliness to business. With a government that is highly involved in the life of its citizens, it has one of the world’s most intensive systems of urban planning. A scarcity of land for development poses challenges for arts infrastructure – particularly in the city centre – but Singapore has provided high-density public housing for 80% of its population.
Cultural policy in Singapore is set by the Ministry of Culture, Community, and Youth, with delivery managed by two statutory boards, the National Arts Council and the National Heritage Board. There is a policy emphasis on building social capital and creating a sense of identity and nationhood. The current Arts and Culture Strategic Review, published in 2011, is focused on bringing culture to everyone, everywhere. It aims to dispel the perception that culture is limited to traditional ‘high culture’ genres like opera or ballet, widening the definition to include hobbies and handicrafts, street culture, popular entertainment, and community activities with cultural roots, such as getai (upbeat stage performances usually held during the Chinese ghost festival).
One issue faced by Singapore policymakers is the perception that cultural activities are frivolous or elitist, or irrelevant to the lives of Singaporeans. This view is driven by the city’s focus on economic pursuits, fast pace of life and high cost of living. In order to increase attendance and participation, the government aims to change mindsets, making the case that culture is an integral part of life. It is developing a network of Community Arts and Culture Nodes, either purpose built or opened in existing libraries and community centres, which will serve as venues for hobbyists and community groups (which the government is also establishing).
Traditionally the Singaporean government has been relatively involved in the provision of culture, supporting and shaping a sector which is relatively young and small. Yet it recognises the value to the arts scene of organic growth, unlike in other sectors where planning can be centrally led. It is now exploring strategies to move the arts towards sustainability. For example, a 200 million SGD Cultural Matching Fund was launched in 2013 to match cash donations to arts and heritage charities. Another example is Noise Singapore, a youth arts festival, which is reducing programming by the government and increasing the role of private intermediaries.
Currently Singapore is in the middle of a major programme of creation and renovation of cultural infrastructure. The National Museum of Singapore and the Asian Civilisations Museum were remodeled for Singapore’s 50th anniversary celebrations in 2015. In the same year, a new National Gallery Singapore opened in the former Supreme Court and City Hall buildings. Its focus is on Southeast Asian, including Singaporean, art.
Singapore is also upgrading its performing arts venues. The Victoria Theatre and Concert Hall reopened in 2014 after a four-year, $183 million SGD refurbishment. Also being refurbished is Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay, a large performing arts centre which first opened in 2002. Esplanade is known for its broad programming, including Malay, Chinese and Indian cultural festivals.
The Singapore Writers Festival, which attracted nearly 20,000 attendees in 2015, is unusual for its multilingual nature. It uses Singapore’s four official languages, English, Malay, Chinese and Tamil. Other festivals include the Singapore International Festival of Arts, the Singapore Biennale, Singapore HeritageFest, and the Singapore Night Festival (which takes place in Bras Basah.Bugis, Singapore’s arts and heritage district).
A relatively young city-state, Singapore has a diverse population. Known as one of the world’s most planned cities, it is a centre of business and trade. Now its government is working to develop grassroots participation in the arts, bringing a new richness to the city’s cultural life.