The West has given us Herb Ritz, Jeffrey Archer, Jackson Pollock, Norah Jones and Ian McKellen, but how much do we know about our homegrown talents? What is the role of the artist in Singapore?
  • By Michele Koh
  • | Nov 23, 2007

I-S talks to five Singaporean born artists who made a name for themselves abroad about the pros and cons of working overseas and here.

The Panel:

Russel Wong (Photographer) has worked with international superstars like Joan Chen, Cindy Crawford, Matt Dillon, Tom Cruise, Michael Jackson, Oliver Stone, Jackie Chan and Zhang Yimou and is regarded a somewhat of a celebrity in his own right. He spent his 10 formative years in the US where he began his career and still has an agent in New York.

Gerrie Lim (Author, journalist) studied journalism at the University of Southern California. He has written for Billboard, Playboy, Penthouse, the San Diego Union-Tribune, The Wall Street Journal and is the author of Invisible Trade, In Lust We Trust and From Idol to Icon. He now spends his time between Los Angeles and Singapore.

Tan Kai Syng (Multimedia Artist) spent four years in London for her undergraduate studies, three years in Tokyo working as an artist and four months in Chicago for her postgraduate studies. She was named “The Most Promising Young Artist” at the UOB Painting of the Year Competition at the age of 18. In the last eight years she has participated in about 200 exhibitions and events, held seven solo shows in Tokyo and Singapore, and has won awards like the 42nd San Francisco International Film Festival’s Golden Gate Awards 1999. Her works are collected by Fukuoka Asia Museum of Art and is streamed in a UK media channel Firecracker Media.

Jacintha Abishegananden (Musician) is a veteran actress and singer. The former Singapore Idol judge has six international albums under her belt and has recently released another—Jacintha Goes to Hollywood, she is no stranger to Hollywood and her music can be heard in the film Play It To The Bone and TV series Alias.

Glen Goei (Actor, Director) began his professional theater career starring opposite Sir Anthony Hopkins in the Tony award-winning play
M. Butterfly, in London’s West End. He set up Mu-Lan Arts, the first
Asian theater company in the UK where he was artistic director for seven years and was awarded the National Youth Council Award for his achievements in the arts in 1994. Glen went on to write, direct and produce his first feature Forever Fever which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 1999, and had been shown in over 30 countries worldwide.

Have the arts in Singapore changed over the last decade?

RW: Massively. Every aspect. But the visual arts can be of better quality because the depths of the shows are not there. That has to do with funding. Good shows cost way more than a million.

GL: There seems to be some kind of effort on the part of the authorities to open up and liberalize the artistic arena, but I suspect most of this is being done so that the country can shed its laughing-stock image as a paternalistic, “father-knows-best so you better not make daddy angry,” Third-World nation built on social engineering.

KS: Singapore is indeed in an interesting state of transition, but whether the change is genuine and deep or merely “to keep up with the Jones” remains to be seen. Genuine change does not and cannot take place overnight, but burns slowly through generations. Practitioners need more training, to read more, do more. We need to learn a lot more from other cultures and each other. Empty posturing and imitation can only last so long. Singapore is like a precocious youth who doesn’t quite know or have enough, but is bent on portraying a certain image. Singapore wants to pose as a sexy, thriving metropolis, but simply cannot shake off its small-town mentality.

JA: The arts has changed over the last decade because media has changed. Since just about everyone has gone online, arts and entertainment have kind of melded.

GG: There are many more local production companies, theater companies and more professional actors and local writing. However, when it comes to censorship, the government likes to think it has relaxed...to a certain extent, it has, we now have more nudity and more sensitive issues that are addressed. But it’s just not good enough because artists need to experiment and they need freedom of speech and expression. There are still too many OB markers like politics, race and religion that the censors are afraid to allow artists to tackle.

Did you face any obstacles in the beginning of your career in Singapore?

RW: In Singapore there is a group of people who are tuned in to the arts, but in terms of the masses, they still need to be educated. You’ve got to teach them in school, have arts classes and art appreciation. There wasn’t a very strong work structure in the business (the magazine business). For instance, before I did a shoot, they would whip out magazines from New York and get the photographer to copy it. It is still done now. That hampers the photographer’s ability to create freely. People still see the creative as a hobby, they don’t see that art can be someone’s career, it’s like being a banker or a lawyer and there is a price tag, where he should be paid his due. Just because he’s a dancer doesn’t make him any less on a social level. People have an attitude that “anyone can dance or anyone can write or anyone can take a picture,” they have to respect that it is a skill and they should pay the artist a proper fee.

GL: I got my actual start as a professional writer in Los Angeles, California, while I was in graduate school—my fellow classmates were stunned that I was already writing for the LA Weekly, LA Style and Playboy even before I had graduated, and these freelance gigs were what encouraged and inspired me to go the full-time route. This would never have happened in Singapore, since publications of such quality didn’t—and till today, still don’t—exist here.

KS: Of course, and to this day I am still facing obstacles! That is why, for money, I have a full-time job, and for love I make art. I cannot see how I can depend on my art as a livelihood, like how do you sell an installation made of a mountains personal mementoes, for instance? Finance had been an issue and remains an issue when it comes to an education or career in the arts.

JA: I never saw obstacles, just made a lot of friends. That’s what it’s about in the end.

GG: I began my career in London where there was no problem with censorship; it was a social environment where having a point of view was encouraged. Here in Singapore however, writers and directors are fully aware that they need a license. My co-director Ivan Heng and I faced situations where censors made us remove certain scenes or else we had to close the production. In the early days, the censors would show up on the night of our dress rehearsal and threaten to close down the show if they saw something they didn’t like.

What sort of creative/life experiences can you get overseas that you cannot get back in Singapore?

RW: Just being in a community of creatives, there is this pulse and it’s vibrant and you feed off each other: There are a lot more places to shoot and a lot more diversity. The concentration of artists is much higher. I’ve been shooting rural landscapes in China and I love it, but I come back to Singapore and I want to shoot something, but all things quaint are gone. The atmosphere is gone. All artists love certain history, when people buy postcards, when people romance over a place, Shanghai or Berlin, it’s always the older stuff that captures our imagination, because of the romance of the visual image. Even the people, everyone is wearing jeans and T-shirt, everything is diluted, nobody wears ethnic clothes anymore. If Singapore becomes too homogenous and like every other city, then what would draw visitors here?

GL: What is particularly lacking in Singapore are things around you that help you sustain a sense of humor and levity—this is an environment that is not conducive to creativity because it constantly saps your energy without giving you anything back.

KS: It is greatly humbling to learn from peoples and societies that are more comfortable with themselves, people who know their heritage, who are sincere, who have honest understanding of themselves and their histories (including glories, imperfections and tragedies), cultures that are generous, who dare to laugh and make fun of themselves, and are confident enough to discuss their flaws and charms. Minds that are little, selfish, arrogant or paranoid are repulsive. It is stifling to be among insincerity and insecurity.

JA: Overseas, a lot of the musicians have great competition. To act you have to have an equity card. Competition makes them hone their craft to a fine degree. Our musicians are gifted, many of them have studied with great teachers. We do not however have the same entertainment infrastructure. By working in the US I’ve learned however, how difficult it is just to get a gig even if you’re great and how blessed we are here.

GG: A stimulating environment that celebrates diversity, individualism and expression. In London, you can say what you like, people may not agree but they respect the opinions of others. In other countries individuality is encouraged and not seen as a threat.

Complete this sentence. When it comes to creativity and the arts, Singapore is ______.

RW: Growing.
GL: Making an effort mostly for the sake of public relations.
KS: Trying hard.
JA: Savvy.
GG: Has a long way to go.

What is the role of the professional artist in Singaporean society?

RW: To expose, educate and to make people THINK. Art has to make you think, whether or not you agree with the subject or concept, that is one of the roles of the artist. You are an artist because of the very fact that you THINK and you QUESTION. I think it’s dangerous, so dangerous when people don’t question.

GL: To awaken the consciousness of the general public, which has been lulled into somnambulism thanks to years of browbeating and censorship.

KS: What is the role of a professional accountant in Singaporean society?

JA: To stay in the business I guess.

GG: To be the conscience of society. To constantly question what is right and wrong. To question who we are and how we live.

What sorts of conditions are most conducive to creativity and appreciation of the arts?

RW: People here are too hung up on mistakes, they have to be successful in everything so they become afraid to try and risk failure. I think you have to venture out and fall on your face and you get better. Part of art is failing. We need to think globally, think bigger. Not to do do do FOR Singapore only. The bad thing here is everyone pats themselves on the back, even if the work is bad. I think you should just admit if your work is bad. People can only become objective art critics when they put their work in a global context. Global themes, market it overseas.

I never wanted to do a piece of work, only for Singapore or only for Asia. I started in LA. It was a world stage, so to me the vision is about which platform and which stage do I want to play in. I think super patriotic is a fault, because people in the world don’t care. Don’t shove the Asian card in your work. Don’t cut an album and call it “Asian,” just do a good music. Your culture and background will come out in your work if you’re true to yourself.

GL: A real marketplace of ideas and a sense of debate and discussion that is organically and naturally fostered, as opposed to artificially inseminated by government edict. Singapore is a schizoid environment. People are suddenly asked to become more creative, innovative and entrepreneurial while still living in a controlled environment, like germ cells in a Petri dish. You always feel like you’re really just another lab rat. It took me 20 years of being away from this country to detox myself, and I am fortunate in that I work outside of this country for parts of each year.

KS: One in which art is neither privileged nor ignored, but part of life.

JA: We like to do things all together. That’s good for ticket sales, going to gigs, It’s not a “see you there” kind of place it’s more like “are you going, shall we go?”

GG: A place with too many OB markers is already not the best environment for artists to work in. We need to be able to push the boundaries. We have a culture of fear in Singapore. Just the knowledge that the censors have the power to shut us down is very powerful. When the government talks about encouraging the arts, they don’t really know what it means...they only see the bottom lime. Art here is seen as economy, as a product, not as something intangible. The government spends its money on entertainment and on infrastructure...the buildings. They only invest in the hardware, not the software...which is the artist.

Is the grass greener away from home?

RW: It always seems that way. To me home is Asia, not just Singapore. For now, this feels like home. I’ve never been one to see myself as anything but Asian and the comfort level is very high in Singapore.

GL: Yes. The perception of it always is. But inspiration has to be accompanied by perseverance—many local artists relocate elsewhere where artistic environments flourish, only to realize the hard way just how cloistered, pampered and spoiled they have been compared to the peers elsewhere—how the sheltered environment they grew up in has not equipped them with the skills to compete in the international arena.

JA: I don’t know. Isn’t it always sort of supposed to be until you’re there, kind of?

GG: I lived in London from 1983 to 2000. I came back seven years ago, to be closer to my family. I did spend the first 20 years of my life in Singapore and have an affinity for this place. I still have a lot of stories to draw out of Singapore. Since I’ve been back, I’ve been exploring stories which I believe are truthful. It doesn’t really matter where in the world I am working, because an artist can transcend his sociopolitical environment...the world is in our minds. We’re happy here because we know how to keep ourselves entertained. We do the best we can and it is our right to live here. Artists are some of the most resilient people. We have out own minds and nobody can take that away from us.

Are artists politically dangerous?

RW: They are not politically dangerous unless the establishment is insecure, then they are dangerous. Artist make you think, you telling me the guy wheeling the paintbrush can change the country? It’s about how you use it. Artists make people think. So the question is: Is making people think dangerous? I don’t think it is. It’s growth, it’s realization, it’s everything. That’s like saying that a painting or a picture has the power to change people’s morals. People can think for themselves, Singaporeans are really, really smart. I think Singaporeans have always been underestimated. I mean all of us know what’s going on. We play along with the game, but we know what’s going on.

GL: Of course, they have to be, in terms of being socially transgressive and as catalysts for the re-thinking of societal norms. Otherwise, you’re not talking about art but advertising.

KS: Artists create artworks. For instance, Jean-Luc Godard’s work is possibly read as political (as an adverb), but it is not politics. Just like some politicians can be artistic, but what they do is not necessarily art. Also, people cannot be dangerous. It is what people do and how they do things that could be “dangerous”.

JA: Like here? Or in the Federation?

GG: People are fearful because they know the power of art and the artist, but artists aren’t political, they just want to make sure that they live good lives. Artists are idealists.