Culture and Economic Development


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This is a set of slides I used to initiate discussion in a high-level strategic planning committee on Singapore's livability and economic growth in 2010. All content was found online. Disclaimer: Questions and opinions represent my views and not the Singapore Government's.

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  • My presentation has two parts. The first part of my presentation will inform you of how major developing cities in Asia have recognized the value of culture to economic development and to enhancing their global profile; and how they have acted on this in a very focused and visionary manner, particularly in the Middle East and Northeast Asia The second part of my presentation asks why Singapore has not yet recognized the value of culture to development, and how, if we are serious about culture, we could start the ball rolling. In terms of cultural development in Asia, what’s been generating the most excitement and international press coverage are the Arab cities of the Gulf and the cities of China and Korea. Let me start with the Gulf.
  • Now the Gulf States are investing in culture in a big way. They have understood very early in their development that culture is important to tourism, national branding and pride and they have spared no effort to make this a significant arm of their development policy. You may have heard that Doha, in Qatar recently opened a stunning new Museum of Islamic Art designed by I.M. Pei and with arguably the world’s most significant collection of Islamic Art. You may also have heard that Abu Dhabi is investing billions into a cultural centre on an island off the coast of the city that will contain a branch of the Louvre designed by John Nouvel, a branch of the Guggenheim designed by Frank Gehry and other institutions designed by a who’s who in the architecture super-circles. Nearby, Dubai is fast becoming the commercial centre of fine arts in the Middle East, with Art Dubai attracting the biggest galleries from Europe, the West and the Middle East. Now developments have not been kept to institutions. The cities have also worked together very savvily on a yearly signature art event called Contemparabia, which takes advantage of the coincidence of a few major contemporary art events in the region to market the entire Gulf as the art destination to be in for a week this time of the year. So tourists, collectors and art professionals fly in from all over the world to be taken from one city and art attraction to another and also to attend lectures given by collectors , academics and curators from famous museums like the Hermitage or the Louvre. Now what this is doing is effectively turning around the image of these cities as cultural deserts, sending the signal to international audiences that the cities of the Gulf are not just all about malls. They are patrons of culture, sophisticated, multi-faceted. And it does work, I was in Dubai for Art Dubai and it was abuzz with collectors and general tourists like me. And what made this all work was that there was a strong commitment to balance authenticity with commercial imperatives. So there was a deliberately strong focus on Middle Eastern artists, and a strong educational arm for children and the general public. There was a fringe art festival, the Al Bastikiya art fair that was edgy, with an air of anything goes such that you felt that the Dubai were really progressive, dynamic and very very unique culturally.
  • Now this is something that is also happening to Beijing. From being a Communist bastion, it has suddenly become arguably Asia’s most cutting-edge centre of contemporary art. In particular, the 798 Special Art Zone, has become the centre of international attention. It is an arts cluster that developed organically when artists who could not afford the rent downtown moved into a disused ammunitions plant. Eventually of course the Government recognized the value of this zone and designated it a special art zone. Like other bohemian art clusters elsewhere – Soho or Chelsea in New York, it is now facing gentrification and artists are moving elsewhere but the point to be made is that again people come from all over the China and the world to see this place and to spend millions of dollars on the artwork that is sold.
  • Hong Kong. For the last 10 yrs it’s been debating the creation of a West Kowloon Cultural District, with 15 performance spaces and a Museum Plus costing more than $2B USD on a waterfront site. While the project has been stalled for a while recently, it has gained wind again and according to their website it is going to undergo a public consultation phase this year with the aim of parts of it being ready by 2014. Of course, Hong Kong already is a very thriving centre for commercial arts and entertainment, in large part due to its very facilitative tax policies like no GST and low withholding tax on foreign entertainers.
  • Further up north in Seoul, the Seoul City government recently launched a US 7.9 billion masterplan for cultural development in the city, recognising that culture, which includes the redevelopment of cultural precincts, is the key to increasing Seoul’s competitiveness and attractiveness to talent and visitors. The plan aims to double the number of art galleries and theatres in Seoul by 2015. Seoul has many theatres already, as you can see and it also has a very thriving musical theatre scene with more than 50 production companies staging 150 musicals each year. And really part of that is achievable through a private recognition of the value of culture, with property developers integrating cultural facilities like theatre spaces within malls.
  • So in the context of all these really visionary developments in the region, where does Singapore stand? I would like to suggest that if we do not start doing something very soon and in a big enough way, we will be backwater within 10 to 20 years, forgotten in Asia because of the excitement and sexiness created elsewhere. The Zurich of Asia. Which is ok. But who really wants to go there? What exactly needs to be done? We propose that there are four key areas, what I would like to call the 4 “D”s that we need to address – Distinctiveness, industry Development, Demand, and Diversity. Let me take these in turn.
  • In terms of distinctiveness and authenticity, we need to start seriously considering how we can better develop and create more iconic cultural attractions, institutions and events that are found nowhere else in the world. Museum Doha – NAG equivalent. Contemparabia is a fabulous signature event and marketing ploy. What is our equivalent. Beyond preserving our heritage historical and modern, we need to start thinking of how to promote them effectively. They are what’s unique about Singapore – that juxtaposition of old and new, east and west, colonial, traditional and contemporary. We also need to start to rethink how we run events and develop the cultural landscape, to find ways to see how we can look at creating more content that again is something you can’t find elsewhere. Yes, let’s have our international events, Formula One, etc. But let’s balance it out with unique local or regional ones here.
  • Our arts industry is crippled by a severe lack of appropriate infrastructure. We simply do not have enough theatres for a career in the performing arts to be viable. Neither do we have enough galleries or museums for a career in the visual arts. The consumer is the one who ultimately suffers because then you have just so much less variety and choice in terms of arts and entertainment options. There are only so many movies you can see and so many malls to stroll down in. And our kids only go to the malls and the movies because there really isn’t any other thing to do in terms of entertainment. So the question is, what and how much more infrastructure is needed to sustain such a vibrant industry that can offer a diverse range of options to the Singaporean craving for variety. And who, other than the Government can provide it. We will have to explore creative solutions. For example, having theatres in malls. I have a perverse vision that in 20 years time, Orchard Rd all the way down to the Esplanade will be our equivalent of the Broadway strip, with each mall having a theatre space, people hanging out pre-show and after show till late at night, shopping, eating, drinking, talking about the show. But that I think is just a dream.
  • A very important reason why we should consider developing a arts industry in Singapore is also because of a vacuum in terms of an Asian capital of arts and culture. In the performing arts, the de facto capitals are New York for the Americas, and London for Europe. In the Asia-Pacific, there is a vacuum which we think, with Singapore’s cosmopolitan outlook, we can fill. It’s also worth noting that if you are the capital, then the arts and entertainment scene is resilient to economic downturns. Just like how Hollywood still flourished during the Great Depression, Broadway and West End are having record ticket sales right now because people need diversion and means of escape, and live entertainment, particularly, allows that.
  • In the visual arts, the situation is similar, because of growing wealth in Asia, Asian art is gaining international prominence and a lot of international and regional collectors are establishing themselves in Asia. China has overtaken France as the third largest art auction market because of Hong Kong, largely and Beijing. So there is an opportunity again, for us to take advantage of this trend to attract more artists, galleries, museums and collectors here, particularly from SEA, to create a unique identity for ourselves.
  • The third and most critical area is how to build up demand for arts and culture not just locally but regionally and globally. This is essentially about audience development and cultural tourism. If we look at the stats, you can see that in terms of tourism figures, we actually do better than New York and London. But in terms of overall consumption of arts and culture, we pale in comparison quite starkly. A lot of it is due to just the simple lack of infrastructure and offerings, to be frank. Though I muse qualify that we have to be careful also in terms of exploring whether arts and culture are what Asian or regional tourists want. Although I’m sure when your average Chinese tourist goes to France, they go see the Louvre. The other aspect of this is more mercenary and it is in terms of how we engage and attract wealthy patrons and collectors here and persuade them to contribute to our cultural development. Plenty of these HNIs tend to like to be associated with arts and culture and huge proportion of museum docents for example are ladies who lunch. And so in attracting such HNIs, arts and culture is a very compelling hook.
  • The last area to consider is diversity. Singapore is already the most open and inclusive city in Asia, but I think we are doing ourselves an injustice in terms of how we really don’t celebrate this diversity, nor is there much depth to this diversity. We do a lot of PA (People’s Association) type events with the requisite Chinese, Malay, Indian Others representation but there is little interaction between the races. There is also very little promotion and understanding of the different kinds of Chinese, Malay and Indian ethnicities. We are not all just monolithic blocks. And what is interesting to Singaporeans and tourists are the differences between being Bugis and Boyanese, Teochew and Hainanese, or Sindhi and Mayalanese. For some reason also, we are still very uncomfortable with recognising that there are significant populations of Europeans, Southeast Asians, Northeast Asians, Middle Easterners and so on in our midst. Strategically, this openness and diversity is one of our major competitive advantages because all other countries in Asia are cultural monoliths and are likely to stay that way for a while. And so if we do want to be Asia’s capital, representative of Asia, expropriating their culture and talent as our own, we can, very easily.
  • Expanding on that point, I’d like to end my presentation by describing to you the characteristics of a leading global city from time past, to which Singapore is rather similar. This city, like Singapore, was a mercantile, trading nation. It made its name and survived through trade. It was fiercely independent. Even though it was small and surrounded by hostile neighbours, it managed to maintain its independence through very strategic decision-making. It was also fiercely mercenary, everything could be had, but with a price to it. At some point in its development, its citizens developed a very strong sense of aesthetics. And so then it expropriated, often plundered, the cultures and the talents of the region as its own. Gradually it achieved a position of immense influence on both the regional and global economy and culture, due it is being neither West nor East, but both. And it lasted for 1100 years…. I’d like to think we can head down that same path.
  • Culture and Economic Development

    1. 1. Culture and Economic DevelopmentSurvey of Asian Region and Questions for Discussion• Developing cities today understand the role that a vibrant arts scene can play in raising their global profiles.• In the Middle East, cities like Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Damascus, Beirut and Doha are developing cultural precincts, art fairs, gallery districts and museums.• In the Asia-Pacific region, Seoul and Beijing are developing reputations as cutting-edge arts locales which look to both experimental and traditional forms of cultural expression. Hong Kong is fast developing as an Asian Hub for arts trade and auctions.
    2. 2. The Gulf States Museum of Islamic Art Saadiyat Island Cultural CentreGulf Art Network- Massive investment in creating iconic andauthentic content, events and institutions- Strong foundation in terms of wealth, heritage,audiences and talent- Sophisticated means of marketing, engagementand audience development
    3. 3. Beijing Models for Bras Basah Edgy, Eclectic, Contemporary Beijing - Asia’s centre for contemporary art 798 Special Art Zone - Originally a derelict government ammunitions plant, converted into studios and live-in lofts by artists in search of low-cost space. - Chinas premier contemporary art hub with 50 galleries, art centres, artists, bookshops, bars and restaurants. - Facing gentrification, like Soho/Chelsea in New York - Ever-increasing rents have priced out many artists and galleries, who have since moved further away to Songzhuang Artist Village and Cao Chang Di.
    4. 4. ModelsHong Kong for Bras Basah Edgy, Eclectic, Contemporary Thriving Fine Arts & Entertainment Industry -Vibrant commercial art scene and auctions calendar - facilitative tax policies, (eg no GST and low withholding tax). West Kowloon Cultural District - US$2 billion World class integrated arts and cultural district on a 40 ha prime waterfront site. - Contains 15 performance venues and a Museum Plus. - Phase 1 will be ready in 2014-2015 and Phase 2 by 2026.
    5. 5. Seoul Models for Bras Basah Edgy, Eclectic, Contemporary “Vision 2015, Cultural City Seoul” Masterplan - US$7.8B plan to increase Seoul’s competitiveness by re- inventing the city landscape and developing high quality culture. - Aims to increase the number of art galleries from 25 to 50, and museums from 67 to 150 by 2015. - Build public-run studios for affordable stage performances - S$2m to support amateur artists or young professionals Musical theatre industry - Growing at 30% per annum, with more than 50 production companies staging 150 musicals each year - Private property developers are integrating cultural facilities within commercial buildings
    6. 6. Where does Singapore stand? • Singapore has come far in terms of cultural infrastructure, vibrancy and audiences. • But we are still not noted internationally for our arts and culture scene. • Nor have we fully recognised the value of arts and culture like our neighbors. • How can we use arts and culture to enhance our image and rejuvenate our economy?
    7. 7. Distinctiveness• Which iconic cultural institutions and events can we develop and promote?• Which of our historical structures, precincts and monuments should we preserve and promote?• How do we develop distinctive content which references our geographical context and histories?
    8. 8. Development• What arts and cultural infrastructure is needed to grow and sustain a more vibrant and diverse local arts landscape?• How do we attract or develop the arts and cultural talent required to support this industry?• What can we do differently to create a vibrant and sustainable arts industry?  Business Models, eg. arts clusters, theatres in malls, arts centres managing residential/commercial properties  Flexible policies, eg. GST, land pricing and use.
    9. 9. Performing Arts – Still no Asian centre London New York City• London’s performing arts cluster (28 • Broadway contribution to New institutions and festivals) contributes York City’s economy: S$8 bil S$1 bil to London’s economy • 60% of this comes from tourism• More than 50% of the value-add comes from tourists Resilience to prevailing economic conditions Broadway theaters defied the recession to post record ticket sales of USD943.3M in the 2008/09 season in what has been attributed to “a need for escapism” (Reuters, 26 May 2009). West End Theatres have posted record sales of 480.6M pounds in 2008, as people show a “dogged determination to keep going out to have a good time” despite the recession (, 26 Jan 2009).
    10. 10. Visual Arts – Shift of focus to Asia Global Art Businesses & Personalities Establishing in Asia Asian art gaining Rising affluence in Asia generates international prominence new art collector marketChina overtook France as 3rd largest Indian contemporary art price index rose art auction market in 2007 by >3000% since 1998, Major New York galleries opening Indonesian contemporary art prices rose Asian outposts by up to 4000% since 2006 Left: “The World’s Greatest Art Businessman” Larry Gagosian set up branch gallery in Hong Kong in May 08 Right: Philantrophist Guy Ullens, Left: Anupam Poddar, owner of high- owner of Ullens Centre for end luxury Devi Garh hotel chain, and Contemporary Art (UCCA), a private his mother Lekha . Set up Devi Art museum in Beijing. UCCA conducts Foundation near Delhi in 2008 to regular seminars for public to learn showcase personal collection of 2,000 about contemporary Chinese art contemporary art works from India for public enjoyment
    11. 11. Demand• How can we grow regional and global demand (ie cultural tourism) to sustain the development of our arts scene?• What strategies can we adopt to encourage greater philanthropy Singapore New York London and patronage? Tourists per How do we engage potential regional year as % of 212% 99% 208% city popn and international patrons & (2006) collectors? Admissions to major 1.5M 12.5M 12.4M• How do we encourage theatres Singaporeans and residents to Visitorship participate more in arts and to top 5 2.6M 8.3M 20.4M museums culture activities?
    12. 12. Diversity • Singapore is already Asia’s most open and culturally diverse city, melding the best of the East and the West. • How can we better promote our historic and evolving cultural diversity as an attractive factor? • How can we reap new economic opportunities from catering to the specific needs of different peoples? Eg. Muslims/Middle Easterners, new Indian and Chinese residents, Southeast-Asians
    13. 13. A Leading Global City• Mercantile, trading nation• Fiercely independent, fiercely mercenary• Developed a strong sense of aesthetics• Expropriated the cultures & talents of the region as its own• Influenced regional and global economy and culture• Lasted for 1100 years…
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