Singapore is celebrating 50 years of nationhood with a two-week SG50 event in New York this month highlighting Singaporean culture, following similar events in Beijing and London earlier this year.
The agenda ranges from an interdisciplinary symposium on Singapore arts and society this past weekend to the innovative Singapore: Inside Out arts installation at Madison Square Park running September 23-27.
After achieving independence from Malaysia in 1965, Singapore rose from a colonial backwater with almost no natural water sources to a city-state of 5.4 million people with one of the world’s highest per-capita incomes.
Former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, who governed Singapore through its secession to a global financial hub by his retirement in 1990, passed away in March. He is revered among many Western and Eastern government officials for his accomplishments in nation building, irrespective of his authoritarian methods. Tony Blair said Yew was “the smartest leader I ever met.”
To honor the nation’s 50-year mark, an extensive lineup of special SG50 celebrations in Singapore are culminating with the opening of the National Gallery Singapore on November 24. The museum is being billed as the future home of the world’s largest collection of Southeast Asian art.
Earlier this year, Singapore Pinacotheque de Paris opened in May at Singapore’s Fort Canning Arts Centre. It is the first international offshoot of the largest private museum in Paris.
Meanwhile, the three SG50 events in the cultural capitals of North America, Europe and China are designed to promote Singapore’s next chapter in tourism development to a global audience. They provide a sophisticated vehicle for experiential destination marketing to reposition Singapore as a more nuanced leisure travel destination moving forward.
“We’ve gone from third world to first world in a short span of 50 years, or one generation as we like to call it,” says Kershing Goh, regional director for the Americas at Singapore Tourism Board. “The first 50 years of our journey focused on economic development and job creation. So at this juncture, we asked ourselves, how do we really show a different side of Singapore that very few people understand or have had a chance to look at.”
Originally, the tourism board thought about promoting its famous fine-dining and hawker stall street food culture. Marketing culinary travel has been successful for many other destinations from Alberta to Australia. There was also discussion about marketing Singapore’s many new attractions and infrastructure development over the last decade.
Instead, the tourism board decided to create a platform to showcase Singapore’s rising class of local artists, writers, filmmakers and musicians, because that tackles what has traditionally been the one knock against Singapore’s tourism product in the minds of international tourists.
Singaporean locals always say that food and shopping are their two national past-times, but those are no longer enough to grow international arrivals significantly, especially for North American travelers who have a fuzzy image of what Singapore offers beyond food and shopping.
For many tourists, Singapore doesn’t have a distinct cultural identity like Bangkok or Tokyo, which is understandable since the city-state didn’t even exist until after the Kennedy era.
“When you talk to people at these events about what they know about Singapore, beyond the fact that we’re a financial hub, or we have a great airline, or we have a great airport, they tend to sometimes kind of scratch their heads,” explains Goh. “So when we decided to take our 50-year celebration on the road, we said let’s use this platform to celebrate our youth and creative talent and really show the world a new perspective of Singapore that they do not expect.”
Focusing on Singaporean cultural arts as a cultural identifier would have been difficult a decade ago. Since then, Singapore’s government has heavily ramped up its support of emerging artists to develop a more layered cultural community. In 2012, the Ministry of Culture announced it would spend $190 million over the next five years developing local arts and culture programs to nuture upcoming talent.
Kicking that off in 2012, the government launched the Gillman Barracks complex with 17 international art galleries adjacent to the Centre for Contemporary Art.
In February, Cultural Minister Lawrence Wong spoke at Singapore’s LASALLE College of the Arts. He said, “Imagine what will happen in 50 years’ time when we celebrate SG100… with a new generation of artists reflecting the Singapore identity. That’s the beauty of art because it expresses our people, our culture in a way that no other medium can.”
Singapore: Inside Out
The marquee SG50 event is Singapore: Inside Out, housed inside a large series of scaffolding with different spaces for art, music, dancing, reading and public discourse. Part of the scaffolding is covered in translucent fabric to create a sense of moving “inside out.”
One of SG50’s most popular artists is a painter named Speak Cryptic. He draws a representation of his apartment’s bedroom back in Singapore using a black marker inside a three dimensional all-white space. People are then invited to come in and add splashes of color so that the final artwork is co-created with the visitors in a specific destination.
In this video, Cryptic explains that his work is designed to show how he’s a product of his environment in Singapore, and how visitors can explore that environment with him.
“I use black and white because I’m partially color blind,” he says. “So when I invite the public in, I’m inviting them to transform who I am.”
Throughout the day during Singapore: Inside Out, anyone can engage with the artists and ask questions during multiple scheduled tours.
“People have lots of questions, which is what we set up to do initially to introduce ideas that you don’t really associate with Singapore,” says Goh. “Our visitors are gravitating more toward what is authentically Singapore…. People want to get under the skin of the country and learn about what the destination stands for.”