Flourishing Creative Economy: Singapore Story
Flourishing Creative Economy: Singapore Story

(photo: by Moviemob via Facebook)

By Feby Indirani

“I need to do this in order for me to sleep better at night,” Martyn See a Singaporean filmmaker stating a simple reason behind his decision to produce documentaries on political issues.

He believes that the mainstream media fails to report with a fair and just angle, and it is a duty for him as a filmmaker to shed more light into certain aspects on the political situation in the Singapore which has been unknown to his fellow countrymen. In 2005, his film, Singapore Rebel, a documentary of Dr. Chee Soon Juan the leader of an opposition party, Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) was banned by the government. See was questioned by police and was required to surrender his video camera, tape footages of the documentary and materials related to the production. He was investigated by the police under the Films Act which states that it is an offence to import, make, distribute or exhibit a film which contains “wholly or partly either partisan or biased references or comments on any political matter”. The maximum penalty of such offence under the act is two years in prison or fines of up to S$100,000, or roughly US$59,000.

Before embarking on this daunting documentary project, like most Singaporeans, See, who worked as a video editor, was not interested politics. A change of mind came in 1995. He read To Catch a Tartar written by Francis T. Seow - a detailed account of detention underwent by the author himself who was put in solitary for five months without a trial. In the book, Seow recalled how he shivered in a cold room wearing only his underwear and tortured by officers who was using abusive language during marathon interrogation.

 â€œIt was quite shocking for me that the Singapore government which pride itself to be a model of incorruptible government should use such violence to oppress critics,” See said.

It was the moment of realisation that drove See to adopt a different perspective when looking at current issues and became more interested in political subjects. The change of heart was finally translated into action in late 2004. See decided to make a documentary on Chee Soon Juan by portraying him not only as a politician who had suffered as being a opposition in Singapore but also as a normal human being who has a wife and children.  The one-man band production cost was about S$ 500.  He submitted Singapore Rebel to the Singapore International Film Festival 2005. Two months before the festival was scheduled to start, he was told by the committee to withdraw the film due to the warning from the government. See copied the film and gave it to some of his friends and posted it on Youtube instead. He thought the withdrawal from the festival was the end of the story until he received a call from the police in April 2005.

“I was nervous and quite scared at first when the police called me. I anticipated some censorship problem but did not expect the police investigation,”   See said. The 40-year-old filmmaker asked two of his friends to accompany him to come to the police for support.

Photo from naysayers.sg (Naysayers Book Club)

See described the investigation session as a formal question and answer session which was more like a job interview. Officers wanted to identify how he met Dr Chee, his motive of making the video and agenda behind and whether he was backed or funded by any political party or individual.  The police also contacted some of his friends to gain a better understanding of his background. See was interviewed for four times, with each session lasting for two to three hours. The authority dropped the case after 15 months of investigation and closed the case file with a warning issued to See.

See case only captured little attention in the media, but the news spreads out among certain group such as artists and journalists. While some gave See a nasty look for touching the forbidden issue, See felt that most of his friends and colleague actually supported his case even though he rarely got called or email from his friends to show their sympathy.

“They more gave me a ‘quiet sympathy’. I know that because during the investigation I still got some job offers so my income was not suffered,” See said.

On the other hand, he received many emails to support his case from international human right activist from various organisation like Reporters Without Borders, Amnesty International, and Committee to Protect Journalist. Out of love and care, See did not tell his mother who lives under the same roof about the investigation and planned to tell her if the case would be taken to court.   Undaunted by the experience of being investigated by the Singaporean authority, See began production on another documentary: Zahari- 17 Years about Said Zahari, a 78-year-old journalist who was detained for 17 years without a trial. Zahari, who now lives in Malaysia is the only former political detainee with Singaporean citizenship. After experiencing first hand being detained, the veteran journalist has no fear and reservation in talking his detention days and politics.

 â€œI wanted to prove to other film makers in Singapore that we should not be afraid. And I think it is time to interview Zahari before he is no more around,” See said.  Zahari-17 years is still banned by the Singaporean authority while the ban on Singapore Rebel was lifted in 2009 with rating of NC-16 (No children below 16 years old). To better promote his production - banned or unbanned, See has posted all his films on Youtube and also spread  out his political stand and concern  through his blogs.

Besides the two short films, See also made Speaker Corners which comprises the chronology of brief scenes from a street corner stand-off between pro-democracy activists and the police. Nation Builder , is See’s another production highlighting the poor condition of senior citizens living on the streets and backalleys of downtown Singapore in July 2007 which aim to challenge the government statement ‘that there are no poverty in Singapore’.

See makes a stand both as an artist and an activist.  “The creativity must come first and then I use it as a base to put my statement across. Both of them should coexist together,” he said.

The story of Martyn See is just one episode of artists in Singapore facing problems in a freedom of expression. See is not the first one and certainly not the only. In 2001, Christina Mok,  Mirabelle Ang and Tan Kai Syng shared his experience for their production A Vision of Persistence which is a 15-minute-documentary about  the late opposition politician JB Jeyaratnam  selling his books in public places and meeting his supporters. Joining the parliament in 1981, Jeyaretnam, was the first politician from an opposition party, breaking the stranglehold of the ruling People Action Party (PAP) on local politics since statehood in 1965. The lawyer championed issues such as the abolition of the Internal Security Act, which allowed detention without trial and the promotion of human rights and democracy. 

The short film of the late politician is just as controversial as the man himself. Film makers of the production were told they could be charged by court based on the Film Act. All involved in the production and lecturers at the Ngee Ann Polytechnic had to submit written apologies and withdrew the short film from being screened at the Singapore International Film Festival after receiving the frightening news. The three concerned film makers claimed they decided to make the documentary after meeting the man selling books on the street by chance. They were not aware that the character was an opposition figure. The team of production has not spoken about the incident and remained silence up till now. Although theatre act has more room for spontaneous expression due to the nature of the stage act, the curse of censorship also falls upon live performance.

Elangovan, the Tamil play writer and director who owned Agni Kootthu (Theater of Fire) is one of those who encountered the problem. Two of his plays had been banned by the authority. The first  is  Talaq  written in English and Malay versions about a rape case in an Indian- Muslim marriage. The play was banned in October 2000 after having been staged in Tamil in Dec 1998 and twice in February 1999. 

“The irony is that the book carrying the bilingual text in English and Tamil was published in Jan 1999 with a publishing and translation grant from the National Arts Council,” Elangovan said.

The script of the play is exactly the same as the wordings in the book which is sold in the market and is also available at the National Library and its branches. But the play for performance is banned.  What is more intriguing is that the highest Islamic body in Singapore, the MUIS - Majlis Ugama Islam Singapura, the then Public Entertainment Licensing Unit (PELU) of the Police, and the Ministry of Home Affairs (Internal Security Department) had vetted the original Tamil and English script and passed it clean without any single cut for the first three performances. In 2006, SMEGMA, another play production by Elangovan, was also banned just one day before its debut performance.

The play was scheduled to be performed on from 5th to 6th of August 2006 after being approved without suffering a single cut. The production was rated RA19 - Restricted Artistic and for 18 year old and above only. But on 4 August, the license to stage was cancelled and the play was banned by the MDA. Even  the played has been banned,  the text of SMEGMA has been published in the book which is available for sale and also provided in National Library for public reading. The play was banned because the 35 member Arts Consultative Panel was said to be “concerned that the play could create unhappiness and disaffection among Muslims”. 

 â€œThe National Arts Council supports sanitised non-confrontational plays. Art cannot touch politics or religion and must always project Singapore positively,”  Elangovan said.

Martyn See believes these kinds of restriction and boundaries for the artists is discouraging the creative climate in Singapore. “We lack good scripts and good writers and I think this is because the climate of Singapore does not encourage thinking outside of the box, does not encourage brave ideas, does not encourage people to break boundaries,” he said.

But See’s view is not shared by all. However, Singaporean artists have various stands towards the restrictions. Ho Tzu Nyen, a visual artist and film maker values freedom of speech and expression, his creative process does not seem to have been bothered by such issues. He is one of the rising artist and is famous for his works such as Utama - Every Name in History is I, Reflection, The Bohemian Rhapsody Project. His first feature film was Here  and was aired at Cannes Festival.  Tzu Nyen believes being creative, in most cases, artists have to deal with certain limitations, and that is exactly what creativity is all about. “Lack of money, small market, and censorship should not be an excuse for Singapore artists to be less creative,” he said. 

Photo from Strait Times

Eleanor Wong, a playwright best known for her trilogy of plays Invitation to Treat (2005) explores subjects including lesbianism, female sexuality and gender politics which are considered to be controversial in Singapore.

“For a writer, Singapore has wide open areas that have not yet been chronicled, explored, loved, criticised, celebrated, questioned is infinitely fertile. Ultimately, it depends on the artists’ attitude, does the artist see the interest in things around him or her, does the artist care?” she said. Wong is also known for her other two plays, Jackson on a Jaunt (or Mistaken Identities) and The Campaign to Confer the Public Service Star on JBJ. Jackson on a Jaunt was part of TheatreWorks double bill Safe Sex that was intended for staging in 1987. The play was about AIDS and drew controversy when the Ministry of Community Development withdrew its support for its portrayal of homosexuality as an acceptable form of sexuality. It was finally performed two years later at the Drama Centre. “I believe that artistes should not do the job of civil servants, they should leave the censoring to the authorities and the artists should express freely what they think or wish to bring out.”

But then do Singapore artists really enjoy freedom to express their ideas and stands?


Promoting Creative Industries: Singapore Way

Over the last decade, industrial economy has been transformed to creative economy and the heart of it is creative industries which very much rely on individual creativity, skill and talents, plus those that have the potential to create wealth and jobs through developing intellectual property.

Singapore is one of the most active in pursuing the creative industries in the world as a key engine of economic growth. The concept of creative industries in Singapore was adopted from the United Kingdom in 1998. It is one aspect of British Prime Minister Tony Blair economic revitalisation strategy and has since been adopted by many developed countries in Europe as well as Australia. Inspired by the apparent success of the British experiment, the Singapore government wants to implement it by  adopting the creative industries label, believing that the development  of a creative cluster –a creative network comprising the art and cultural sector, the generic media industry-- would propel Singapore’s new innovation-driven economy by encouraging risk-taking and entrepreneurship and attracting creative talents into Singapore.

By liberalising the creative industries and embracing openness, Singapore would not only prosper economically, but would also become as the Creative Industries Working Group (CWIG) report puts it the new Asia creative hub of the twenty-first century (Creative Industries Working Group 2002). The ‘more open’ and ‘creative’ Singapore started to campaign after the country revived from economically crippling with the severe accurate respiratory syndrome (SARS) viral epidemic during the first half of 2003.  Economic Review Committee (ERC) has identified the creative industries as one of the three new and promising service areas besides education and healthcare.

As an important key for the future economy, the government introduces numerous supporting measures and pours in resources to breed creativity in the Lion City. A total budget of $769 million has been allocated to Ministry of Information, Communication and the Arts (MICA) in 2009 to achieve the mission of flourishing creative industry. While financing is the hardest problem artists all over the world, the Singaporean government has been quite generous in terms of approving funds to many artists’ projects ranging from traditional to contemporary art. The funding itself can be seen as a form of grant or investment. There are very few private funds available for artists to apply. 

Capital is vital in any economy and creative industry is no exception. Financial support is needed to transform creativity into products in various forms whether it is a book, a film, a play, a product or a movie.  But there is no guarantee that financial support can work in the other way round generating and breeding creativity. People will always be the key source of the creative economy. Richard Florida, an expert of creative economy, in his book, The Rise of The Creativity Class (2002) stated that “creativity involves distinct kinds of thinking and habits that must be cultivated both in the individual and in the surrounding society. Therefore, the creative process is also social not just individual.” While in other places creativity tends to grow naturally from the communities, the creative movement in Singapore more likely is driven by the government. For Tzu Nyen, questions community movement upon Singapore’s context is just like asking “the birds how to swim or the fish how to fly. It simply does not fit.”

He said, “The spirit of ‘do it yourself’ just does not happen in Singapore, it is like asking to the wrong animal.” Apparently it is not because Singaporeans do not have creative genes. But the government’s approach to flourish the creative community somehow pushes it to the other way around causing counterproductive effect. This is the observation of Viswa Sadasivan, the Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP), co-founder and CEO of  Singapore-based Strategic Partnership, a television production, communications training and strategic consultancy organisation.

“Our ‘pressure cooking’ approach is very efficient. But the creative energy comes from certain element of chaos. When you force efficiency to creativity it is counterproductive,” Viswa, who had worked in the media more than 27 years, said.

The story of Bugis Street is one of the examples. Just after the World War II, Bugis Street was well-known for night street entertainment of transvestites. At that time, people might never have heard of Singapore but they surely know what Bugis Street is famous for. Thousands of people flock to the area every night between 7am and 2am to enjoy the entertainment, dining and shopping. The ‘ladies’ were beautiful and really talented in doing performances like cabaret, singing and dancing. News about the dazzling night life travelled far with the help of sailors who were regular visitors. 

Photo from Singapore-guide.com

The sexy element was surely the highlight, but the place was never famous for prostitution. It was more well known as for ‘clean fun’. Business boomed rapidly and Bugis Street became an extremely busy and lively area. It was one of Singapore’s most famous tourist destinations from the 1950s to the 1980s. In the mid-1980’s the government started to construct Bugis MRT station, followed by rebuilding the area into a retail complex of modern shopping malls and restaurants. The street entertainment was terminated due to new plan for the area and consideration that trans gender was against Asian values and most likely brought out prostitution. Difficult times came to the transvestites who used to make a living as entertainers. Ironically, prostitution only came after the street entertainment industry was totally wept out, as many of them ended up selling sex on the streets in order to survive and many of them finally committed suicide. Several years later, Singapore Tourism Board (STB) decided to revive Bugis Street and make a come-back for the travesties.  However, the attempt to bring back the former vast vibrant was in vain. Once the natural creative vibe forcefully removed, government –driven attempt failed to revive it.

Busking in Singapore is another example. Before late 1990s, street performance act was prohibited in Singapore. Guitar-strumming A m e r i c a n backpackers were escorted to the airport, while in the big cities like London, Paris and Boston, street performance is common. People do busking for various reasons. It could be for money, attention, practice, or just for the sake of loving art, while some of the great musician like Bob Dylan and Robin Williams started their career as buskers. What happens then is a natural selection. If you are good, people appreciate and buskers can make living with money from audience by exhibiting their talents. People respect them and do not see them as beggars. If they are not talented and fail to build up your own circle of fans, you will give up eventually. It is all market-driven.

In 1997, National Art Council (NAC) decided that they are going to promote busking to help enliven the streets of Singapore and to add colour to city life and provide an opportunity for Singaporeans to exhibit their artistic talents in designated public spaces so as to make the arts more accessible to the public. In the Singapore platform, every busker must have a letter of endorsement from NAC and is required to go through an audition, because only ‘talented’ people can do basking. And foreigners are not allowed, especially backpackers or hitchhikers. “It defeats the whole concept of busking. We do not allow it happen naturally. So whatever was happening naturally, we kill it,” Viswa said.  He sees most of the buskers in Singapore nowadays is losing respect and are more seen as beggars. People give them money out of pity and not admiration. According to expert of creative economy Richard Florida, creativity flourished best in a unique kind of social environment: “one that is stable enough to allow continuity of effort, yet diverse and broad-minded enough to nourish creativity in all its subversive forms. Florida shares views with  American Psychologist, Dean Keith Simonton, who finds that creativity flourishing in place and time marked by four characteristic: domain activity, intellectual receptiveness, ethnic diversity and political openness. Singapore has some conditions that needed which are the stability and the capital to keep things going. But the Lion City seems to be less liberal when it comes to challenges in nourishing the subversive forms and political openness. There are few taboos in Singapore: politics, race, religion, independence of judiciaries People and homosexuality.

Artists who are interested in producing work related to those issues, might receive warning or having their work being banned by the authorities and even have to face police investigation in some cases. These are all discouraging messages to artists who are less likely to break out boundaries and walls, as they are in fear of offending the concerned authorities. This kind of atmosphere tends to make the artists limit themselves in terms of expression and tend to encourage self-censorship. Terence Lee in his article Industrialising Creativity and Innovation (2007) stated that definition in some laws were vague and open-ended which made room for wide-ranging applications resulting in the ‘creation’ of a (self-) censorship climate of fear. As Lee viewed it, these measures not only have negative impact on Singaporean creative workers, especially those who are involved in the arts, cultural and media industries, they also put in place various psychological barriers that blunt the creative edges of many Singaporeans.

Singapore prides herself for becoming the first-world from third-world in one generation. The country has achieved world class standard in so many areas from economic management to environmental management, but is still far from becoming a first-world world class artist breeder. When the government structure is dominated by one political party, it gives a little room to flourish the creative energy among its people for creativity applies breaking out from the status quo and boundaries and posing challenge to authorities.

“There was a saying that nothing really grows under a huge three. The tree canopy gives you shade and protection and it is beautiful. But nothing grows. That is what happens when you have the paternalistic government that plan everything for you and thinks for you. The people end up losing the motivation to think,” Viswa Sadasivan the NMP member said.

Creative industry has always had special attraction that appeals young minds and the Singaporean experience is no exception. Substation, the central of contemporary art  who conducts First Take a program for screening new local short films accepted at least 200 short films every year. More supporting measures have been introduced in the last few years to support artists in Singapore such funding, opportunity to take part in competitions and to screen their films for the beginners that encourage more people to do arts.

Alvin Lie, 23, who graduated from Singapore Polytechnic in 2007, is one of the talents who started to develop his career in film. “The situation for artist now has improved, compared to 4 years ago. For example, we have more opportunities to screen our films,” he said. Apart from Substation First Take, there are also other screening opportunities such as Cinema Old School “Show Off”, new film festival like Singapore Short Films Award, Fly by night video challenge, Panasonic Digital Film Fiesta. New grants are also available for artists such as Singapore Film Commission (SFC) New Feature Film Fund and Script Development Grant.  Yet, the tiny size of the Singaporean market remains the major concern for artists. “I felt that being a film director in Singapore really has limited room to grow. As I prefer a more experimental style, that’s even more difficult to find audience, because it’s a very niche area that not many people will appreciate,” Alvin said.

Lim Yew Yee, a 37-year-old radiographer who starts to build his second career in film, is worried about the small local market that gives little room for creative production in Singapore. After working for more than a decade in the field, Yew Yee took a year off from work to pursue his passion in filmmaking in Perth, Australia.

“It is very small. Our films have to travel to South East Asia, China and other markets in Asia, at least, to make a decent profit,” Lim said. One of his films was chosen to be the finalist of Panasonic Digital Film Fiesta 2010.


Nice but Empty

Despite the growing numbers of short films being accepted by Substation, Low Beng Kheng, a Program Manager of Moving Images who curates the film to be screen on First Take is disappointed because most of the films that come to his door more or less ‘’the same thing”. “They are all look very well shot but are very empty. No soul, no character. So it is very sad. It is hard to find a film that is really original, the film that you can tell it comes from Singapore,” Low said. According to Low, many of them just copied the Hollywood style and they focus on how to make the films look nice in the technical aspect rather than the content itself. Of the 200 short films, only 10 percent of them that can be screened at Substation and it is not necessarily because they are good - only because they have potential to develop. Based on Low’s assessment, only five to eight of the submissions are actually really good.

Dr. Ng Aik Kwang, an author and a lecturer in creativity at various organisations such as the National Institute of Education and the Singapore Management University, believes that creativity is not flourishing in Singaporean society. He thinks the ‘’everyday creativity” still can be developed but there is a long way to go for Singapore to produce her very own eminent artist. “We do not have a world class caliber artist, we only have a medium level,” he said. Dr. Kwang, who wrote Why Asian are Less Creative than Westerners, highlighted two major reasons for his statement. The Singaporean academic points out it is an impact of the education system which focuses on science and mathematic than art and humanities. The bright students in class usually are more prone to picks the science stream rather than exploring artistic areas.  The examination-oriented educations system in the Lion City is forces students to focus on academic performance by drilling rather than learning problem-solving skills with flexibility and innovation.

“There was once a survey in Singapore, they found kids were more afraid to fail in exam than their parents died,” Dr Kwang  said. His second argument is the low tolerance of failure. Many Singaporeans have the trait of “Kiasu”, means afraid to fail or fall behind.

“Our culture doesn’t have high tolerance of failure while in creative process we cannot be afraid to fail,” Dr Kwang said. On the other hand, having Kiasu also pushes people to conform with the majority and follow what most of the people in society are doing in fear of being left out or left behind. This goes against creativity breeding, as creative people need to go out from the crowd and do things differently. Leaving one’s comfort zone and challenging the status quo is important for breeding creativity.

“If you do not want to challenge status quo, how creative can you be? Because at the highest level or the eminent creator will likely to challenge the status quo. There is a basic relationship between creator and society, which is conflict,” Dr Kwang said.

 Creativity cannot be constructed over night. It might take long time to flourish and imbibed to the people since the very beginning because it is a way of being and a way of living. In order to turn Singapore into as a cradle of creativity, Viswa believes there are things that should be improved such as reforming the education system from examination-oriented to placing more emphasis on encouraging students to be more adventurous and experimental.

“You cannot have creativity if we live in a society that punishes someone who makes mistakes all the time. You need to have to have an education system that allows multiple options in life and multiple ways of solving problem,” Viswa said. The NMP also points out there was a need to change the political culture. The government should be more willing to give artists more space to express themselves and more room to push the boundaries. “I think the government is doing it but it is still a very slow pace,” he said.

A poem by Kirpal Singh, the Singapore Guru of Creative Thinking nicely sums up what it takes to be creative and perhaps it can help the Singaporean government to understand breeding creativity is more than just giving out grants.

Creative Thinking

A poem by Kirpal Singh


How do I make you understand, my dear

You for whom safety and stability are prime

That to be creative you need to fear

And regard status quo as a crime?

For creative thinking requires you move

Outside of everything you know

Carve your own new borders and grooves

And posses enough courage to say No

Being gently led and being gently bold

You, too, can always come into the fold Of us creative thinking types who irritate

Only to survive afresh and freshly initiate


@kirpal singh (january 2007)

11 April 2019
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