From Cultural Desert to Cultural Garden: The Uncertainty of Singapore’s Creative Policy

The Merlion is an enduring symbol of Singapore, a nod to its beginnings as a fishing village and to the meaning of Singapore, which is Malay for “Lion City.” Source: https://www.travelawaits.com/2482031/merlion-singapores-most-enduring-symbol/
Ed. note: This article is part of our bi-annual, peer-reviewed Student Voices section. Click here to read the introduction and the other articles in the section.

“Creative City” is a highly coveted title; it stimulates the idea of a forward-thinking, culturally fruitful, and diverse space that beckons the enlightened to its borders to partake in its riches. Singapore has come to be known as an ultimate creative city in recent years. A far cry from the cultural desert it had been described as in the 1970s and 1980s, it is now used as a successful representation of cultural and economic policy. But this recent development has come at a cost, as “along the process Singapore has transformed from local character to [a] global one … Singaporeans always try to internalize ‘creativity based on global competitiveness’ led by the Government of Singapore”1Kenichi Kawasaki, “Singapore as a Creative City in Globalisation: Cultural Policies and New Cosmopolitanisms,” Journal of Global Media Studies, 12 (2013): 38.. Cultural policy (i.e. policy that fosters the art and “high” culture) and the creative city (i.e. a city whose economics and image are based around media, the arts, and tourism) combine in Singapore to create a complex mixture of a city that is striving for a globally renowned and competitive image. While Singapore’s public policy is often seen in a positive light, this can be viewed as a skin-deep analysis of the complications behind the cultural policy of Singapore. The rise of Singapore’s cultural policy has been a radical transformation that has deepened the economic and cultural divide within Singapore, while attempting to pull a curtain over this very gaping issue.

What is at stake if creative cities are colonizing and gentrifying cultural art and policy for private benefit? “Authenticity” in Singapore’s cultural policy is subject to debate, even if that very authenticity is often hard to categorize, as it is inherently ambiguous, but it is nevertheless persistent in creative spaces. In addition, that “authenticity” is what continues to connect a people to its cultural roots and histories. “Authenticity” can have many meanings, but who benefits from “authenticity”? Below, I will discuss Singapore’s rise from a cultural desert to a cosmopolitan powerhouse, considering its cultural representation in creative economy policies and the way in which these policies draw on discourses of “authenticity” related to Singapore’s multicultural identity and history. I then analyze how the city has been depicted in mainstream media as a wealthy space via Kevin Kwan’s Crazy Rich Asians (2018), demonstrating how the film represents the contradictions embodied in Singapore’s cultural policies. Through this analysis, I argue that Singapore’s cultural policies draw on the diverse cultural creativity of its residents to garner a sense of “authenticity,” but do not benefit all residents equally.

Cultural & Economic Policy in Singapore

Mass rally against government immigration policy in Singapore

The People’s Action Party went to great lengths in the 1990s to promote Singapore and to introduce it to the world of creative professionals so they would consider placing roots in Singapore. However, this array of ‘creative’ businesses and professions are harder for those who aren’t already economically wealthy to get into. Therefore, there is a certain image Singapore puts out that heavily leans towards a limited number of culturally distinct groups in Singapore, rather than equal recognition and support for all cultural groups, a value the government of Singapore has claimed as central to their policies in the past. However, Singapore’s devotion to and economic stimulus of cultural creativity have transformed the global image of Singapore and of Asia as well. Its world-renowned design industries draw a great deal of media attention, and Singapore continues to inspire innovation in technology and design.

Singapore’s rise to fame for its creative economy initiatives and design industries has been a recent development, and the government of Singapore has successfully kept up with changing trends to continue this success. As Phua and Miller note, “Singapore’s tourism brand has gone through several iterations in the past few decades in response to changing tourist demands and as a reflection of the country’s continued diversification and commitment.”2Voon Chin Phua and Joseph Miller, “Gazing at Haw Par villa: Cultural Tourism in Singapore,” Shima: The International Journal of Research into Island Cultures 8, no. 2 (2014): 73. This rapid reorganization of Singapore’s tourism and arts sectors can be seen as a complete dedication to keeping Singapore relevant on the global stage and maintaining its global and regional competitiveness. Singaporean society and culture are victims of a system they did not implement, but they nevertheless have to follow, as its geopolitical position and size leaves it vulnerable to much larger nations, like China. Singapore’s economic power keeps it relevant enough to not fall into the position of obscurity and global economic irrelevancy that many smaller nations often find themselves in.

However, what is the cost of rapid change? Art and design are commodities, and often luxuries in many instances, but they are also representations of the times, of the culture, and of political/social movements. It can be argued that the city’s rapid change is a symbol of Singapore’s dedication to growing its economic power regardless of the “authenticity” of the art itself, that this “authenticity” takes a backseat to the overall prosperity of the nation of Singapore. More evidently, however, Singapore’s prosperous, economically privileged class is able to enjoy these cultural spaces the most. In this context, this lack of “authenticity” can be particularly damaging “because it reveals a glaring contradiction in many culturally-based urban policies currently being implemented, which have the explicit objective of fostering creativity but leave cultural workers out of their development.” (d’Ovido & Morato, 2017).

Singapore’s reputation as a hub of art and design is tied to the development of its identity as a multicultural space, and that multicultural identity is largely embraced by the government. However, it is the nature of this embrace that calls into question its “authenticity.” Singapore’s cultural policy stems primarily from economic interests. As Byrne notes, while economics is the driving force behind most creative city policies, “cultural policy’s retention of the development rhetoric… and its specific references to the creative city discourse demonstrates continuing policy ‘attachment’ to economic agendas… [and] attempts to harness the prestige, mandate and political advantage attached to these ideological frameworks.” Using the creative city and cultural policy to prop up an identity in Singapore may not be fully warranted. Those who often create the art and whose culture is being used to display Singaporean values are not always given the credit or prestige, and they may often not even occupy the same space as the art and media itself.

The concept of “authenticity” to this case of cultural policy in Singapore is vital due to its importance for the arts. As Yun argues, “Cultural development is less amenable than economic development to ‘short cuts’ such as knowledge transfer and foreign direct investment,” because these are culturally important artifacts of history that can take generations to perfect and pass down.3Hing Ai Yun, “Evolving Singapore: The Creative City,” in Creative Cities, Cultural Clusters and Local Economic Development, ed. Philip Cooke and Luciana Lazzeretti (Cheltenham: Edward Elgar Publishing, 2007), https://doi.org/10.4337/9781847209948.00022. The arts are therefore less secure investments because of the nature of the time it takes to really perfect a craft or preserve the cultural integrity of that craft. Further, it can take many decades for crafts, especially in such a highly diverse landscape, to not just flourish in Singapore, but also to become signifying of Singaporean culture and values. They can’t be easily be bought or developed rapidly because it’s against the nature of many cultural crafts, and art doesn’t happen quickly.

Nevertheless, as Eliot Tretter notes, “urban elites attempt to leverage their city’s resources to lure mobile capital or foster local economic activity by providing incentives for private investments.”4Eliot M. Tretter, “The Cultures of Capitalism: Glasgow and the Monopoly of Culture,” Antipode 41, no. 1 (January 2009): 112. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-8330.2008.00658.x. Singapore has low unemployment rates, but employment rates do not equal wealth distribution. A government survey revealed that “instead of race and religion, what worries Singaporeans more is the class divide.” This relates to aspects of cultural policy implementation because the creative arts are often out of reach if one does not have the social status or wealth to occupy those spaces. Cultural workers may not be given the same financial investment as they invest in crafting their work.

To boost the arts in Singapore, tourism has become a vital component of Singapore’s economy. Tourism transformed the city and has spurred it to become an economic powerhouse. Singapore has framed its cultural policies “with the objective of bringing international arts and culture to its citizens, with tourism as a byproduct.”5Tommy Koh, “History, Culture and the Making of a Successful City,” Cultural Connections 2 (2017): 12. However, even if Singapore did not anticipate the level of prestige it would gain in the cultural and creative arts, its main objectives are economic. The art and design industries that Singapore publicly supports boost the flow of tourism, but the government’s support equally influences who gets to partake in the spoils of such a lucrative business. For example, theatre was one of the first industries Singapore supported in its arts sector. However, which theatres received grants and creative licensing permission from the Singaporean government was purely a play on boosting its global image. English speaking theatres were given top priority in funding and attention from the government via annual or two-year grants. As Chong notes, “one reason for the privileging of contemporary English-language theater companies is the global dominance of the English language, the language of ‘global consciousness.’”6Terence Chong, “Singapore’s Cultural Policy and Its Consequences: From Global To Local.” Critical Asian Studies 37, no. 4 (January 2005): 553–68. https://doi.org/10.1080/14672710500348455.

So, what is at stake in these cultural policies? “Authenticity” is a big part of cultural policy, as it is an effective concept in marketing the art and culture of a place across cultural groups, but the cultures whose art and histories are being used to prop up these economies do not always get included in or benefit from them. Many of these art forms are borne out of the same colonization that continues to force these groups into lower economic status and keeps them from the main stage that other groups get to bask in. Cultural workers and artists don’t get much of a say when it comes to the implementation of cultural policy and the construction of the creative city; the lack of voice for these individuals is exactly what continues to gentrify their traditions and keep them in a position that makes them more easily manipulable so that economic growth and change can continue to happen rapidly. Cultural policy that lacks the voice of cultural workers drifts in directions that benefit those who are already wealthy. As Pratt notes, “It is worth noting that a pattern observed in cities for many years now… a particular form of ‘cultural gentrification’ of cities… artists colonise cheap and dilapidated property, in time those seeking a ‘bobo culture’ move in so as to be close to the artists.”7Andy C. Pratt, “Creative Cities: The Cultural Industries and the Creative Class,” Geografiska Annaler: Series B, Human Geography 90, no. 2 (June 2008): 111. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1468-0467.2008.00281.x.

Vicki Mayer speaks to New Orleans’s history of colonization and media in terms of how “the city ceded both public space and history to the commercial needs of hoteliers, developers, and preservationists dedicated to framing the city’s history as romantic creole charm rather than contemporary colonial inequality.”8Vicki Mayer, Almost Hollywood, Nearly New Orleans, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2017), 45. Singapore’s own cultural policy and current economic trends reflect this in different ways. Cultural workers in Singapore and their diverse backgrounds are used for their culture and crafts to benefit wealthier groups, but that wealth does not necessarily make it back to cultural workers. This continued gentrification sacrifices the well-being of certain groups like the native Malay, but it also cheapens cultural policy into being a cash grab for dominant groups. It takes away the “authentic” appeals of the creative city that many come to attribute to it.

The creative city is nothing without its credibility, its ethos on the world stage. That ethos is often what draws people to that space—they want to not just see, but to feel the power of art and design that the creative city harnesses. What is real and what is not is important in art, and in the implementation of cultural policy. Without the voice of the people who are often at the subject of these policies, there is no “authenticity” to be had. You can’t buy it and you can’t force it. Furthermore, the perception of “authenticity” and credit being there is more harmful to cultural and creative work than the absence of “authenticity” at all.

This façade of due credit is dangerous because it can lead outsiders and even insiders to believe that there is appropriate recognition, and that this should be enough to satisfy the cultural workers because at least their names are tied to the creative industry. But this kind of recognition can often be false and not clearly representative of the struggles and ideas, the culture, and stories of that particular group. It further does not signify that the prestige and economic gains are being redistributed back to those creative communities. Rather than letting these communities be a part of cultural policy implementation and the creation of these policies in the first place, it would seem that this simple name recognition of a group is simply a way to satisfy them, rather than include them.

Creative Singapore & Crazy Rich Asians

It is almost too easy to view Singapore as a perfect society with a strong free market, globally praised social policies, and a strong creative landscape. One of the highest-grossing romantic comedies ever takes place in Singapore and the cultural identity and landscape that Singapore offers certainly lends itself to the success and drama of the Crazy Rich Asians. The first introduction we get to Singapore is not just one of luxury, as all the characters in Singapore are clearly wearing expensive and luxury items and clothes, but how developed it is. When word spreads about Rachel Chu, Nick’s love interest, it takes no time at all for the word to spread across the entire Island via text, after the two talk about traveling to Singapore for Nick’s cousin’s wedding. So not only is this a wealthy and culturally rich city, but also one that is efficient in every possible way.

With this as an introduction to the city, it is hard not to be captivated by the beautiful architecture, pristine clothes and actors/actresses, and a clean environment as a backdrop for it all. Even though the main plot is orchestrated around the upper-class life of Nick and his family, they mingle with the common folk at the food market — even though this market is full of Michelin star restaurants — to show that even though they’re disconnected from society, they’re still a part of it on some superficial level. This creates an illusion as to how class divisions are shown. The characters are shown to interact with more “down to Earth” parts of society, even though the rest of the movie subsequently takes place in some of the wealthiest parts of Singapore.

Rachel and Nick visit the iconic Newton Food Centre to experience “authentic” Singapore culture

This is not necessarily a “true” representation of Singapore’s wealthy and economically well-off, but it does show that Singapore tries extremely hard to put on this show of complete harmony between classes. The market scene shows some of the wealthiest people on the entire Island against a quaint and simple backdrop. Although it is dripped in luxury because of the Michelin starred restaurants, it is also dripped in culture because the food served here is made by street food vendors cooking what are said (in the film) to be dishes that have been perfected over many generations. The Newton Food Centre is used as a way to use food of culturally important foodstuffs, like satay and laksa curry, to bring together people across social divides. The scene suggests that food as a cultural item is a harmonizing mechanism to bring people of all walks of life to mingle in each other’s presence.

Later in the movie, tensions build between Rachel and Nick’s family over dumplings. It is expressed multiple times that Rachel’s status as a “commoner” is not the reason for family tension, just that she’s an American and her culture is not as structurally sound as Singapore’s. As Nick’s mother explains, Singaporeans build things that last. Nick’s mother further explains that they always put family first—which is indicative of Singapore’s more collectivist attitude. This statement, however, is dismissive of the very real class problems of Singapore. Even though Singapore’s development into a creative and technological hub has been rapid, the city’s development was not built with a sustainable model that works for everyone. Despite this, and through later developments in the movie, there is still an overarching theme that Singapore’s success comes from this attitude of collective harmony—despite the fact that another overarching theme in the movie is that Singapore’s success comes from Chinese development, and other groups here before were simple pig farmers.

This simple understanding of history doesn’t show how Singapore came to be, and how its success should be attributed to the different cultures that started the Island nation. Innovations by different groups not only made the island habitable, but prosperous as well. However, one cultural group is overwhelmingly depicted as the driver of the city’s success. This suggests to viewers that one group is responsible for the creative and tech boom, and that group deserves the wealth they’ve accumulated, even if some of it was built on the backs of the Malay, or any other group in Singapore that isn’t already viewed as a prosperous cultural group. Even the actors in the film are almost all of Chinese origin, which is not representative of Singapore’s diverse population. Media representations of Singapore tend to stick to this narrow image of a largely Chinese, wealthy and educated populous that partakes in the luxuries of life in a rich creative space.

So, does this “authentically” serve Singapore? The short answer is no. Singapore’s history is more complicated than the Chinese building it up, especially since the colony has passed through several different hands including India, England, and Malaysia. All of these influences have changed the landscape of Singapore to make it into the powerhouse it is today, and the indigenous Malay continue to be the backbone of the labor force that makes these innovations possible. But within the movie and the greater rhetoric of Singapore as a creative city, these groups, especially the Malay, are not given as much credence. This then removes “authenticity” from not just Singapore’s self-image, but the creative landscape as well, since all these influences are what has enabled Singapore to become a cosmopolitan, creative society.

What this does show accurately is that there is a limited group who can enjoy these spaces, despite the fact that there are obvious influences of many different cultures evident. But those other groups are not shown in popular media representations like Crazy Rich Asians, nor in Singapore’s cultural policies. Those who enjoy Singapore’s creative city space reflect exactly what it lacks in its cultural policy. There is no representation for people beyond the groups deemed worthy of influencing it. That’s not to say they don’t want those groups’ identities and works to be displayed and shown for the world to see, but it also isn’t a fair representation that ensures that the wealth and prestige generated through this are distributed equally. This calls the entire creative city of Singapore into question because a truly creative city is one where everyone can partake in the spoils, with accurate representation of what the diverse population and their unique backgrounds bring to the table for the city.

Notes   [ + ]

1. Kenichi Kawasaki, “Singapore as a Creative City in Globalisation: Cultural Policies and New Cosmopolitanisms,” Journal of Global Media Studies, 12 (2013): 38.
2. Voon Chin Phua and Joseph Miller, “Gazing at Haw Par villa: Cultural Tourism in Singapore,” Shima: The International Journal of Research into Island Cultures 8, no. 2 (2014): 73.
3. Hing Ai Yun, “Evolving Singapore: The Creative City,” in Creative Cities, Cultural Clusters and Local Economic Development, ed. Philip Cooke and Luciana Lazzeretti (Cheltenham: Edward Elgar Publishing, 2007), https://doi.org/10.4337/9781847209948.00022.
4. Eliot M. Tretter, “The Cultures of Capitalism: Glasgow and the Monopoly of Culture,” Antipode 41, no. 1 (January 2009): 112. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-8330.2008.00658.x.
5. Tommy Koh, “History, Culture and the Making of a Successful City,” Cultural Connections 2 (2017): 12.
6. Terence Chong, “Singapore’s Cultural Policy and Its Consequences: From Global To Local.” Critical Asian Studies 37, no. 4 (January 2005): 553–68. https://doi.org/10.1080/14672710500348455.
7. Andy C. Pratt, “Creative Cities: The Cultural Industries and the Creative Class,” Geografiska Annaler: Series B, Human Geography 90, no. 2 (June 2008): 111. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1468-0467.2008.00281.x.
8. Vicki Mayer, Almost Hollywood, Nearly New Orleans, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2017), 45.

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