Mandarin duck

Singapore hopes to become a global arts centre. But, writes Salil Tripathi, unless the authorities l

For the arts lover in Singapore, October has been a great month. A swanky arts centre called the Esplanade has opened on its bay front. It sits on the edge of the water, with the historic padang (esplanade), its cricket club, the colonial high court and the sparkling Raffles Hotel providing a stunning backdrop. Built at a cost of around £300m, the Esplanade hopes to fill the gap between Australia and Europe, to become the region's thriving arts hub.

With a world-class line-up, the inaugural festival is impressive. There is Kurt Masur with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, Wynton Marsalis with the Lincoln Centre Jazz Orchestra, Lorin Maazel with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, the Singapore Dance Theatre staging Reminiscing the Moon, a ballet choreographed by Indonesia's Boi Sakti, the world premiere of Portrait of an Empress, directed by Steven Dexter, and the National Ballet of China performing Zhang Yimou's Raise the Red Lantern, besides artists from Japan, India, Norway and South Africa.

The Esplanade is a triumph of Singapore's planning skills. Back in the mid-1990s, when I lived there, Singapore decided to become a global arts city for its business potential. Singapore attracts some seven million tourists annually, but how can the republic make them return or stay longer? The high-spending visitors come from the affluent west and Japan, and increasingly, India and China, two large, rapidly prospering economies in its neighbourhood.

The republic's mandarins moved in with characteristic efficiency. Transforming Singapore into an arts centre was an audacious idea, considering the island's reputation for sterility. The Economist Intelligence Unit ranked Singapore below Tokyo and Hong Kong as a desirable place for expatriates. Singapore takes such findings seriously, and began inviting foreign acts: we could soon see Michael Jackson, Les Miserables, and Phantom of the Opera, as well as an international film festival, outspending Manila, its one regional rival. Incentives were offered for creative businesses like art galleries and auction houses (Sotheby's and Christie's came promptly), and international broadcasting companies were wooed, bringing in teenybopper channels like MTV Asia to strait-laced Singapore. Culture follows prosperity, Singapore's leaders said; now that Singapore was rich, it could afford art. Enter the Esplanade.

The Esplanade's striking, futuristic design has been likened to bug's eyes, Chinese dumplings and durian (the foul-smelling local fruit that looks like a spiky cannon ball and is banned in the Underground). But the buildings are splendid. The complex includes a 2,000-seat theatre, a large concert hall and other smaller venues. More positively, the complex has been compared to the Sydney Opera House.

But can it match its spirit? Ong Keng Sen, a theatre director in Singapore, is doubtful. He told a newspaper that he feared the complex would sacrifice art for commerce. Singapore-based columnist Lee Han Shih believes that is inevitable. In a recent article in Business Times (Singapore), he estimates the Esplanade's cost to be £600m, making each of the 4,000 seats worth a five-room state-built apartment. To keep those seats filled, the complex will have to invite top international artists regularly. To keep it affordable to Singaporeans, subsidies will have to be provided. As a prestigious national project, large companies will direct their grants to the Esplanade, depriving the small, local arts groups without which Singapore's arts scene will become entirely imported. Lee points out that in 2001, Singapore's National Arts Council gave £2.5m to local groups, and spent £3.6m on an annual arts festival. The opening alone of the Esplanade cost £6m.

Art not for art's sake, but for its commercial spin-offs is the agenda here. Unlike great arts cities of the world, Singapore works on a Faustian bargain, which swaps political and artistic freedom for profit. Singapore is better planned and better run than most cities, yet writers like William Gibson and Stan Sesser have called it "Disneyland with death penalty", and "prisoner in a theme park".

To paraphrase Orson Welles, neighbouring Indonesia had a bloody revolution, a million dead, a militant insurgency, and three decades of Suharto's rule, and yet it produced the fiction of Pramoedya Ananta Toer. Singapore had 30 years of peace and stability, and what did it produce? The disk drive of personal computers. The plan to become a global arts city will come up against Singapore's firm belief in censorship and distrust of dissidents and artists who challenge the established order

This contradiction doesn't appear to worry officials. The list of films, books, magazines and plays banned in Singapore is long, and local artists aren't spared. Elangovan's recent play, Talaq (Divorce), about rape within an Indian Muslim marriage, was banned following local protests. Last April, at the Singapore International Film Festival, a short documentary about opposition politician J B Jeyaretnam, called A Vision of Persistence, was withdrawn after the filmmakers were advised that they could be charged under the Films Act, which bans the making, distribution and showing of films containing "wholly or partly either partisan or biased references to or comments on any political matter".

A few years ago, in the case of performance artist Josef Ng, the authorities went a step further: his controversial production staged after midnight to a handful of people at an avant-garde theatre was enough for the government to ban the genre entirely. In his show, Ng caned slabs of tofu (phonetically, this can mean gay in some Chinese dialects). He then turned his back to the audience, bared his buttocks, and quietly snipped off some of his pubic hair. Ng was charged under obscenity laws for a show which protested against a police operation in which 12 gay men were arrested and punished by caning (Singapore retains Victorian colonial laws against homosexuality). Ng was banned from performing in public, and the group that backed him was denied NAC grants. An official statement said that art forms without scripts that may encourage audience participation "pose dangers to public order, security and decency . . . the performances may be exploited to agitate the audience on volatile social issues, or to propagate the beliefs and messages of deviant social or religious groups, or as a means of subversion."

Since then, performers have played it safe. In a play that had partial nudity, one company installed a red light at the corner of the stage to warn the audience that a risque scene was coming up, so anyone offended could shut their eyes. Another director clothed his artists in skin-coloured tights during a lovemaking scene. Garry Rodan, director of the Asia Research Centre at the Murdoch University in Australia, observes: "The tension between promotion of the arts and limits to free expression is manageable (in Singapore) precisely because the curbs are not generalised and are often achieved through self-censorship."

The boundaries of transgression are not defined. Singapore's leadership bemoans the lack of creativity among its people, and exhorts them to dare to be different. But when some do, the establishment comes down upon them, because it fears spontaneity.

Singapore is, after all, an efficient business centre where people are expected to trade goods and services, not politically sensitive or artistically challenging ideas. Such cities thrive on certainty and predictability, not on spontaneity. In the early 1960s, the poet D J Enright, a lecturer at what became the National University of Singapore, bemoaned government-sponsored attempts to create culture in his inaugural lecture. "Art does not begin in a test-tube, it does not take its origin in good sentiments and clean-shaven upstanding young thoughts," he said. For his efforts the culture minister rebuked him, calling him a mendicant professor, adding: "We have no time for asinine sneers by passing aliens . . . [who are] beatnik professors."

For the Esplanade to become more like the Sydney Opera House, Singapore will have to learn to relax. Otherwise, it will remain a plaything for the expatriates and the well-heeled in Singapore, the crowd that inhabits the elite districts 9, 10 and 11, that globalised cocoon which is more at home in Minnesota than off the Malay peninsula. If that prevails, don't expect it to advance cultural freedom in Singapore.