Critical Business Times writer leaves paper

It has been reported that Business Times (BT) senior correspondent, Mr Lee Han Shih, and longtime critic of the Government’s economic policies has left the paper. A brief writeup by the BT of the analyst’s departure mentioned that corporate chiefs, whom Mr Lee often criticises, no longer “have to consult their lawyers after each commentary” and “no longer will they have to ban the man from their news conferences.” Below is the latest article that Mr Lee wrote.

Lee Han Shih
Business Times
20 May 2003

But is the govt’s $70m to fund the Esplanade money well-spent?

WHAT do glitzy hostess bars in Tokyo’s Ginza district and the Esplanade arts centre on Singapore’s city waterfront have in common? Both have become a symbol of their country’s wellbeing.

Recently, Esplanade chief executive Benson Phua told Reuters that the government has agreed to help fund the centre for the next two years.

Mr Phua, who used to run the resort island Sentosa, dismissed talk that the $620 million ‘Durians’ – a common nickname for the spikey structures – will close on some days due to lack of money. ‘It will have ramifications if we slow down (or) close down because it is a barometer of how the government is moving forward. International investors look at it,’ he said.

In other words, the Esplanade is being used to send a strong signal to foreign investors that Singapore is still doing well and welcomes their investments.

It is in this respect that the Esplanade and its promotion efforts have something in common with the Ginza and its mamasans, elderly former hostesses turned bar owners.

Fourteen years into Japan’s worst deflation, the stoic mamasans still manage to keep the Ginza’s neon lights blazing into the night sky.

‘We need to go on because Ginza is the bellwether of Japan’s corporate world. As long as its lights are shining, it is a sign to the world that Japan’s businesses are ploughing on,’ a mamasan who runs three bars told a Tokyo magazine recently.

A delusion of importance? Perhaps, but there’s some truth in what she says. Hostess bars, like golf courses, are favourite places for corporate bigwigs, politicians, movie producers, contractors and even yakuza oyabuns (Japanese mafia bosses) to hang out and discuss deals. The more deals are struck, the more business for the bars and the brighter the neon lights. Should the lights ever go out in Ginza, it will be an unmistakable sign that the Japanese corporate world is in deep trouble.

So the Esplanade and Ginza are both symbols. But there’s a big difference between the two: in the Ginza, it is private efforts – marketing by mamasans and spending by customers – that keep the bars going; in Singapore, the government is expected to provide most of the support for the Esplanade.

It takes between $30 million and $50 million a year to keep the Esplanade going. As ticket sales, rents and corporate sponsorship do not bring in enough, most of the money must come from the government, which has committed to foot the bill for the next two years. This will work out to some $70 million.

It is a huge sum, as far as arts sponsorship is concerned. In fact, $70 million is the budget for the National Arts Council for 2003 and 2004.

This means in the next two years the government will spend on the Esplanade as much as it spends on all other arts-related activities
Is it right to focus so much resources on one venue?

Mr Phua certainly thinks so. ‘If you look at history, the greatest, highest intensity of arts activity actually happened during crises,’ he told Reuters.

‘London and Berlin were thriving during the war as far as arts activity was concerned because the arts were a way to uplift.’

Maybe, but not all the money the government is lavishing on the Esplanade actually goes towards arts activities. Instead, it will be spent on bricks and mortar, or, more specifically, on the upkeep of the centre. Such expenditure is necessary, of course, but that can’t be the sign that the nation is moving forward.

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