S’pore discovers softer side of global competitiveness

Kai Portmann


When it comes to business, Singapore ranks among the top scorers on international indices for competitiveness, but when it comes to culture, the island-state is far from being a match for its global rivals.

‘While we have attained First-World standards in business and livability, we are still lagging global city standards for culture,’ a report by a government-appointed panel said this year.

Singapore’s cultural sector was still falling behind those of cities like London, Paris, New York and Tokyo, it said.

‘To be a player in the league of top global cities, we need to make significant investments in our cultural capital and landscape,’ said the report by the Economic Strategies Committee, noting that establishing Singapore as ‘a leading cultural capital’ should be a priority for the next decade.

Seizing the recommendation, Singapore authorities are now aiming high on the lighter side of global rivalry.

One of the key projects to try to establish the city-state with its population of 5 million as a vibrant world metropolis is Art Stage Singapore, a new international art fair slated to open January 12 at the Marina Bay Sands casino resort.

‘The goal is to develop this fair in a timeframe of five to six years into one of the top events in the world,’ the fair’s Swiss director Lorenzo Rudolf said.

With his reputation as the creator of Art Basel, one of the top events in the global art market, Rudolf, 50, said he had first been asked by Singapore authorities to create an art fair in the mid-1990s.

‘It was too early then. There was no market which could sustain itself,’ said Rudolf, adding that now ‘could be just the right time.’

He said competitor Art Hong Kong, held every May, was more ‘a classical trade show’ while the goal for Art Stage was ‘to show art in a context’ of events and projects bringing together the fragmented arts scenes from all of South-East Asia, India and China, he said.

‘In the future, we want to have two important international events in Asia, one in summer, one in wintertime,’ said Rudolf, adding that there was room for both the Hong Kong and the Singapore fairs.

Starting with 90 galleries and ‘a clear Asian identity,’ he hoped Art Stage would become an international flagship event.

With strong backing by the Singapore government, the fair’s budget came up to ‘some millions’ of euros, said Rudolf, declining to give exact figures.

The Singapore government just released the latest statistics on its funding of culture, showing that from 2005 to 2008, financial support for the arts doubled to 110.3 million Singapore dollars (85 million US dollars).

In 2009, when the city-state experienced the worst recession in its history because of the global downturn, arts funding reached 98.9 million Singapore dollars.

Apart from spending big on arts, Singapore offers tax incentives to promote the country as a cultural hub.

In May, the Singapore FreePort opened its doors, providing a tax-free, state-of-the-art storage and display facility for fine art, collectibles and other valuables.

Managed by a private company whose shareholders include the Singapore National Arts Council and the National Heritage Board, the facility near Changi Airport offers storage space ‘the size of six football fields’ in its first phase, according to the Singapore FreePort Pte Ltd.

One of the main tenants is the international auction house Christie’s, which closed its Singapore auction business in 2002.

Another project pushed by the government is a National Art Gallery, slated to open by 2013 in two heritage buildings, the City Hall and the former Supreme Court.

Focusing on South-East Asian and Singapore art, the gallery ‘will contribute to building Singapore as a regional and international hub for visual arts,’ the government said.

‘Singapore has realized very clearly that culture, especially art, is part of the lifestyle of a certain society,’ Rudolf said.

After focusing on economic growth for years, Singapore now has some catching-up to do in culture.

‘We have room for improvement on the softer issues, the softer aspects – the cultural areas, the arts – to make this place an even more livable city,’ said Lui Tuck Yew, minister for information, communication and the arts.


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