Playing With & For The Community
Article by Reena Devi, SCYA Member. First published in TODAY on 03 May 2012.
Much ado was made recently about New York receiving the Lee Kuan Yew World City Prize. The idea that a city established in our global cultural imagination needs an award from Singapore seemed to appal many. Interestingly, our responses had an aspirational tone.
The recent recession, violent manifestations of social apathy (London riots), class inequality (Occupy Wall Street movement) and a general lack of worldliness in the West should have ended the cultural obsession to emulate it but has not.
Now, what previously passed for Western ideals have become entangled with global ones, forming a cosmopolitan philosophy. In this instance, the mainstream belief is that Singapore must aspire to be like other cities in the West to become a world-class city.
But New York City became an icon not by trying to be like another city but by being itself. It allowed people to meld and clash, to luxuriate in their immigrant cultures and counter-cultures, creating a sense of spontaneity and freshness of thought.
Singapore has all the hallmarks of an international hub. It has established itself in economy, education, security, technology and transport.
In recent years, policymakers have focused on making Singapore more culturally vibrant by building infrastructure and funnelling funds to the arts, entertainment and media industries. They relaxed certain laws and created new tourism avenues.
But we have the brand, not the substance. Culture cannot be copied; it must be created. To possess the cultural and intellectual joie de vivre it seeks, Singapore must do so on its own terms.
Questioning our freedom of expression and blaming government restrictions are excuses from a bygone era. What holds us back is ourselves, our fear to own up to our place in society, our diverse yet shared cultures, our immigrant history, our land.
Perhaps this inferiority complex has to do with being a small country surrounded by bigger ones, forcing us to be an overachieving population striving to prove ourselves by taking a path of cultural recognition laid out by older, “wiser” nations.
As a mainstream audience, we tend to assess cultural capital in terms of the artistic achievements of other countries and historical epochs. This blindsides us to the avant garde, socially astute, multicultural expressions of art by our artists.
This year, the Singapore Contemporary Young Artists, an organisation raising interest in contemporary art practices here, is participating in the World Event Young Artists, a showcase of contemporary art talent, in England.
Selected by a panel of who’s who in the arts scene, the artists’ works illuminate Singapore’s socio-cultural trends in a relevant, accessible manner. They stand for a city aspiring to be better on its own terms, to rise above our pedestrian rhetoric.
It is time to release our preconceived notions about what a great city should be and simply aspire to be greater than ourselves.
At the same time, we should note that New York, like any cosmopolitan and culturally established city, has a dark side, an underbelly of crime, poverty and homelessness. Greatness has a cost.
The writer works for Singapore Contemporary Young Artists and writes for social commentary blog The Social Swami.