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Singapore: The Missing T in Creativity

by Stephen McElhinney

Unauthorised GraffitiSingapore has undergone a truly remarkable transformation from torpid post-colonial trading port to high-tech business hub in just a few decades.  To steal a phrase from another Chinese context, this great leap forward has delivered huge financial dividends to the elite, a decent stand of living to most Singaporeans, and access to the accoutrements of the consumer age ranging from digital technologies to high-street bling. Having met the challenge of becoming a knowledge economy, policy makers have decided that turning Singapore into a creative economy is the next great leap.  But, from a western-liberal standpoint this leap is hardly straightforward.  Since independence, Singaporean society has been shaped by a regime that has emphasised self-discipline, authoritarian leadership and punitive sanctions on dissent.  With this history, introducing the notion of creativity produces some interesting practical and theoretical conundrums. So with debate running hot, it’s time to consider whether Singapore will continue to be hung up by its hang ups or whether there’s enough confidence in the city to unlock the potential of the three Tstalent, technology and tolerance, identified by Richard Florida as being fundamental to the creative economy.

In the western rubric, the notion of creativity has been bound up with critical thinking, argument, and freedom of expression.  Recently, however, the idea that the creative sector surrounding arts, cultural institution and design can contribute to social vibrancy and economic goals has become a matter of faith in many countries. While the idea of a ‘Creative Nation’ was first enunciated in Australia in the early 1990s, the lantern has subsequently illuminated government action and support programs related to the creative industries in the United Kingdom, Scandinavia, New Zealand, South Korea, China and Hong Kong. With the political obliteration of the Australian government that sponsored the original idea, the Blair Government subsequently defined the creative economy as:

those industries which have their origin in individual creativity, skill and talent and which have a potential for wealth and job creation through the generation and exploitation of intellectual property ( British Council, Creative Economy,

One of the leading figures in the debates over the creative economy, Richard Caves brings these rather broad goals into higher resolution through his observation that it includes:

goods and services that we broadly associate with cultural, artistic, or simply entertainment value.  They include book and magazine publishing, the visual arts (painting and sculpture), the performing arts (theatre, opera, concerts, dance), sound recordings, cinema and TV films, even fashion and toys and games. (Caves 2000:1)

As will be shown, with its Confucian tradition, the approach to creativity in Singapore is directed to commercial ends rather than a wider renaissance of free-expression. In Singapore, creativity is expected to generate employment and intellectual property that will contribute in the words of the Minister For Information, Communications And The Arts, Dr Lee Boon Yang,  to “quality of life and make Singapore more vibrant by stimulating awareness and demand for the arts, design and media products”. ( While this may initially disappoint libertarian-types, even this more restricted excursion into creativity is a positive start for Singapore.  Firstly, it is a radically new direction in policy that will inevitably unlock the imagination of younger people and encourage them to escape the narrow paths available to their parents during the industrial revolution. Secondly, it recognises the burgeoning demands for entertainments and experiences that are tantalisingly close in tech-savvy Singapore.

Emergence of the creative economy paradigm is consistent with the development path laid out by the architect of Singapore’s transformation from port, to industrial park to knowledge economy.  Nearing the end of his life, Minister Mentor, former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew (MM), hopes that the 3.5m Singaporeans will soon have the living standards enjoyed by people in the world’s most developed nations which the UNDP ranks as Norway, Iceland, Australia, Ireland,  Sweden, Canada, Japan, the US, Switzerland and the Netherlands.  Singapore is ranked 25th. Taken at face value to mean all aspects of human development, this seems a rather curious goal for a nation where drug traffickers routinely climb the stairway to heaven, homosexuality is illegal, pornography banned and political dissent suppressed with zeal.  But, then again, creativity is to be directed at encouraging the Singaporeans to develop products rather than the capacity to publicly roam over deeper philosophical and political questions. Adoption of the creative economy as a leit motif of development also recognises that many Singaporeans have a surfeit of time and money that can be devoted to amusement these days and that armies of lowly-paid maids and labourers from the Philippines, South Asia and Indonesia can be relied on to do heavy and unpleasant work.

There is also the issue of competition for tourism and business travel from nouveau riche destinations like the Gulf States. Creativity provides an extra hook for visitors.  Any well-healed visitor to Singapore can marvel at the offerings available in the prime shopping malls which are brimming over with big ticket bling ranging from the ticking complications of Switzerland, the fine-tooled leather of prominent cobblers, the chi-chi dresses of haute couture, and the do-it-yourself gadgets so closely connected to the new media self-actualisation craze.  In many ways, this side of Singapore epitomises the miracle of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. (Lowry 1973) For some Singaporeans life has become a voyage of self-actualisation through conspicuous consumption.  Why else would you buy the carbon-fibre art embodied in a Lamborghini in a city with a speed limit of 90 kilometres per hour?

Conspicuous consumption is only one aspect of the possibilities of self-actualisation presented in psychology by Maslow or discussed by Bourdieu in critical cultural studies. The other aspect is the kind of entertainment services that the individual uses to mark themselves out from the drudge or working stiff. And this is the more philosophically interesting area for considering interest in fostering the creative economy in Singapore.

Loosening the Collar

For decades visitors to Singapore have been struck by its sterility beyond a handful of family friendly attractions and the halls of bling. This sterility, a result of the longstanding iron-determination to turn Singapore into a compliant and clean city, has been acknowledged by the Ministry for Information, Culture and the Arts which argued that a “vibrant arts and culture scene is vital to enhance the attractiveness of Singapore to global talent and businesses”. ( Since the year 2000 there has been a concerted effort to loosen collars and make Singapore a more vibrant and entertaining place for the foreigners who provide the intellectual labour for the service and knowledge jobs that are central to the island’s economic long march. The Government has spent more than $1 billion since 1989 on refurbishing cultural institutions, staging festivals, tours and events including a biennale to spice up the night life. Certainly any visitor to Singapore in March 2007 can have a world-class night out with a plethora of choices ranging from a stomp and boogie at clubs like Zouk, a little taste of Afrobeat from Femi Kuti and a squiz at some nudes at the National Arts Museum to get the juices flowing.  But it’s here that this rosy picture begins to unravel because Singapore has one of the most restrictive media and communication cultures in the world and certainly way beyond what would be tolerated in any of the countries that MM aspires to join. Could the Dutch be persuaded to hang dealers? Could the Canadians ban gay marriage? Would an American accept curbs to free speech? Or perhaps the Swedes might abandon the hot and heavy from their audiovisual entertainment? Not likely MM!  Ironically, it’s MICA that is both raconteur for the creative economy – which in most places is built on a premise of free-speech and expression – and the censor of smut, vice and lewd content.  This is particularly tricky for the pundits of a creative economy and makes the title of the Government policy paper Renaissance City 2.0 quite ludicrous. While MM has made much over the years of the difference between Eastern values and the lascivious, decadent and free-spirited approaches evident in the west, contemplating a renaissance based around individualism and critical thought and action seems incompatible with Confucian ethics which include a “preoccupation with social stability and integration”. (Oliver 2003)

The Renaissance was a particularly bright period of creativity in Western Europe that saw the infallibility of the church and orthodox power undermined by a fresh examination of science and the human condition.  It ultimately led to some messy regime change, blasphemy and sticky ends for people on both the radical and traditional sides of the debates. A similar fate awaits people who choose to challenge the political status quo in Singapore with the leader of the opposition arrested “for speaking publicly without a permit…violating the city-state’s laws restricting public speech and assembly”. (Anonymous, (2006) Singapore: Release Opposition Party Leader, While Singapore is plagued with coffee shops, Starbucks, Coffee Connoisseur, Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf… they don’t exactly echo with the kind of rough and ready debates that raged between the toffs of the Enlightenment over such hot topics as the electoral franchise, the place of woman and the merits of having an ape or Adam as a grand daddy.  No, in Singapore the coffee shop is not the site of the renaissance promoted by Jurgen Habermas’ vision of the new public sphere or even John Hartley’s proposition on the mediasphere despite the likelihood that the sippers are also tapping away on notebooks connected to public wireless networks.  As Cherian George has noted, despite the mad-keen adoption of new media in Singapore, its citizens steer well clear of political discussions or alternative organisation via the web unlike their Malaysian neighbours who have taken to blogs and agitation in a style that is consistent with theories on technology and political participation. (2005: 903-920)

In fact, if you joined more than two tables together and discussed more than the steamy weather or the merits of the various shopping complexes you might breach the rules that prohibit more than four people discussing political matters without a permit.  Just being a foreigner in Singapore seems to bring out the desire to provide gratuitous advice to stay clear of politics – as one elderly man suggested was best as we shared a bench to eat some fine fish congee.  The price of fish seemed a safe alternative.

The Three Ts in Creativity

Richard Florida, the most prolific pundit of the creative economy has argued that the full potential of a creative economy seems to require the acceptance of the ‘3Ts’ of ‘technology, talent and tolerance’. (2005: 6) Singapore, despite strides away from its authoritarian genesis is still, it must be argued, a distinctly two-T kind of place with tolerance as decidedly marginal prospect. A quick tour of these factors highlights the point.

Information and Communication Technology (ICT) is big business in Singapore.  With effective enforcement of a tough intellectual property regime, the island is home to manufacturing and R&D plants operated by Microsoft, chipmaker AMD, Google and its local champion Creative and many, many others. The government is also keen to surf the investment wave of new media with the sector expected to contribute S$10 billion to the economy and create 10,000 new jobs by 2015. (Anonymous, (2007) As a city-state geographically smaller than greater Sydney, London or New York, with few natural boons beyond being smack in the middle of the world’s sea trade routes, human resources – in the most outrageously inhumane sense - provides the only reliable commodity. With nearly 3 billion unskilled and semi-skilled people residing within the radius of a four hour flight, the Singaporean government has recognised that advanced skills and technical education provides the strongest means to attract foreign investment and potentially better paying jobs than are available to most workers in the region.  Education and the development of talent, consistent with the model of the knowledge economy, have generated a sizable pool of talented and technically adept workers in the design, fashion, digital media, creative and ancillary sectors.  More than 11 tertiary and higher education providers offer training and diplomas in these fields and the Singaporean government has attracted the NYU Tische Film School and a design house from Milan to open academic programs from 2007. Obviously the culture of censorship doesn’t trouble these educational providers.

Digital and creative arts are being increasingly linked to products and services delivered through the blisteringly fast broadband providers and free wireless connections available to geeks all around the island – but there’s limits to free expression in fact and fibre. In fact, there seems to be more an obsession with the risks inherent in the widespread adoption of ICT than to any extrinsic social or cultural goals.  In a special report in The Straits Times the new media was presented as creating an “avalanche of possibilities – new processes, new markets, new gadgets, new technologies and alas, also new crimes”. (Yong p 22)

The risks of this unfettered space through Singaporean eyes can be illustrated through a trio of examples.  In 2005, a 19 year old woman exposed a little bit of titty in her blog and faced excoriation, two men were jailed for criticising Malay culture and Islam, and the daughter of a government MP attending a polytechnic favoured by the ruling elite let the cat out of the bag in an attack on a fellow blogger’s concern about foreigners taking jobs from older Singaporeans by writing  “get out of my elite uncaring face”. (Kwek, Ken (2006)

Free speech advocates might defend these episodes of candour but they cut into the tightly engraved sensibilities of Singaporean public expression. The Media Development Authority (MDA) which has responsibility for suppression of content deemed offensive or blue helpfully outlines why smut is taboo, “censorship alone is not sufficient. Whether we are able to maintain the moral tone of our society depends largely on the industry, artists and the community and on what society as a whole considers to be acceptable standards for media content…” ( Even leading media organisations have been caught by the censorship dragnet with the pay-TV provider Starhub Cable Vision fined $10 000 for screening episodes of the reality TV show Cheater which featured an obscured lesbian sex scene and some bondage “deemed to be sexually suggestive and offensive to good taste and decency”. This program really would’ve rung alarm bells for the censors not least because homosexuality remains illegal in Singapore and miscreants can face imprisonment for 25 years. Perhaps this might give someone the chance to prepare an equatorial ode similar to Oscar Wilde’s tales from Reading Gaol? It’s also no surprise then that the profane language used by the uber-creative men behind the show American Chopper goes missing and even tattoos disappear beyond modesty blobs that appear on screen.

This prudish approach to late-night entertainment seems to reflect community attitudes. While MDA can point to a 2003 survey which shows that 70 per cent of Singaporeans are happy with the scope of censorship, the level of regulation has been raised in parliament where it was argued that laws should not be set to satisfy the most conservative person in the city for fear of inhibiting creativity.  As an MP said, “even though top-class cities like London and Paris had undesirable traits, they were more often associated with their vibrancy”. (The Straits Times, 2 March, p.H4)

The lass with the intentional wardrobe malfunction was particularly lucky that MDA took a liberal view of her free ranging nipples as performing a strip tease in front of a live webcam appears to be considered indecent exposure and an offence under the Miscellaneous Offences (Public Order and Nuisance Act) that can attract a fine of $2000 or three months in the slammer. A fellow might face 12 months for insulting modesty under the penal code for performing a stunt that involves wiggling or jiggling.  In an age when self-shot celebrity porno romps seem are common coin on the net, it seems the electronic gadget salesman of Orchid Road have to tread carefully when they promote the potential of digital cameras for home recording.  The general satisfaction with the level of censorship and control which prohibits all but the tamest of erotic and sexually related material might have a lot to do with four decades of harsh discipline.  Oliver James, in his recent book Affluenza points to the consequences of harsh discipline:

I have little doubt that the vast majority of Singaporean adults today had frequent corporal punishment, and it is this experience that underpins the lack of creativity…and obedience to authority that enables the system to run without opposition… (2007: 162)

James argues that the long-standing practice of flogging children for showing wit, disagreement and general wilfulness has ensured the government could deploy a large pool of compliant, if unimaginative, workers.  This might also explain the response of workers in one vox populi presented in The Straits Times during the first biennale in 2006, where a woman sourly noted that she was too busy making money for such things.

The Eye of the Beholder

The introduction in the Singapore Biennale in 2006 signals a very solid commitment to arts and creativity. Staged over a couple of months, the Biennale featured more than 95 artists drawn from 38 countries and attracted thousands of locals and tourists to see and participate in a varied program of exhibitions, happenings and experiences that ranged from relatively orthodox to weirdly original. ( The event which raised the ire of the sourpuss mentioned earlier involved an artist who sprayed sex pheromones around an old building and encouraged participants to follow their noses and get busy if the mood struck them. Who could be too busy making money for that kind of action?
But there’s a rub in all of this.  As a centre in global finance, manufacturing and transport networks, Singapore is a regular destination for business travellers and the convention industry not to mention people breaking intercontinental journeys.  According to research conducted by the Singapore Tourism Board, these types of travellers generally like to do more than glance through brochures and spreadsheets, tour factories or indulge in shopping.  So sniffing a business opportunity, an entertainment company bought the franchise for the feather and frippery burlesque provided by Crazy Horse in Paris and Nevada. But tight advertising restrictions were placed on the business preventing it from doing more than placing discreet black and white ads in some dreary business papers and it closed in early 2007 due to poor turnout.  It’s not that sex is out of bounds in Singapore. A jaded traveller could find commercial relief at dozens of venues around the island and low-cost airlines run full to Bangkok, it’s just that there are real limits on what is acceptable for local eyes to see.  For instance, there was a debate about whether painted nudes were pornographic or artistic in The Straits Times with a variety of experts providing opinions on iconic paintings and sculptures and noting that “nude art is a relatively neglected genre in Singapore’s art history”. (The Straits Times, 4 March, p.L8) The general consensus was that it’s all in the mind of the beholder and perhaps the infestations of leather handbags, watches and shoes might cause just as much friction in the hands of one of these new filmmakers?

Wrapping it up 

Adoption of the Creative Economy paradigm in Singapore is a clear attempt to add some vibrancy to a culture shaped by 40 years of single-minded leadership. But after 40 years where talent and technology have been the centre of development, the question remains whether this is a true dawn for creativity in the sense of the renaissance or a canard to encourage cobblers, tailors and filmmakers to set up in the business friendly environment of Singapore while the well-healed continue to find their pleasures in New York, Paris, London and Milan?  There’s also the question of how deeply the commitment to creativity will resonate with the workers of the island who have been conditioned to hard work and little time for culture over two generations?  The measure of these things will come in the patronage of Singapore’s cultural institutions and biennale along with a general clamour to for art and design to be part of everyday life in the dormitory suburbs across the island.  Once Singaporeans truly confront the challenges of the national hang-ups on creativity, Leonardo Lee or Warhol Wong might emerge from the shadows and stamp Singapore on the world’s creative consciousness.


Bourdieu, Pierre (1984) Distinction: A social critique of the Judgement of Taste, London: Routledge

Caves, Richard (2000) Creative Industries, Cambridge Massachusetts: Harvard University Press

Florida, Richard, (2005) Cities and the Creative Class, New York: Routledge

George, Cherian (2005) The internet's political impact and the penetration/participation paradox in Malaysia and Singapore, Media, Culture & Society, 11 2005; vol. 27: pp. 903 - 920.

James, Oliver (2007) Affluneza, London: Vermillion

Lowry, Richard J. (ed) (1973) Dominance, self-esteem, self-actualization: germinal papers of A. H. Maslow. Monterey, California: Brooks/Cole Publishing Company

Mattelart, Armand. (2003). The Information Society: An Introduction, London: Sage Publications

Oliver, Paul (2003) World Faiths, Abingdon, Oxford: Bookpoint

Yong, Jeremy Au (2007) New Media, New Criminals, The Straits Times, p.S22

Dr Stephen McElhinney is a researcher based in Singapore.  He's interested in considering how the creative economy, cultural events and networks can transform social systems in South East Asia.