Singapore, known for its robust education system, meticulous city planning and draconian laws, is more often associated with efficiency than creativity.

Derided by some as a “cultural desert” for its past lack of emphasis on the arts, the city-state of 5.6 million people has doubled down on national cultural policies over the last two decades in a push to become a center for Southeast Asian art.

The wealthy island nation, a hub for financial and wealth management services, has made massive investments in cultural infrastructure in recent years: showcase museums, a world-class national gallery and performance centers dedicated to the arts.

But despite the state-led push, with generous backing from government agencies like the National Arts Council (NAC), Economic Development Board and the Singapore Tourism Board, it’s still not clear an organically vibrant arts scene has taken root.

Top-down ambitions to nurture creativity and innovation date back to the roll-out of the government ‘Renaissance City Plan’ in 2000. The initiative envisioned the arts as “cultural ballast” to nation-building and strengthening Singaporeans’ sense of national identity. Moreover, the plan identified the importance of creative, artistic endeavors in a future-oriented economy.

The city-state has made notable strides toward building an ecosystem for arts development. That’s come through the establishment of teaching institutions and incubating local artists, the primary recipients of scholarships, grants, awards and subsidies awarded by state-bodies.

Up to 85% of Singapore’s arts scene is funded by the state, according to 2016 data.

Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong (L) shakes hands with artist Chua Mia Tee during the opening of the newly restored National Gallery, formerly the City Hall and High Court building, in Singapore on November 23, 2015. The gallery oversees the worldís leading public collection of modern art from Singapore and Southeast Asia comprising over 8,000 works from the 19th and 20th centuries in all media, including painting, sculpture, printmaking, photography and video. AFP PHOTO / MOHD FYROL / AFP PHOTO / MOHD FYROL
Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong (L) shakes hands with artist Chua Mia Tee at the opening of the restored National Gallery on November 23, 2015. Photo: AFP/Mohd Fyrol

That had given rise to a wide range of state-promoted cultural programs and events in recent years. Now, however, several commercial galleries, contemporary showcases and art fairs have ended or scaled back their operations and events amid falling foot-traffic and lower-than-expected sales.

While arguably more organic art scenes in Manila, Jakarta, Bangkok and Hong Kong enjoy contemporary art booms with works fetching ever-rising prices and a mushrooming of new galleries and private museums, Singapore’s scene is comparatively in the doldrums.

As the city-state bids to build a reputation as a premier cultural destination, local artists and promoters still find themselves contending with Singapore’s political conservativism and entrenched censorship.

Art Stage Singapore, the anchor event of Singapore Art Week, the city’s biggest festival dedicated to visual arts, is one of the most important events on the local arts calendar.

Founded by Swiss national Lorenzo Rudolf, a curator and organizer widely credited with initiating a global expansion of the Art Basel international art fair, the eighth iteration of the showcase pairing influential international galleries and collectors held from January 26-28 saw a 40% drop in exhibitors.

Rudolf offered a sobering assessment of Singapore’s art scene. “Strong economic growth has led to many new galleries and private museums opening in the Philippines, Indonesia and Thailand. Everywhere, everywhere, the art scene booms. The only place we have stagnation is Singapore,” he said, speaking at Art Stage’s recent lackluster opening.

Singapore, Singapore - October 24, 2016: The Float @ Marina Bay open teather at the Marina Bay in the Downtown area of Singapore.
Singapore’s ‘The Float @ Marina Bay’ open theater in between shows, October 24, 2016. Photo: iStock/Getty Images

Eighty-four exhibitors participated in last month’s Art Stage, compared with 131 galleries last year and 170 in 2016, the Straits Times reported. Compare that to Art Basel Hong Kong, where 248 exhibitors are slated to appear in the March 2018 fair. High-profile international modern art galleries have established a robust presence in Hong Kong in recent years, due largely to its proximity to the lucrative Chinese art market.

Singapore, according to Rudolf, lacks domestic “art production” and does not face competition from other art fairs but rather, “competition from the art scenes in other cities.” He has long maintained that Singapore’s artists and institutions lack the international recognition to compete with bigger art markets.

The Swiss fair organizer has claimed Singapore’s arts landscape would be better served by attracting non-Singaporean artists and positioning the city-state’s art scene as promoting Southeast Asia as a whole. Art Stage’s weakest showing yet forced Rudolf to dismiss rumors of the fair being discontinued amid closures and downsizing elsewhere.

The Singapore Contemporary Art Show launched in 2016 with a focus on the mid-tier art market, with works ranging from S$10,000 to S$100,000 and above. It was discontinued this year. The Affordable Art Fair, a multi-city fair aimed at first-time art buyers, was also scaled back by organizers last year due to lackluster participation from exhibitors and poor sales.

The Singapore Pinacotheque de Paris, a privately-owned museum modeled after the Pinacotheque de Paris museum in the French capital, showcased masterpieces by Picasso, Monet, Rembrandt and others. It surprised many by closing just over a year after its 2015 launch, citing weaker than expected visitor numbers.

The gallery cluster at Gillman Barracks, a former colonial British military compound turned art district outside Singapore’s city center, is regarded as a key focal point of Singapore’s contemporary art scene. Even there, nearly one-third of the 17 galleries chose not to renew their leases last year, citing poor sales and attendance.

Some have questioned whether lower-than-expected turnout at art fairs could be attributed to a glut of similar events being held around the same time, though audience attitudes and expectations of the arts remain an important factor. Just four in 10 Singaporeans expressed an interest in arts and cultural events, according to a 2016 NAC survey.

Singapore, Singapore - April 09, 2016 : The National Gallery is the former courthouse of the Supreme Court of Singapore. The building was the last structure in the style of classical architecture to be built in the former British colony. Crowd of people visiting and taking photo of the building.
Singapore’s colonial era National Gallery was once a courthouse of the Supreme Court. Picture: iStock/Getty Images

“The statistics underline the fact that the appreciation of the arts is in its nascent state in Singapore,” wrote Paul Tan, poet and deputy chief executive of NAC. Eight in 10 respondents, however, acknowledged the benefits and value of engaging in arts and culture.

Critics sometimes attribute public disinterest in the arts with the perceived rigidity of Singapore’s education system.

Renowned for producing pupils who outperform their international peers in standardized math and science tests, a cultural bias that favors technical career-oriented productivity has arguably stifled creativity by reducing emphasis on the arts and humanities.

In an incipient arts sector with few funding alternatives other than government bodies, many question whether unorthodox forms of creativity and more diverse perspectives can flourish, particularly in a climate where censorship on a range of political, social and religious topics is stringent and often ambiguous.

Museums and art fairs in Singapore are required to submit detailed descriptions of exhibitions to the Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA), a regulatory body responsible for issuing licenses and audience restrictions for theater performances, media and exhibitions prior to public release.

The regulator has issued rating denials on the grounds that some works feature “excessive nudity” and evoked national security concerns to justify banning a 2013 documentary on Singapore’s leftwing political exiles.

Students perform at the Singapore's 50th National day anniversary celebration at the Padang in Singapore on August 9, 2015.. Independent Singapore turned 50 August 9 with fireworks, a massive military parade and a tribute to late founding leader Lee Kuan Yew, who helped transform it from colonial backwater to regional powerhouse. AFP PHOTO / ROSLAN RAHMAN / AFP PHOTO / ROSLAN RAHMAN
Students perform at the Singapore’s 50th National day anniversary celebration on August 9, 2015. Photo: AFP/Roslan Rahman

Event organizers and curators widely regard the process of obtaining licenses as an administrative headache and are sometimes granted or denied permissions at extremely short notice prior to planned screenings and openings.

The state’s NAC – the body responsible for issuing artist grants – has in recent cases withdrawn funding for author Jeremy Tiang and artist-illustrator Sonny Liew for crossing politically sensitive red-lines.

While many may argue that the government’s arts funding has better enabled obscure artists to realize their pursuits, grant money comes with heavy strings attached.

“If artists are not happy with the conditions set by whichever organization is offering funding, the only real option is to decline that funding,” wrote poet Toh Hsien Min in an online editorial for Quarterly Literary Review Singapore.

Some artists – albeit in small numbers – are starting to break away from their dependence on the state for funding.

Singapore-Coda Culture-Arts-January 2018
Coda Culture presents art without state strings attached. Photo: Coda Culture Facebook page/Screengrab

Seelan Palay, a Singaporean artist and founder of Coda Culture, a commercial gallery launched last month, describes his newly-opened platform as “an artist-run space, by artists for artists that will remain independent without any state funding and thereby, hopefully, no state intervention.”

Palay believes the state’s arts funding has bred a climate of self-censorship that stifles the local scene’s vibrancy, forcing artists to adapt their works to be more palatable to the government grant application process and depressing the art market’s potential in the process.

“There is a climate of fear here, and one that not only applies to the arts but society-at-large. Such conditions do not lend well to foster free expression, creativity and exchange of ideas – aspects that I believe are necessary for any market, not just the arts, to grow,” he said in an email response to Asia Times.

“There should be a free market of ideas alongside a free market economy.”