On the Inside and Outside: Theatre from the Viewpoint of an Arts Manager and Audience Member

Article published in conjunction with Esplanade’s Studio 50 (May 2015)


Around 1986, when I was at the Ministry of Community Development, I initiated an arts database (early version of KPIs), to gather information on audienceship levels and arts development. One of my colleagues thought it futile, “There are so few Singapore plays that you can count them on one finger, so why bother?” My answer was that “If you don’t start now, there will come a time when there will be so many you can’t count them.” My colleague’s comment betrays just how few original works there were at that time. Today of course, there are the 50 in the Esplanade’s Studios: fifty and lots, lots more.

Then, when we started audience surveys at the various festivals and asked the audience what they would like to see at future festivals; they reeled off a long list of European classics, but a tiny voice would plead that we should “do more to promote local drama.”

What a sea change there has been since 30 years ago! Today, it is the reverse. It is a handful of companies that still stage the classics, riding on examination texts to fill their houses but all other companies are staging and, re-staging original Singapore plays. The norm now is to commission and produce original Singapore works.

My earliest memory of theatrical activity was when I was a schoolgirl in Marymount Convent. Two of our teachers were active in the theatre scene – with Experimental Theatre Club (Mrs Ranu Dally) and Scene Shifters (the late Mrs Elma Thwaites) and the school had a tradition of staging plays, operettas and concerts. When I studied at the University of Singapore, there were plays staged by the University of Singapore Society – Waiting for Godot, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Kismet, Lady Precious Stream and Robert Yeo’s One Year Back Home. So, that was my world as a young adult, enriched but sadly, oblivious to early Singapore plays from Lim Chor Pee or Goh Poh Seng and totally ignorant of the non-English theatre world until I joined the People’s Association in 1978 and ran its Cultural Troupe, which included a Chinese Drama Group.

I first became aware of the idea that one could influence the course of local theatre development when I joined the Ministry of Culture in 1981. My dedicated colleague, the late poet Sng Boh Khim, and his team were already organising the Drama Festival, Poetry and Playwriting Competitions, and publishing the quarterly Singa magazine. He had also started the “Words-into-Print” Scheme. As Secretary to the Singapore Cultural Foundation (a $4 million endowment fund founded by the late Mr Ong Teng Cheong in 1978, under the Ministry of Culture that disbursed grants to artists), I was able to devise schemes to complement his efforts. We started an arts scholarship scheme which gave, amongst others, Chandra Lingam a grant to study Directing at the National Institute of Dramatic Art in Sydney, and Ivan Heng a grant to perform M. Butterfly in India. We also worked with organisations such as the British Council which enabled Ivan Heng and Nora Samosir to train overseas.

Sng was a passionate advocate of Singapore writing and the Drama Festival was a platform for local plays. So was Max Le Blond who directed Nurse Angamuthu’s Romance and a very iconic version of Stella Kon’s Emily of Emerald Hill which went on to the Commonwealth and Edinburgh festivals. Max (together with Robert Yeo) also created adapted The Threepenny Opera into Samseng and the Chettiar’s Daughter starring father-and-daughter pairing Alex Abisheganaden and Jacintha Abisheganaden for the 1982 Singapore Arts Festival. That was the year the festival was elevated to international stature.

SRSITS (1986)
As regards the specific difference I made, I think a couple of artist assistance schemes I devised in 1986 may have made a difference. We hatched the Semi-Residential Status-in-Theatre Scheme (SRSITS) in 1986 and launched it in 1987. I knew that in England, for example, companies had dedicated homes in theatres – the London Symphony Orchestra in the Barbican, National Theatre, amongst others. My proposal was that since we had only four theatres and so many groups, we would invite two or three companies to share a theatre. The first groups to benefit from this scheme were: Act 3, Practice Performing Arts School and TheatreWorks at the Drama Centre; and Chinese Theatre Circle, Sriwana and STARS at Victoria Theatre.

Each group was given four seasons a year (one season a quarter) in their assigned theatre. With each “season” comprising five days – three performing days with a day before and after to bump in and out – a group enjoyed 20 rent-free days a year inclusive of administrative support from theatre staff. The group was required to produce four productions a year, of which at least two must be original works, new to its repertory. I was quite elated when Theatreworks’ Army Daze ran 18 days under this scheme. It was our first “long run”!

The groups were also encouraged to book their seasons 18 to 24 months ahead. What you may think, was the big deal with “priority booking”? Priority booking was an important “privilege” because the Ministry itself was the primary show producer and it blocked theatre dates months and years ahead, with the consequence that groups could not always get the dates they wanted. Now they could!

A prominent local playwright wrote somewhere that he thought the SRSITS scheme was “manipulative”. I don’t like that word but to varying extents, whether we like it or not, the schemes we arts managers invent, are “interventionist” in nature, to provoke changes, and hopefully, improvements. Whether it is the major performing arts grants, Cultural Medallion, festivals, publishing schemes, all these schemes come with conditions and are transactional in nature, a barter between arts managers and art companies. Under the SRSITS scheme, the Ministry exchanged 20 rent-free days a year for four seasons of which two must be original works. In my humble opinion, I think the scheme served as a catalyst for local playwriting as the groups had to conform to this rule to stay in the scheme.

The scheme was disbanded in the 1990s in favour of “theatre rental” grants which in my view threw the groups back to where we started. The groups were given grants only to pay the money back in theatre rentals. I found this to and fro of money counter-productive as it created administrative work for groups that were already short of staff. I preferred the cost-avoidance and work-avoidance approach, thinking it more fruitful to simplify the work process, so the groups have more time for creative work.

The other scheme that I thought mattered was the Arts Housing Scheme. We made a survey and found many of the groups to be nomadic. They rehearsed in schools, at home, renting space in Drama Centre and wherever else they could find it. Whereas SRSITS gave them performing space, the Art Housing Scheme gave them a work base, with offices, rehearsal and storage space so they could rehearse round the year when they needed to.

In mid-1980s, we went to the Ministry of Finance for money to do up the Far East Command College building in Fort Canning as an arts centre. Our request was rejected. I remember being asked, “Why do the artists need this when they’ve got the theatres?” My answer was, “nine to 12 months of work goes on before a show and they’re working at home!” Exasperating!

Then it struck me that, every quarter, the Land Office would circulate a list of disused school buildings as then, schools were moving into the heartlands. The main bidders for these buildings were the charities. I thought to myself that “the arts groups are also poor” so, I invited a colleague from the Land Office for a chat and told him about “Cultural Vision 1999”. Buildings started falling into our laps after that but they cautioned that they might take them back after three years for road widening, or other purposes. I said we would take them anyway – Telok Ayer Performing Art Centre (closed 2014), Stamford Arts Centre, 126 Cairnhill, Telok Kurau, Lorong J (for LaSalle), old Hong Lim CC, the Substation, the whole lot! I told the arts groups not to worry about appearances and that since the buildings were sturdy, there was light, water was running, to just move in and so they did and made the best of it. A year later, some groups told me their output had tripled.

These two schemes, I felt, were my most important contributions. I remember that Kuo Pao Kun saw us in early 1980s when his premises in Sommerville Road were leaking and we could not help him. From this, I realised the importance of infrastructure and I asked to give up my music and visual arts programme, to focus on behind-the-scenes developmental work.

Perhaps, a third contribution was convincing the groups to convert their statuses from societies to companies. When we asked for long-term plans, some joked that they might not be in office after the next AGM. Frequent changes of office-holders is not conducive to long-term planning so we nudged them into incorporation as companies limited by guarantee, with a more stable leadership. Company status together with art housing and theatre residency became the defining characteristics of the more sustainable of the groups. In all these ways, I hope I helped to bubble up the local playwriting scene.

As for other important developments, I think credit must be given to Max Le Blond who lobbied for a Theatre Studies course at the National University of Singapore in the 1980s. He was ahead of his time and it fell to Dr K.K. Seet to bring the course to fruition, later in 1992. At the junior college level, Victoria Junior College started its Theatre Studies & Drama course in 1989 with Ray Buono and some of its graduates went on to the NUS Course. Together, these courses produced generations of theatre luminaries – playwrights, directors, dramaturgs, critics, actors.

Another important development are the playwriting labs organised by Action Theatre (Theatre Spa) and TheatreWorks (24 hour playwriting competition) as they too uncovered and groomed generations of new playwrights.

I think we also mustn’t forget the Permanent Secretary to the Ministry of Culture, Cheng Tong Fatt, who started the Singapore Broadcasting Corporation’s Drama Unit in the early 1980s. This paved the way later to the English Drama Unit and created job opportunities for local actors, directors and playwrights.

What is the difference between watching theatre as an arts manager and as an audience? Not much difference, really! Well, I suppose that if one is not on the inside – not promoting the arts, a fund-raiser or grant-maker – one can choose not to go, one need not be subject to angst brought on by poor houses, one can walk out mid-way and one need not give a standing ovation out of courtesy or duty. But truth be told, not much difference, really, as it’s hard to shake off a mindset. I still look for production value – ingenuity of treatment, a new take, honesty, good houses, the same things. I’m particularly impressed by groups that do things creatively and economically. When money is scarce, that’s good because it makes one more resourceful. At day’s end, we all want to be entertained, enlightened, wiser.

Juliana started her career in the Singapore Government Administrative Service in 1973 serving in the ministries of Education, Communications and National Development. From 1978 when she joined the People’s Association and managed its cultural troupe and community arts programme, she elected to “settle down” into what turned out to be an 18-year arts management career, culminating in her appointment as Founder General Manager of the Singapore Art Centre Co Ltd (now called “The Esplanade Co Ltd”) from 1992 till 1997 – just after the ground-breaking ceremony for the icon. Juliana subsequently spent 16 years in Singapore Pools where she managed its Public Affairs, Community Funding and Corporate Social Responsibility programmes as Community Connections Director.
Celebrating the arrival of her first grand-daughter, Juliana retired happily from 40 years of corporate life in November 2013. Today, this “glam-gran” straddles Singapore, Cambridge, UK where her grand-daughters reside and cultural capitals like Paris, Munich and Vienna to which she travels for her regular opera fixes. In Singapore, Juliana is engaged in arts volunteerism as the current President of the Richard Wagner Association (Singapore), Board Member of OperaViva and of Very Special Arts and, Arts Connections Convener at the National University of Singapore Society where she spearheads its “Presidential Portraits Project”. Juliana also maintains four blogs including “Singapore Arts Manager 1980s/90s”.

Singapore Musical Society

ST article on pianist Fu Tsong.

ST article on pianist Fu Tsong.

This old Straits Times article on pianist Fu Tsong, reminds me that the National Music Competition of the 1980s was co-organised with the Singapore Musical Society. Indeed, it was the Society that started the tradition of annual music competitions.

Quoting from framed-up document found in a former President’s home, “The Singapore Musical Society, known in the early days as the Singapore Philharmonic Society, was founded in 1902. It was a non-profit making society organisation set up to develop and promote the love of music in our Community. In addition to providing sponsorship for local and visiting musicians, the Society also encourages young and promising talent in Singapore. The highlight of the yearly programme is the joint organisation and presentation with the Ministry of Culture of the National Music Competition open to all music students… ”

This is how I came to know the Society and its very enthusiastic office bearers. While the Society has closed down, I’m still in touch with SMS personalities like its former President Janet Tan and her still highly energetic Committee members – Mrs Anne Chia, Mrs Nancy Oh and Dr Tan It Koon. Mrs Lim Mee Lian and I spent many long hours organising the Competition, managing competitors including the luminaries who people the music scene now (Chan Tze law, Leslie Tan, etc), working with the adjudicators which include Dr. Ramon Santos from the Philippines, Ronald Woodcock from the RSM and others.

I hope these ladies and gentlemen from will write their story of SMS before it is forgotten.

Art Allies, 1980s

In the 1980s when money was very scarce in the Ministry of Culture and its departments, our museum and my ernest curator friends (Choy Weng Yang and Constance Sheares) depended considerably on the foreign diplomatic missions for our shows, both art exhibitions and productions. The Australian High Commission (Don Hook, Ted Knezz) British Council (Lena Teo, now St George Sweet), French Embassy, Goethe Institut (Moh Siew Lan) and USIS (Bill Weinhold) were our greatest allies in enriching our arts calendars. Thank you all!

We enjoyed significant art exhibitions in the National Museum Art Gallery, about 1000 sq meters of space located on the second level of the National Museum annex building on side of Fort Canning Rise. Often, these shows were on a tour of the region with Singapore as part of the diplomatic circuit.

I have a sense that the diplomatic missions here now have limited budgets for such collaborations. It’s probably a combination of their turning their attention to more needy countries and our focussing more on local artists.

I have always felt the role of the official arts agency through its policies and granting schemes, is to create a balanced palette of art for our enjoyment and edification. I am not sure where the balance between local, regional and international should be, that would give us access to the rich international art panorama while recognising the merits of our own artists. Ultimately, I suppose, it’s best if we can showcase our own artists alongside the best in the world, erasing the lines between them.

It is for the curators of today to strive as we hungry art lovers take what we can from wherever we can get it. I was delighted to catch the Paul Klee retrospective at the Tate Modern, London in Dec 2013 and bowled over by the variety and depth of the art at ArtJog in June 2014. I also saw the Matisse Cut-out exhibition at the Tate in August 2014 and a Jean Miro Retrospective at the Albertina in Sep 2014. I also saw Modligliani and George Braque works up-close in Paris and Munich.

Maybe, we need more kinds of museums focusing on different kinds of art. I can’t wait for National Gallery Singapore to open later this year!

Audiences of the ’80s

Between Aug ‘86 to Mar ‘87, the MCD Cultural Services Section conducted a full cycle of audience surveys, leveraging on the Drama Festival (Aug/Sep 86), Jazz Festival (Sep 86), Dance Festival (Dec 86) and the Festival of Choirs (Mar 87). Since manpower resources were scarce, it was all hands-on-deck and I remember standing in the lobby of the Drama Centre on Fort Canning, questionnaires and pencils in hand, persuading members of the audience to complete the forms while waiting for the show to start or for drinks and toilet during the interval.

This first cycle of audience surveys revealed that:

1. Females outnumbered males by a ratio of 1.4 to 1 for all festivals except for the Jazz Festival where there was equal attendance by males and females;

2. Choral music fans were between 10-49 years;

3. Dance and drama fans between 16-39 years of age;

4. Jazz fans were between 20- 49 years of age;

5. Not many people aged 50 and above went to shows;

6. Singles outnumbered married persons at a ratio of 2.5 to 1.  They went to shows with friends or colleagues;

7. There was considerable overlap in the audience ship for the various festivals. Dance fans saw 7-8 performances within a festival;

8. Word-of-mouth was the most common way of finding out about a show followed by information in the newspapers.

The audience of the ’80s  took an active interest in matters concerning art promotion and was very forthcoming with suggestions for future programmes and strategies for nurturing a more cultured society.

Artist Support

-Help local musicians. Give them status;

-Set up a National Arts College;

Audience ship Building

-Get audience to participate;

-Teach more music, dance and drama in schools;

-Make music lessons available to children in the neighbourhood;

-Focus more on TV to improve the cultural knowledge of the nation.

-Publish articles on goodness of arts, how arts improve one’s lifestyle and make one satisfied.

Art Facilities

-Build a good theatre with full stage facilities and more seating capacity;

-Build a cultural centre with an ethnic identity;

One more national theatre is really necessary;

-Get rid of bats / birds in Victoria Theatre backstage!


The cycle of audience surveys was part of a larger Cultural Affairs Division Research Programme mooted in 1985, to gather information to inform us of the state of the arts. A body of statistics with base-level data on the frequency of art activities (performances, exhibitions, and courses), audience profiles and the size of our talent base would provide clarity and help us improve our arts promotion effort.

Other research initiatives included a national survey conducted by consultants from NUS and the round-the-year collation of secondary data from linked agencies – the Customs and Excise Department for audienceship numbers (since they collected entertainment tax on tickets sold), the Public Entertainment Licensing Unit which issued licenses for events; and People’s Association for the number of un-ticketed events. We also gleaned information from the newspapers and magazine to get a panoramic view of the arts landscape. Thankfully, the public service was embarking on a service-wide computerization programme so we enjoyed enthusiastic support from the Ministry’s Computer Services Branch in digitizing all the information that we gathered.

With the passage of time, many of the suggestions made by the audience have come to fruition. The Esplanade has been built, there are several art colleges and most recently, bats and birds must have been expunged from the Victoria Theatre which has just re-opened.



Decluttering art-i-facts

I’m a sentimental person and a natural hoarder who has kept letters, postcards, dresses from primary school. It’s such a struggle to declutter but wanting to travel more frequently and free of encumbrances, cockroaches and silver fishes (which thankfully, have largely kept away due to my regular sprinkles of cloves and cinnamon sticks), I’ve decided to bite the bullet and pull teeth.

Voila! The first burst of art-i-facts I’ve released are these precious art publications from the 1980s, to the  National Gallery Singapore library collection.  I hope they’ll be of use to curators, art enthusiasts and collectors.  More on the way out as I grit my teeth hard to free myself of all this clutter…..

Tribute to Singapore Arts Personalities

October is Tributes month!

On the evening of the concert of Zubir Said music, 12 Oct 2012, the Esplanade Theatres launched a “Tributes” website and exhibition of arts personalities aged sixty and above or deceased.  I was included among the first 150 personalities to be credited.

 The launch party turned out to be a very warm gathering of old friends who had journeyed together through the ’80s /’90s.  I wondered however, if tribute paid to senior personages like former President Ong Teng Cheong and former Minister for Culture Inche Othman Wok would have been more appropriately accorded by either the arts ministry or the NAC representatives of both were noticeably absent.  Regretably too, the  venue was too small to accommodate younger artists and arts practitioners who were oblivious to the event. Thus, the inheritors of the art scene were not present to show their appreciation to their pioneers.  I suppose their taking their annual grants and arts housing as a given, and their not realizing that in the mid-80s,  there were only about 300 events a year while the number of original Singaporean works could be counted on only one hand,  shows just how far we’ve come. 

Anyway, it was nice to be recognised after so many years.  I’m glad too that many others who lobbied for the arts for longer than I did such as Arun Mahizhnan, Prof Bernard Tan, Robert Yeo, Goh Soo Khim were also given due recognition. Kudos to the Esplanade Theatres for making such a nice gesture!

Tribute to National Anthem Composer Zubir Said on the 25th Anniversary of his Demise

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October 2012 is Tributes month!

Three events were organized by various agencies to commemorate the 25th Anniversary of the death of Singapore’s National Anthem composer Zubir Said.  On 1 Oct, Prof Wang GungWu, Chairman, Institute of SE Asian Studies launched Datin Puan Dr Rohana’s book “Zubir Said: The Composer of Majulah Singapura” based on her father’s journals.  Then on 10 Oct, the National Museum staged a festival of Cathay Keris featuring the music of Zubir Said.  These events culminated in a concert on the music of Pak Zubir on 12 Oct 12.

I was really glad at the realisation of these Tribute events for Pak Zubir as I had followed Rohana on her journey in writing the book for over a year now.  We had lost touch since the launch of the book “Zubir Said: His Songs” in 1990 and she had traced me through this blog.  The Esplanade staff who hatched the idea of a concert had also found me through this blog and I had connected him to Rohana with a suggestion that the concert and book launch be timed together for impact.   As it turned out, the National Museum also decided to stage a  festival of Cathay Keris films,  with English translation.  What a thrill to meet veteran singers like Nona Aisiah and Julie Sudiro at the launch of the film festival!

“Zubir Said: The Composer of Majulah Singapura” was launched in Kuala Lumpur on Sunday, 21 Oct by the Malaysian Minister for Information, Commumications and Culture Dr Rais Yatim. The event was also graced by former Malaysian Prime Minister Inche Abdullah Badawi and Singapore’s High Commissioner to Malaysia Ong Keng Yong.  Apart from colourful speeches from both Dr Rais and Rohana, dignitaries cut a cake modeled on the book.  It was touching to watch Rohana present copies of her book to her father’s musical counterparts, divas of the Malay music world like Maria Menando and Julie Sudiro especially after we watched them in their heydays on the montage of film clips screened.  Rohana said that the launch of the book in Malaysia represented closure for her and her family.  It was a beautiful event that I felt privileged to witness with friends from the National Museum of Singapore.