Singapore Music 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 Music Society. Indeed, it was the Society that started the tradition of annual music competitions.

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.

Abandoned Paintings

Today’s article on “How the Tan Jiak Kim Fountain came Home”  (Sunday Times, 2 Sep 12) reminds me of a happy incident in the early 1980s when I was in the Ministry of Culture.

One day, I received a “cold” call from a property development company (Kuok Properties, if I recall correctly) alerting me that they were on the brink of demolishing an old house near Hotel Morningside on River Valley Road and that there were paintings left on the wall that the owners had left behind and didn’t seem to want.

Together with Mrs Eng Seok Chee, former Curator (Ethnology), National Museum and conservator Mrs Ng Chong Quek, I zipped down to the house and found on the walls a painting of Tan Jiak Kim (the one of him standing with a fan) and another of a seated bald man whom I understood to be Tan Kim Seng. As the Museum had a tiny acquisition budget, we were glad for the find.  We confirmed our interest in the paintings and they were later conserved and hung in the Museum rotunda for many years until the Museum’s most recent renovation.

When we went public with our find, up popped a sprightly old Mr Low Kway Song who told us that it was his brother, the late Mr Low Kway Soo who painted the two portraits. A joyful old man, Mr Low danced and smiled alot during the tea session we organised at the National Museum Art Gallery meeting room and told us about the Merrilads and other Peranakan minstrels.  

That encounter taught me that there are segments of Singapore art history that we have not made properly documented and celebrated.  There were painters of the British schools before 1935, the  date we habitually cite as the commencement date of our art history, to coincide with the establishment of the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts

Up until today, Peranakan artists including the Low brothers appear not to have found their rightful place in the history of Singapore art, alongside our Nanyang artists –  Chen Wen Hsi, Cheong Soo Pieng, Liu Kang, Georgette Chen and Chen Chong Swee.  Thankfully, the Lows are mentioned in the website of the Peranakan Association.