The arts and culture are vital to a nation – they provide numerous direct benefits to the state, such as creating jobs, generating tax revenues, attracting investments, and stimulating local economies via consumer purchases and tourism. Aside from economic benefits, arts and culture help strengthen the personal identity of individuals and the national identity of a country. For this reason, it is essential for the arts and culture sector of any nation to receive adequate support and funding from the government.
To reap the economic and social benefits of a thriving arts and culture scene, a government needs to champion its people’s creative endeavours first. In South Korea, for instance, the government spends billions of dollars every year to support its arts and culture sector. As a result, South Korea’s K-Dramas and the K-Pop industry have now taken over the global stage and are allowing the rapid flow of tourists and investments into the country. In Singapore, arts and culture are also increasingly becoming a key component of the island nation’s overall success.
Read on to find out how the Singaporean government supports its arts and culture sector, amid the disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The digitalisation of art shows and festivals during the pandemic
When the pandemic arrived, governments worldwide found it necessary to impose lockdowns and restrict the movements of their population, Singapore included. As a consequence, people were forced to stay in their homes round the clock. For many industries, this means limited to no operations. However, as the health crisis continued to batter economies and communities month after month, governments endeavoured to provide their citizens with at least a slight sense of normalcy. This is when the digitalisation of everyday things – from shopping to conducting classes – became more common than ever.
Prior to the pandemic, there already was an uptick of art events in Singapore; and arts and culture festivals in Singapore were quite popular and anticipated every year. When the restrictions caused by the health crisis were put in place, artists and cultural producers resorted to the only means available to them, by putting on digital arts shows, festivals, and other events. The Singapore government notably promoted the digitalisation of these events in order to continue the flourishing of arts and culture despite the pandemic.
The Singapore Heritage Festival was among the first few arts and culture events on the island that came with a digital twist. Rather than hopping around the island, festival-goers whipped up their smartphones and computers to experience the event from the safety of their homes. This digital festival, which was first held in June 2020, featured culinary workshops and virtual tours.
In the same year, several Singapore museums also came together to support the local art community by developing a project called “Proposals for Novel Ways of Being.” This initiative involved showcasing exhibitions and programmes through both online and offline means. It was spearheaded by the Singapore Art Museum and the National Gallery Singapore and was considered an optimistic recovery effort from Singapore’s arts scene, which lost more than S$30 million along with other local creative industries during the initial year of the pandemic.
Other festivals soon followed suit as well – from a fully digital Singapore Writers Festival in 2020, to Singapore Art Week 2021 with its digital offerings, and the Singapore International Festival of the Arts 2021, which featured hybrid events including wholly online performances.
Government funding for arts and culture events
Singapore has always allocated a dedicated budget to its arts and culture. For example, in 2019, a year before the pandemic arrived, government funding for Singapore’s arts events was estimated to be around S$495.86 million. When the health crisis began, the government found it even more necessary to expand its financial assistance.
In 2020, the government put in place a $55 million Arts and Culture Resilience Package (ACRP) as a way to relieve the arts and culture sector, which had lost millions in box office revenues due to the closure of performing venues to facilitate social distancing. According to the then-Minister for Culture, Community, and Youth (MCCY) Grace Fu, in a speech she delivered in Parliament in April 2020, the MCCY received numerous calls for help from the arts and culture sector since the beginning of COVID-19, as individuals from the industry worried about their careers and livelihoods.
The government put the $55-million financial aid into supporting workers in the arts and culture sector, stabilising businesses, and establishing economic and social resilience. This financial aid included the Digital Presentation Grant for the Arts and a Digitalisation Fund to support practitioners who were making content online.
In 2021, $20 million was added to the ACRP, which brought the overall dedicated pandemic support for Singapore’s arts and culture sector to $75 million. The government also introduced a new grant specially to support self-employed persons in the industry, the Self Employed Persons Grant. This grant not only supported productions, but also programmes that promoted the capability development of freelancers and the strengthening of networks, such as Tunjuk Arah / இயக்குனர் and Directors x Discipline 2021.
This year, another $12 million is set to be provided to aid the recovery of the arts and cultural sector, as the existing $75 million ACRP is reported to have been fully utilised by the end of the last financial year. According to MCCY Minister Edwin Tong in his announcement during the debate on the ministry’s budget, the Singapore government is acting proactively to protect and sustain the innovative and flourishing arts and culture sector. He acknowledged that without the arts, “we will lose a sense of who we are as a nation, and what makes us special and sets us apart as a people”.
The road to recovery for Singapore’s arts and culture sector
More than two years since the COVID-19 pandemic started, many industries and sectors are still struggling to overcome the social and economic repercussions caused by the health crisis. Live arts performances resumed on 29 March 2022 with the relaxation of safe management measures, with up to 1,000 audience members allowed per venue, or 75 per cent of capacity. While there appears to be a resumption of the arts scene in Singapore, the reality is that COVID-19 is still present, and shows may still be affected by, for example, if an artist tests positive. Tourism too has not yet wholly recovered. For this reason, the government also continues to support the arts and culture sector, including introducing enhancements to its usual grants, to help retain talents, safeguard livelihoods, and sustain the sector for post-pandemic recovery.
In addition, it is important to acknowledge that besides government support, members of the industry too have banded together to support each other in times of need. From grassroots initiatives which are self-funded and private sector support such as the HALP Fund by Sing Lit Station, to social efforts such as financial support for freelancers provided by social enterprise Pasar Glamour, and mutual aid efforts, there have been multiple sources of aid that have helped keep the arts alive in Singapore. Moreover, it is also important to acknowledge that there have been practitioners who have left the industry in search of stability and sustainability, which shows that there has been a cost to the pandemic that is yet to be fully acknowledged. Then, there is also the question of retaining and building arts audiences once again.
The Singapore government’s support for and financial assistance to its arts and culture sector has definitely helped keep the arts industry alive during this time. But public funding for the arts has always been important. As the world continues to grapple with the disruptions caused by the global health crisis and even beyond that, it is imperative that the government continues to show support for the arts and culture, which is the thread that binds communities together, and find ways to better nurture its growth and spur on creative expression in the country. It is not only about financial support, or “war-time” efforts like we have seen in the past years, but perhaps more importantly, the intangible, moral, and psychological forms of support for the arts that will ultimately make the difference.