Taking a leaf from George Yeo’s book

A rising political star, a whisker or two short of his 40th birthday, was promoted to head a new ministry reconfiguring the place of culture in society.

On the one hand, it sounds like I am talking about the soon-to-be Acting Minister of the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth (MCCY) Lawrence Wong. But equally, I could be referring to the appointment of Mr George Yeo as head of the newly created Ministry of Information and the Arts (Mita) back in 1990.

The similarities end there. The appointment of former foreign minister Yeo to lead his first ministry, barely two years after entering politics, came as a new prime minister, Mr Goh Chok Tong, wanted to signal both continuity and change in his leadership of an increasingly cosmopolitan nation.

Change was signified by the inclusion of the sensitive, philosophical Mr Yeo, then 36, in the Cabinet, and the greater premium attached to culture – previously subsumed under community development in a different ministry.

Then PM Goh said that the Government wanted to “minimise” its heavy hand on culture. The Harvard-educated former brigadier- general seemed the perfect person for the job, having made thoughtful and wide-ranging comments on how culture could create awareness of history, a more humane society and a fun atmosphere (“We need more bubbles in the Singapore champagne”) well before his new ministry was announced.

In comparison, as one of three men fast-tracked into ministerial positions since entering politics in last year’s general election, Mr Wong is a bit of an unknown quantity where the arts, culture and heritage are concerned.

As commentators have noted, the 39-year-old former civil servant made his name handling complex health-care financing and energy market policies. Though one of his current portfolios as Senior Minister of State is in Information, Communications and the Arts, he had not made much of an impression on the arts community before last Tuesday’s announcement.

More importantly, the reintegration of culture with community development and youth affairs suggests a perceptible shift in priorities for a government dealing with the fallout from the income gap and over-influx of foreigners. Social cohesion appears to be the buzzword for Mr Wong’s new ministry.

Some in the arts and sports communities have criticised the dropping of the words “arts” and “sports” from MCCY, even as Mr Wong has sought to reassure them that the two remain important in their own right, and not just as a means to building national identity.

Never mind the name. What he and the new ministry should waste no time in doing is appreciating the diversity, passion and ideas behind the various sectors under their charge. It would be a mistake to overstate the synergies between the arts, community engagement and sports, because even as each can build bonds, they do so in very different ways.

For example, a mass line-dancing activity organised by the People’s Association and a contemporary dance performance at the Esplanade have totally different objectives. The former is about getting as many aunties and uncles as possible to get out there, shake their booty, make friends and in the process become more united as a community. The value of the latter lies in how it pushes the human body to the limits of skill, endurance and ingenuity and provokes a range of ideas and emotions that feeds back into the creativity of society as a whole.

A lot of the impact of art is intangible; one may come away from a good dance performance with a sense of pride and gratification that “I saw it in Singapore”, or simply in how far home-grown dance companies have come. But if one consistently expects that outcome, and imposes that outcome on artists, then art becomes distorted as nationalistic propaganda.

Here is where all culture ministers can take a leaf from the George Yeo book. He has been credited, in his eight years at the helm of the then Mita, with being able to speak the language of artists and intellectuals and to show them that he understood their aspirations.

He walked the liberal-conservative tightrope with reasonable success. Film ratings that allowed a greater range of movies than ever, a surge in the number of television channels and a vibrant, professional arts scene all came about during his term, even as his ministry also stepped in periodically as watchdog for public morals and the national interest.

With the prevalence of the Internet and social media, Mr Wong faces a far more vocal, fractured and fast-changing cultural landscape than his predecessors ever did. Today’s youth are simultaneously more discerning and more impressionable. As a political communicator, the economics-trained technocrat will have to show a softer side, rising to the intellectual demands of working with artists and cultural leaders, yet also able to reach out in an accessible and grounded way to the young.

In the cultural arena, one of his challenges is to ensure that even as more resources are invested in bringing the arts to the heartland, community arts do not pander only to the lowest common denominator. His ministry has to think of how to bridge the gap between mass and high-brow without penalising artists who emphasise artistic excellence, so that the result is a complete cultural ecosystem with something for everyone.

Another challenge is to stay in sync with developments in the film, media and library sectors – arguably part of culture as well – even as these come under a separate ministry, Communications and Information.

Interestingly, the burst of arts and cultural activity that Mr Yeo started at Mita – with funds and scholarships for artists, and the building of proper performance spaces and museums – is bearing fruit now, more than ever. The latest statistics show the number of arts companies and museums has nearly doubled in the last decade. One in two Singaporeans attended an arts event last year, compared to one in four a decade ago.

One hopes that the new ministry does not turn back the clock on an increasingly dynamic and diverse cultural scene.

By Clarissa Oon Senior Writer, clare@sph.com.sg
Published on Aug 05, 2012, StraitsTimes

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