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Publics, Intellectuals, and Singapore

Yang Awam, Pemikir dan Singapura

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The Substation, founded in 1990

The Substation, founded in 1990, Singapore’s oldest independent contemporary arts center. Photo courtesy the Substation

The problem is not that there are too few intellectuals in Singapore, but rather that the country suffers from a prevailing climate of anti-intellectualism which, like the humid tropical weather, seems inexorable.

Beng-Huat Chua, an esteemed sociologist, once told me about the two-jumbo-jet theory of Singapore. This was several years ago, and he was half-joking or perhaps entirely joking (I’m not even sure he remembers the exchange). His provocation was that the size of the country’s ruling elite is around 400 persons—roughly the passenger load of a Boeing 747. That’s not such a hard-to-believe figure, since we’re talking about a small nation of slightly over 5 million residents, of whom only about 3 million are citizens. One could readily compile a list of the 400 most powerful people in the land. The more debatable estimation, the one I contested, concerned the occupants of the other 747; Beng-Huat had suggested that in this island city-state, there are only about 400 intellectuals.

Should we multiply that figure by ten? A hundred? More? If we were to include all of Singapore’s cultural workers—from poets to painters to curators, as well as its journalists, scientists, researchers, academics, and teachers—and add in the relatively small group of art critics and others who think of themselves as intellectuals, the total would surely be much higher than 400. But let’s not get carried away—not everyone is, can, or should be an intellectual. What’s important is to disabuse Singaporeans of the supposed rarity and exceptionality of “intellectuals.” The government prides itself on being composed of the best and the brightest, but the two-jumbo-jet idea implies that a passenger of one plane would never be a passenger of the other. As smart as the governmental elite may or may not be, it never presents itself as a body of intellectuals—those people are deemed hopelessly idealistic and unpragmatic.

Then of course there’s the public. Singapore is a place that is often caricatured, with some justification, as a society of total centralized control (the only gaps here are between the subway trains and the platforms). As former journalist Cherian George writes in Singapore: The Air-Conditioned Nation: Essays on the Politics of Comfort and Control, 1990-2000, the government “has provided rich incentives for Singaporeans to work hard and create wealth.”

The problem is not that there are too few intellectuals in Singapore, but rather that the country suffers from a prevailing climate of anti-intellectualism which, like the humid tropical weather, seems inexorable (ubiquitous air-conditioning notwithstanding). For instance, before the 2008 Singapore Biennale had even opened, an editorial in national newspaper the Sunday Times dismissed it out of hand:

A ‘forest’ made from 4,000 used slippers under which the viewer will walk through. An outdoor bathing ‘experience’ with 8,000 bars of soap.
. . . Pardon, but we are puzzled, in common with probably countless other people: How do a ‘slipper forest’ and an outdoor bathing ‘experience’ make for art? . . . Where is the aesthetic pleasure, that communicated sense of beauty, purposeful effort, and workmanship that are the hallmark of a work of art?

Here the Times seems mired in an antiquated, almost 19th-century close-mindedness regarding contemporary practice. What’s equally disconcerting is the phrase “in common with probably countless other people,” which reveals a presumption to speak on behalf of the public.

Rather than thinking of the public as the general populace, which is all too often conjured in Singapore (and elsewhere) as anti-intellectual, I’d argue for thinking of publics as spaces—open and varied spaces in which one may listen to individual and independent voices speak freely, voices that are not only diverse but also disparate. Unfortunately, these spaces are rare, fragile, and often endangered. The media and universities should be exemplary publics, but in Singapore they both fall short. Local arts organizations have occasionally stepped up to create such openings. I’m not too worried about the intellectuals themselves; their number has grown beyond the confines of that mythical 747, and many are demonstrably pursuing good work. What worries me is the long-term health of independent art publics.

Lee Weng Choy is president of the Singapore Section of the International Association of Art Critics (AICA).

Is there room for intelligent discussion of contemporary art in the popular media?

  • Jieyun Chen

    You have already pointed out that the popular media cannot presume to represent the public. Perhaps intellectual discussions are being roomed elsewhere, beyond documentation by the officially-endorsed press. You see people talking about artworks at shows. If that cannot count as intellectual discussion, because they lack certain tone or vocabulary, maybe it’s this idea of ‘intellectual’ or ‘intelligent’ that’s endangering our space.

    • MichaelJWilson

      “Intelligent” discussion will always, by definition, take place in the context of academia (even if it is often—perhaps necessarily—repetitive, and even conservative). The question as I read it asks whether academic or quasi-academic discourse can “spill over” effectively into the realm of television, the popular press, and other mass media, or whether a process of “dumbing down” is inherent to these particular forms. Discussion can be intelligent without the need for specialist vocabulary or even a particular “tone” (though sufficient time is always helpful), but its existence still depends on appropriate context—a “safe” space. The Internet is interesting in this regard insofar as intellectual discussion thrives thereon in such close proximity to its extreme opposite—though still, arguably, without overlapping.