Wandering through the spectacular new National Gallery here, it’s easy to discern Singapore’s urge not just to showcase the best of its art, but to educate its visitors. Among the exhibitions are a solo show of works by Tang Da Wu and a lavish display of paintings by Chua Ek Kay, hugely important local artists who remain little known outside Southeast Asia. Then there is an entire floor dedicated to an exhibition titled “Siapa Nama Kamu?” (“What Is Your Name?”), which traces the history and identity of Singapore from its origins as a British colony to a modern cosmopolitan city-state.
Just as revealing, though, of the gallery’s educational mission — and of the tension between Singapore’s past and future — are the numerous warnings to visitors of “potentially sensitive content.” These labels are applied, particularly in the contemporary collection wings, to anything dealing with race and religion to nudity, sexual content and “alternative social norms.”
As it pushes to become the global center for Southeast Asian art, this island republic is being forced to test the boundaries of its conservative society and rethink its much-admired educational system. Having successfully tackled the high levels of illiteracy it had in the 1960s, Singapore now heads the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s global schools rankings (by comparison, the United States languishes at 28th). The education system here scores particularly high in science and math, but faces criticism for its rigidity and lack of creativity.
With this in mind, Singapore has stepped up efforts over the last decade to become the regional hub for art, with major events like the Singapore Biennale and the International Festival of the Arts jostling for space on the cultural calendar. Just last month was the annual Art Stage, Singapore’s version of the high-end contemporary fair Art Basel, which matches influential international galleries with the growing number of wealthy collectors in the region.
The cutting-edge Gillman Barracks development, which houses commercial galleries and Nanyang Technological University’s Center for Contemporary Art, opened in 2012 to great fanfare. It has become the focal point of Singapore’s art scene.
But it is the titanic National Gallery that most clearly signals Singapore’s ambition in the fields of art and education. When it opened three months ago, the gallery became the largest museum in Singapore and, at 690,000 square feet, is nearly a third larger than London’s National Gallery.
To house it, two of the most eminent historical buildings here, the former Supreme Court and the City Hall, were renovated at a cost of at least $370 million. While the gallery’s dominant position overlooking the Padang, a park in the downtown area, is impressive enough, the choice of those venues was strongly symbolic of Singapore’s refashioning of its image: Where law and order ruled and official bureaucracy once stood, art now resides.
A large portion of the gallery’s collection comprises works by artists from across the region, from Vietnam and the Philippines to closer neighbors such as Malaysia and Indonesia. One of its inaugural exhibitions is titled “Between Declarations and Dreams,” a selection of 400 works that display the evolution of art and history throughout Southeast Asia (the title is taken from a poem by the Indonesian poet Chairil Anwar).
The emphasis on rediscovering the history and culture of Singapore and its neighbors highlights the gallery’s educational aims: On both my recent visits, a majority of visitors seemed to be schoolchildren, listening attentively to talks and dutifully making sketches and taking notes. It is for these young students that the gallery built the Keppel Center for Art Education. The gallery is also cooperating with a local university on a degree course in art history that would make art more a part of mainstream scholarship in Singapore, while complementing the art-making courses offered by specialist schools.
How well this grand experiment works in fostering the arts and creativity in a country built on more traditional Confucian values like filial piety, hierarchy and social order will depend on the ability of the gallery’s young patrons to absorb the more provocative ideas on display and synthesize them with the rest of their education.
So far, so good. As I walked past yet another sign warning me of “potentially sensitive” material, I saw a gaggle of teenagers nonchalantly sketching an installation that prominently features a red phallus. Other locals seemed similarly unfazed by “Ken Dedes,” Jim Supangkat’s daring amalgam of a Javanese goddess and a naked woman. The collection also featured openly political works like Redza Piyadasa’s “May 13, 1969,” a commentary on the notorious Chinese-Malay riots in Malaysia on that date.
With this dual goal of educating Singaporean visitors and creating a world-class art gallery that captures the complexity of modern Southeast Asia, the curators are navigating tricky terrain: how to champion free artistic expression without falling afoul of Singapore’s wide-ranging censorship laws, whose aim is “safeguarding consumer and public interests.” These guidelines are wide-ranging yet vague in scope, and constantly evolving, which further complicates the curators’ task. Controversies elsewhere in the world — for example, the 1989 furor in the United States over Andres Serrano’s photograph of a crucifix submerged in urine — highlight the potential tensions of public funding of art considered offensive by some.
For now, the National Gallery is cautiously testing the waters of Singaporean tolerance, but if it succeeds in creating the thriving art world it desires, it is bound to face far sterner tests of its ability to reconcile art’s sometimes subversive energies with the notions of what is acceptable in the republic’s socially conservative society.
Tash Aw is the author of three novels, including, most recently, Five Star Billionaire, and a contributing opinion writer.