Singapore’s arts scene is not as vibrant as other countries. Since policy has always been focused on economic development, arts policy has often been deemed as a sort of forced social project. This is not a uniquely Singaporean problem – Hong Kong and Shanghai also face similar obstacles. One of the policies implemented was the Arts Housing Scheme, which refurbished vacant government buildings into arts hubs. The Substation was born out of the Arts Housing Scheme and is Singapore’s first independent contemporary arts center. Established in 1990 when the arts in Singapore were severely lagging, as a collaborative and pioneering experimental arts center. For one of my classes, Arts and Culture Management, my project team was assigned to analyze The Substation’s role in the emerging Singapore arts scene. Once the centerpiece of a bustling neighborhood, The Substation is now surrounded by new, upscale restaurants and shopping centers, and unable to financially compete with the surrounding businesses.
Part of our assignment was interviewing various people associated with the development of The Substation in its current form. Though no longer thriving, the mission is clear – to foster creativity and innovation in the Singapore community by providing programming, practice spaces, and courses to artists. For part of our project, we had to interview people closely connected with The Substation, whether it be previous artistic directors, the woman who gave The Substation its original building, or various artists who have used their facilities. These interviews gave me the opportunity to discover more about how business is done in Singapore.
The most interesting observation in comparing Singaporean business to how business is done in the U.S. is the level of formality. Though I had previously believed lunch meetings to be very casual, the lunch meeting with several of our interviewees was formal. There was no small talk, no exchange of pleasantries, but the ever looming feeling that we were there for business only.
Another difference in business practices was that our professor joined us on meetings. At first, I found this odd. It was as if our professor did not trust us enough to be able to conduct the meetings on our own. However, as we continued interviews, I eventually learned that my professor attended these meetings as a vessel to continue her own learning. She was just as curious about the answers to our questions as we were. The emphasis on continued learning is very strong in Singapore. Because it is such an economically advanced society, people are constantly trying to stay on the cusp of what is new and exciting. It’s why Singapore continues to thrive during these times.