Speech by Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Finance Lawrence Wong at the NAFA 85th Anniversary Gala Dinner on 2 September 2023.
NAFA Board Chairman Ms Low Sin Leng
NAFA President Mrs Tan-Soh Wai Lan,
NAFA 85th Anniversary Gala Organising Chairman Dr Lucy Ooi,
Board Members of NAFA,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
I am very happy to join all of you here this evening at NAFA’s 85th Anniversary Gala dinner. Let me start by congratulating NAFA on this very significant milestone. Happy 85th Birthday!
NAFA’s History and Achievements
The theme for this evening is “Bold and Gold”. Ms Low talked about the courage to create. This reflects the spirit of NAFA since its founding. Because from the very beginning, the idea of establishing NAFA was a bold and courageous one.
Established in 1938, NAFA is Singapore’s oldest existing arts institution.
Mr Lim Hak Tai, as Ms Low said just now, the founding principal of NAFA, and his contemporaries courageously forged their own path. They created a school with a distinctive curriculum – one that bridged Eastern and Western influences and integrated the local cultures and customs of Singapore and the region.
The Chinese name of the institution （南洋艺术学院）bears testimony to the artistic style that NAFA aims to develop and promote – one that also gave expression to our evolving identity as a young nation at that time.
And the works of NAFA’s pioneer artists such as Mr Cheong Soo Pieng, Mr Chen Wen Hsi and Ms Georgette Chen, were pivotal in shaping this Nanyang style of art.
Since then, NAFA has clearly come a long way. It is now a premier arts institution in Asia, with an enrolment of over 2,500 students. It has expanded its course offerings beyond traditional art forms like painting and sculpture, to digital art, design, and fashion. Many of its alumni have excelled and made significant contributions in the arts, including an impressive 13 Cultural Medallion winners and 15 Young Artist Awardees.
NAFA has also played a key role in showcasing Singapore and Southeast Asian art to the world, through its many international partnerships and collaborations. Next year, it will offer sponsored artist residencies for Singaporean and Southeast Asian artists at its studios in Paris, allowing them to network and exchange ideas with the broader arts community. Initiatives like this will help spur greater awareness and interest in Southeast Asian art.
When you look throughout the decades, without NAFA, the arts and culture scene in Singapore would not be the same today. So let me also take this opportunity to recognise and thank everyone in NAFA for your many contributions to Singapore art these past 85 years. Thank you very much!
Arts and Culture in Singapore
Our arts and cultural scene in Singapore has become more vibrant over the years – there are more artists and musicians. We have now a year-round selection of festivals, performances, and cultural events to choose from.
Importantly, we have created a Singaporean culture and identity. It may be difficult to express in words what this culture is about. But it’s in our attitudes and values, our experiences and our shared memories. Our artists and musicians, they help give expression to this Singaporean culture. For example, when the Singapore Chinese orchestra performs overseas, for example, people can immediately tell that it’s not the same as an orchestra from China, it sounds different – there is something distinctive about its style and musical arrangement. And the same goes for our Nanyang artists and many other art forms.
Various indicators suggest we are continuing to make progress. Ten years ago, when I was Minister for Culture, I decided to make entry to museums free for Singaporeans. When you make these sorts of proposals in government, you have to approach the Minister for Finance because the Finance Minister will have a say on anything with fiscal implications. So I of course did this with some trepidation. But the then Finance Minister was very supportive, and incidentally, he is now our newly elected President. We can all be assured that we have someone in the highest Office of our land who is a big champion and supporter of the Arts in Singapore.
Of course, that was ten years ago. Today, we are seeing more and more Singaporeans going to our museums and heritage institutions, as well as attending arts and culture activities here in Singapore. From a revenue point of view there is some loss in revenue from sales, as we don’t collect any money for many of these events. But what we gain in return cannot be quantified in dollars and in cents, but I think the benefits are real and immense. It means making arts much more accessible to Singaporeans from all walks of life. Crucially a rising proportion are proud of Singaporean arts and culture – 82% today compared to 59% ten years ago.
So we are making progress. There is still room to improve, I hope that at some point of time, we will see organically Singaporeans giving support, queuing up and filling up the stadium for a Singaporean performer, not just for Coldplay and Taylor Swift. We still have some room to grow but we are moving in the right direction.
The point is that arts and culture enrich our lives, our soul and our city. The Government has been investing more in the arts over the years and will continue to do so. We will continue to study more ways to strengthen the arts in Singapore, including enhancing access to the arts and providing better support for Singaporean artists. The National Arts Council has been engaging the arts community on these areas for our next iteration of Our SG Arts Plan (2023 – 2027), and will release more details in due course.
Investing in Arts Education
One area of focus for us is in arts education – to meet the growing needs for creative professionals in our economy, and also to provide diverse pathways for our people to excel based on their aspirations and abilities.
We have been doing this deliberately over the years, through SOTA and our two tertiary arts institutions NAFA and LASALLE. Soon we will be taking a major step forward with the University of the Arts Singapore and I am very glad that the Professor Kwok Kian Woon, the Vice-Chancellor of UAS is here tonight.
Incidentally, I was involved in the setting up of the UAS, not as Minister for Culture but as Minister for Education. We had extensive discussions over this. I remember, because in life, with human relationships, arranged pairings don’t work all the time. You cannot force people to do things they are not willing. It is the same with organisations.
It’s very hard to bring together two highly-accomplished institutions with their own heritage and identities. You cannot just force this to happen.
Fortunately, the leadership in both institutions saw the merits of coming together, and believed in the shared vision – to develop a distinctively Singaporean arts education at the very highest levels, to have arts degrees of our own, and in so doing enrich not just the Singapore arts scene but the wider region too.
Realising the vision of the new university will require the close collaboration between NAFA and LASALLE and their community partners.
To be clear, our aim is not to dilute the individual strengths of each institution. It is the opposite, we want to preserve and strengthen the strengths of these institutions, we don’t want it to be diluted. If it were to be diluted, it will be a huge loss for the institutions and for Singapore.
So while it’s part of the new university, NAFA must continue to preserve its own distinctive arts programmes, strengthen its value proposition, and develop its own niches of excellence. And the Government will continue to support NAFA in this endeavour.
At the same time, we must find ways to synergise across both institutions to enable more porosity across programmes, more cross pollination of ideas and students, and in so doing establish a leading local university in the creative arts, and take our arts education to the next level. That is what we hope to do with the UAS and I am very glad to hear that the UAS will be taking its first intake next year.
Importance of Working with the Community
The Government will do our part to support arts education. But the arts and our arts institutions can only flourish with the support of our wider community.
In its early years, NAFA harnessed the strength of the Chinese community, and prominent Chinese artists who were invited to teach at NAFA.
Through the years, NAFA has been nurtured by the wider community, including support from philanthropic individuals and groups like the Ngee Ann Kongsi.
Developing and maintaining these strong community ties will remain crucial to NAFA’s continued success.
I hope NAFA will continue to explore avenues for collaboration with local industry and community partners – to engage new groups and audiences, and to make art more accessible to all Singaporeans.
I also hope all of you in the community, everyone here tonight, will do your part to support NAFA’s programmes and exhibitions. To help your donations go further, especially through the upcoming auction later, the Government (through Tote Board) will provide some matching of your donations tonight. So please donate generously!
A vibrant arts sector will always be essential to Singapore.
Through art, we give voice to shared memories and experiences that expresses our identity as Singaporeans and strengthens our community bonds.
Through art, we express ourselves creatively and imaginatively. This allows us to reflect on who we are – our identity, values and beliefs – and to ask deeper questions and engage in conversations on critical issues about what we want our society to be, and where we would like to go in future.
As NAFA embarks on its next chapter, and plans for NAFA 100, I have no doubt that you will continue to play a key role in developing the Arts in Singapore. Let us work together to develop a flourishing arts and cultural scene, and make Singapore a culturally vibrant society, and an endearing home for all of us.
Thank you very much and enjoy your evening.
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