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Deepening cultural relations with Australia

Speech by Ms Grace Fu, Minister for Culture, Community and Youth at the Australia-Singapore Cultural Leaders' Forum

28 September 2017

Minister for Communications and the Arts Mitch Fifield,


Distinguished Guests,

1. Good morning. It is with great delight and anticipation that I join you here today for the Australia-Singapore Cultural Leaders’ Forum. Our two countries enjoy strong relations with substantive cooperation on multiple fronts, such as defence, economics, and of course, people-to-people ties. This is evidenced by the landmark package of agreements which were concluded between Singapore and Australia last year, which furthered the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership Joint Declaration signed between our Prime Ministers in 2015. The Forum today is an exciting development in our history of cultural cooperation.

2. The video that you just saw gives a glimpse into the wide array of cultural offerings that we have in Singapore, including some which we have collaborated on with Australia. From the Singapore Chinese Orchestra’s cross-cultural partnerships to an original musical – Forbidden City: Portrait of an Empress, these works reflect our multicultural and diverse national identity, and yet connect us to global audiences and communities. I hope to share with you today, some thoughts on the value of the arts and culture to individuals and nations, both on a domestic and international level.

Arts and culture are important to the individual and nation building

3. Good works of art often tell a story. And there is no better way of understanding a society than appreciating the collective stories told through its arts and culture. Art enables a deeper understanding of ourselves, of others, and of societies. Not only that, the arts and culture recount stories of our past, document our present and paint visions of the future.

4. To an individual, arts and culture allow us to connect to our roots and identity. Recognising this intrinsic value of the arts, Singapore, like Australia, invests in supporting both excellence – reaching for peaks, conquering higher peaks – and accessibility – more participants, more audience. The pursuit of excellence in the arts is not only important for the arts and heritage professional, but also essential to inspire the hobbyist and to engage the patron.


5. We are investing in infrastructure to better present quality works. In visual arts, the Singapore Art Museum will be undergoing a major upgrade that will provide more and better space to showcase contemporary Southeast Asian art. For performing arts, the Esplanade, our pinnacle performing arts centre, will add a 500-seat Waterfront Theatre, designed for the presentation of new works.

6. We are investing in arts education and capability development. My Ministry set up the Culture Academy in 2015 as a centre of excellence in training and developing arts and heritage professionals. Last December, the Culture Academy partnered the University of Melbourne, Australia, to organise a digital conference on The Digital in Cultural Spaces. This conference brought together technology and culture experts, including those from the Australian Centre for the Moving Image.


7. Like Australia, we firmly believe that arts and culture should be made available to everyone. Our 2015 Population Survey on the Arts showed that eight in ten Singapore residents attended at least one arts event or activity. This is comparable to Australia’s findings of nine in ten. While these are good outcomes, we know that there are segments that are under-served and we are looking for ways to reach them.

8. We extended museum concessions to persons with disabilities and their caregivers last year. Earlier this month, our National Arts Council organised the Arts in Eldercare Seminar as part of our annual Silver Arts Festival that presents affordable arts programmes for seniors. The CEO of the Arts Health Institute from Australia, Maggie Haertsch’s gave an enlightening presentation on integrating arts in aged care, including music therapy for patients with dementia. This is one of many areas where we can learn from Australia.

9. Moving to the younger audiences and persons with special needs, we work hard to make the arts relatable and relevant to children and youths, and those with special needs. Here you see images of Koko the Great, an Esplanade theatre production for young children, which has been adapted to be sensory-friendly for children with special needs. Featuring stunning sets and catchy songs, Koko the Great is adapted from a book of the same title that was inspired by Life by the River, a painting by one of Singapore’s most influential artists, Liu Kang.  While it is set in the village life of 1960s’ Singapore, children everywhere will relate to Koko’s sense of adventure and curiosity through the production’s engaging use of puppetry, props and music, and we hope to bring performances like this to Australia one day.  

Culture as an anchor to one’s identity

10. Productions such as these remind us that culture serves as an anchor to our identity. Through these works, the audience is transported back in time to imagine and relive our histories. Art becomes a powerful means of telling our stories to our future generations. Our newest arts institution, National Gallery Singapore, was opened just over a year ago. It houses the most comprehensive collection of Singapore and Southeast Asian modern art, in two historic buildings that have witnessed key events in Singapore’s history. Together, the building’s architecture and the collection it carries communicate our national identity and history.

11. Another example is that of the Singapore Chinese Orchestra, which was featured in the video you saw earlier. As our national Chinese orchestra, the Singapore Chinese Orchestra presents a unique take on a traditional art form by incorporating Singaporean, Southeast Asian and contemporary elements in its music. This gives listeners a taste of the rich musical influences we share in the region.

Fostering international relations and cross-cultural understanding

12. Culture also plays a key role in fostering our international relations and cross-cultural understanding. We enjoy warm relations with Australia and our cultural exchanges date as far back as the 1990s. Australian writers and artists have been regularly featured at our major festivals, including the Singapore Writer’s Festival and Singapore Biennale. Our cultural institutions also frequently work with Australian artists and arts companies. For the celebration of National Gallery Singapore’s first anniversary last year, the Australian company Spinifex Group staged a dazzling digital projection on the Gallery’s façade.

13. Likewise, throughout this period, our artists have presented their works at a variety of platforms in cities across Australia. Conductor Darrell Ang is leading the Queensland Symphony Orchestra in one of the acts of the Brisbane Festival, which is taking place this month. There will be five Singapore events presented at this year’s OzAsia Festival, one of which is After Utopia, an exhibition from the Singapore Art Museum presented in partnership with the Anne & Gordon Samstag Museum of Art.  I had the pleasure of viewing the exhibition yesterday and was glad to see that this iteration has been enriched by the collaboration between the two museums.

Call for greater collaborations between Australia and Singapore

14. There are many other examples of our artists and arts groups working together. Together with the Gamelan Gerasi Seni Benawa, Singapore’s Metropolitan Festival Orchestra recently played the live score of a film, Setan Jawa, which was composed by Rahayu Supanggah from Indonesia and Iain Grandage from Australia. You saw snippets of this earlier in the video too.  In June, the Asian Civilisations Museum hosted the Prime Ministers of our countries, Mr. Lee Hsien Loong and Mr. Malcolm Turnbull, with the Ghost Nets of the Ocean exhibition. The show featured sculptures by artists from Erub Arts on Darnley Island, Torres Strait, with the support of the Australian High Commission.

15Just before I came, I had the opportunity to launch the exhibition Witness to War: Remembering 1942, at the National Museum of Singapore, featuring artefacts on loan from the National Museum of Australia and the Australian War Memorial.  I was struck by a photograph of the Colenso family from New South Wales.  All four Colenso sons were enlisted in the Australian Infantry Battalion in July 1940 and sent to defend Singapore. Two were killed in action in Singapore, and the other two interned. One old photograph so simply and yet powerfully showing our shared history and the deep emotional links between our peoples.

16. Apart from performances and exhibitions, today’s Cultural Leaders’ Forum – an initiative of the Australia-Singapore Arts Group – is a concrete example of how both our countries recognise the value of the arts and culture, and commit to exchanges between our artists, arts groups and cultural institutions. Such collaborations not only facilitate cross-cultural understanding but also allow us to offer more than what we could have on our own.


17. On this note, I would like to encourage all of you to make full use of this Forum to exchange ideas and build relationships. There is much that we can learn from each other and the opportunities to collaborate and co-create are endless. I look forward to more exciting initiatives not only from the Australia-Singapore Arts Group, but also each of you as professionals and representatives of your cultural institutions. I wish you a fruitful time of dialogue and discussions.

Thank you.

Last Updated: 07 December 2017

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