Friday, 27 July 2007

Singapore's Public Expression of Beauty

A number of conversations eventually converged to a question: "In what way does Singapore express beauty?. Let me tease this apart and see where we reach.

The first strand is the oft-quoted stereotype that Singapore is dull, controlled and staid. For a start, it depends what perspective you are coming from and what you are looking for but not finding. I'm in the "I know what you mean but I don't like the generalisation" camp. Foreigners tend to quote the bubble-gum ban and that there are lots of Do's and Don'ts. I would point out the relatively low crime level, lack of grafitti, obvious investment in infrastructure and excellent public services.

But we are looking for beauty, not neatness. What about high culture, The Arts? There are theatres, public galleries, museums and smaller boutique art galleries. There are music clubs and bars but I haven't seen much of an Indie scene, independent music festivals, concerts and the like. Perhaps Singapore's size can be cited here.

What I had in mind when I formed the query was how everyday people express themselves creatively. I'm thinking social activities, book clubs, dance lessons, gardening, music, DIY, customised cars, clothes, ...

I think this is where Singapore's neat and tidy public spaces start to have an effect. Blocks of flats don't allow a lot of scope for personalising the exterior spaces. Potted plants is about as far as most people get. Cars are expensive and mostly new (wrecks fail certification and the taxes means there are no cheap, old cars) so customisation is restricted to alloy wheels and stickers. Over 90% of people live in flats, so not much gardening. For the same reason, DIY is internal and limited: no patios, BBQs or conservatories here.

What about street art? There are some buskers, often disabled people playing an organ and selling tissues. I've never seen music students earning noodle money on the street, nor have I seen pavement chalk artists. Okay, bit of a blank there.

Keeping caged song birds is popular but that's a pastime, not a creative art. Same with the ladies practising Tai Chi in the mornings.

I heard about how the Housing Board designated an area of HDB blocks for artists where they could live and create. Perhaps this sums up the general case. Because public spaces are created and maintained by the authorities and are a bit 'sterile', personal art and beauty is an indoor activity. Or maybe I need to get out more?