Going onstage (www.esplanade.com).


Essay: Theatre on the inside and outside

Juliana Lim delves into key government initiatives from the 1980s which helped facilitate the growth of Singapore theatre companies.


Published: 28 Dec 2017

Around 1986, when I was at the Ministry of Community Development, I initiated an arts database (early version of KPIs), to gather information on audienceship levels and arts development. One of my colleagues thought it futile, “There are so few Singapore plays that you can count them on one finger, so why bother?” My answer was that “If you don’t start now, there will come a time when there will be so many you can’t count them.” My colleague’s comment betrays just how few original works there were at that time. Today of course, there are the 50 in Esplanade’s The Studios: fifty and l many, many more.

Then, when we started audience surveys at the various festivals and asked the audience what they would like to see at future festivals, they reeled off a long list of European classics, but occasionally, a tiny voice would plead, “We should do more to promote local drama.”

What a sea change there has been since 30 years ago! Today, it is the reverse. A handful of companies stage the classics, riding on examination texts to fill their houses. All other companies proudly stage and re-stage original Singapore plays. The norm now is to commission and produce original Singapore works.

Early memories of theatre

My earliest memory of theatrical activity was when I was a schoolgirl in Marymount Convent. Two of our teachers were active in the theatre scene – with Experimental Theatre Club (Mrs Ranu Dally) and Scene Shifters (the late Mrs Elma Thwaites) and the school had a tradition of staging plays, operettas and concerts. When I studied at the University of Singapore, there were plays staged by the University of Singapore Society – Waiting for Godot, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Kismet, Lady Precious Stream and Robert Yeo’s One Year Back Home. So, that was my world as a young adult, enriched but sadly, oblivious to early Singapore plays from Lim Chor Pee or Goh Poh Seng and totally ignorant of the non-English theatre world until I joined the People’s Association in 1978 and managed its Cultural Troupe, which included a Chinese Drama Group.

My Arts Management journey

I first became aware that one could influence the course of local arts development when I joined the Ministry of Culture in 1981. My dedicated colleague, the late poet Sng Boh Khim, and his team were already organising the Drama Festival, Poetry and Playwriting Competitions, and publishing the quarterly Singa magazine. He had also started the “Words-into-Print” Scheme. As Secretary to the Singapore Cultural Foundation (a $4 million endowment fund founded by the late Mr Ong Teng Cheong in 1978, under the Ministry of Culture that raised funds for the arts for disbursement to artists), I was able to devise schemes to complement his efforts.

We started an arts scholarship scheme which gave, amongst others, Chandran Lingam a grant to study Directing at the National Institute of Dramatic Art in Sydney, and Ivan Heng a grant to perform M. Butterfly in India. We also worked with organisations such as the British Council which enabled Ivan Heng and Nora Samosir to train overseas.

Sng was a passionate advocate of Singapore writing and the Drama Festival was a platform for local plays. So was Max Le Blond who directed Nurse Angamuthu’s Romance as well as a very iconic version of Stella Kon’s Emily of Emerald Hill, which went on to the Commonwealth and Edinburgh festivals. Max (together with Robert Yeo) also adapted The Threepenny Opera into Samseng and the Chettiar’s Daughter starring father-and-daughter pairing Alex Abisheganaden and Jacintha Abisheganaden, for the 1982 Singapore Arts Festival. That was the year the Festival was elevated to international stature.

Semi-Residential Status-in-Theatre Scheme (SRSITS) in 1986

I think a couple of artist assistance schemes I devised in 1986 may have made a difference. We hatched the Semi-Residential Status-in-Theatre Scheme (SRSITS) in 1986 and launched it in 1987.

I knew that in England, for example, companies had dedicated homes in theatres – the London Symphony Orchestra in the Barbican, the National Theatre at London’s South Bank, amongst others. My proposal was that since we had only four theatres and so many groups, we would invite two or three companies to share a theatre. The first groups to benefit from this scheme were: ACT 3, Practice Performing Arts School and TheatreWorks at the Drama Centre; and Chinese Theatre Circle, Sriwana and STARS at Victoria Theatre.

Each group was given four seasons a year (one season a quarter) in their assigned theatre. With each “season” comprising five days – three performing days with a day before and after to bump in and out – a group enjoyed 20 rent-free days a year inclusive of administrative support from theatre staff. The group was required to produce four productions a year, of which at least two must be original works, new to its repertory. I was quite elated when Theatreworks’ Army Daze ran for 18 days under this scheme. It was our first “long run”!

The groups were also encouraged to book their seasons 18 to 24 months ahead. What you may think, was the big deal with “priority booking”? Priority booking was an important “privilege” because the Ministry itself was the primary show producer and it blocked theatre dates months and years ahead, with the consequence that groups could not always get the dates they wanted. Now they could!

A prominent local playwright wrote somewhere that he thought the SRSITS scheme was “manipulative”. I don’t like that word but to varying extents, whether we like it or not, the schemes we arts managers invent, are “interventionist” in nature, to provoke changes, and hopefully, improvements.

Whether it is the major performing arts grants, Cultural Medallion, festivals or publishing schemes, all these come with conditions and are transactional in nature, a barter between arts managers and art companies. Under the SRSITS scheme, the Ministry exchanged 20 rent-free days a year for four seasons of productions, of which two must be original works. In my humble opinion, I think the scheme served as a catalyst for local playwriting as the groups had to conform to this rule to stay in the scheme.

The scheme was disbanded in the 1990s in favour of “theatre rental” grants which in my view threw the groups back to where we started. The groups were given grants only to pay the money back in theatre rentals. I found this to-ing and fro-ing of money counter-productive as it created administrative work for groups that were already short of staff. I preferred the cost-avoidance and work-avoidance approach, thinking it more fruitful to simplify the work process, so the groups have more time for creative work.

Arts Housing Scheme

The other scheme that I thought mattered was the Arts Housing Scheme. We did a survey and found many of the theatre groups to be nomadic. They rehearsed in schools, at home, renting space in Drama Centre and wherever else they could find it. Whereas SRSITS gave them performing space, the Arts Housing Scheme gave them a work base, with offices, rehearsal and storage space so they could rehearse all year round when they needed to.

In mid-1980s, we went to the Ministry of Finance for money to do up the Far East Command College building in Fort Canning as an arts centre. Our request was rejected. I remember being asked, “Why do the artists need this when they’ve got the theatres?” My answer was, “Nine to 12 months of work goes on before a show and they’re working at home!” Exasperating!

Then it struck me that, every quarter, the Land Office would circulate a list of disused school buildings as then, schools were moving into the heartlands. The main bidders for these buildings were the charities. I thought to myself that “the arts groups are also poor” so, I invited a colleague from the Land Office for a chat and told him about “Cultural Vision 1999”1.

Buildings started falling onto our laps after that but the Land Office cautioned that they might take them back after three years for road widening, or other purposes. I said we would take them anyway – this led to Telok Ayer Performing Arts Centre (1985-2014), Telok Kurau Studios (from 1986), Stamford Arts Centre (1987-2016), ONE-TWO-SIX Cairnhill Arts Centre (from 1987), the Substation (from 1989), the whole lot! I told the arts groups not to worry about appearances and to just move in and make the best of it, since the buildings were sturdy, and electricity and water was still running. A year later, some groups told me their output had tripled.

These two schemes, I felt, were my most important contributions. I remember that Kuo Pao Kun saw us in the early 1980s when the roof of his premises in Somerville Road was leaking and we could not help him. From this, I realised the importance of infrastructure and I asked to give up my music and visual arts programme, to focus on behind-the-scenes developmental work.

Perhaps, a third less visible contribution was convincing the groups to convert their status from societies to companies. When we asked for long-term plans, some joked that they might not be in office after the next AGM. Frequent changes of office-holders is not conducive to long-term planning so we nudged them into incorporation as companies limited by guarantee, with a more stable leadership. Company status (with IPC and charity statuses) together with art housing and theatre residency became the defining characteristics of the more sustainable of the groups. In all these ways, I hope I helped to develop the local playwriting scene.

What else made a difference?

As for other important developments, I think credit must also be given to Max Le Blond who lobbied for a Theatre Studies course at the National University of Singapore (NUS) in the 1980s. He was ahead of his time and it fell to Dr. K.K. Seet to bring the course to fruition, later in 1992. At the junior college level, Victoria Junior College started its Theatre Studies and Drama Course from 1989 and graduates taught by pioneers like Rey Buono then went on to the NUS course. Together, these courses have produced generations of theatre luminaries – playwrights, directors, dramaturgs, critics, actors.

Later but no less important complementary initiatives were the playwriting labs organised by Action Theatre (Theatre Spa) and TheatreWorks (24-Hour Playwriting Competition) as they too uncovered and groomed generations of new playwrights.

I think we also mustn’t forget the Permanent Secretary to the Ministry of Culture, Cheng Tong Fatt, who started the Singapore Broadcasting Corporation’s Drama Unit in the early 1980s. This paved the way later for the English Drama Unit and created job opportunities for local actors, directors and playwrights.

Arts Manager vs Audience

What is the difference between watching theatre as an arts manager and as an audience? Not much difference, really. Well, I suppose that if one is not on the inside—not promoting the arts, a fund-raiser or grant-maker—one can choose not to go, one need not be subject to angst brought on by poor houses, one can walk out mid-way and one need not give a standing ovation out of courtesy or duty.

But truth be told, there’s not much difference, really, as it’s hard to shake off a mindset. I still look for production value – ingenuity of treatment, a new take, honesty, good houses, the same things. I’m particularly impressed by groups that do things creatively and economically. When money is scarce, that’s good because it makes one more resourceful. At day’s end, we all want to be entertained, enlightened, wiser.


1 The "Cultural Vision 1999" was the PAP Manifesto announced in the Petir magazine of December 1984. It spelt out the PAP's vision of Singapore as "a culturally-vibrant society by 1999" with KPIs such as a world-class performing arts centre, attendance at arts events, public sculptures, etc. It was the most explicit expression of support for the arts up till then, which led to the formation of the Ministry of Community Development, the Arts Housing Scheme and other cultural initiatives.

Contributed by:

Juliana Lim

Juliana Lim started her career in the Singapore Government Administrative Service in 1973 serving in the ministries of Education, Communications and National Development. From 1978 when she joined the People’s Association and managed its cultural troupe and community arts programme, she elected to “settle down” into what turned out to be a 19-year arts management career, culminating in her appointment as Founder General Manager of the Singapore Art Centre Co Ltd (now called “The Esplanade Co Ltd”) from 1993 till 1997. Juliana subsequently spent 16 years in Singapore Pools where she managed its Public Affairs, Community Funding and Corporate Social Responsibility programmes as Community Connections Director. Juliana retired happily from 40 years of corporate life in November 2013. She continues her artistic interests as the President of the Richard Wagner Association (Singapore) and a Director of OperaViva Limited and Very Special Arts.

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