Saturday, December 5, 2009

Choo Thiam Siew

Old boy Choo Thiam Siew (朱添寿) studied at Catholic High from 1958 to 1969.

He is currently the President of Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (NAFA), a leading arts institution established in 1938. Prior to this, Mr Choo was the Chief Executive Officer of the National Arts Council, Singapore from 1997 to 2003.

Here is a news report on him in 1998:
Lion City stalking global arts title
Sunday Morning Post. June 14, 1998.

BY Zeida Cawthorne

Judging by the line-up for this year's festival, future projects may dare to challenge the island's reputation for predictability.

SEXUAL bliss is clearly not on the cards for the couple in Superfriends At The Hall Of Justice, but she refuses to give up without a fight. "Satisfy me, satisfy me!" she screams in frustration as she straddles him on a chair.
The actors may not be doing a full Monty - in mock risque fashion, they have stripped down to black bodysuits - but Haresh Sharma's production for Singapore's The Necessary Stage, definitely has impact.
At the Drama Centre in Fort Canning, a mostly young audience laps up this taboo-busting piece - homosexual undercurrents, graphic miming, 'f-word and all - at the 1998 Singapore Festival of Arts.
"Tell me: as a woman, were you offended by the masturbation scene?" a perturbed Choo Thiam Siew asks the next day in his office.
"We've had some feedback on Superfriends and I'm wondering if we should suggest that they tone it down a bit."
The dilemma facing the executive director of Singapore's National Arts Council (NAC) - presenter of the month-long festival which runs until June 28 - is something new for the Lion City. Suddenly, all sorts of unprecedented liberties are being taken and the guidelines are looking fuzzy.
Will heavy-handed censorship prevail in the squeaky-clean metropolis whose moral guardians recently saw fit to chop the lyrical nude painting scene in Titanic? The next two years will be testing. In response to the region's financial meltdown, Singapore has decided to create a new annual arts festival - shorter and leaner, but rich in Asian content - and hopes to have it in shape by the year 2000.
Like its prime model, Hong Kong, Singapore has invested hugely in the arts and this year's S$8 million festival, featuring a bevy of imported heavyweights - among them, the St Petersburg Philharmonic, the Royal Shakespeare Company and Twyla Tharp - plus action-packed Fringe and WOMAD (World of Music, Arts and Dance) programmes, has been the biggest ever.
"We planned it in late 1996, so we had the budget and sponsors in place, but in future the festival has to be smaller," Mr Choo says. "My biggest worry is sponsorship, though I believe Singaporeans will support a major annual arts festival.
"It will continue to be international, but focus on the best of Asia. Next year's festival will be a bit of a test run. The one after will be the important one." In fact it will combine two annually alternating events - the Singapore Festival of Arts and the Singapore Festival of Asian Performing Arts - and be reshaped in ways which the NAC hopes will prove a winner.
Providing it achieves the right mix - genuinely fresh and exciting regional fare balanced with top drawer attractions from further afield - Singapore should achieve its objective, though it will not be plain sailing.
Deeply entrenched conservatism will be one obstacle and this year's festival opener illustrated another. With such a profusion of riches to choose from, a seasoned artistic director would have been loath to settle for the worthy, but very tired Bayanihan Philippine Dance Company - but then again, the NAC does not believe in having artistic directors for its arts festivals.
Still, if selection by committee has obvious pitfalls, the eclectic, often stunning lineup for '98 has also proved the NAC lacks neither sophistication nor daring.
It certainly boasts some formidable talent at the top.
Indeed, between them, Mr Choo and chairman Liu Thai Ker have wrought much of that modern miracle visible throughout the lush island.
"When 1 took on this job in 1995, 1 chopped off the 'horti' and kept the 'culture'," says Mr Choo, the New Zealand-trained visionary responsible for the greening of Singapore.
"Frankly, it was a real shock. Despite my experience in strategic planning, the arts presented me with a completely different horizon and 1 thought: why me?"
"Choo Thiam Siew is quite a poet and artist - actually, a wonderful calligrapher - and very well versed in all the arts," observes Mr. Liu, the urbane architect who went on to Yale after completing his degree at the University of New South Wales and, in 1989, became the founding chief executive officer and chief planner of Singapore's Urban Redevelopment Authority.
"Back in the early '70s, 1 remember taking photos of pigs' waste flowing over footpaths and visiting parts of Chinatown where there were 900 people per hectare and most of the buildings were firetraps," says the man who revolutionised public housing in a way no city in Asia - and few elsewhere - has equalled.
Today's clean, green, fastidiously planned Singapore may remind Hong Kong cynics of a vast Discovery Bay, but as the venues for the Festival of Arts sharply remind, there is much to envy.
The twin elegance of the Victoria Theatre and Victoria Concert Hall; the old-world charm of Jubilee Hall at the Raffles Hotel; the former Catholic schools which have been brilliantly transformed into the Singapore Art Museum (presently hosting the festival highlight, the Origins Of Modern Art In France: 1880-1939) and trendy disco and dining favourite Chijmes (once the Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus) - Singapore oozes history and heritage, and the arts have been a key beneficiary.
Other major conservation projects, including the second wing of the Asian Civilisations Museum, are in full swing, though the real excitement centres on The Esplanade, the performing arts complex at Marina Bay, due to open in three years' time, complete with a 2000-seat Lyric Theatre and 1800-seat concert hall.
As old buildings undergo facelifts and new ones rise, the obvious question is whether Singapore has the talent to fill them. Certainly, it does not have a long tradition in theatre training - things only started moving in the '80s - though that is not necessarily a disadvantage.
"In Singapore, 'good' acting used to mean British accents and that is still the prevailing sentiment in some quarters, though things are changing," notes Goh Su Lin, general manager of The Necessary Stage.
"We're now seeing a lot of contemporary theatre - often using other local languages and Singlish - which is attracting young, enthusiastic audiences.
"Here, we start with ideas and develop works from them - hence the company's name. Most of the older theatre groups are similarly experimental and it's the newer ones which are mainstream.
Usually, it's the other way round, so it seems we've broken the mould in Singapore."
Many would question Ms Goh's bold assertion, but there is a bigger challenge to consider.
Now that the Hong Kong Arts Festival has the international field largely to itself, will it meet the demands of the new millennium - or allow Singapore to realise its enthusiastic hype and become Asia's Global City for the Arts?

Published in the Sunday Morning Post. June 14, 1998

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