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The case of Singapore: interview with Peggy Levitt

Peggy Levitt, from Wellesley College and Harvard University, explains how Singapore’s cultural institutions reflect the city’s diverse identities.
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Well I think Singapore is a really interesting case because it’s a relatively new country, about 65 years old. And it’s used cultural institutions in very specific ways at different stages of it’s nation-building project. And then that’s reflected in how much diversity it’s willing to showcase or how much it showcases the connections between its different population groups and their homelands or how much it tried to cut those off. So at the beginning of Singapore’s history, using the cultural sector was all about just promoting economic development. There was no art for art’s sake. It was all about helping the country develop economically.
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And then when the economy sort of got under control and was viable, then Singapore started using art as an economic development strategy in and of itself– so museums and concert halls and other kinds of cultural institutions as ways to attract foreigners, as ways to make foreign workers who were living in Singapore, that it would be an attractive place to live, et cetera. And then the third stage which we’re in now is Singapore’s using art and culture to create a global Singaporean that can compete more effectively on the global stage. So this is, I think, a very interesting kind of trajectory of the different uses of art and culture.
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Now how are these museums used to help Singapore create a strong nation and a diverse nation but one that is very managed? So although everyone who is born in Singapore is slotted into one of the four population groups– so Chinese, Malay, Indian, or other. And when you go to the Asian Civilisations Museum, the actual layout of the museum is around these four population groups. But little by little– so the idea is that a person walks in and feels a sense of identification with his or her population group. But then the story begins to be told about how Chinese are connected back to China and India is connected back to India.
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And that’s also reflective of Singapore’s greater confidence as a nation. So before, you were supposed to only be one of those groups within Singapore. Now we feel more confident as a nation. We can express those connections. We can kind of highlight them. And that means that we’re also positioning ourselves in a very regionally prominent place. So we are creating this idea of a region of Southeast Asia. We are at the centre. We are collecting Southeast Asian art. If you want to study Southeast Asian art, if you want to buy it, if you want to know more, if you want to see it, you have to come here.
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And so it’s this very interesting kind of change of diversity inward looking, but always with a sense of strongly belonging to the unified nation of Singapore, and then a kind of opening up of that as a way to position itself regionally, if not globally, more prominently.
Peggy Levitt, from Wellesley College and Harvard University, explains how Singapore’s cultural institutions reflect the city’s diverse identities.
She recalls that Singapore’s cultural strategy was initially designed to make the city more attractive, but also to glorify the multicultural heritage of Singaporean society. She shows the place that each major Singaporean ethnic community is given in museums’ narratives. She argues that each major Singaporean ethnic group has a place in the city-state’s museum narratives.
Do you think the Singaporean model of multicultural heritage policy could be replicated elsewhere?
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Cultural Diversity and the City

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