SINGAPORE - If Acting Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Lawrence Wong had his way, national museums here would be where Singaporeans choose to spend their weekends.
And he has made some headway in this.
Since his ministry scrapped museum admission fees for Singaporeans and permanent residents on May 18, visitorship at six state-run museums and heritage institutions has jumped by 22 per cent. More than 978,000 people have visited these institutions, including the National Museum of Singapore and the Sun Yat Sen Nanyang Memorial Hall, from June to August, compared to about 798,000 visitors for the same period last year.
Mr Wong, 40, says: "It's far better than I expected so I'm very encouraged by that."
He was interviewed by Life! and Chinese-language daily Lianhe Zaobao on the cusp of his ministry's first anniversary. The ministry was formed in November last year following a restructuring of the Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports and Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts.
Before entering politics in 2011, Mr Wong was a top civil servant and chief executive of the Energy Market Authority.
He states candidly, however, that "free is only the first step" - museum visitorship gains cannot be sustained on free entry alone.
"If the experience at the museum is not a positive one, then you make it free, they come once, but they may not come again," he says.
His aim: to improve national museums here, including their programmes and activities, so that these arts and heritage institutions will be on the minds of Singaporeans.
Indeed, his first year at the helm has been marked by a broad push to persuade the public to let go of misperceptions about arts and heritage, to not view them as "removed, elitist, 'not for me'", he says, but as a way of life.
To that end, arts and heritage activities and events have been made more accessible to the community and the divide between culture and life, more porous.
A $5-million grant scheme, for example, was launched in August to encourage Singaporeans to promote and preserve shared heritage through various forms such as exhibitions, publications, documentaries and mobile apps.
Individuals and groups can apply for the Government to co-fund half their project's cost, up to $30,000 each time. The Heritage Grant Scheme has drawn 70 applications in less than two months, which Mr Wong says is "very encouraging" and "shows that Singaporeans do place emphasis on their heritage".
The community arts and culture initiative, PAssionArts, has likewise brought art forms such as opera, theatre and visual arts to the heartland. At its cultural festival PAssionArts Month in April, about 4,000 community artists and volunteers reached out to 100,000 participants all over the island. More than 40 professional artists were also involved and they went beyond presenting works to audiences to drawing them into the process of art-making.
The issue of community arts, though, has been a sticking point for some in the professional arts community.
Several leaders of the community voiced concerns when the new ministry was formed that its mission to promote social cohesion and national identity would favour community arts at the expense of artistic excellence and art forms that are beyond the layman's understanding.
Mr Wong concedes that there is an "aspect of community arts that is more community building in nature", but he maintains that it does not exclude artistic excellence. An example he cites of how "community art need not be dumbed down and can be of very high quality" is the play October by homegrown theatre company The Necessary Stage.
The production, about a group of elderly people living in a small neighbourhood being upgraded, was the first arts performance he attended as culture minister. He enthuses: "You have a group of elderly seniors take part and the script was authentic, it was spoken in their voice... it was very refreshing."
He adds that this perceived divide between community arts and artistic excellence can be further bridged by having more professional artists involved in community arts projects.
In his view, the distribution of funds and resources over the last year should also reassure artists that artistic excellence will not be compromised, even though community arts receives significant financial support. In April last year, the Government pledged to invest up to $210 million over the next five years as part of its Community Engagement Masterplan to promote arts appreciation among new audiences and give more grants for community arts groups.
"Yes, I may be giving more funding to community arts, but it does not mean that I am giving less funding to artistic excellence," Mr Wong says.
The National Arts Council, for example, raised its funding to established and emerging arts groups through its Major and Seed Grant schemes by 30 per cent, from $7.8 million last year to $10.2 million this year. The Major Grant has also been extended from one- and two-year schemes to a three-year scheme that supports the longer-term development needs of arts groups.
Arts and heritage groups with charity status will also be able to tap the newly launched $200-million Culture Matching Fund, which matches private cash donations dollar-for-dollar.
He notes that artists and arts and heritage groups who do not get the funds they expect sometimes view grant-giving bodies such as the arts council and National Heritage Board as being "on the other side".
To correct this misreading and send a message to the arts and heritage community that "we are all on the same team", he has worked to reposition both agencies as arts and heritage champions.
He says: "It's not like the arts council or the National Heritage Board didn't know these things were important... but once there was clarity internally on what our priorities were, it was easier for both statutory boards to engage the wider community and show that... it's not just about saying, 'I am the arts champion or the heritage champion', but we are really doing things to support them."
An example of the board's recent efforts to champion heritage issues on the ground is seen in how it has partnered community enthusiasts to launch heritage trails and documentary clips on Singapore's first satellite town, Queenstown. It also helped a heritage group in its petition to the Urban Redevelopment Authority to conserve historic sites in the area.
The arts council, on the other hand, introduced a revamped grants framework in February that is streamlined to make it easier for arts companies to navigate the offerings.
Clearly, many of the changes Mr Wong has introduced in his first year have resulted from his conversations with members of the vocal arts and heritage community. Of the experience, he says: "It was first of all listening to what they had to say, not being defensive about where we are and trying to explain what we are doing, but being open-minded."
And, he adds, "always thinking about what we can do to improve".
He says with unfeigned respect: "The one thing that has struck me coming into this sector is that you really see the commitment and passion of our artists. It's really a labour of love for them... and I salute them for that kind of passion they have for the arts."
Another personal high point for him since entering the ministry has been the opportunity "to experience and see some of the very high-quality art performances and artworks that our artists put up".
He waxes lyrical about film-maker Royston Tan's video installation, Ghost Of Capitol Theatre, calling the Singapore Biennale artwork "poetic" and "magical" in the way it reimagines the history of Capitol Theatre through its seats and in the form of contemporary dance.
The work is on show in the Singapore Art Museum annexe in Queen Street.
Looking back on his appointment as culture minister, Mr Wong, who is divorced, says it has been a "positive experience" for him because "I get to do work which I enjoy personally as well".
He laughs off the suggestion that work might spoil his enjoyment of the arts. "I go not just with a view of enjoying it, which I do, but with an eye towards how things can be better."
Neither does he feel the pressure to perform as a politician widely seen to be part of the People's Action Party's fourth generation of leaders, all of whom entered politics in the 2011 General Election. The others are Education Minister Heng Swee Keat, Minister for Social and Family Development Chan Chun Sing and Acting Manpower Minister Tan Chuan-Jin.
Mr Wong says: "I've never seen it in that light... The way I see it, every time I move to a new portfolio - and this has happened even when I was a civil servant - is I go into a sector and I look at it with a perspective that things can be improved.
"It's not to be critical of what the people have already done... but we must have a certain sort of drive in all of us to say, 'I'm not completely satisfied with the status quo'...otherwise, we will never improve."
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