21 Mar 2013
PRESS STATEMENT OF THE EMBASSY OF THE REPUBLIC OF SINGAPORE IN ABU DHABI
SPEECH BY THE AMBASSADOR OF THE REPUBLIC OF SINGAPORE TO THE UNITED ARAB EMIRATES, HE UMEJ BHATIA, AT THE “ART ROUTES” LUNCH HOSTED BY THE SINGAPORE TOURISM BOARD ON THE SIDELINES OF ART DUBAI ON 21 MARCH 2013 at 12.30PM
Ambassador of the Republic of Singapore to the United Arab Emirates, HE Umej Bhatia, addressed a group of art collectors today in Dubai, on the sidelines of Art Dubai. The special lunch, organized by the Singapore Tourism Board, was organised to promote art connections between Southeast Asia and the Middle East through the regional hubs of Singapore and the UAE, and to formally introduce the inaugural Arab Art Exhibition – “Terms and Conditions” – taking place in Singapore from June 28 to 8 September 2013 at the Singapore Art Museum (SAM).
A copy of Ambassador’s remarks at the luncheon entitled, "THE NEW SILICA ROUTE - CAN SINGAPORE RE-CONNECT ASIA AND THE MIDDLE EAST THROUGH ART?" can be found below.
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21 March 2013
EMBARGOED UNTIL DELIVERY ON 21 MARCH AT 12.30
TEXT OF REMARKS BY SINGAPORE'S AMBASSADOR TO THE UNITED ARAB EMIRATES UMEJ BHATIA AT "ART ROUTES" LUNCH ON THE BEACH HOSTED BY THE SINGAPORE TOURISM BOARD AT ART DUBAI ON 21 MARCH AT 12.30 AT ART DUBAI BEACH BRASSERIE, MINA A'SALAM BEACH
"THE NEW SILICA ROUTE - CAN SINGAPORE RE-CONNECT ASIA AND THE MIDDLE EAST THROUGH ART?"
Ladies and Gentlemen, Friends of Singapore and Art Connoisseurs,
1 I am very pleased to be here today at this exclusive Art Dubai event organised by the Singapore Tourism Board in the Middle East.
2 As you know, the stated purpose of today's event is two-fold. First, it celebrates Southeast Asia's strengthened links with the Middle East through contemporary art. Second, it offers an exclusive preview of the Arab Art Exhibition, "Terms and Conditions" to be held in the Singapore Art Museum on 28 June 2013.
3 However, the question I would like to answer today is whether Singapore can help re-connect Asia and the Middle East through art. This aspiration is a small but important aspect of a larger, ongoing historical re-discovery that is re-connecting the regions, cultures and peoples of the Middle East, the Near East and the Far East. Indeed, all of us here today are taking baby steps in this longer journey of re-discovery. As the Arabic proverb goes: رحلة الألف ميل تبدأ بخطوة
4 Why a journey of re-discovery? Well, Asia has had a long history of engagement with the Middle East. Historically, traders travelled via the overland Silk Road or the maritime Silk Route centred on the Indian Ocean basin. Extending back as far as the 7th century, these criss-crossing routes linked East Asia with South Asia, Southeast Asia, Central Asia, and the Gulf. Archaeological data indicates that early Arab, Indian and Persian traders did not merely sail from point to point. Instead they developed sophisticated trading circuits with several feeder routes in a complex, integrated system.
5 The earliest Arabic source to describe these networks is أخبار الصين والهند or "News of China and India". In this 9th century account, a merchant named Sulayman describes his travel from Oman through India to Southeast Asia and then China. Traders like Sulayman brought cultural influences from Middle East to Asia and vice versa. By the 8th century thousands of Arabs lived, worked and played in China's Guangzhou province. In other words, تجارة وزيارة, not trade alone.
6 But these natural connections between two ancient regions were disrupted by the large and unpredictable forces of history. A series of "black swans" surfaced to twist and tangle the cords of the maritime silk route.
7 First, the Ming dynasty's formidable fleets were launched and then mysteriously retired after the glorious era of the Chinese Eunuch Admiral Zheng He. Second, the navies of Portugal, the Ottoman Empire and Muscat vied ferociously to rule the waves of the Indian Ocean littoral. Third, Britain's imperial navy and western steam-powered merchant navies overcame the seasonal monsoons that dictated the natural pattern of Arab, Persian and Indian dhow trade on the Silk Sea-Routes.
8 This disruption and disconnect lasted several centuries. But the tide of history has turned once again.
9 First, the rise of China and India shifted the global economy's centre of gravity back towards Asia. Today, Asia has become one of the Middle East's biggest trade markets. Asia's share of total trade with the GCC countries jumped more than threefold over three decades from just 10% in 1980 to 36% in 2009. If this level of trade growth continues, Asia will be the GCC's biggest trading partner by 2017, accounting for a greater volume of trade than the OECD's developed world.
10 Second, with the end of colonialism, the historical linkages between Asia and the Middle East were revived and expanded. Countries and regions once belonging to different European empires are re-discovering one another. East-east cooperation is a fascinating new phenomenon where the Middle East studies the development lessons of the Far East instead of the West alone.
11 Third, new forces of communication are driving the mutual revived interest of countries in Asia and Middle East in each other. This convergence is made possible by the technologies of a new era of globalisation.
12 What I call globalisation's "Silica Route" is helping to revive the ancient Silk Route of the past. Silica forms the optical fibres that transmit reams of data across the globe in seconds. Silica also composes the semiconductor material that hosts the integrated circuits used in all electronics today, including smart phones, which powers our new communications revolution. It is worth mentioning in passing that 70 percent of the global output in this semiconductor materaial is from Singapore.
13 In a way, we may be putting new wine into old bottles. Silica was also a primary ingredient for ceramics carried by dhows from China through the Indian Ocean basin to the Gulf and beyond. A trove of thousand year old ceramics and other Tang dynasty treasures were recently unearthed from a 9th century Arab dhow. Recovered 350 nautical miles south of Singapore, the wrecked dhow was probably built on the Omani coast. In 2010, in a symbolic re-enactment of this mutual re-discovery of regions, a dhow, "Jewel of Muscat", rebuilt by traditional methods, was commissioned by the Sultan of Oman based on a inspired idea by my then Foreign Minister H.E. George Yeo. Using the ancient monsoon routes and ancient navigational methods, the dhow sailed to Singapore with an international crew including Omanis, Sri Lankans, Indians, Malaysians and Singaporeans. The 3,800 km journey took 5 months. Safely berthed at the Maritime Experiential Museum in Singapore, the replica is a physical reminder to the new generation of these historical connections. The recovered treasures from the Belitung shipwreck, formed the bulk of an exhibition, "Shipwrecked: Tang Treasures and Monsoon Winds" which opened in Singapore in 2011, and will embark on a world tour.
14 Clearly, the new "Silica Route" relies on 21st century communication and networks to fuse together ancient regions and cultures. Instead of the monsoon that facilitated long-range seafaring in ancient times, computer servers and cloud computing drive today's re-discovery. Behind the display of every painting or exhibit is a trove of compressed bits and bytes that bring artists, exhibits, organisers and gallery viewers together.
15 Singapore is an ideal location for facilitating the "Silica Route" re-connection. Collectors from the Middle East and Gulf will find in Singapore a very promising market to promote and raise awareness of art from the region. First, Singapore is the original global city, with world class infrastructure and regional hub for trade, services, and exhibitions. Second, it has a vibrant visual arts scene anchored by flagship events like Art Week and Art Stage Singapore. Third it is home to a large proportion of the region's high net worth individuals and its arts connoisseurs.
16 Ahead of Singapore's inaugural Arab Art Exhibition, "Terms and Conditions", this summer, which will feature art loaned from this region, several promising exchanges have already begun. Let me just briefly cite three fascinating examples from the last three years.
17 First, in April 2010, the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage (ADACH) organised an art exhibition for Singapore artist Dr Leon Chew at the National Theatre in Abu Dhabi. A full-time Professor of Art and Design at Zayed University in the UAE, Dr Leon Chew was one of the first Singaporean arts heads to be hired by a blue chip academic institution in the Middle East.
18 Second, in October 2012, the first Middle East contemporary art gallery in Southeast Asia opened in Singapore. Founded by Assaad W Razzouk, Sana Gallery opened with an exhibition of works by Syrian artist Thaer Maarouf and Syrian Lebanese painter Semaan Khawam. Sana Gallery strives to serve as a platform to showcase young Middle East talent in Singapore to Southeast Asia, India and China. This is once again an example of the revival of ancient linkages through the new "Silica Route".
19 Third, in August 2012, Vincent Leow, a Singaporean artist and professor at the College of Fine Arts and Design at the University of Sharjah, launched his solo exhibition, "Resembling Imaginary Creatures" in the Chan Hampe Gallery in Singapore's Raffles Hotel. Leow's work draws on his time spent in the Middle East and his own background growing up during Singapore's turbulent pre-independence era, to produce a compelling fusion of perspectives.
20 This triptych of examples I have offered; a Singapore artist exhibiting in the Gulf, a Middle East contemporary art gallery in Singapore, and a UAE-based Singapore artist exhibiting in Singapore, together forms a tableau highlighting the diversity, vitality and promise of the budding arts linkages between our regions.
21 To be sure, the re-discovery of ancient cross-regional contacts is a journey that is in equal measures virtual and physical. However, the actual destination points squarely to Singapore's potential as a key "server" in the new "Silica Route" that connects Middle East art with Asian collectors, and tropical East Asia to temperate West Asia. Indeed, Singapore understands the art of cross-regional business and is well placed to know the business of cross-regional art. رحلات سعيدة! Happy Journeys!
22 Thank you.