SINGAPORE – The Covid-19 pandemic has dealt a crippling financial blow to Singapore’s arts scene. The cost to nine companies The Straits Times spoke to currently add up to at least $2.6 million and that’s just for lost box office receipts for current shows. Three freelancers – two actors and a production manager – have seen their incomes plummet between 50 and 70 per cent as jobs are cancelled and all are worried for their livelihoods.

Freelance production manager Ng Siaw Hui, 28, says: “Since January and early February, I have probably lost close to $10,000 in income that was supposed to last me five months.”

Her parents, a Grab driver and a freelance packer, have also seen their incomes reduced, so Ms Ng is worried about the family’s finances.

The closure of theatres on March 26 hit two companies especially hard. The Finger Players were bumping in to the Drama Centre’s Black Box with Citizen X, while The Theatre Practice’s Four Horse Road had just opened on March 25. The cancellation cost The Finger Players about $150,000, while The Theatre Practice lost more than $650,000.

The Theatre Practice executive director Daniel Goh, 52, says the cost of the promenade theatre piece, originally scheduled for 26 shows, was also inflated by the company’s attempts to follow changing government guidelines in the weeks before the opening. He says: “We had to reduce our original capacity from 180 per show to 150, and then from 150 to 120 to meet the capacity and 1-m social distancing requirements.”

The Singapore Symphony Orchestra’s chief executive officer, Mr Chng Hak-Peng, estimates ticket revenue loss at around $450,000 to date, while the Singapore Chinese Orchestra general manager Terence Ho expects a revenue loss of about $350,000 for the first half of this year.

Ivan Heng, artistic director of Wild Rice, which opened its new theatre space at Funan mall in August 2019, says the company has had to cancel three upcoming shows at a projected revenue loss of more than $1 million.

Singapore Repertory Theatre (SRT), which had to cancel its blockbuster import National Theatre’s War Horse as well as two Little Company productions, has lost under $1 million in the first quarter, and is expecting a total loss of more than $2 million this year, says artistic director Gaurav Kripalani, 48.

The company is dependent on box office for 70 per cent of its income. SRT director Charlotte Nors, 53, says: “With no revenue streams for the next few months, the whole arts industry will be decimated.”

Keep in mind that these are lost revenue numbers for the larger companies, which do not take into account sunk costs for overheads like rental and headcount. Annually, SSO and SCO spend about $15 million and $12 million respectively on staff. Ms Nors points out between SRT, Wild Rice and Pangdemonium, they employ several hundred freelancers every year in addition to full-time staff.

These numbers reflect the growing economic value of the arts sector over the past decade.

According to Singapore Cultural Statistics 2019, an annual report published by the National Arts Council (NAC), the sector’s value grew from $1.5 billion in 2012 to $1.79 billion in 2017. While the industry’s contributions to the economy have grown, government funding for the arts have slipped from a high of $602.2 million in 2015 to $457 million in 2018 according to the report.

GOVERNMENT HELP FOR the ARTS SECTOR

In the recent Resilience Budget measures, $55 million was designated for the arts sector. This is in addition to $1.6 million that was set aside earlier for two initiatives – a capability development grant and a subsidy scheme to reduce rental and associated costs.

Mr Ho, 50, who is also a Nominated MP, admits that when the initial $1.6 million was announced, he thought: “What can $1.6 million do?”

But the second, more substantial, tranche is very welcome, he adds. “I was so touched to see that the arts and culture sector was something they thought of. Arts and culture is always the first sector to be cut, not give to, in this type of situation.”

Singapore is not the only country that has announced emergency funding for the arts. The Arts Council England set up a £160 million (S$284 million) emergency fund for museums, artists, and galleries. Of this, £20 million is to be set aside for freelance cultural workers.


Thespian Liu Xiaoyi plays the theatrical version of himself in Citizen X, in which he retraces his family roots. PHOTO: THE FINGER PLAYERS

Germany’s Culture Minister, Ms Monika Grutters, announced a €50 billion (S$77 billion) aid package, targeted at freelancers and small businesses, which she called a “rescue umbrella for the cultural, creative, and media sector”. Artnet.com reported on March 31 that the Berlin government had distributed €500 million in four days to artists and freelancers under a grant scheme which hands out €5,000 to individuals and up to €15,000 to small businesses.

While the $55 million for Singapore arts is welcome, industry players The Straits Times spoke to point out that the devil will be in the details. How the funds will be disbursed is likely to be addressed by Minister Grace Fu on Tuesday (April 7) in Parliament.

Actor Oliver Chong, 43, who has seen his income fall by 70 per cent compared with the same period last year, says: “I hope I’m eligible for Self-Employed Person Income Relief Scheme. I hope it’ll tide me through with the $1,000 per month. I’m not sure of the other assistance measures yet. It’s a bit messy now and I don’t know where to start yet.”

His confusion is mirrored by other freelancers, who have been posting their concerns online in the SG Covid-19 Creative/Cultural Professionals & Freelancers Support Group on Facebook. In recent days, as the Temporary Relief Fund applications opened, they have also been sharing tips on what paperwork to bring along and which centres have shorter queues.

On Monday, Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat announced in Parliament that Sirs will be extended to include self-employed people who also earn a small income from employment and those who live in properties with an annual value of up to $21,000. This expands coverage to 100,000 self-employed people, up from the previous 88,000 people.

While Chong qualifies for financial aid, foreign talents like Malaysian actress Cheryl Chitty Tan do not. The 31-year-old, who moved to Singapore two years ago, has seen her monthly income shrink from between $3,000 and $5,000 a month to just $5,500 for the first three months of this year. She is currently relying on teaching singing, but as her clientele is mainly other artists, she says: “They are not going to come for lessons. They’re going to be spending money on food and rental.”

Mr Terence Tan, 39, a producer and arts advocate, has been conducting polls with the freelance community. He has put together a petition with almost 300 signatures to submit to Parliament, suggesting ways of helping freelancers through this difficult time.

He estimates that there are about 60,000 freelancers who make up about 60 to 70 per cent of the workforce in what he calls the media, arts, design and entertainment cluster. He says:”Gig workers don’t have enough for family and rent. Stage crew, who are usually polytechnic educated, are even worse off. Within one or two months, they could lose their homes.”

Aware of the financial stresses faced by such workers, some companies have made efforts to pay them for cancelled gigs. But this is a strain for smaller companies.

Co-founder of Nine Years Theatre Mia Chee, 42, says her company partially compensated freelancers for First Fleet because of its limited budget. “Full pay compensations would really cost a lot and would not be sustainable in the long run,” she says.

The company, which has just moved to bigger premises, is also facing renovation and higher rental costs.

The Necessary Stage general manager Melissa Lim, 43, says of the company’s commitment to paying everyone in full despite cancellations: “This is crucial during this period, as a measure to prevent a detrimental financial fall-out for freelancers and the industry as a whole. At this stage, no one can get alternative jobs. Livelihoods are at stake.”