Brimful of Asia ; Singapore Isn't Known for Its Devotion to the Arts. but That's All Changing, as We're about to Find out. David Lister Reports

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When the diva Jessye Norman sang at the opening of the new pounds 193m Esplanade arts centre on the bay in Singapore, she took a photograph of her dressing room to show other promoters around the world. The notoriously sensitive soprano had all the colours, furnishings and even scents she favoured. And, uniquely among arts venues, she - like every top-of-the- bill at the Esplanade - had a personal butler for the duration of her visit.

All had been arranged by Benson Puah, the slightly bizarre but supremely effective choice to run the new centre. Puah made his fortune as a hotelier. In line with the Singaporean philosophy that success in one business can be transferred to another, he is now an artistic director, despite never having worked in the arts before.

The first thing he did was a deal with a neighbouring hotel - hence the butlers. The second was to end all complimentary tickets. He relates with some pride how he received a call from the prime minister's office asking for a seat, and replied: "Certainly. What's his credit-card number?"

The sparkling new centre and the appointment of its multimillionaire director are symbols of a remarkable change by a state known until now for its business success, cleanliness and rigidity, from its fines for dropping litter and for selling chewing gum to its legislation against homosexual activity - a piece of rigidity too far for a nation proclaiming its arts and culture.

Singapore wishes to throw off its reputation as a cultural desert (a description its own arts council admits has been accurate) and make the arts both a priority and an export. It has spent pounds 320m on the arts in the past decade.

Over the next month, we will see the best of Singapore's arts in this country. Sadler's Wells in London will present the talented Singapore Dance Theatre at the Peacock Theatre. The company's Indonesian choreographer Boi Sakti blends martial arts with contemporary dance. The ICA will host a season of films, installations and theatre, the last showcasing the work of Ong Keng Sen, a charismatic director who pioneered the genre of docu- performance, which explores modern Asia through the excavation of history. He will direct his docu-drama The Global Soul, a meditation about travel, from time travel to business travel, with a cast of dancers, musicians and actors.

The T'ang Quartet will play at the Wigmore Hall. And both London (the Barbican) and Gateshead (the Sage) will feature the Singapore Chinese Orchestra. This group are not to be missed. When I watched them rehearse, I was transported by sounds I'd never heard played on instruments I'd never seen. The result is both heavenly and frankly frightening. The British composer Michael Nyman also fell in love with this orchestra and has written a concerto for it, which will be performed during the season.

Time magazine began a recent article on the new cultural mission from Singapore with the words: "Name a Singaporean artist. You can't? Don't worry. Neither can most people." They may have forgotten the pianist Melvyn Tan, who has been resident in Britain for decades. But then, Singapore has also forgotten him. He is banned from entering the country after fleeing to avoid his national service, and he will not be seen in the month-long festival. …