Last Fri­day we were cel­eb­rat­ing the offi­cial open­ing of our new office, arts and enter­tain­ment law firm that we are. This is the speech I gave before the party took off.

Group picture with Patrick Dahm and party guests

Hello every­body.

Wel­come to our little office warm­ing party. We are grate­ful to have you here as our guests.

We are going to meet many artists today. Writer Mahita Vas is here with us already.

Many of you are act­ive in oth­er parts of the arts and enter­tain­ment industry. Whatever it is, when you do what you do the law may not come to your minds first thing. Yet you have joined us today to warm our new office premises.

For which thanks. We do not take this for granted.


They call us an arts and enter­tain­ment law firm.

As law­yers, we work with defin­i­tions. You need defin­i­tions to apply an abstract leg­al the­ory to help solve a spe­cif­ic prob­lem. That’s what we do.

We prefer our defin­i­tions to be water­tight. For example, what’s a per­son? What’s a month? What’s reas­on­able or what’s an imme­di­ate fam­ily member?

It makes us feel giddy when a defin­i­tion isn’t water­tight, and we will look for a bet­ter one. Some­times we may have to phrase one by ourselves, hop­ing it will get accepted.

We law­yers feel the need to describe things in pre­cise terms.

The arts though.

Art Undefined

There’s no defin­i­tion of art in Singa­pore law. In fact art is barely men­tioned in Singa­pore law or in Singa­pore leg­al literature.

No defin­i­tion and not even much of a nar­rat­ive. To a law­yer this does not bode well.

There is one occur­rence of the word arts in the Con­sti­tu­tion of Singa­pore. It’s way back in the Fourth Sched­ule as one of many cri­ter­ia for select­ing nom­in­ated mem­bers of par­lia­ment, where it reads:

The per­sons to be nom­in­ated shall be per­sons who have rendered dis­tin­guished pub­lic ser­vice, or who have brought hon­our to the Repub­lic, or who have dis­tin­guished them­selves in the field of arts and let­ters, cul­ture, the sci­ences, busi­ness, industry, the pro­fes­sions, social or com­munity ser­vice or the labour movement…

In oth­er words: the arts are giv­en a very aux­il­i­ary func­tion in the Con­sti­tu­tion. This func­tion is min­im­al. It doesn’t seem to neces­sit­ate a defin­i­tion of art.

There is one more occur­rence of the word arts in ordin­ary stat­ute: the Nation­al Arts Coun­cil Act. This act estab­lishes the Nation­al Arts Coun­cil, a body to pro­mote the arts in Singa­pore, to pro­mote the arts of Singa­pore over­seas, and to advise the Gov­ern­ment on the pro­mo­tion of art.

Surely an act which does all that con­tains a defin­i­tion of art?

A bit a bit only. It stip­u­lates, and I quote: ‘“The arts” includes lit­er­ary, per­form­ing and visu­al arts.’ Unquote. That’s it.

And that’s really it. There is no fur­ther men­tion, let alone defin­i­tion of art any­where in stat­utory Singa­pore law, apart from the con­text of mar­tial arts or licen­cing require­ments under the Pub­lic Enter­tain­ments Act. Court decisions: also nothing.


Patrick Dahm eating ice cream
Work­ing in Arts and Enter­tain­ment Law

I said, to a law­yer this does not bode well. But why would this be a problem?

Does it not lie in the nature of the arts to defy easy descrip­tion and there­fore defin­i­tion? Because the arts are sup­posed to be in a flow of con­tinu­ous devel­op­ment always, where­as a lawyer’s defin­i­tion, even a broad one, is by its very nature static?

All true.

But remem­ber when at the begin­ning I men­tioned why a law­yer needs her defin­i­tions. It’s so she can apply abstract leg­al the­or­ies to help solve spe­cif­ic problems.

Defin­i­tions are a lawyer’s tools. More often than not, they embody rights.

We lack a major tool for deal­ing with the leg­al aspects of art. And the ques­tion is, why?

Exper­i­ence shows you’ll find a well-provided law­yer tool­box, a mul­ti­tude of defin­i­tions, or a his­tory of evolving defin­i­tions, or dis­pute over defin­i­tions for a mat­ter, or at least a lot of talk about a mat­ter only where this mat­ter is one thing: relevant.

This is why the Nation­al Arts Coun­cil Act con­tains some kind of sub-defin­i­tion of the arts. It was rel­ev­ant to cla­ri­fy – whatever else the arts may be – that for sure the Nation­al Arts Coun­cil is to pro­mote lit­er­ary, per­form­ing and visu­al arts.


What does this tell us about the almost total absence of the arts in the Constitution?

Cer­tainly the organ­isa­tion of a body polit­ic is con­sti­tu­tion­ally rel­ev­ant. And indeed the Con­sti­tu­tion has pro­vi­sions on our gov­ern­ment bod­ies, how they get elec­ted, or selec­ted, and what their func­tions and powers are. This is where we find men­tion of the arts in the Con­sti­tu­tion, as a small tool, for select­ing nom­in­ated mem­bers of parliament.

Oth­er things of con­sti­tu­tion­al rel­ev­ance are the fun­da­ment­al liber­ties which people ought to have, such as liberty of the per­son, the pro­hib­i­tion of slavery, equal­ity before the law, or the free­dom of speech and expres­sion, among others.

The Con­sti­tu­tion lays down these fun­da­ment­al liber­ties, but the free­dom of the arts is not one of them.

There’s free­dom of expres­sion, though, which is not restric­ted to verbal expres­sion. Means every Singa­por­ean artist has the fun­da­ment­al liberty to express him­self through his art.

Group picture with Patrick Dahm, Gina Tan, Wallace Ang, Paul Foster and other party guests
Those with Fun­da­ment­al Liberties

But Kun­st­freiheit, as the free­dom of the arts is called in Ger­man, encom­passes more than a right to speak through art. The free­dom of the arts is also the free­dom of pub­lish­ers, pro­du­cers, art gal­ler­ies, record labels or art colleges.

Our Con­sti­tu­tion does not award this degree of free­dom of the arts to them.

Priorities of the Past

We can’t blame her ori­gin­al authors, though. When Singa­pore gained inde­pend­ence and the Con­sti­tu­tion was cobbled togeth­er, the cir­cum­stances were not like that.

Polit­ic­al uncer­tainty, an imma­ture eco­nom­ic infra­struc­ture, hous­ing short­age, high unem­ploy­ment and poverty asked for a no-frills gov­ern­ment before any­thing else. Set­ting the repub­lic on her feet, ensur­ing her sur­viv­al and then her devel­op­ment and eco­nom­ic prosper­ity – these were con­sidered the pri­or­it­ies. Not the arts. The Con­sti­tu­tion reflects that. The non-them­at­isa­tion of art in the media at the time reflects that. Art even being some kind of non-word at times reflects that.

The situ­ation reminds me of Ber­thold Brecht’s Three­penny Opera. There’s a song in it called ‘What Keeps Man­kind Alive?’ One line in this song goes ‘Let’s have the grub first, then the mor­al­ity’. Put anoth­er way, bread first, then eth­ics. Health first, then the arts.

But that was then.

Beyond the Grub

They say free­dom stands on the shoulders of secur­ity. So yeah, let’s nev­er for­get about the pre­requis­ites for the pub­lic secur­ity we are enjoy­ing today. But if we’re mind­ful of that, does it mean we can’t be mind­ful of any­thing else?

But aren’t we stand­ing on the shoulders of secur­ity today? I daresay on the whole we are blessed with more prosper­ity and sta­bil­ity than ever before. Doesn’t the rel­at­ive com­fort of our lives allow us to look bey­ond the grub that keeps our bod­ies alive and look at the mor­al­ity if you will – and at the arts that feed our spir­its? In oth­er words, don’t we have more than enough bread and aren’t we healthy enough to turn to art now?

Indeed Singa­pore soci­ety, includ­ing Gov­ern­ment, has begun to do that. Argu­ably, today the arts do have a bet­ter stand­ing than in the past. The media have begun to reflect that. Art no longer being a non-word has begun to reflect that.

My point is, Singa­pore law doesn’t reflect that. Else­where there’s move­ment in the right dir­ec­tion, but we law­yers are still miss­ing some tools.

As a con­sequence, we are ill-equipped to help artists solve their spe­cif­ic problems.

It’s rel­at­ively easy for a law­yer to help busi­ness people with their needs. This part of the tool­box is full to the brim. It’s harder for a law­yer to argue in favour of an artist, for example if the Nation­al Arts Coun­cil should deny tax­pay­er money to pro­jects which it con­siders crit­ic­al of the Government.

It’s also harder to argue wheth­er an act in pub­lic is an act of van­dal­ism or art. Or an act of van­dal­ism and art. Or, not an act of van­dal­ism at all, but art.

Maybe we’re just not there yet?


Nine­teenth-cen­tury Ger­man chan­cel­lor Otto von Bis­mar­ck said:

The first gen­er­a­tion earns the money, the second man­ages the wealth, the third stud­ies his­tory of art, and the fourth degen­er­ates completely.

He was an arch-con­ser­vat­ive man. But a clev­er man non­ethe­less, so per­haps his wis­dom and wit­ti­cisms carry some weight.

When he said that he was refer­ring to the cycle of wealth and poverty. But if we apply this aph­or­ism to our devel­op­ment as a nation, it might help us real­ise that, as a soci­ety, we may not be the third gen­er­a­tion yet, the ones who devote them­selves to art (entirely, as Bis­mar­ck feared).

Per­haps we are the late second gen­er­a­tion, man­aging the wealth which the pion­eer gen­er­a­tion has created.

If this is true to some extent, then it means we’re here to set the scene for the third gen­er­a­tion, no?

Ya ya, of course, in doing so, beware of the fourth generation.

If we are still the second gen­er­a­tion, not the third, then obvi­ously this doesn’t mean there aren’t any artists around at all. But it may mean you, the artists of today, will have to lay even more ground­work set­ting the scene for the future. You’re the quint­es­sen­tial avant-garde.

Raising Our Voices

To us law­yers this doesn’t mean we can make our own tools. The legis­lat­or, not the handy­man, is the toolmaker.

But this tool­maker has ears to hear. And you know what it’s like. It’s easy to look away. But not to listen is difficult.

And this is our chance to start talk­ing a lot about the arts and everything that goes with it, and to add them to the vocab­u­lary of our Legalese. This is how it works in the busi­ness world and the leg­al terms there, and the rights which ori­gin­ate from these terms, so why shouldn’t it work with the arts as well?

This is a part we, the law­yers, can play. It could help cre­ate a nar­rat­ive, influ­ence the mak­ing of defin­i­tions, and even­tu­ally help increase the leg­al status of the arts in Singapore.

We shall play our part.