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A different breed of sponsors

Clarissa Oon, 23 June 2011

(c) 2011 Singapore Press Holdings Limited

Controversial groups here get funding support from companies Google and Man Investments

The Singapore branch of global Internet giant Google has lent its name to the annual Pink Dot gathering at Speaker's Corner.

Citing its commitment to diversity as an employer, Google Singapore approached the event, organised by the three-year-old pro-gay movement, and sponsored its concert at Hong Lim Park last Saturday.

Pink Dot organises a registered gathering at the park once a year and invites all Singaporeans who support the freedom to love regardless of sexual orientation.

The Google-Pink Dot tie-up comes after international fund manager Man Investments said it would underwrite an outspoken theatre festival produced by Wild Rice, which had its funding cut by the National Arts Council for disparaging the Government and doing counter- cultural plays.

Man is a high-profile arts sponsor which lends its name to the Man Booker Prize, a prestigious international literary award. Wild Rice's festival, which runs from Aug 3 to 21, will now be known as the Man Singapore Theatre Festival.

While both Google and Man say they are not out to make a political statement, arts and civil society insiders Life! spoke to see them as a new type of unconventional corporate sponsor which takes its cue from cosmopolitan young consumers and their 'causes' rather than an official government line.

Both companies decline to reveal the value of their sponsorship.

Google's head of policy for South-east Asia Ann Lavin says it supports Pink Dot's message as 'an equal opportunity employer' which 'does not discriminate against any employee or applicant for employment because of race, creed, colour, religion, gender (or) sexual orientation'.

Mr Tim Peach, Man's executive director and head of sales for South-east Asia, says that when it signed on as sponsor for Wild Rice, it was not aware of the cut to its government funding. 'But from our point of view, it was immaterial,' he adds.

The theatre company has a history of producing irreverent political satire and gay-themed plays.

The deal with Man has saved its Singapore Theatre Festival, which was in danger of being canned after the previous title sponsor, OCBC Bank, pulled out and National Arts Council cut its annual grant for the second year in a row. OCBC continues to sponsor the rest of Wild Rice's season.

The theatre company got $110,000 this year from the council, down from $170,000 last year. The council said two years ago it would not fund projects 'which are incompatible with the core values promoted by the Government and society or disparage the Government'.

Mr Peach says Man was drawn to Wild Rice's popular festival, now in its third instalment, because it was 'sustainable' and 'not a flash in the pan'.

'We're not trying to make a political statement. We're an investment organisation which likes to sponsor the arts, and the arts can sometimes be controversial.'

He adds that Man 'doesn't mind being controversial' as it has built its business on 'challenging conventional wisdom of investment management'. He thinks the role of the arts is to 'illuminate', which can mean 'challenging conventional wisdom, and those watching can draw their own conclusions'.

Nominated Member of Parliament for the arts Audrey Wong says such unconventional tie-ups are the exception rather than the rule, as big-time sponsors still fight shy of controversy. But partnerships such as the one between Google and Pink Dot are 'inevitable because we're so open to the world now, particularly with the influx of foreign talent in our midst'.

Lasalle-SIA College of the Arts academic Venka Purushothaman thinks that for some global companies, corporate sponsorship is giving way to 'cause marketing umbrella-ed by corporate social responsibility'.

This is to reach a huge and borderless youth market, which is 'confident, connected, articulate and often clad with a newfound idealism about how they want to shape their environment'. Corporates take their cue from these consumers 'rather than the state today', he adds.

This is good news for independent- minded local arts groups who feel that they are 'held ransom by state funds', says sociologist Terence Chong of the Institute of South-east Asian Studies.

If such alternative sponsorship becomes a trend, the Singapore Government may have to rethink its current strategy of regulating the arts through funding.

'Because the state continues to be the biggest and most important arts funder, it still wields great influence over arts content. If arts groups can tap into global capital, then such a strategy may lose its relevance,' says Dr Chong.



'We're not trying to make a political statement. We're an investment organisation which likes to sponsor the arts, and the arts can sometimes be controversial'

Mr Tim Peach, Man's executive director and head of sales for South-east Asia


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