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Speech By Mr Khaw Boon Wan At The Launch Of The North East Line Art In Transit Programme On 6 June 2003

06 Jun 2003 Speeches

Art In Transit

1.     In 1985, when I was tasked to commission and run the newly built National University Hospital, my team decided to make it a different public hospital. Among other things, we decided to brighten up the hospital by introducing art pieces to the wards and corridors.

Art in Hospital

2.     But we had no budget for such an adventure. So, we went around, begging for donations of paintings. Dr Earl Lu was the first to respond to our call. He was generous with his many paintings of the roses.

3.     McDonald's adopted one X-ray suite and decorated it up especially for the children. We became the first public hospital to incorporate art in our buildings. That was more than 15 years ago.

4.     At that time, I remembered discussing the subject of "art in hospital" with a German hospital CEO. He said that it was sometimes a headache for him. I asked why. He explained that Germans had a long artistic tradition, with strong discerning tastes. So once in a while, he would get a patient demanding to be moved to another room just because the painting was not to his liking! I told the German hospital CEO that the patient could not be very sick then. Fortunately for me, our patients here were not as fussy.

5.     We have come some way from the early days of merely hanging up paintings in hospital wards. A few years later, when I was involved in the design and planning of the KK Women & Children's Hospital, we were able to justify a modest budget for interior décor as part of the project cost. I was especially keen on doing it properly for the KK Children's Hospital as most children find hospitalisation to be traumatic. Any way to relieve their anxiety and distract them from their fear is therefore welcome. This was what I learnt from the NUH McDonald's X-ray suite experience, which became a popular destination for many paediatric patients.

6.     Indeed, a sensitive application of interior décor can produce an outcome with value that far exceeds the cost. By consciously planning and incorporating the art at the outset into the hospital design, we actually do not need a large incremental budget. By further involving the community and leveraging on corporate support, it is possible to elevate the art in hospital programme to a higher plane and sustain it.

7.     I was therefore most happy to join the TTSH staff a fortnight ago when SCO hosted a lunch time performance in their lobby. It was spirit lifting for our SARS-fighters, not to mention the therapeutic value of music in healing.

From Hospital to MRT

8.     This morning we witness another application of the art for the common good. From art in hospital, we now see another quantum leap in the incorporation of the art in MRT.

9.     Like hospitals, the earlier MRT stations have not neglected the display of paintings and sculptures. But this morning's event marks a major leap from merely putting up art pieces to embedding the art into building finishes. It is "art-inside": fusing art and science, art and engineering.

10.   Historically, transit systems around the world have boasted artistic elements, from the elaborate pillars of the Moscow subway system to the art nouveau entrances of the Paris Metro.

11.   Our North East Line now joins this distinguished list, not just for its distinctive station designs, but also because of the artworks of 19 local artists embedded within. These include the works of Cultural Medallion winners Chua Ek Kay, Goh Beng Kwan, Tan Swie Hian and Teo Eng Seng. There are also works by our other talents, including S Chandrasekaran, Vincent Leow and Matthew Ngui.

Arts Everywhere

12.   The 19 artists, working on diverse media forms such as stained glass, mosaic and ceramics, have each brought their own distinctive style and approach to the NEL stations. Through their efforts, they have elevated public art in Singapore to a massive scale.

13.   The significance of this assignment is that these artworks were not an afterthought. They were part and parcel of the conceptualisation of NEL right from the start. This has enabled the artworks to be carefully integrated into each station's architecture, without causing any increase in budget. For example, the floor and the walls have to be tiled anyway. But by incorporating the art works into the design and the selection of the tiles, we achieved a wonderful outcome without any increase in cost.

14.   As a result, we have today 16 stations, which together form a 'horizontal art museum' along our North-East corridor. It stands as a day-to-day testimony of the creative talents of the Singaporean artist community, besides enhancing and enriching our environment.

Art and Heritage

15.   The artworks cover a wide range of subjects. They reflect not only the diverse backgrounds of their artists, but also the communities that the North East Line runs through and serves.

16.   For example, at this Farrer Park station, the artworks bring back memories of Farrer Park's sporting history. The illustration of horses reminds us that our turf club had its origin in Farrer Park, something the younger Singaporeans may not be aware.

17.   The first aircraft landed in Singapore here, at the old racecourse in 1919 - hence the illustration of an aeroplane in the artworks.

18.   And at Hougang station, residents have literally left their mark on the station walls, as their handprints are now there for all to see.

19.   The artworks give the stations identity and colour while enhancing the travel experience. Such public art will nurture an understanding between the public and the artistic community, by connecting them and bringing art closer to the people. This is a wonderful application of MITA's "Arts Everywhere" initiative.

Public Education

20.   But our work does not end with the commissioning and installation of these art pieces. What is needed now is a continuous public education programme, which will help commuters better understand and appreciate these works of art.

21.   We will work with SBS Transit on this. Brochures about the artists and the art works will be available at the stations. Schools can then organise field trips to NEL, for the students to hop from station to station as they take in the talents of the artists.

22.   LTA has also published a book that documents the challenges faced in fulfilling this public art programme. The book will be a meaningful keepsake for future generations.

23.   Together, all these efforts will help raise awareness and appreciation of the arts. A MITA colleague had a further brainwave. He thinks that SBS Transit should organise mid-night art museum tours of these NEL stations, so that night birds have another activity to engage in and be inspired, besides adding to the buzz of Singapore! It is an innovative idea, but I am not sure if there is sufficient demand.


24.   Let me take this opportunity to make special mention of some of the people behind this project. Dr Ho Kah Leong chaired the Art Review Panel. He had able team mates like Dr Earl Lu, Mr Wee Chwee Heng and the late Brother Joseph McNally. The Art Review Panel spent many hours working with the engineers, architects and the artists to develop the art concepts.

25.   Their work was co-ordinated by Ms Constance Sheares, the former curator of the Singapore Museum. She played a key role in balancing the aspirations of the artists with LTA's stringent technical requirements.

26.   The artworks would not have been possible without the efforts of the contractors, who combined their construction expertise with the artists' creativity to produce the artworks that we see today.

27.   And of course, our deepest gratitude to the 19 artists who gave generously of their time and talents to this project. For them, this is national service.

28.   My congratulations to the artists, architects, engineers and contractors for your outstanding contribution to the Art in Transit. Your vision, dedication and talents will enrich and inspire the lives of many as they ride on the North East Line daily.

29.   It is now my pleasure to launch the Art in Transit Programme.

Issued by: Ministry of Transport
6 June 2003