He was a kampung boy who grew up to become a wine-drinking, music-loving plenipotentiary and polymath, but you wouldn’t know it on first meeting him. Michael Tay is an unassuming individual who is at equally ease among heads of state and more ordinary folk – an archetypal Renaissance man. An ardent advocate for the soft power approach to building economic and cultural ties between Singapore and the world, he has helped to put the Little Red Dot on the map.
Mr Tay, 59, describes himself as a big-picture, long-term kind of guy, and there’s sufficient evidence to back that up. As a foreign ministry official and diplomat – he’s a former Ambassador to Russia – Tay is well-versed in the art of state-craft, but he’s also a champion of the arts scene, on a mission to provide a global platform for local artists and musicians and change lives in the process. While serving as ambassador, he commissioned Russian composer Vladimir Martynov to create a full-blown symphony for Singapore. It debuted in Moscow in October 2005 and was performed in Singapore in 2007. While in Moscow, he also created the Singapore-Russia Business Forum, an annual meeting to promote bilateral ties, persuade Russian oligarchs to visit Singapore and provide business opportunities for all parties involved.
Mr Tay stands up for Singapore these days through the Foundation for the Arts and Social Enterprise, a non-profit organisation he founded in 2013 to showcase, develop and elevate the arts. Long a believer in the power of music as an agent of change, he founded SingJazz in 2013, an annual music festival that shines a spotlight on local and regional musicians as well as being a showcase for renowned international acts. On the classical front, plans are in place to relaunch the Martynov symphony, now titled Utopia. In November 2019, the piece will be recorded by the London Philharmonic Orchestra under the orchestra’s own label – in London’s famous Abbey Road Studios, no less. It’s all part of Mr Tay’s vision to bring Singapore-style harmony to the world – one strategic note at a time.
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You’ve been credited with opening Russian eyes to opportunities in Singapore and helping to promote the country as a significant player in the global arts scene.
Because of our small size Russia did not see us as relevant, but it’s so different now. The symphony was a milestone. When I commissioned it in Russia, I had a silent but fairly immediate objective: to transform the psyche of Russians, who had an image of Singapore as an exotic tropical island and not much else. I wanted to transform that kind of thinking into something different. There was a lot of media coverage about the symphony in Russia, and it caught the imagination. The Russian public saw it not as a Singapore project but a Russia project. After visiting Singapore, the composer felt that Singapore was a small country but a big idea: he felt we had achieved something called Utopia that the Soviet Union could not achieve in its 70-year history.
You’re probably the only diplomat to commission a symphony for his country, but the relaunch of the piece next year is just the jumping-off point for a broader objective.
We have plans for a commissioning series over 10 years, featuring Singapore and Singapore-based musicians and composers working on large-scale works like symphonies, jazz and chamber pieces, rock operas. If we do it this way, we’re promoting Singapore in a subtler, far more indirect fashion. I think it’s more powerful: Singapore as a model of development. The idea is to build a canon of serious music that all our orchestras can perform in Singapore and overseas. The whole exercise is taking a page from the past: Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven all had patrons. We would like Singapore corporates to sponsor each piece, one company each year over 10 years. All the composers are in place but we need to connect the right people – we don’t have patrons yet. It’s a model for turning corporates into patrons, not just donors. It can work, we already have the talent, it’s not like we’re a desert. The scene is ready and we just need to connect the dots, galvanise all the partners involved.
What set you on path to the foreign service?
I was never interested in government. In university I hated the trappings of status, I was always a rebel at heart. I went to NUS, got a Masters in Philosophy and taught there for two years before being head-hunted. My first job was as an officer in charge of Third World countries in the Middle East, Latin America, Africa. It was challenging and we were put through the grinder, but it forced us to be focused. When I had the Russia-Singapore Business Forum, I would invite 10 oligarchs from Russia, organise a dinner with Lee Kuan Yew and 10 Asian tycoons. LKY might be ill and feeling down but he would do his best toast (Russians like to toast) – he’d speak for 15 minutes and everyone in the room experienced the LKY effect.
How did the experience in government service help your post-diplomatic career?
My whole approach to life is looking at things from the Big Picture point of view. Foreign service officers are trained to think for larger interests, get every agency to march to the same beat. I was a civil servant trying to make the business forum a success – I needed success stories. Singjazz is not an event, it’s a platform for Singapore musicians to perform on the same stage as international acts. It needs to have an international standing so that local musicians can perform on international stage. Next year will be the festival’s sixth year.
You were brought up in a kampung environment and now you are part of the global village.
I’m Hokkien, I grew up near Nee Soon Village. My dad was an apprentice dentist – he was the village dentist. I would go to the mamak shop, everyone knows who you are. I picked up Malay and had an Indian neighbour who spoke fluent Hokkien. I’d bring an egg to the roadside stall for the old man who cooked char kway teow to add to my plate. We’re living a different kind of existence now, and we’re dealing with all kinds of forces. It’s too regulated – somehow the world doesn’t need more rules, people need to have space to reinterpret their lives. It’s a good thing that our ministers are trying to encourage risk-taking and thinking out of the box now. As civil servants, we’re here to serve the country first but we’ve got to be bold and courageous enough to disagree, encourage alternative views.
Your philosophy on life, in a nutshell?
Think big – you may fail big or succeed extraordinarily. Put all your determination into trying to achieve that. In the process of trying you learn so much. In a way, the Foundation for the Arts is about connecting all the notes of lifestyle, bringing everything into one place: my sense of philanthropy, my passion for the arts. I need to make an impact in everything I do.
This article was originally published in The Business Times.