Foundation for The Arts and Social Enterprise Founder Michael Tay On How the Smallest Act of Giving Can Transform the Arts Scene

In 2003, fuelled by a love for the arts and music and a passion for Singapore, Michael Tay, the then-Ambassador to Russia, commissioned Russian composer Vladimir Martynov to compose a symphony about Singapore. The symphony, now titled UTOPIA, has been recorded by the London Philharmonic Orchestra under their LPO label and released worldwide in November 2020.

But Michael’s passion for the arts would carry on in the later half of his career – as Founder and Director of The Foundation for The Arts and Social Enterprise, he has helped to connect many local artists to opportunities across the world. SGN speaks with Michael about how his passion has led him to build he bedrock for a thriving arts scene in Singapore.

22 February 2021 / By SGN

Throughout his career, Michael learned that music and the literary arts can foster a creative impulse in children, which he thinks, will contribute towards the greater good of society.

Michael’s love for the arts and music began at a young age. “I started listening to jazz in my teenage years. My brother gave me my first hi-fi and he was a jazz lover, so I got to listen to his jazz records. From jazz, I went on to classical music, opera and soon, other genres of music as well, including avant-garde compositions,” he says.

Michael believes that there is something fundamentally transformative about music – he thinks it has the power to transform and energise a person, making one want to embrace the world in a new way. This belief never wavered even as he pursued a career path divergent from the arts, having served in the  diplomatic services in Japan and Korea, before his appointment as the Ambassador of the Singapore Embassy in Russia.  

While he was Ambassador of Singapore to Russia in 2003, Michael commissioned Russian composer Vladimir Martynov to compose a symphony about Singapore to change the Russian perception of Singapore. The symphony was performed in Moscow and Singapore in 2005 and 2007 respectively. Almost a decade later, it was rewritten and recorded by the London Philharmonic Orchestra on their LPO label and distributed worldwide in November 2019. Plans were to bring UTOPIA home to Singapore with a live performance in March 2020, but no thanks to the pandemic, this has been postponed to 2022.

Michael Tay with Vladimir Martynov, who composed a symphony about Singapore as a venture to alter the Russian perception of Singapore and to bind the two countries closer.

Developing Opportunities for Singapore’s Arts Scene

Today, Michael helms The Foundation for The Arts and Social Enterprise as its Founder and Director. Originally an informal organisation born out of Michael’s desire to grow the arts scene in Singapore, The Foundation achieved charity status in 2014, making it an established non-profit organisation today.

“I believe that Singapore has achieved a level of development with its first-world infrastructure, developing a thriving city that takes care of its people,” he says. “But we should aim higher, to follow the path of countries that have achieve artistic excellence and a serious arts audience.”

Michael’s foundation aims to introduce Singapore-based artists to the global arts landscape and expose them to different markets for greater opportunities. He believes that local artists would be able to magnify their chances of success in markets outside of Singapore.

The Foundation takes an uncommon approach to promote the arts space by acting as a venture capitalist would in investing in the artists. For example, if artists have a project that they would like to push or record, The Foundation will help to develop it into a project that has the potential to be exported.

“The team will then go to an individual or company to seek a certain amount of funds for specific project objectives and outcomes. We’re taking the approach to deliver impact for as little money as possible. No amount is too small for us either. If a schoolkid wants to donate their lunch money to a project, that’s as meaningful to us as a corporate business that donates thousands.”

“In fact, our notion of philanthropy is that it should be about the act of giving, not of getting a return. It should be child-like, not calculative.”

It is the heart that counts – Michael believes that the purest act of giving, no matter the amount, can spark a great impact for change in the industry.

“For The Foundation, we see the arts as the core of being humans, of being who we are, and that is what we want to promote. For those who are passionate and want to specialise in different aspects of the arts – be it in music, visual arts, dance, film, theatre – we want to help them in their journey and one of the pillars in our approach to the arts is to commission original creation,” Michael shares.

In the coming year, The Foundation plans to launch a ten-year music commissioning series and to produce more international collaborations in art forms like playwriting.


Overcoming the Pandemic: Discovering a Platform to Perform

With the global arts scene taking a toll from the recent pandemic, Michael asserts that it is especially important for the community to support and keep the arts scene alive. This includes nurturing the process of arts creation by commissioning new works and building a stronger arts audience through educational and outreach projects which will help the industry on the long run. The Foundation reckons it’s imperative to continue to provide children with the opportunity to be enriched by the arts during the pandemic.

Michael believes that arts philanthropy is paramount to the industry’s survival during the pandemic. “If you look at history, at classical musicians like Mozart and Beethoven – none of them would have survived without philanthropy. They had the backing from the aristocrats and businessmen of the time,” he explains. While The Foundation is not able to pay for the artists’ livelihood, they actively seek to find commissions for them.

Interestingly, the pandemic may not be all bad. Michael shares that while it has no doubt been disastrous, it has also been transformational, inspiring many artists to rethink the way they create art. He is also hopeful that this will spark more conversations around the meaning of art in our lives. 

“From the minute we were born, art is a part of us,” Michael says. “Imagine a baby coming into being and learning how to navigate the world – this person has to be creative. The arts has to be seen as a crucial part of being human. Before becoming an engineer, accountant, or banker, we were all artists first.”


UTOPIA, a symphony about Singapore commissioned by Michael Tay and composed by Russian composer Vladimir Martynov, will be performed live in Singapore at the Esplanade in 2022 (postponed from March 2021). Click here to listen to the full symphony on Spotify!

The Foundation has limited copies of the UTOPIA CD (S$25 with shipping) for purchase. To order, donate or sign up to be a part of The Foundation’s One Million Towards Utopia movement – which brings together a local and international collective of musicians, artists, painters, businesses, community groups and everyday people to rethink about the arts – please visit https://www.thefoundation.sg/towardsutopiasg or email contactus@thefoundation.sg for more information.


About Michael

Michael Tay is the former Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the Republic of Singapore to the Russian Federation. Since returning to Singapore, Michael has founded and is now running The Foundation for the Arts and Social Enterprise, a non-profit arts charity that aims to develop the local arts scene by connecting talents to the global stage.


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