Where Thou Art, Art: The EJ-RI Perspective

This was written in collaboration with EJC Press as part of Issue 3 of Cross Island Impressions, an inter-JC Press collaboration. You can read Issue 3 here.

By Jason Sutio (22S06U; RI), Murugan Rakshita (21-E1; EJC), S Sanjana Rajan (21-01; EJC), and Tricia Loh (21-U1; EJC)

Because it is foolish to criticise pre-existing civil systems, no sane citizen is ready to sink their hands into the dirty work of criticising the education system, and the vocational world after it, and preaching alternatives. Here’s some delightful news: we are here to lighten your burden and take it upon ourselves (spurred by our sense of obligation to do so, as students who genuinely care for the welfare of the student population in Singapore) to educate the importance of an arts education. We feel compelled to scrunch up our sleeves and correct a misconception: STEM > ARTS

There is no denying that the arts are somewhat regarded with contempt. The notorious survey conducted by the Sunday Times revealed statistics of a whopping 71% of locals who viewed artists as the least essential occupation. How did this conception spark? How can we ignite the appreciation for the arts? Is the Singaporean arts scene truly lacking? 

To answer these inquiries, we extend a hearty invitation to you to join us aboard. This train leaves promptly on time—it’s neither green nor red

Here’s a quick definition of the arts according to the National Arts Council (NAC) website: art comprises visual arts, traditional arts, literary arts, music, dance and theatre. 

Exploring the Singaporean Arts Scene

Since recent years, the arts scene in Singapore has been steadily improving. The NAC population survey on the arts in 2019 unveiled that physical attendance at Arts-related events across all age demographics showed an increase of 29% from 2013 to 2019. Various workshops and events have been conducted to inspire a more vibrant Arts landscape. Notably, the Singapore Art Week 2020 attracted over 600,000 participants and featured over 100 events taking place across the island in celebration of visual arts.

 Highlights of the 2020 Singapore Art Week, taken from TheSmartLocal.

The arts has also had a profound impact on building a more inclusive community, providing a platform for intergenerational and multicultural connection. For instance, have a look at Visai, an NAC-Tamil Murasu partnered programme, which encouraged  Singaporeans to read and write Tamil Literature through a series of creative writing workshops. Furthermore, a  music immersion programme, Child at Street 11, helps children with diverse backgrounds receive quality exposure and education. People with disabilities can also showcase their talents through events like Very Special Arts’ Sync Programme. These events highlight the efforts by the Singapore government to provide an environment conducive to the learning about the arts.

This spectrum of arts exposure is not only encouraged nationally, but also in schools. Raffles and Eunoia have also had their fair share of the arts pie—and what a large share it is! Rafflesians enjoy frequent performances by the performing arts CCAs, from the annual Raffles Jazz concerts to Raffles Rock performances at the Amphitheatre. A myriad of paintings line the walls of Raffles Institution (RI), strokes left by alumni that tell a story. Art exhibitions were also held, such as the Among Art exhibition by the then Year 5 Art students in 2020. As for Eunoia, from electrifying musicals under the Aesthetic Class Experience, to Literature symposiums and live plays, the Eunoia arts culture blooms with vibrancy! 

Despite frequent exposure to the arts, the fight for a paradigm shift is still very much an uphill battle. 82.1% of our Rafflesian and Eunoian respondents believe that it is safer to get a degree in the STEM field than the arts field. For Muhammad Wisnu Darmawan who is in the Science stream (21S06A; RI), he finds that the STEM field has a more well-defined job scope so it is more pragmatic for him to find a career in that sector. Furthermore, STEM is developing rapidly and will continue to develop, lending to a promising career. 

Such sentiments have led to few students that appreciate the local Arts scene in Singapore. In our survey, an overwhelming majority of respondents cannot recall the names of local artists, be it playwrights, visual artists or choreographers. This highlights how awareness is still lacking among Singaporean youths, and that the arts scene is stagnating. 

Do try for yourself if you can recognise the names of local artists! 

Next Stop: Manifest the Arts

So why do students still feel detached from the arts, despite persistent efforts encouraging them to venture into it? Our two cents (still considerably valuable, so hear us out) is to manifest the art. We are not assuming any new age spiritual-guru avatar; the reason why we feel that students do not feel connected to the arts in Singapore is because our Arts scene is still lacking in depth. 

Mothers feed music to their younglings—and yet there is a lack of musicians in Singapore. Youngsters are brooding over the all rounded talents and capabilities of Kpop idols, and yet we seldom hear excited shrieks over local artists. There is little recognition or appreciation for the already small group of local talents. 

Passengers Aboard, Significance Accord

You might wonder—why should we ‘manifest the art’? So what if more people are interested in STEM fields? Can’t we bear to part with something so abstract?

It is important to recognise the role of the arts on both a personal and societal scale. On a more personal level, here’s why Arts matters to the self. The Trøndelag Health Study (The HUNT study) conducted by the Norwegian University of Science and Technology found that participants who actively engaged in the arts were more satisfied with their lives, and more importantly, had better mental health. “Appreciating the arts can occur in any scale or form, and you don’t have to be a highbrow connoisseur to be able to respond to, engage with and even make your own art,” said Lara Tan (22A01B; RI), who takes HELM. “I always find myself turning to the arts in times of emotional or mental distress. Engaging in simple activities like reading a book, writing a short poem or playing an instrument helps to relax my mind and enjoy myself, and gives me the liberty to express my emotions.”

“An engaged arts lover will have the intellectual curiosity and nimbleness of a creative disposition: an individual who can imagine broader horizons,” mentioned Paul Tan, the deputy CEO of the NAC in a Straits Times article. During these unprecedented times, youths should be individuals who can “imagine broader horizons” and come up with innovative solutions. Critical thinking is shaped through the participation of Arts events, and as Singaporeans are exposed to various interpretations, they gradually become more perceptive in the way they observe the world. 

When we think of Singapore, we must realise that what makes a country ‘home’ lies beyond its physical infrastructure. The arts play a crucial role in constructing our social fabric—our relationships, experiences and attitudes. Arts shape common experiences as it records a narrative that every Singaporean can identify with. Surely, we do not wish for Singapore to gain the reputation of a ‘cultural desert’. Expression is key in amplifying the voices of Singaporeans, to let them convey what makes Singapore home. 

The arts also play a part in shaping our heritage. Various monuments and statues, like the marble statue of Sir Stamford Raffles in North Bank, where it was believed to be the spot he landed when he arrived in Singapore, mark concrete (literally) proof of significant events that shape our identity as Singaporeans. 

We are advocating for a society that places Arts and STEM on equal footing. This is the only way to ensure that young talents will be encouraged to pursue the arts.

By manifesting the art, we mean that we should take active efforts to imbibe the cruciality of the arts into our societal views (which predominantly sees STEM > ARTS). This is so that everyone, on a subconscious scale, realises the divine mantra for societal balance: 

STEM = ARTS    

However that begs the question, where does the preconception that STEM > Arts come from? And why is it such a challenge to put Arts and STEM equally?

#1 Money, Money, Money

One of the challenges of pursuing the arts in Singapore is sustainability as a full-time profession. Many artists struggle to sustain themselves on an artist’s salary (remember, low appreciation = low profit), and resort to taking up additional jobs to supplement the income from their artworks. 

Surveys we have conducted amongst students have indicated that this consideration plays the largest factor as to why students feel discouraged from pursuing a career in the arts—with 89.5% indicating that they believed it to be “a risky job”, and 81.6% indicating that these jobs would give them a “low pay”. Evidently, there is a conception that pursuing Arts-related jobs will be a tumultuous career pathway. 

However, it is undeniable that in attempts to reverse this perception of the arts, the government has set aside a relatively high level of funding for the local arts sector. In fact, the NAC provides several grants for up-and-coming artists, even offering annual NAC Young Artist Awards to encourage the youth to pursue a future in the arts. The 2017 Cultural Statistics Report stated that an estimated S$412.8 million in funding was set aside in the previous year for the arts and heritage. Regardless, concerns about the effectiveness of such grants and programs has long since been raised. Many artists cite concerns over the strict criteria to qualify for an NAC grant, which many feel is daunting and may even run counter to the objectives of their artwork. With only one grant cycle per year, one could question whether an artist could support himself as such. 

Furthermore, one should consider the implications of having 85% of the local arts scene being funded by the government. Generous grants from NAC can be taken back if “the work produced is in breach with their guidelines”. Before an exhibition or performance can go public, it has to be licensed by the Infocomm Media Development Authority. This has massive ramifications on the liberty an artist has for their art, where their livelihood is at risk. Is this censorship truly to protect Singapore from the disruption of “public order, national security and/or stability”? Or does it serve to suffocate and silence the artist? Though there is no clear answer, one thing is certain: it has discouraged budding artists.

#2 Mother Knows Best

For many Rafflesians and Eunoians alike, parental support is of great concern as they are not financially independent. 73.6% of the students surveyed indicated that the “lack of parental support” was one of the reasons why they were discouraged from pursuing an Arts career. In fact, data released by the NAC noted that parents faced “pragmatic pressures” themselves, and are hence unwilling to let their children pursue the arts for fear of their future financial instability. In addition, parents also felt that the arts stream was meant for students who were less academically-inclined, and that “one will not have a future should [they] pursue the arts”. 

Is this fear within parents misplaced? It has been continually hammered home from generation to generation that working in the aesthetics department is undesirable or yields little salary. Even in rare cases where one is unrestrained from focusing on arts education, the subtle discouragement not only from society but also their family, consequently pushes the student to steer their career path towards the sciences. 

To substantiate this, we refer to an excerpt from the blog, Defragmenting my World. It features theatre veteran and director of the Singapore International Festival of Arts, Ong Keng Sen, expressing his pressing concern over Singapore being an unsuitable platform for the growth of arts. Mr Ong shares that he believes that society is strongly entwined with the perception that venturing into the arts is a risky and futile attempt to mould a successful future for oneself. 

#3 A Heart in Art

Since it has been inherently embedded in the Singaporean society that STEM education is a more favourable and stable path, taking up Arts for tertiary education (even if one is truly passionate about it) is rare. Mr Ong says that youths find economic independence more attractive than passion, hence, they are more likely to give up on  their dreams of becoming an artist. Mr Ong continues that in Singapore, the arts have been looked down upon by the general society. 

Furthermore, he brings up his conversation with a teenager. He recalled that the teenager chose not to pursue the arts because it was practically impossible to attain a perfect score when studying the arts, due to its subjectivity. This is much unlike the STEM fields, where it is plausible to get a 100 percent on a theory test paper. In a society that is often greatly concerned with grades, this feature of the arts can turn students off from studying them. 

Passion in the arts is thus stifled in such a harsh financial and societal climate, leading to people holding the arts in contempt. 

Final Stop: Alight Here to Change Lines

To identify areas for improvement, let us first investigate platforms already available to support students in their learning of the arts. In addition to arts competitions for CCAs such as the SYF, and the arts discipline in school, students can engage in out-of-school activities. Mentorship programmes are offered by Noise Singapore for aspiring artists below the age of 35 in search of career advice. Noise Singapore is an NAC initiative which provides opportunities for youths to engage with the arts. These platforms ignite their passion in the arts and inspire them to pursue a career in them. Digitally, social media platforms like YouTube and TikTok, available for the masses, allow students to explore creative ways of filmmaking and choreography. Meanwhile, Instagram and Pinterest tend to cater to visual artists as a tool for them to build up an online presence and portfolio. 

Apart from these mentorship programmes, there are also reward systems that instill a spirit of healthy competition and sportsmanship to push budding artists into the limelight. The Cultural Medallion and Young Artist Award as well as the Golden Point Award are some examples. International collaborations also exist to widen a student’s horizon, like the Residency Partnership with National Centre for Writing with the UK. 

These available platforms have established themselves as part and parcel of the Singapore arts scene. Nonetheless, there is a lack of awareness persisting in the Singaporean community, particularly amongst students, towards the existence of these channels. Perhaps a more targeted approach is needed to inculcate the arts in Singaporeans. There needs to be more traction behind platforms  such as the arts Resource Hub by NAC so that people know where to find ways to foster their talent. 

More collaborative efforts from community centres and arts organisations can be established so events can have a greater outreach through integrating the arts deep into our neighbourhoods. To educate students on the significance of art pieces, guided gallery and museum tours need to be encouraged. Students should also be encouraged to view the museum artefacts or pieces at their own pace, to understand each artwork on a more personal level. This fosters a more meaningful connection between the inexperienced mind and the artwork, as well as deeper appreciation for the emotions evoked. 

Moreover, art exhibitions can raise awareness of how art can be fun and more importantly, accessible. The misconception that “art requires technique and is thus difficult” needs to be disproven as the beauty of art lies in its meaning, not so much on the techniques behind it. (‘The Comedian’, a banana duct taped to a wall that sold for $120,000 each is a bona fide example.) Such art that clearly and deliberately mock existing standards shows how tantalising art can be if one starts to dig deeper. 

This lends to how appreciation for different genres is a prerequisite (we would talk about the modern vs traditional vs. digital art divide but that’s a whole other story). We should not reject different art solely for the sake of being different, or being simple. Sentiments of “my child can draw that modern art” need to be corrected. School community projects, particularly Values-In-Action initiatives, could gain from having more art-centric themes, and expose people to more art mediums and genres. In this way, art is not derided particularly as the contemporary and modern genre tends to focus on minimalism. 

To conclude, the Singapore arts scene is growing but not thriving due to certain economic restraints, cultural and social stigmas about the arts that hinder the development of this creative field. It is crystal clear that more awareness needs to be raised in order to boost the local landscape, particularly among students, urgently. More avenues need to be provided to nurture these youths’ talents. Indeed, the significance of the arts is something presently overlooked in Singapore. However, we believe that change is on the horizon—and we look forward to the day that Singapore is fully transformed into a vibrant arts hub; And this journey begins with you, reader, to make the first step in appreciating local arts. 

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