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Writers' Fortnight selection: Art in Singapore

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Writers' Fortnight selection: Art in Singapore

In the Singaporean community, pursuing a career in the Arts is not widely supported by parents or families. Our society’s notion of a typical Singaporean student is a studious, academically driven youth that strives to gain a “respectable” job as a result of their hard work. This perception is one often thought to be imposed by stereotypical Singaporean parents upon their children. However, this concept of a “respectable job” may differ greatly to other families considering the values of different cultures and beliefs. The scope of these “respectable” jobs often hold two close similarities: stability and a high-earning salary. The idea of being an artist is often looked down upon as being risky, difficult, poor, and unappreciated. As such, to many, being an artist is perceived outside this scope of a “respectable” job, and thus is not encouraged by most Singaporean families. To give an example, Ong Keng Sen, now the director of the Singapore International Festival of Arts, was strictly dissuaded to seek the Arts as a full time career. In his youth, his father even  threatened to disown him should he decide to chase his dream.

The cultural traditions and familial beliefs of local Singaporeans may also indirectly play a part in discouraging the Arts as a career. Typically, very high priority is placed on the wellbeing of the family. Thus, compared to more mainstream occupations, the lower salary of artists not only puts them in an economic disadvantage, but also directly harms the welfare of the family. In addition, being an artist is commonly seen as a less important role in society to other professions in socioeconomic sectors. With parents having high expectations for their children, a career in the Arts is considered a disappointing prospect. Theater practitioner and Member of Parliament Kok Heng Leun believes that society’s perspective on the Arts needs to change. “We need artists to be respected. A lot of people still see artists as just entertainers or, for some, trouble-makers because they tackle difficult issues. Artists need to be seen as being as important as scientists, economists and entrepreneurs,” he says.

Aside from the distasteful impression of the Arts held in general consensus, the educational system of Singapore does not help to develop artistically driven students for success. Marc Nair, a poet born and raised in Singapore, faced many of the same challenges while striving towards his dream. In particular, he notes the censorship and the socioeconomic reality of Singapore as major challenges for an artist to survive. Growing up, he personally described many challenges within the restriction of school systems such as the lack of artistic variety and limited promotion of the Arts. Singapore prides itself with having one of the best educational systems in the world, and while the results are undeniable, the reality is different from what one might expect. Every 7 in 10 Singaporean students take tuition on a weekly basis. Add this to the already stressful and high-octane school curriculum and there aren’t many who have free time left to enjoy, let alone to explore, the Arts. Considering the extent of the utilitarian society the Singaporean government has built, there are many entrenched perspectives which undermine a developing student’s desire to follow an art-related occupation. Ong Keng Sen recalls a time when he had a student say to him that she wouldn’t take literature because “literature is subjective and so you cannot get 100 percent, while if you study science or math, you will be able to score 100 percent. And the subjectivity of literature meant that you may actually lose out in the point system in the end.” Here, the sense of practicality rooted by the deep idealistic approaches of the Singaporean government clearly compromises the chances of youth choosing a position in the Arts.

The underlying causes that root the Singaporean art scene to the ground are many, and it will take time to resolve the perception of society. Personally, I believe the basis for an artist to be respected is their prevalence in Singapore. Thus, the government must take steps for the public to receive extensively more exposure. While it is evident that drastic changes have been placed, most notably he opening of the National Gallery in 2015, art simply isn’t common enough, and if so, is not commonly given the acclaim it deserves.

This student article was selected for publication among the Writers' Fortnight-inspired student writings. The assignment to students was to tell the story of someone they met during Writers’ Fortnight who they feel embodies an important social issue - OR to use the stories of several speakers to engage with a shared human experience - OR to write about a matter of personal importance - and to do so as authentically, responsibly and powerfully as possible.

To explore more of the Writers' Fortnight-inspired student writing, please view our Flipboard.

2 May 2018
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