Lesson 1: Man shall not live by bread alone. We must bring arts and culture to the people.
Lesson 2: One man’s meat is another’s poison. Your culture may not be my culture. (Figure it out.)
Lesson 3: You can’t have your cake and eat it too. Unless, of course, it’s your grandfather’s shop. (As in, you are the government?)
“For my money, a hundred eye-popping Broadway plays cannot compare to a single poignant local production in terms of what it means to belong in and to Singapore today.” NMP Janice Koh was capturing the hearts of local arts lover with her maiden speech, even before the government’s announcement that it is pumping $274 million to promote arts and culture over the next five years (almost a quarter of the $1.1 billion injection for the private bus company SBS!).
But not everyone seems excited by the latest vision of the ACSR (Arts and Culture Strategic Review) report, for every Singaporean to “integrate arts and culture as an essential part of life” by 2025. A ‘concerned’ netizen has written on the REACH website saying that the arts are only for the rich and the elite and will only lead into ‘immoral’ values such as homosexuality. “Say yes to practical activities like food and say YES to Family Values!”
Art – Value for Money?
To people with such negative perceptions, one may give assurance that arts and culture under the ACSR ‘definition’ includes not only plays, ballets, paintings, traditional arts but also very grassroots or safe activities like getai, community singing, film and photography. One may even add that all this is really an industry in itself (the report cites 500 new jobs in arts and culture envisaged per year from demand of the two Integrated Resorts, the upcoming National Art Gallery and the need for arts teachers by MOE).
But I’m afraid that won’t be my line here, for I got my own issues and mixed emotions with this whole thing. Don’t get me wrong, for unlike that other anonymous but concerned netizen, I do declare myself to be an unabashed arts lover, one who would gladly spend my monthly salary on arts performances rather than on HDB housing loans, if given a choice. I don’t like to think of ‘culture’ as a luxury good. And I would like to see friends who are arts practitioners striving in their practice, not struggling and suffering for their art, as if being outcasts in society is their mark of distinction, or as if recognition for visionary artistes should always come late, as it did for Van Gogh. The question is: Where should they get support and recognition from? Should it be from the state? And if not, then where?
Art for Pleasure, or Art for Education?
Let’s leave the question about artists for now and think about the audience. Why do we need to bring arts and culture to the people? For their own good, to make them more ‘cultured and gracious’? Is this a bit like national service? OK, if that’s the case, we can start at the CCs, teach residents how to dress properly for a performance, don’t wear slippers, don’t munch food when people are performing, don’t talk, don’t flip newspapers, just behave properly, be civilised. But how about if one goes to a world music festival? There, people may eat their buffet and drink their beer while listening to some spiritual music from Africa or India and imitating some belly dance. Now that is OK, because you don’t need etiquettes when you are outdoors, or because Europeans also appreciate other cultures that way?
Oh, but the arts have to be enjoyable too, you say? So is this how we define the arts, something that gives pleasure, something commercially viable? Is that why we should also support getai shows in Orchard Road? We have to be a cosmopolitan and inclusive society? We want to be a place where there’s no escape from music and dance, where “there’s no hiding” from contemporary art (like what an MRT advert now says)? Well in case anybody misunderstands, contemporary performance artists are not people who paint themselves in silver colour and stand like statues in the streets with a donation box in front of them. Neither is performance art something that makes people “cringe with embarrassment when watched”, like how one Pek Li Sng wrote in a letter to ST last month, arguing that one should not allow the re-enactment of Brother Cane, which was performed 20 years ago by Josef Ng – the artist who has since been in long exile, and remembered only for the cutting of pubic hair, thanks to a sensational tabloid cover story.
As fellow performance artist Lee Wen then wrote in defence of the re-enactment by Loo Zihan, performance art is “valid in Asia, not merely a borrowed or imitation of Western opulence or outlandish individualism”. Individualism is part of history everywhere and deviation in cultural behaviour is just seen as anti-social disruptions in the beginning, he said. Well indeed, is art just meant to be enjoyed? Should art not be a way for us to reflect on our social norms, or to understand the pain and sufferings of fellow human beings in society?
So, if ever Singaporeans need to be educated about the arts, they should just be taught this, that arts can mean a lot of things, it’s often more than just a form of beauty, it’s more than a fat sculpture outside a commercial building to symbolise prosperity, and it’s not just big panels of murals in a MRT station, or flowery decorations on a Chingay float.
We should not presume our ‘heartlanders’ will never appreciate performance art or be engaged in forum theatre; there can always be facilitation and talkback sessions. We should not segregate and divide Singapore between a liberal world of the expat and cosmopolitan crowds, and a protected world of our ‘traditional’ Asian citizens. All we need is a rating system, we have no need for any special ‘no smoking’ *oops, I mean ‘no censorship’ zones. (Isn’t it confusing when National Environment Agency stepped in to make that exception for Tsai Ming-Liang’s play, as if they are in charge of censorship?)
The ACSR report aims for Singapore to be a “nation of cultured and gracious people” in 2025, and it cites Aristotle in saying: “The animals other than man live by appearances and memories, and have but little of connected experiences; but the human race lives also by art and reasonings.” Well Aristotle’s philosophy and rules on what constitute good theatre all sound Greek to me, so I would like to cite a more recent thinker, who said that a theory of art founded on beauty will only please a certain class of people. Art, according to him, is a human activity where one man consciously hands on to others the feelings he has lived through, so that others may also experience them; and art, as a means of communication, is therefore a means of progress. That, by the way, was Tolstoy.
Art as Branding?
I guess one must agree with the second half of it though, when the ACSR report says it aims for Singapore to be a “nation of cultured and gracious people, at home with our heritage, proud of our Singaporean identity”. Certainly, if we live by appearances alone, and without memories, then we are worse than animals, we are just robots. (By the way, how much of our physical heritage will be left by 2025? Let’s leave that topic for another day.)
It seems there is quite a lot of budget in the coming years for NAC scholarship, which is good news for the upcoming pretty young talents. And it seems the buzzword now at the parliamentary budget debate when it comes to MICA, is our homegrown music, how we should consider having a broadcast quota system to support our local musicians. Well I think it would be nice for a start to have retrospectives of our local music from past decades. But I can also imagine politicians getting all excited over it another way, if they have heard that South Korea’s cultural ministry actually has a department dedicated to promoting K-pop. Well in theory, it is not impossible, given the money in training, marketing and other infrastructure, to even emulate the Korean model and produce loads of attractive pop stars, all plastic-looking but well-polished as finished products.
But first of all, maybe sociologists here would need to submit some comprehensive studies on the ‘ecosystems’ of the music scene here. For example: How is it that some local English singers gave up after some years and switched to Mandarin instead? Is there any way to promote local rock bands other than featuring them on NDP? Is Singapore also a fertile soil for Malay music that can produce people in the footsteps of P. Ramlee and M. Nasir? And how should one balance between training of talents in Indian classical music and cinematic music?
For sure, Singapore has accumulated a wealth of talents from the 50s to the 90s and recent years, in music as in other fields like dance, theatre, visual arts, literature, that can be counted as its heritage. The question is how much research has been done and collated for them to be recognised, appreciated and reflected upon. Do we rather connect with fellow Singaporeans through a collective amnesia, and keep churning out ‘arts and culture’ as commercial products to be consumed one night and forgotten the next morning? If we just think of Singapore as a convention centre or hotel for people to come and party, and we want the Singapore identity only as a brand name, something to carry around with us like a branded handbag, well people, I don’t know what to say.
A lot of times, the problem with the arts industry in Singapore is this: We are managing our traditional arts like commercial arts, measuring them by KPIs, and we are managing our contemporary arts like traditional arts, scrutinising them for censorship. If there is one reason our centralised system of arts funding is not working, this is it.
(First published as Facebook note on 4 Mar 2012)