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Recently, a Straits Times article about essential workers caused quite a stir among the public, especially those working in the arts industry. “Artists” were deemed the least essential profession, as decided by 71% of respondents to the survey. Of course, this result must be taken in consideration of the current COVID-19 pandemic, but it is a stark reminder of how little value the arts scene holds in the eyes of Singaporeans, and by extension, how lacklustre it is.
The truth is, Singapore undoubtedly lacks an arts scene, and it is due to the Singaporean tunnel vision when it comes to “success”.
It cannot be denied that many of us, especially the youths, tend to be more interested in Netflix shows than Mediacorp dramas. They gravitate towards Hollywood blockbusters and western musicians. The rise of K-pop and K-dramas has also brought a new wave of obsession that has swept over the teenage population.
Furthermore, how many established artistes do we really have? Most would have heard of the Sam Willows and Gentle Bones, but they are not extremely well-known names on the global stage. JJ Lin and Stefanie Sun are two Singaporean musicians that have made it big outside of the country, but even then, they are two of a rare few who have made such breakthroughs.
When it comes to the film industry, those that gain international attention or critical acclaim are few and far between. The only successful film that immediately comes to my mind would be Anthony Chen’s Ilo Ilo. Jack Neo’s Ah Boys To Men is well-known within the country, but mostly piques the interest of locals only. Moreover, there are countless other Singaporean films that have barely gained any traction locally, let alone abroad.
In addition, our Singaporean artists might be well-known locally, but they are seemingly unable to cross the boundaries of oceans and seas to find success in places other than their homeland. Mediacorp celebrities can walk the streets without the paparazzi and fans on their tail. Perhaps they enjoy the privacy, but it goes to show how little attention Singaporeans pay to them as compared to foreign celebrities. After all, if BTS were to show up at Orchard Road, their supporters would be all over them in a matter of seconds.
Ultimately, our arts and entertainment industry is undermined by our values as a society. We are so hyper focused on academics and grades, because parents expect their children to become doctors and lawyers when they grow up. Our idea of success is limited to the letters on our report cards and the career paths we take. Some even think that only people who cannot study well would study the arts, and discourage their children from pursuing related jobs due to the possibility of an unstable income. As a result, few people dare venture into the seemingly risky entertainment industry. It is this steadfast belief in the jobs we deem as “good”, that creates the perception that singers, actors, painters and the like – artists – do not fit into our mould of success. I, too, sometimes think of what it would be like to be a musician for a living and to pursue my passions, yet I am dissuaded by the uncertainty of the future ahead of me, should I choose to walk this path. Our appreciation for the arts is diminished because it has lost its value in the eyes of Singaporeans. In our pursuit for academic excellence and white-collar jobs, we leave our arts scene in the dust.
What is contradictory is that despite the government’s efforts to promote the arts, the principles of our education system are so firmly based on chasing the perfect grade that we neglect to develop our skills in the creative and artistic spheres. It would be unfair to say that we ignore them completely, but there is, to a degree, a lack of emphasis on the aesthetics subjects in our schools. In retrospect, after nine years of schooling in the Singaporean education system, I have come to realise one thing. The older we get, the less exposure we get to the arts in our curriculums. In Primary 5 and 6, as the looming threat of the PSLE drew near, our music lessons were cut from an hour to half an hour. Similarly, in secondary school, the three hours of aesthetics lessons we used to have every week were conveniently wiped out from our timetables. In their place were more periods of mathematics and the sciences. To our youths, this only serves to further cement the notion that academic subjects take precedence over arts and leisure. Why should this be, when we could strive to seek a balance between the two?
This is one of the fundamental issues that contribute to the minimal public interest in the arts. Our arts scene still lacks the vibrancy and life needed for it to truly flourish. In order for it to thrive, we not only need a community of passionate individuals, but also a society that is accepting, and appreciative of the aesthetics.
As a first world country, we already have a prosperous economy, a high standard of living and a stable government. The time is now, more than ever, to look at our arts scene and develop it further so that we as a country can form a stronger identity and culture. It should be an integral part of our lives, as it is a means for us to express ourselves and our values, to exercise creativity. It adds uniqueness to us as a country, as a people, and as a culture.
Some may argue that Singapore, being such a small country, cannot rival the global influence countries like Korea or Japan have, but it is not entirely impossible. Hong Kong is a case in point. It is a small, Asian city, yet it has a bustling arts and entertainment industry that has produced numerous influential figures, many being singers and actors. Many have grown up watching their dramas and films, and they have certainly made a ripple in numerous Asian countries.
Hence, I do believe that we have the potential to take our arts industry to greater heights. Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite, a South Korean film, had recently won the Oscar for Best Picture. It is the first Asian film to accomplish this, and a wonderful film that I thoroughly enjoyed. In the years to come, I wish see one of those gold trophies in a Singaporean’s hands.
In fact, one does not have to be an artist to help construct a more lively arts scene. The first step to doing so would be to treat it with an open mind. Instead of viewing the arts as mere hobbies, we should rewrite our definition of success by deepening our understanding and appreciation of the aesthetics. We can begin by heading down to some art galleries, festivals and local concerts, or showing some support for Singaporean singers, filmmakers, and playwrights. The more we expose ourselves to the multitudes of art available to us, the more we contribute to the growth of the Singaporean arts landscape.
At the end of the day, until we as a society are able to break free from the shackles of our widely-accepted, narrow-minded perception of success, Singapore’s search for its soul and artistic landscape will be almost futile.