AAMR Day 1: Opening Keynote by Clarissa Oon (Summary)

Beyond surfaces & silos.

LASALLE College of the Arts, F309
24 May 2019, 9:00am

Clarissa Oon began by sharing how she got into arts media in the early 90s, where theatre companies were starting to go professional, the ecosystem of arts funding was nascent, and playwrights were finding their voice. She referenced former theatre critics for the Straits Times (ST), Hannah Pandian and T Sasitharan, as seminal examples of the influence of critics in recording, documenting and analysing the impact of art and its societal relevance. She shared her career shift from print media, at ST, to digital, as manager of the Esplanade’s online content, and the challenges it involves such as people’s unwillingness to pay for online media because of information overload. She asserted that good writing ought to be remunerated well.

Arts media in Asia

Clarissa gave an overview of the history of Asian arts media and platforms, such as Performing Arts Review owned by National Theatre and Concert Hall, Taiwan, available both in print and online; Malaysiakini, Critics Republic, Kakiseni. Singapore’s Esplanade produced a bimonthly print magazine from 1997 to 2003 and is now working on a microsite, looking to work with new media formats: videos, quizzes, playlists.

Clarissa stated that the traditional news media is profit-oriented and the arts is a not for profit activity and hence not a steady source of advertising. A corresponding development she noticed is a lot more public funded and crowd-funded arts media. 

Print’s heyday

While some people say print is sunset industry, Clarissa thinks there are relevant things to learn from it. The golden age of the newspaper was when critics who could introduce readers to things they never knew about through long-form content. Critics have a close understanding of artists enabling them to draw deeper insights that the regular audience may otherwise not know of. She cites fellow critic Hidzir Junaini who was inspired by the work of pioneer music critic Chris Ho.


From her experience at ST, she believes one has more leeway to challenge establishment views as an arts writer than as a political correspondent, considering that artists are themselves critical or provocative in their works.

New funding models and media formats

Clarissa gave examples of how different independent arts media in Southeast Asia are funded:

– ArtsEquator: public funding via grants from National Arts Council, but discuss critical issues and debates

– Asymptote, Mekong Review: crowd-funded

A model in which the reader is content owner; may entail financial uncertainty

There is funding available from ASEAN but it’s skewed towards artistic production and cultural output.

New media formats for in-depth engagement

After spending 15 years with ST print media, Clarissa realised that youth today prefer to watch videos or listen to audio. Instagram stories are a new form of review. She is exploring what is at the heart of what people want to read and how we can continue to nurture the fundamentals of criticism – storytelling and depth of insight – amid these changes in format.


On social media, people follow individuals rather than organisations or brands. A possibility is to work with the writers/creatives whom people can connect with. Some examples from Singapore and Asia are Alfian Sa’at, Corrie Tan and Devdutt Pattanaik.

The future of arts content is a long-haul work towards building communities, or “omakase” – small groups, trusted voices. How do we translate the real-life communities we work with to the digital space? 

Nurturing the next generation of writers

In the aftermath of newsroom critics being axed, there is a need to expand the conversation to other creative and producers to continue the depth of critical arts media, through important capability-building efforts.

As moderator, Corrie Tan mentioned one point that struck her is that it seems that the critical act is no longer merely writing but manifold creative practices. 

Questions and Answers

Sadanand Menon was skeptical on Clarissa’s point on community-building in the arts, pointing out cases such as the incarceration of Kuo Pao Kun and Arundathi Roy, both in which “no amount of community building” helped and “so-called community was distinguished by its absence.” He questioned if we conflate market and community.

Clarissa noted she was discussing community in reference to financial sustainability. She added that in Singapore community-building is a recent endeavour and there would be a different level of response of Kuo had been incarcerated today. She states her ideal of community is an aspiration.

Katrina Santiago shared that in Philippines the notion of a community key to solidarity and advocacy in response to an oppressive political climate. She functions as a gatherer of artists of different cliques and generations towards one advocacy based on what the community needs.

A representative from ASEF stated it seeks to support initiatives that give access to information on the arts with critical approach; in certain countries it’s not easy to find a website for basic information on the arts. Some people question why it is needed and are loathe to fund websites generally.