Without a doubt, Singapore has well-established its status as the premier financial hub in Southeast Asia. With this comes the renown of being associated with high efficiency, yet not so much with creativity. This can be attributed to Singapore’s first prime minister Mr Lee Kuan Yew, and his vision of developing Lion City’s most prized resource: its people. Thus the country climbed the ranks and earned itself the title of being one of the world’s top financial and trading centres. Moulding its citizens with the basic foundations of education has led to efficient work processes and systematic procedures optimised for reaping maximum economic gains.
Yet, the lack of emphasis on the arts in the past has warranted much concern. It has been said that Mr Lee himself in 1968 proclaimed poetry to be “a luxury we cannot afford”, meaning that Singaporeans should attend to more pressing concerns. In fact, in the 1970s and 1980s when describing Singapore, the descriptor of choice that was bandied about was “cultural desert”.
The government has since then changed its tack, with a dedicated cultural policy, putting in money and infrastructure into the arts with public funding for arts groups, support for Singapore’s art and culture festivals and events such as the Singapore International Festival of Arts and Singapore Art Week, and investment into education with dedicated arts institutions like LASALLE College of the Arts and Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts.
Financial security over the arts
Yet, many Singaporeans still consider the arts to be an impractical career choice. Initial responses to individuals interested in diving into arts are often negative. Since Singapore has much success in the financial sense, it tends to exude an underlying effect that warrants prosperity. When it comes to arts as a career option, many Singaporeans might not be all too keen to tread the road less taken and prefer going with the safer route that guarantees financial security.
Debunking the misconceptions of venturing into the arts industry
When it comes to the arts industry, many misconceptions are often expressed. To debunk these myths about venturing into the arts industry, here are a few of them along with success stories to keep well in mind:
1. Only those who cannot study pursue the arts
The conventional path to success in Singapore often entails going to good schools – this can be seen even from the choice of kindergartens and primary schools for young children, up to the choice of universities for youths. The misconception here is that going to art school, or being an artist, is seen as a backup option for those who cannot “make it” in the conventional school system. This view is problematic in two ways. One, many artists in Singapore actively choose to pursue the arts, rather than a more conventional course of study that they are not interested in, and indeed many of them are highly intelligent and could have become professionals in other industries in their own right. Two, intelligence is often narrowly defined as “book smarts”, rather than other factors such as emotional, interpersonal, musical and kinesthetic intelligence. Artistic talent is a highly prized skill of its own, but one that is rarely valued in a conventional school setting.
2. Unattractive salaries
Though the arts scene in Singapore has evolved, with improved employment and developmental opportunities, the perception is that artists don’t earn high salaries. The truth is, many artists are freelancers in the industry, meaning they are often self-employed and take on multiple jobs and projects which allow them to nurture multiple streams of income. With the flexibility of self-employment, they are also free to arrange their workdays and off periods, which could come with a better work-life balance. Such artists are adept at finding job opportunities to give them a form of career stability that they are comfortable with, and that can support their lifestyles as fellow tax-paying citizens of Singapore.
3. Artists cannot make a significant difference in society
This myth has been proven wrong time and time again. There are many different kinds of artists in Singapore, who all find ways to make work that is meaningful to those in their community and to society at large. Artists reflect and respond to issues faced by people, including everyday Singaporeans and minority communities in Singapore, and often use their art to spread awareness, change mindsets and imagine possibilities for the future. There are artists who make socially engaged work – for example, theatre company The Necessary Stage created Off Centre, a play that sheds light on those who suffer from mental health issues in Singapore. There are also arts groups and artists who champion disability arts in Singapore, such as disability-led arts company Access Path Productions, who are helping to make Singapore a more inclusive and accepting society for persons with disabilities.
All in all, art serves as a powerful tool that can effectively communicate unspoken ideas, thoughts, social issues, and sensitive topics. Art can be used for therapy, and be used to encourage creative expression and relaxation for many individuals, and has been used as avenues for effective marketing, branding and publicity tools for businesses.
For some, the future of Singapore’s art scene may not seem all that optimistic at first glance. The pandemic definitely affected artists, due to the restrictions on live events and shows, and the industry is only starting to find its footing again, slowly but surely. But there are signs that things are looking up, with events such as the Singapore Art Week and the signature exhibition S.E.A. Focus attracting large crowds (and queues) in 2022, many of whom were younger, Gen Z visitors. If appreciating art is seen as an important cultural, recreational and social activity, we can slowly start to build a society that values the arts and the benefits it can bring to people.
In a multicultural, multiracial society like Singapore with such strong international links, it is important to have a thriving and vibrant arts and cultural scene that taps on the unique perspectives and voices of our people. With a little bit of encouragement from everyone, more and more people will become invested in the arts scene, which shall hopefully set the domino effect in motion that leads to more artists and bring about more vibrancy in Singapore’s art landscape.