Academic journal article SOJOURN: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia

Arts Education in Singapore: Between Rhetoric and Reality

Academic journal article SOJOURN: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia

Arts Education in Singapore: Between Rhetoric and Reality

Article excerpt

It is de rigueur to describe Singapore as a "cultural desert" in light of its short national history and lack of a long artistic tradition. It has also been easy to do so because art has long been cloaked in utilitarianism there. Indeed, the arts have been a tireless workhorse for the nation-building project. Coming into power in 1959, during an ongoing power struggle with the communists, the People's Action Party (PAP) was not unschooled in the craft of propaganda or unaware of the emotive potential of the arts. After independence in 1965, even though the arts were relegated to a position behind other national priorities like the creation of mass public housing and the reduction of unemployment, it was clear to the English-speaking post-colonial ruling elite that the arts represented a readymade vehicle for ideological dissemination. The PAP also believed that the consumption of art could smoothen the coarser edges of a young migrant society. To this end, the government organized at the grass-roots level a series of exhibitions of the art works of ordinary citizens across the island. These exhibitions received substantial media coverage (see Chong 2010a, p. 135). More politically, through traditional ethnic costumes and performances it also deployed the arts as racial signifiers of "Chinese, Malay, Indian and Other" identities together in metaphorical racial harmony (Chong 2010a, p. 137; see also Benjamin 1976; Koh 1980 and 1989; Kong 2000; Kwok and Low 2002).

The state's exploitation of arts is, of course, not new. Regimes and power centres have administered and disciplined polities through systems of art and artists in order to harness the emotive efficacy and visceral response that artworks can provoke. Soviet Socialist Realism, for example, not only codified meanings of Soviet citizenship and the promise of a luminous Communist future but also served as an ideological critique of capitalism (James 1973, pp. 84-89). In another context, a patronage system and network of institutional power emerged from the relationship between the Church and artists in Renaissance Italy to exercise influence over the artist through a complex structure of politics, funding, cultural norms and organizational hierarchy. This system ultimately had an impact on the making and perception of art (Wolff 1993, pp. 40-41).

True to their early socialist bent, pioneer PAP leaders took pains to democratize and demystify art. In 1968 Education Minister Ong Pang Boon said,

We are confronted with art every day of our lives. Art is no longer regarded as the exclusive commodity reserved for the privileged few. Neither is the creation of it the prerogative of talented artists. Art is meant to be enjoyed by all who have eyes to see. (Ong 1968)

The Ministry of Education (MOE) certainly had a stake in defining art, tasked as it was not only to educate the students of a new nation academically but also to nurture them into socially and morally upright citizens. In 1970, Parliamentary Secretary for Education Lee Chiaw Meng announced,

Art is not a special commodity for the enjoyment of a privileged few. Neither is it a luxury to be indulged in only when more pressing matters have been attended to. Art exists everywhere around us--the buildings we put up, in our homes, in the trees we plant, the things of daily use, in the streets, and, in fact, in everything the discerning eye can see. (Lee 1970, p. 2)

The PAP government utilized the arts in its nation-building project. Nevertheless, the development of arts education, elsewhere defined as the programmatic definition of art and its disciplines with practical implications for teaching and learning (Levi and Smith 1991, p. 126), during the country's developing years has received little scholarly attention. This is perhaps unsurprising since arts education, at least in the West, has been in a process of constant evolution.

In the Middle Ages, the Church and powerful patrons controlled the teaching of art as an organized form, one dedicated to the reproduction of ancient texts as well as to the creation of works of religious art (Efland 1990, p. …

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