Singapore touts itself as a Renaissance city; creativity with a capital ‘C’ is the new buzzword. But is this state of mind only about gaining a competitive edge and wealth creation? Beyond the hyperbole, how far is the city-state really willing to go to nurture creativity, and are existing modes compatible with producing creative Singaporeans?
Local schools and their approach to art education have always provided a barometer for gauging the nation’s creative spirit. Encouragingly, the Ministry of Education’s (MOE) syllabus has progressed to laying emphasis on art education’s value as a confidence builder, a tool for understanding other cultures and a means of cultivating a spirit of innovation. And compared to the past, most agree that art education has improved in the last two decades.
‘When I was growing up, art classes were purely craft-based,’ says artist Jason Lim. ‘I didn’t enjoy them, they weren’t stimulating. We had to follow the model shown by the teacher and those who were not technically proficient, or a bit messy like me, were considered bad students.’ For Lim, the meaning of art, and the intellectual enrichment it brought, came much later. While his messy works as a child didn’t earn him any school awards, his predilection for working with dirty clay has made him one of Singapore’s most internationally exhibited contemporary artists – his ceramic installation ‘Just Dharma’ was featured in the prestigious 2007 Venice Biennale.
Beyond being an artist, Lim has taken on the role of an educator to prospective teachers at the National Institute of Education (NIE). He notes evolving attitudes, particularly where younger student-teachers are concerned. ‘The generation born in the ’80s is very open to ideas. These people often see the potential of art education in far wider terms than our teachers did a generation before. They are not so worried about what is, or is not, acceptable.’
Indeed, the whole question of art education in Singapore revolves precisely around conventions of acceptability. As soon as educators recognise that art – particularly contemporary art – can and should be far more than just about technique or form, they enter a problematic terrain. In order to genuinely foster creativity and innovation, art education surely must encourage children to think for themselves. Is this something that can be entertained today in Singapore? As a Fellow at the Institute of Policy Studies put it in the context of a recent NIE panal discussion: 'Can we create thinking, creative children in a school system, which is authoritarian, censoring and paternalistic?'
Cecily Cheo, lecturer and coordinator of the visual arts programme at NIE is optimistic. 'I think change is inevitable. The young generation travels and knows the world through the internet. It is an exciting time to be a teacher here, a time of great transition, although possibly painful for the more conservative.'
Seemingly embodying an attitude of change is the new School of the Arts, Singapore (SOTA). Opened in 2008, the independent pre-tertiary institution, according to its teachers, does incorporate a progressive, questioning approach into its teaching methodology. ‘I am less interested in the work students produce than the way they get there,’ says Khiew Huey Chian, artist and full-time SOTA teacher. ‘I prod incessantly, asking, “Why did you do this, what other choices were there?” This makes for thinking, decision-making students.’ But if attitudes at SOTA mark a move away from old-fashioned methods, the institution must still negotiate a tricky balance between its stated identity as a result-oriented showcase, open primarily to those already demonstrating art-making skills, and its espousal of a framework that acknowledges the close relationship between quality art education and critical thinking.
Any school offering intellectually rigorous art training is to be welcomed, but it does raise the question of why a thought-embracing art education isn’t offered to all Singapore children. Once it’s understood that art education is about broadening horizons, not merely honing skills, then art classes pushing children’s cognitive and intellectual boundaries should presumably be the norm. Right now, despite a more liberal MOE syllabus, those teaching art to primary school youngsters in the state system do not necessarily have specialist art training.
‘The situation now seems ad hoc. Kids in primary may or may not be introduced to art in a sophisticated way,’ says Junaidi Wa’ee, a Singapore artist who teaches life skills at the Institute of Technical Education (ITE). ‘It all depends on the teacher. Unfortunately, for some, art is still the place to park children unable to get into more academic programmes.’ Thus, if the general perception of art as a dead-end career option is increasingly on the wane in Singapore – local artists participating in international biennales and selling works at auctions successfully belie this assumption – the city-state is still some distance from accepting the consequences of nurturing creativity in all its children.
That Singapore is gently moving in this direction, however haltingly, is encouraging; that these issues are being tentatively discussed is also a sign of progress. With more artists teaching the teachers, and younger, more worldly-wise teachers joining schools, a revolution in the way young Singaporeans understand the world through art could be at hand.
This story first appeared as ‘Designs for life’ (Dec 2009)