Education

What can we learn from the arts?

Arts NMP Kok Heng Leun’s Maiden Speech in Parliament.
Tuesday 5 April 2016

Thank you Madam Speaker. It is a privilege to stand before the parliament and share my views about the Budget as an artist and a Nominated Member of Parliament for the Arts. First of all, I would like to begin by congratulating our Minister for Finance, Mr Heng Swee Keat, for delivering a budget that seeks to place Singapore in good stead to face future economic and social challenges.

I am very aware of time. That I have only 20 minutes to make my point. And so I will be very mindful.

Let me first recount a performance that my company Drama Box staged in 2001.    That was the year when there was the financial crisis caused by the default of subprime mortgage.

The performance, in the form of Forum Theatre, was about a husband who was retrenched and was taking out his frustration on his wife. Forum Theatre is a form of theatre where the protagonist is facing a problem within a scene. After the scene is performed, the audience is invited to replace the protagonist to try out different ways of dealing with the problem. In this particular story, both the husband and the wife could not find ways to handle the crisis and affect change.

In one performance, many people replaced the role of the wife, speaking to the husband about the need to accept the change, look out for government schemes, advising him, encouraging him. The husband understood all these, but he was still not placated. He was still frustrated.

Then a woman came up. She sat the husband down. Held his hand. The audience and myself were waiting for her to speak. But she did not. She just kept quiet.

Finally the husband asked her why did she not speak. She replied with a question: “Are you okay?” I could hear the husband letting out a sigh of relief.

When I, the facilitator, asked her why she did what she did, she said: 在这样一种情况,人需要一点点的时间,一点点的空间。In such difficult situation, people need some time and some space.

I share this anecdote to highlight the importance of time and space during a crisis or in face of change.

Government schemes can help Singaporeans prepare for structural changes in our economy, and to move into new jobs and responsibilities.

However, schemes will only help Singaporeans IF we also look at how our body, hearts and spirits are affected in these moments of change or crises.

“Small acts of repair. Calming the hands in a troubled world. Restoring damage to renewed use.”

This quote comes from a US-based theatre company Goat Island, which believes that theatre is a small act of repair. Repairing the body and the hearts that has been bruised by the experience of crisis and change.

Human beings are not like little bolts, which can be melted down and made into nuts if there were not enough nuts. To change a mindset is not about switching into a different mode. It requires the emotions and the spirits to be engaged.

It needs time. And it needs space.

The woman who participated in the forum theatre told us later that that was how she had helped her husband who was retrenched during that same financial crisis.

The performance became a demonstration of what is possible.
It became a place for learning.
It also became a place for rehearsal.

Hence in response to the Budget Speech… I would like to ask these two questions:

Where is Art in the future of Singapore?
Why is Art important in the future of Singapore?

I’m sure that if I search hard enough, I will be able to find statistics on the arts in Singapore. How our audiences have increased over the years, the number of art works have multiplied since the 1990s.

Yet, the very fact that I am standing here, asking about the importance of the arts in Singapore, suggests that there is some cause for concern.

To further reinforce that concern is the fact that the arts are not mentioned in this year’s budget speech. The word ‘culture’ is mentioned, in reference to the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth. Surprisingly, the arts does not even get a mention in the section “Transforming our economy through enterprise and
innovation” — this despite the fact that the arts powers innovation,
which is important if we are to be future-ready in challenging times.

Innovation is a primary objective of the arts and artists. The arts can be innovative in its creative process. We innovate, break old regimes and create new paradigms. The arts encourage play. To play means, first of all, playing within the rules with tried-and- tested methods. After a while, one must start playing creatively, go beyond the rules and improvise. Then only can one start to make new discoveries.

Critical thinking balances innovation with responsibility. As we strive for change, we must also strive for sustainability. For example, how do we deal with economic growth yet be aware of how it will impact the environment?

The creative mind coupled with critical thinking can complement our usually pragmatic and logical approaches to problem solving. While we want to transform our economy through innovation, we also want the transformation to be equitable, viable and sustainable.

Innovation also happens in the arts through collaboration. Composers, writers, film-makers and other artists have always collaborated with other disciplines such as science, technology and education. Such collaborations are vital to the lifeblood of these industries. Let me illustrate with a story, and again I am aware of time.

This was an experiment that was conducted in 250 BC. Two equal- length sticks were placed upright in the ground 500 miles apart. Then at an exact moment, a person at each location would measure the length of the shadow. If the earth were flat, the shadows would be the same length. But it was discovered that the shadows were not the same length, and so we began to think that maybe the earth was not flat but round. This happened around 250 BC. But it took another 1000 years before we finally agreed that the earth was round.

A triangulation must occur for us to make sense of this. Two people collaborated in setting up the experiment and measuring the shadows. It took two of them, from two different of viewpoints, to visualise the earth as round. It also took time – roughly a millennium – to finally arrive at a conclusion. It was through a collaboration on such a fundamental issue – is the earth flat or
not? – that we are able to gain a more accurate view of ourselves.

So what does ‘collaboration’ mean? Simply, it means two things: Giving and Taking.

Giving is sharing. Offering. So that one can contribute to, and feel invested in the process of nation building.

Taking is listening. Engaging. The ability to accept criticism. Where criticism is concerned, it is easier to give than to receive.

As artists, our works get reviewed and critiqued all the time. No artist wants to read a negative critique of his or her work. But if we see the critic as someone who cares about the arts, our mindset will change. The critic is no longer an opponent but a collaborator.

We are all in it together. Yet we are different from one another. How do we manage difference?
How do we learn not to be offended by difference?

How do we respond if we were to be offended by difference?
What if one person were to impose his ideas on another person? What if one group were to force their opinions and belief systems on others?

I say this because in many ways, the state today has failed in mediation techniques. It is reactive, unable to effectively manage difference to find a common ground.

For example, a few letters complaining about an artwork may lead to that work being removed. But what about the many other people who do not have a problem and in fact appreciate the artwork?
How does this logic work? Where is the mediation? Should we encourage audiences to write in when they are not offended to balance those who write in who are?

Being fair means being fair to all, not just those who write the angriest letters or shout the loudest slogans or garner the most signatures.

That is not collaboration. This is not giving and taking. Collaboration is about being grounded, yet open; it is about letting go of presumptions and judgments in order to create meaningful dialogue.

Collaboration is also a way of demonstrating our resilience. One hears that word quite often these days. We must be resilient in case of economic downturns, in case of outbreaks of diseases, in case of terrorist attacks. I do not disagree.

But resilience is not just about being strong. It is also about the ability to adapt, to accept change. To be resilient, we must first be able to tell our story. When we know who we are, when we have the confidence to express ourselves we will know how to manage changes within our means.

The ability to tell our story is the first step towards empowerment. We will then realise that there is no ONE grand narrative but many micro narratives which collectively define who we are as a nation and a people.

That is the potency of art.

It examines our relationship with the environment we live in. It examines our relationship with people we live with.
It examines our relationship with ourselves.

Why is Art IMPORTANT in the future of Singapore? Art is part of our daily lives.
Art is integral to our society.
Art can contribute to the resilience and maturity of the populace.

So,

Why are we not talking about Art and innovation?

Why are we not talking about Art and the creative industry? Where is Art?

Perhaps there is some apprehension. Living together in a tight space means difficult questions should not be raised, for fear that some people might not be ready enough to be engaged– and Art raises difficult questions.

Our culture rewards results and success – but Art promotes process and the value of failure.

And

It is precisely these intrinsic aspects of Art that can help empower us to create a diversified, creative and sustainable future for Singapore. And art can prepare us to engage critically, with wisdom and empathy.

How does one innovate if one does not ask hard questions? How does one innovate if one has to keep seeking permission to be playful,
permission to transgress,
permission to make mistakes?

The arts break rules. Artists break rules. Not legal rules. But the rules of the creative process. Children do it all the time. They want to paint a green sky and yellow sea.

But as they get older they are told, “No, no, no. The sky must be
blue. No. The sea cannot be yellow. Where got such thing?”

When artists create in Singapore, we are told the rule is: create art to foster social harmony and community bonding. If you don’t do that, you are breaking the rule.

But what if we want to create art that encourages critical thinking? What if we want to create art that asks difficult questions? Can this art be seen as positive, one that promotes social cohesion? Why not?

I should reiterate: having open discourse does not mean having no responsibility. One needs to be accountable for one’s words and actions. At the end of the day, the laws are still in place. But having a good debate and a deep exploration of our shared issues will only benefit everyone.

And it can start young.

Why are we preparing our young only for study and good academic results but not for important and difficult life questions? In fact, young people want to talk about life’s complexities. They want to know that what they learn in school can help them find their place in life, in society.

As adults we all know that life is not just about WORK and
CAREER.

It is about responsibility
for oneself,
for others,
for family,
for society,
for the environment.

Yet, we discourage the young from confronting difficult questions. We take away opportunities for them to learn critically. To be intelligent, creative and innovative.

Art should be very much a part of our education in school. Hence, I would like to request our Education ministry and MCCY to invest more in creative and critical teaching.

Educators cannot facilitate creative and critical learning if schools do not allow themselves to be laboratories of learning, laboratories of knowledge.

Nowadays, we go to school and learn so that we can be prepared
for our careers. In Chinese, we call it the pursuit of 学业。学了就 业。”Learn then you get a job”. But the job market changes. The
skills you learn might not be of use after some time.

I prefer another term: the pursuit of 学问. 学 to learn. 问 is to ask. In The Book of I-Ching, or also known as The Book of Change, “君子学以聚之,问以辩之”. Learn and accumulate knowledge, and ask so as to be critical about what we learnt.

We are so afraid we will offend others by what we say, when actually, we need to learn how NOT to be offended, or so easily offended. We need to be able to have a constructive voice that seeks to improve our shared environment and future.

If the space for discourse is not going to be opened up, we will never become a nation of mature thinkers. We will continue to co- exist but never be truly inclusive.

In our rapid-pace development, we need to spend so much time catching up, that if we do not find time to slow down, we may just lose our sense of being.

So what keep us sane and grounded? What is our center? Yesterday, Zaobao, 新汇点,Crossroads, a weekly page about new migrants and foreigners living and working in Singapore, interviewed a permanent resident, Christophe, a French native. He said in the interview that after getting used to living in Singapore, he started to feel a sense of nostalgia. Why? In this interview written in Mandarin, he said: “在西方国家,即使过了 四五十年都没有察觉多少变化。可是新加坡一直不断在建设,原本 惊叹的心情,现在已出现变化。”In the west, you wouldn’t notice that any changes even after 40 or 50 years. But in Singapore, it is constantly building and constructing, when initially I was amazed by it, but now I feel differently. So now, Christophe began to be interested in discovering what would make this place a home. He started by participating in Arts, in discovering heritage places.

So what keep us grounded, help us take stock, remind us we are humans, we are people living in one place?    Our literature, our music, our painting, our theatre, cultural sites like Bukit Brown, and many other tangibles and intangibles heritage.

Madame Speaker, I am mindful of time.

I would like to end with a quotation by Rebecca Solnit which states: Democracy is built upon trusts amongst strangers.

So let us begin trusting one another. Let us not fear alternative viewpoints, nor cave in to strident voices without listening to others. For centuries, the arts have provided a safe space for us to ask questions, understand one another better, and dream of a better communal future that embrace diversity. Sometimes we do not have an answer immediately, but asking the right question is a step closer.    It just takes time.    And instead of saying there is no time, let us make time for it. And instead of saying no space, let us make space for it.

Mdm Speaker, and With that, I support the budget. Thank you.

* Would like to thank Zihan, QianXi, Dr Chua Ai Lin, Tarn How, June, Alvin, Ivan, Mia, Audrey, Dr Vivienne Wee, Dr Wong Sweet Fun, 志锐, 碧玉 for speaking to me when I was preparing the speech.

And of course the Ghost Writer, who wants to remain a Ghost, and Melissa for helping me to do the final draft.

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