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Arts education in Singapore

Arts education in Singapore: a pragmatic perspective

The education system in Singapore is probably the best place to discover the stereotypes of Asians: smart, hard-working and always able to excel. However,

Arts education in Singapore

Arts education in Singapore

when one looks beyond the education system into the workplace, such flattering labels may have disappeared. For example, Singapore isn’t ranked high on the global entrepreneurship index despite being a financial center with vibrant economic activities. That leads us to think about the apparent gap between education and workplace. What is the missing link that transfers the achievement of the education into the achievement of the entire workforce? Some people find the elusive answer in something even more elusive: the arts.

Creativity can change the world

The arts have the ability to nurture creativity in the minds of students. Instead of doing step-by-step logical calculations, students doing arts are allowed to put their logic temporarily aside and let their imagination take hold. No matter in more conventional arts lessons such as drawing or music or in more modern arts classes such as 3-D designing, students are actively using the part of the brain responsible for artistic creation that is distinct from logical analysis. It is clear that such a more balanced way of nurturing one’s mind is more beneficial to one’s career development. Most of the jobs do not involve merely mundane repetitions. They involve uncertainty, strategy and prediction. Hence, whoever can solve a problem in a different yet better way stands to stay ahead of the game. That’s why Steve Jobs changed the world by combining arts and technology into an unprecedented product called I-phone. In fact, Steve Jobs credited much of his success to an unlikely inspiration: the calligraphy lesson he took during his undergraduate study in the Reed College. He was so inspired by the simplicity of hand writing that he carried his arts learning to inspire the whole world.

 How does your grandma think about arts?

Moreover, the emphasis by the government on arts education also helps solve one perennial problem in the local arts education: people’s prejudice against arts lessons and careers. People view them with suspicion because they don’t necessarily understand what is going on in a piece of music. Unfamiliarity breeds suspicion. More importantly, arts careers are generally more unstable, depending too much on the shifting taste of the society that is hard to capture. After all, what’s more awe-inspiring than telling people that you work as a banker in one of those skyscrapers in CBD? Hence, many students face pressure from parents to give up their dream in arts, or to relegate it to a ‘hobby’ while doing other profession for a ‘living’. Such false dichotomy is essentially harmful to the psychology of people who know that they take away nothing else from their work except for their pay. By giving formal recognition to arts, we have more arts programs in established institutions; we also give more scholarship and create more arts-related job opportunities so that the public opinion may change to the one that accepts and even admire people pursuing arts. The government’s job is to provide infrastructure to facilitate the gradual shifting of public perception of arts.

Arts should be Singaporean

Lastly, nurturing more artists has spillover effect on the whole society as well. Arts have not become an essential part of Singaporeans’ life. We think that arts exhibitions or concerts are for those with the luxury of money or time. However, we can easily spend thirty dollars on a highly-rated restaurant, thinking that it’s money well-spent. Such decision calculus reflects the fact people still consider arts as something extra. Many arts events are imported from overseas. We have the exhibition of Egyptian arts; we have operas such as the Phantom of Opera. How about our local artists who are able to translate our daily life into arts creation that we as common Singaporeans can better relate to? By encouraging local artists, the public stands to benefit because arts creation in the future may become more original, authentic and ‘Singaporean’. When that happens, arts may become part of our life because it represents our life in the first place.

Creating arts education in a pragmatic society is not easy. But it is not impossible. Pragmatism is not the opposite of arts. In fact, just because we are pragmatic people, once we see the pragmatic benefits of learning and supporting arts, we will have a good reason to do it. Hence the job of the government is to let people know that arts are not in vacuum. It confers concrete benefits on our life and on our society as a whole.

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