This short dialogue captured between 938Live’s Bharati Jagdish and theatre veteran Ong Keng Sen warrants a closer look:
“Bharati: Is Singapore too utilitarian a society to create truly passionate artists?
Ong: I think the way our Government has created Singapore is they have really entrenched certain perspectives. I’ll give you an example. I had a young person once say to me that she wouldn’t take literature, because literature is subjective and so you cannot get 100 per cent, while if you study science or math, you will be able to score 100 per cent. And the subjectivity of literature meant that you may actually lose out in the point system in the end. And so I was very, very shocked by this. It shows how even the young person is already very practical, and this is a 15 -16-year-old. I believe that this happened in society because the Government has already created such a structure that it’s become endemic.”
Explaining why arts is important to Singapore, is like explaining why you must wear stiff shirts and ties to a corporate function. No one asks you to. You know it is important, but when asked to explain, suddenly you’re not so sure.
The figures are appalling. Less than 50% of Singaporeans read one literary book a year.Theatre visits are just as dreadful. In 2014, a paltry 783,000 tickets made up the collective sales for the entire theatre industry. This is as compared to the 21.5m tickets enjoyed by the cinema operators. Museums, galleries and art fairs are struggling to survive here. Gillman Barracks saw the departure of two tenants earlier this year and in April 2015, a third of the 17 galleries chose not to renew their leases, citing poor sales and visitorship.
The arts industry is the talented but unprofitable enfant terrible of our national family. Creatively adept, rebellious, socially awkward and hopelessly reliant on the charity of the family. “Why don’t you do something constructive with your talent and make us some money”? we ask her. Yet she sticks stubbornly by her decision not to be beholden to mammon.
But we ignore this child with consequence. If all that this nation family pursues is profit, economics, productivity and KPIs, it will lose a soul. It will merely be a house, but not a home. A house to throw a sleeping bag in, rough it out for a few years and leave when the work is done. Not a home to love, to furnish and to build a family.
And there are disastrous effects.
Because we value art so poorly, we bring this attitude to our work. We want the cheapest photographers, designers, writers, advertising agencies. To us, quality content is not as important as the quantity of content. “Let’s do a thousand pieces of work, maybe two will hit it big”, we think. But do you realise that these thousand pieces of work actually makes your corporation look stupid and cheap?
Because we value art poorly, we have no qualms about downloading pirate videos, music, software, bootleg machines. So if you provide a service for a living – if you’re a photographer, a singer, a taxi driver and you partake in intellectual theft; you have no right to complain about clients cheapening your work. You have no right to question why they award the lowest bidder. They live on the same belief you do – it is just a service provided by workmen available for a dime a dozen.
Because we value art poorly, we’re heading the direction of Chinese mass production; where everything is a cheap copy of the other. There is no real innovation, there is no real creativity. In fact there is always a threat that good work will easily be copied, 10 extra features added and sold for a tenth of the price.
Jeremiah Choy, creative director at Orangedot Singapore tells us of a recent experience:
“A Finance Manager sought a payment term of 30% deposit and 70% after. I negotiated for 50% deposit and 50% on the day of delivery. She quipped flippantly that she doesn’t even get that type of “wonderful terms” from her client.”
“I am upset because she thinks that as a free lancer, I should be at the mercy of her company and ought not negotiate my contract at all. She also said that the company should not further engage me until I accept their terms.”
This is but one example of the arrogance and ignorance we have towards freelancers. This is comes from us not appreciating the value of artistic creation. Of work done by hands.
If you study the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth’s national statistics – you would be wow-ed by the figures. Beautiful charts and numbers paint a picture of rising events, shows, exhibitions and performances. But dear MCCY, these numbers are artificial. The stats show that the Ministry is obsessed with increasing the number of events and the amount of hardware. But there is no organic growth. There is no attitude shift, there is no ground-up initiative. We cannot observe a manifestation of arts in people. To see artists fulfil the natural urge to take an instrument and go to the streets to perform without the need for licences, administration and reports.
Maybe the biggest favour the MCCY can do is to step out of the way. Authority to arts is like erectile dysfunction to a frisky housewife.
Shoo. Deregulate. Go away and let creative minds rise to the moment.
Let us face the facts – this is largely an uncultured nation that puts the value of creative work on the same level as sugar, salt and pork bellies. We prefer cheap entertainment rather than beautifully made, intellectually provoking ones.
We have become like the stereotypical Chinese tourist. We have the money to buy the Prada bags, but we can’t afford the sense to appreciate it.