An Argument For Arts Education

It should come as no surprise that I spend a good amount of time thinking about Singapore's arts scene and where it is going, and how to get it to where we want it to be. I'm being presumptuous when I say "we", of course, but bear with me. When we talk about developing the arts scene, what are we talking about? Personally, I'm talking about having a group of artists working together and inspiring each other with a constant intermingling of ideas; I don't necessarily think that there has to be a deliberate Singaporean focus but I believe that such a focus will emerge naturally from people who are committed to exploring and being honest about their social and cultural context. I'm talking about developing an artistic canon - we are inching there, with Off-Centre, with an Alfian Sa'at retrospective, with much of the Firstfruits Publications catalogue - and avenues for young artists to present their work and find their audience, with the likes of Math Paper Press, Noise and the Substation's Open Call Programme.

For such a scene to be sustainable, there is one more thing we need to develop, and that is a mass audience.

Developing an audience

At the moment, the arts scene is patronised only by a small segment of the population, of which a significant portion are themselves artists. It doesn't take much to see that in order for an arts scene to support a growing number of artists, its audience must also grow. But how do we reach out to a wider audience? How do we make the arts a fact of daily life and part of the natural fabric of our society, not a hobby or a sideline or something lawyers in a mid-life crisis decide to take up?

The key is arts education: large-scale, comprehensive arts education at the upper primary and lower secondary level.

There is a mysterious phenomenon that happens in Singapore during the transition from primary to secondary school. I should have been aware of it much earlier, but I only noticed it last summer. I thought to myself, I should take some acting classes to learn to work with actors - so I googled for acting lessons in Singapore in the summer. What do you know, virtually every drama class in Singapore is pitched to children 12 years and younger.

For children from middle-class families, speech and drama classes are an important, virtually essential part of primary education. At around the age of 12, they suddenly become a waste of time, an impediment to your "real" work as a student: English, L2 (because I intensely dislike the term "Mother Tongue"), Maths, Science, Geography, History, and Literature (which is the closest thing we currently have to what I propose below, but which most students drop like a hot potato as soon as they can anyway).

Several other artistic disciplines suffer the same fate. Music, especially the piano and the violin, is like that as well; ballet is probably another one. I suppose once you go to secondary school, the schools are supposed to pick up the slack through CCAs, such that students interested in drama will pursue it in the drama club, students interested in music will pursue it in band or another musical CCA, students interested in dance will pursue it in a dance CCA, and so on. The problem is, this approach considers the arts to be incidental to primary and secondary education - good to have, but non-essential. A hobby. Something to enrich your life with.

No. That's not what the arts are. The arts must be an integral part of primary and secondary education. We wouldn't let a student graduate from primary school without basic literacy in two languages, numeracy, and a foundational knowledge of science. We wouldn't let a student graduate from secondary school without proficiency in English and literacy in another language, a fairly high level of mathematical ability, knowledge of at least two natural sciences, social studies and one humanities subject. We shouldn't let students graduate from primary and secondary education without having some knowledge of what art is, what art does, why it is important, and how to participate in it.

Arts Education Within Our Present System

The only compulsory arts classes we have in the current system are non-examinable. Let's face it, students don't take non-examinable subjects seriously. "Non-examinable" communicates the idea that it's not important, or - like Civic and Moral Education and Appreciation of Chinese Culture and the like, it's something that's vaguely part of being an educated person but it's not something that requires study.

We do have the Music Elective Program (MEP), the Art Elective Program (AEP), Theatre Studies and Drama (TSD). We have the School of the Arts (SOTA). All these are good and necessary avenues for students who wish to pursue the arts at the secondary or pre-tertiary level. Because these avenues exist, we don't see the lack of arts education in the general curriculum as a problem - students who want can go take up these programs. We assume that MEP, AEP, TSD and SOTA are for students who want or might want to pursue the arts as a career and nobody else needs to study the arts in the way that these students do.

Two things: the first is, the MEP, AEP, SOTA, and some TSD programs have entry requirements. That suggests that students must first get exposure to the arts elsewhere before they can pursue it within the school system. Where and how? Remember all those enrichment classes pitched to children…

The second thing is, we don't give students a choice about the core subjects - they need English, an L2, two sciences and one humanities subject at the minimum. If they end up in a field where they never directly apply their science and maths skills, we still see the value in those subjects. In fact, we argue that their value is pervasive - one needs to be able to do arithmetic, one needs to be able to understand statistics, one needs to understand why brakes work or why water boils or why fuses blow. (I've left out the humanities because I don't particularly think Social Studies does its job and there is no other required humanities subject. If it were up to me, I would make epistemology a required humanities subject, as it is in the IB.)

So why don't we see a similar value in the arts? Is the value of music not pervasive, too? Are we not surrounded by visual symbols all the time? In this age of new media, isn't it important to understand how moving images are put together? When we blog or tell our friends about something that happened to us, is it not a form of storytelling?

Make no mistake, the arts needs to be regarded as part of the core, because the experience of it pervades our daily lives.

Objectives of Arts Education

What would the objectives of a mandatory arts education program be? It can't be to make everyone an artist, any more than the point of mandatory science education is to make everyone a scientist. Neither is it for the sake of generating an audience for our arts scene - that would be a silly primary objective, although one hopes that that will be the natural side effect of a functional arts education program.

The objective should simply be this: to develop in every student, every citizen, an understanding of what art is, why it matters, and how it is made. Why have humans always had the urgent need to create art? Why do Bach and Mozart and Beethoven, Titian and Velázquez and Rubens, Shakespeare and Cervantes and Dante - why do they matter? (I would have added some artists from the Southeast Asian and Eastern traditions to this list, except my own arts education has been lacking.) Why do countries have anthems and flags and national symbols? What's so great about Hamlet or Las Meninas or Beethoven's Fifth?

I use canonical examples, but it doesn't have to be canonical at all - just think about Alan Moore's V for Vendetta and its role as a cultural symbol in the Occupy movement. Think about how Cabaret and the Pianist and Downfall, vastly different films, help to untangle some of the complexities of Nazi Germany. Think about local plays - Toy Factory's Titoudao, W!LD RICE's Cook A Pot Of Curry, The Necessary Stage's Off-Centre, Dream Academy's Dim Sum Dollies - and how much they are a product of our own culture.

If we can begin there, we will come to see that the arts are, somehow, essential. They define our understanding of ourselves as a nation and a citizen of the world. They help to clarify our relationship with each other. Most of all, the arts validate us, each one of us, as individuals with a voice and a soul.


A friend who is involved in environmental causes told me of a conversation he had with a high-achieving student about to start reading Economics at an Ivy League school. After my friend's usual spiel about the importance of conserving Singapore's natural heritage, the freshman said, "This may sound stupid, but why don't we just export our biodiversity to another country and focus on what we're good at?"

Like the conservation of natural heritage, the development of the arts isn't a problem that we can avoid trying to resolve, nor one that we can simply throw money at. The arts scene is something that has to be nurtured and cultivated - we have to plant the seeds, provide all the conditions necessary for the seeds to sprout and take root, water them, and wait. Whatever grows, however, is invaluable, irreplaceable and will also be self-sustaining, as long as the favourable conditions remain.

The risk that we run as a pragmatic, economically-driven society is that because the value of the arts is unquantifiable, we avoid ascribing a value to it. Or because it is unquantifiable, we simply don't know how to value it. Or we insist on quantifying it regardless, first as a proxy for some unquantifiable value, and then as an end in itself (the Renaissance City Plan III falls somewhere on this scale, I just can't decide where).

It is time to pull out one of Oscar Wilde's many pithy quotes:

[A cynic is] a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. - Lady Windemere's Fan

The other area where quantification comes in is the idea that it is hard to examine the arts subjects because it's all subjective. The existence of this idea is precisely why we need arts education: to learn to be comfortable with ambiguity, to recognise that life and human experience are replete with paradoxes and complexities and mysteries with answers that we keep looking for but never find.


Ah, talent. Why force students who don't have talent to study the arts? Can't make it in the arts without talent. You either have it or you don't.


Firstly, creative practice is only a small part of the kind of arts education I am advocating. What I'm really thinking of is a sort of literacy of the arts, and like linguistic literacy and numeracy, that is certainly something that can be taught, learnt and mastered, without demanding that everyone become a writer or a mathematician or an artist.

Secondly, to expect students to somehow manifest hidden talents without the necessary opportunities and guidance is wishful thinking. At the moment we rely on a confluence of factors to make sure that students who end up pursuing the arts are even able to do so: they were somehow exposed to their medium at a young age, their parents could afford to provide them a basic education in their chosen medium, and then they found avenues within or parallel to our education system to develop those interests. (The alternative path our artists take appears to be that of the mid-life crisis.) A mandatory arts education program would "catch" students who at the moment might slip through the net for a lack of exposure, training and encouragement.

Thirdly, talent alone cannot overcome every obstacle. Even the most talented person needs to develop technique and build up an understanding of the theory behind their craft. The vast majority of practicing artists were not child prodigies in their medium. In the early stages, the opportunity to play and experiment, and later on to focus and sharpen specific skills, is essential.

I admit I have softened my stance on talent since starting film school. I used to think a combination of close study and hard work could make up for a lack of talent to the point that talent wouldn't matter; I now see that it is talent that makes up for a lack of close study and occasionally even for a lack of hard work. The combination of talent, a comprehensive understanding of the medium and finely-honed technique can be explosive.

(It is a convenient thing not to believe in talent when one has had some measure of artistic success, however small, since anyone who tries to argue that talent does exist is also forced to argue that you have some talent.)

Fourthly, one does not need to be a professional practitioner to appreciate the value of being able to express oneself creatively. For that, one does not need talent, just a willingness to be open and honest, and the benefit is not only to the individual but to the people around him as well. At the moment, avenues do exist for students to pursue such means of expression (CCAs, the elective programs), but they exist alongside rather than as part of our education system, with the result that only students who are already predisposed to the arts take part. The whole point of a mandatory arts education program is that it will reach the students who are least likely to otherwise be exposed to the arts.

Where Is This Going?

Why am I putting so much emphasis on this? The reason is simple: what we have right now is akin to an echo chamber, with artists preaching to the choir. A citizenry that has basic literacy in the arts, that understands the role that the arts plays in their daily lives on a personal level, is the basis on which we can build a sustainable arts scene, an arts scene that can be truly engaged in a dialogue with its audience. The arts, instead of being the preserve of the few who value them and have the means to participate in one form or another, can become accessible to the general public. The pool of potential practitioners, both amateur and professional, grows not just along with the number of people who receive the exposure and guidance they need, but also along with the size of the audience - and the audience is potentially the entire citizenry. The diversity of the arts scene - the diversity of styles, of viewpoints, of disciplines - will increase accordingly.

I admit that what I'm outlining here is unlikely to be implemented wholesale - I'll be the most surprised person when that happens, for many reasons (the most pertinent one is that we currently lack the human resources to do it, but there are also ideological reasons). I've put it down in writing anyway, because I think it is useful to have outlined the reasoning behind the argument for a comprehensive and mandatory primary and secondary arts education program.

I think this is it. In the absence of a centrally-implemented policy, though, we'll just have to do our best to create conditions as close to the ideal as we can.