Volume 1 Issue 4
December 2012

Retrospect and Prospect

Written by Teo Eng Hao


As the Mayan prophecy about the end of the world looms, are you also living on the edge especially with yearend approaching? Has this forced you to contemplate more about yourself, about life, and about the world around you? Well, perhaps the Mayan prophecy is most likely yet another unfulfilled (heng ah!) Armageddon phenomenon, and life would still go on in pretty much the same mundane way, but we can still make the best out of this "moment of crisis" by the good old tradition of concluding and projecting.

In this issue, we speak with 6 members of the arts community, including an arts administrator, 2 regular theatre-goers, a drama educator, and 2 theatre practitioners, and find out from them what their own conclusions to the year gone by, and their hopes for the future of Singapore arts.

Here are the questions posted to the participants:

  1. In retrospect, how would you conclude/evaluate the past year for the arts/theatre scene in Singapore (i.e. on performances and programmes; on specific issues pertaining to arts/theatre etc)? Is there any specific incident or issue you are particularly concerned about?

    1. How would you envision the arts/theatre industry to be like 10 years down the road (i.e. in 2022)? What kind of changes would you want to see?

    2. To Practitioners, Educators, and Administrators:
      In relation to your own field of work, what kind of change or support would you like to see?

      To Regular Theatre-goers:
      What kind of role do you think the arts/theatre should play in the future (i.e. 2022)?

Retrospect and Prospect

Rachel Lim (Arts Administrator)

1) I think 2012 has been a celebratory and reminiscing year for the arts in Singapore. There has been so much content produced as a result of the Kuo Pao Kun Festival and Esplanade's 10th anniversary, many were new and also, many old were revisited. The former is perhaps one of the most impactful for me personally. In the process and pursuit of originality, it is sometimes most humbling and insightful to take a step back and see what we have, or our seniors have done. The opportunity to watch reinterpretations of old works; new works that talk about our arts pioneers this year has been most memorable for me.

Of course, one most important event this year is the announcement of the temporary hiatus of the Singapore Arts Festival. As disappointed as I may be, it would probably be more positive in the long run, especially when the review committee consists of so many of our practitioners. We should all await the finalised changes eagerly and embrace them. Whatever happens, the arts community will be able to cope, I believe :)

2a) I hope the arts, theatre included, to be more inclusive and civic and society conscious. Also, that artists will be able to discover themselves, our heritage and our identity more in/through their works. I think we are slowly getting there, with more and more arts groups/collectives putting up site-specific performances related to a piece of physical/lyrical history (e.g. like Project Mending Sky at Bukit Timah Railway Station, Irfan's performance at the old Geylang Fire Station etc).

Also, 2 performances I watched at the Arts Festival: Parallel Cities (Factory) and the Bridge Cafe Project which deeply touched me – how our artists can work with people who will never usually be involved/in the know about the arts to put up performances and tell stories of themselves.

2b) More support from the ground, including artists. Artists championing for artists and arts groups supporting arts groups. There is limited resources in Singapore, be it the finite funding or land, assets, and even talents. Thus, I hope we can have a more supportive industry that is ready to help speak for each other or aid each other when in need.

Elvira Holmberg (Drama Educator)

1) Every year seems to fly by a little faster and 2012 has certainly gone by in the blink of an eye. And as always, everyone has been busy, busy, busy - artists, teaching artists, schools as well as bodies such as the NAC, MOE and NIE.

With the release of the Arts and Culture Strategic Review of 2012, fresh energies flowed towards growing various new arts programmes in schools and existing successful arts education programmes were maintained. Schools began to show a real interest in engaging artists to teach their students academic subjects through the arts and the new Arts and Culture Presentation Grant opened up new exciting possibilities for schools – including special education schools. Community arts projects and artists received a real boost with the NAC's increased budget for community arts engagement efforts being raised from S$2 million to S$6.6 million in 2012. There were also more opportunities for networking and the first ever Community Cultural Development Symposium took place.

This past year we have also seen opportunities for artists working in education and various communities to develop their skills. A new continuing education and training programme (CET) was initiated by NIE International and NAC. The Specialist Diploma in Arts Education programme introduces pedagogical skills to arts trainers and is designed to enable them to deliver better quality arts programmes. The NAC also organised a 4-day workshop, Dig Deep for Community Artistsfor artists of various art forms with keen interests in planning and evaluation.

2012 also saw some significant restructuring within MOE. As we bade farewell to the Co-Curricular Activities Branch (CCAB) the newly formed Arts Education Branch (AEB) was put in charge of programmes and policies on CCAs in school. The AEB has recently announced changes in the assessment of the Singapore Youth Festival (SYF) which MOE hopes will ease the furtive school competition for awards and place emphasis on students' appreciation and enjoyment of the arts.

It is clear that there has been a great deal happening at various levels in the area of arts education that also warrants mention here. But where would I fit this in? And as much as we should stop, ponder, reflect and even celebrate these things, where and how would we afford the time? In another blink of an eye it will be 2013 and we're off running again!

2a, 2b) In 2022 every student in Singapore will have a meaningful arts education and have ample opportunity to participate in arts programmes which free their imaginations, engage learning and allow them to develop a true appreciation for the arts. In addition every secondary school will offer Arts and Culture as a subject – students will learn about the arts, be drawn to participate in various forms of art-making and enjoy this subject.

Policies and systems ten years down the road will recognise that the human right to education and to cultural participation must start from early childhood carry on through school education and in fact be part of a lifelong learning and civic engagement.

Teachers will have access to consistent high quality arts education training while teaching artists will regularly be able to attend good CET programmes which deepen their practice of their own art forms and help them develop the necessary pedagogical skills. Artists and teachers alike will come together to reflect, evaluate and become more effective in their work.

Arts managers will also take an active part in helping schools to develop a cross disciplinary concept on cultural education together with pupils and teachers. Schools will no longer be absorbed with chasing awards and accolades. Instead they will be focused on channelling energies towards developing arts programmes that contribute to the holistic development of all students.

The ASEAN Ministers Responsible for Culture and the Arts on seeing the enlightened changes and development we have made will then name Singapore ASEAN City for Culture for the 2nd time in a decade. And of course, if none of the above happens in 2013, let us hope that by 2022 we will at least allow ourselves more time to imagine, time to play and time to enjoy the arts!

Lynn Lee (Regular Theatre-goer)

(Note: Original response in Chinese.)

1) First of all, the year-long Kuo Pao Kun Festival, organised by Theatre Practice left the deepest impression on me this year. 2012 is the 10th anniversary of the passing of Singapore theatre doyen Kuo Pao Kun, and various local and overseas theatre groups and practitioners have participated in the Kuo Pao Kun festival to commemorate him in their own unique ways. They expressed their views and voices, and engaged in a dialogue with this theatre pioneer and his rich body of works. As a member of the audience, I'm really glad to get to know Kuo Pao Kun from various perspectives; and more importantly, I am most excited to witness how the various works drew strength from this Singapore's theatre pioneer and brought about new and exciting possibilities.

The staging of Only You by internationally acclaimed film director Tsai Ming-liang in Singapore also left a deep impression on me. Only You couldn't be staged initially because of Singapore's indoor smoking ban. After much negotiation, Only You was finally permitted to be staged. That is definitely a piece of good news for Singapore audiences and for the local theatre scene. Loosening the smoking ban to make exceptions has allowed the audiences to get up close with Tsai's works. It also made me realise the importance of "fighting for a cause" – I really admire and appreciate the efforts of the relevant personnels, to question and critique the censors, and not let arts sacrifice because of disagreeable censorship.

2a, 2b) I hope to see more autonomy and inclusiveness in the theatre scene 10 years down the road. Compared to the theatre scene 10 years ago, local theatre has provided audiences with more choices, and spurred audiences to engage in introspection and reflection. Thus I'm really looking forward to the theatre 10 years from now. I hope to see more works depart from the core of Singapore's unique culture, to shift from multi-culturalism to inter-culturalism, and allow theatre to integrate deeper into the lives of Singaporeans.

Theatre is often used as a tool for social commentary and I truly hope that 10 years down the road, theatre can be an effective channel to influence and change policies and society in general.

Ong Loy Eng (Regular Theatre-goer)

(Note: Original response in Chinese. Unfortunately, Mr Ong couldn't make it for the photo-shoot due to work.)

1) I'm of course most concerned about the commemorative performances and activities of the 10th anniversary of the passing of Pao Kun in 2012. I have brought my relatives and friends to watch Lao Jiu: The Musical and Mama Looking For Her Cat and they enjoyed the shows, especially Lao Jiu as musicals are usually more appealing.

I find the Poor Theatre Series to be an excellent attempt, but a "theatre outsider" may find it hard to accept. For me, it's too trivial. The Mother Hen Next Door — A Tribute is more dramatic and worthy, perhaps productions from overseas carry more weight.

Drama Box's Afar [Editor's Note: Afar is not part of Kuo Pao Kun Festival, but part of Esplanade's "The Studio" series.] and Theatre Practice's The Spirits Play were not easy to understand. Although I think attempts of such higher standards are necessary, perhaps it would be better to arrange a post-show dialogue after The Spirits Play to explain some abstract symbols. [Editor's Note: Theatre Practice did hold a post-show dialogue after The Spirits Play but it was on a separate day.]

It's really a pleasure to watch English production Goh Lay Kuan & Kuo Pao Kun. However it seems that Pao Kun's detention was rushed over in the play, and too little was mentioned. Is it due to an act of censorship?

If it's not Kuo Pao Kun's 10th anniversary of passing, I won't be watching so many plays this year. It's obvious that Chinese theatre is deteriorating year by year. It seems to be something we can't change, and maybe we have to change ourselves to suit the big environment.

2a, 2b) Recently below my block, there is a monthly singing event (popular music), and the theme goes by something like this: "Everyone's Music, Everywhere Music, Everyday Music". I thought to myself wouldn't be nice if a skit could be slot in between the singing event? For instance, Pao Kun's Coffin Is Too Big for the Hole. Wouldn't it be a wonderful experience if the residents and public could enjoy such free outdoor performances under the void decks or in a shopping mall?

I really have to express my respect for Drama Box's artistic director Kok Heng Leun, to put up free outdoor performances despite the financial burden. I love to watch his Forum Theatre plays, and whenever I quarrel with my wife, I think of what Heng Leun often says – can we look at things from another perspective, or is there a way to prevent such an undesirable ending? However, there didn't seem to be any Forum Theatre play this year? [Editor's Note: Drama Box actually staged several Forum Theatre play this year, but the only free public Forum Theatre play is Wouldn't It Be Nice? staged during the IPS Prism in November.]

I heard a quote by Friedrich Engels on the Phoenix TV channel, and it roughly means: Progress in any phase of culture, is a liberal progress.

Since the General Elections last year, we have witnessed a change in governance style, and I have reasons to believe that 2022 will be an even more vibrant and more open era. This is my hope. I suppose Chinese Theatre in Singapore has to really put in greater effort, to stay strong and progress?

Alvin Tan (Theatre Practitioner)

1) It's been a very exciting year with the mainstream productions blossoming on the Singapore stage. Experimental works have not been lagging behind. There are some powerful and refreshing pieces as well.

What's interesting for me is the review of the Singapore Arts Festival, the revision of the grant scheme and some new attention is being given to community arts in Singapore. This has caused some furore on the ground, but this is necessary for a healthy discourse amongst the artists, sponsors and policy makers to better understand the ever-evolving arts terrain. I embrace the changes because they destabilise the way things have been for some time, hopefully removing the stoppages / obstacles that we have been facing for some time.

2a) If things go well, I hope to see a more diverse arts scene in Singapore by 2022. The way policies are being revised and the responses that they will elicit or provoke from the arts community on the ground would be something interesting to observe in the next few years. As Kuo Pao Kun once shared with me, "artists are always one step ahead those who have designs to control us." And I have the faith that artists and the arts will, without fail, spar with existing conditions and diversity, wherever we go, will fight to be represented. By now, we know that the arts community is divisive. But by 2022, we will come to accept that. More importantly, we would know how to embrace and work with and across differences. That would be a sign of the maturity of the arts scene in Singapore and I look forward to seeing and enjoying the fruits.

2b) I am looking for more enlightened corporate support so that we can make more significant headway in developing a more multiple funding template so we are not over-reliant on a single funding source. I am looking forward to more Singapore-based companies collaborating with one another as we embark on creative approaches to transcend working in silos. I think we need more openness from one another and sustain discussions pertaining to such collaborative initiatives.I am hoping that there will be an increase in faith in the artist. More decisions or rather more power seems to be in the hands of powerful bureaucrats who have other non-arts agenda. This is not necessarily bad at all. But sometimes, certain policies go against the grain of organic growth. I look forward to less bullying and more transparent dialogue with open minds so we can work collaboratively rather than competitively or in fear and suspicion of one another. For the scene to mature, we should be more open to each other's concerns, empathise better and be more self-reflexive with regards to how attitudes and behaviour can harm healthy development. I look forward to those with capital and resources to share more willingly with artists who have less so we can improve the fabric of the community and for artists who receive the help to be less judgmental and self-righteous about positions they subscribe to where decisions and policies are concerned. That we may deeply understand how to accept to disagree but still be able to work with one another and not sever relationships because it is more pragmatic, practical and/or convenient to do so.

Koh Wan Ching (Theatre Practitioner)

1, 2a, 2b) The keyword for me this year is collaboration, both in terms of my own practice and the works I have seen this year. Collaborative groups that have formed in recent years share some characteristics. They may be porous, ephemeral, multi-disciplinary. Some have been formed out of brilliant serendipity, some due to common artistic goals and direction, some simply because the members just really like to hang out together a lot. Whatever their reasons for getting together and for that matter, separating, member of these groups have tremendous potential for creating works that are unexpected, challenging and which question the ways we perceive and create theatre pieces.

I may be wrong but I think collaborative groups arise out of dissatisfaction with the way companies function. Some exist in order to plug some perceived gaps in the ecosystem. There is a range of debatable issues from the lack of actor training to the pressure of market forces.

These groups exist for a limited duration within which individual members have limited time with and to commit to the group. On the other hand it takes time for work to mature and for working methodologies to be refined. It also takes time for people to learn to get along.

All these lead to highly paradoxical situations to work with and work from and I believe that this situation will persist for some time. Is it then useful to talk about systems of organisation when it comes to these volatile and dynamic groups? I find it necessary to ask questions about other people's processes and working methodologies, rather than the actual works. I hope there will be more dialogue between artists and groups about related issues. I am grateful to the editors of this issue for asking me to think and write about the future. While it is important to learn from experience to experience and collaboration to collaboration, I believe I must also pay attention to accumulation and crystallisation.


It's indeed slightly lengthy and maybe an information overload, but I'd like to think you are as enlightened, excited and inspired as me after reading these? Now, it would be good if we can have a dialogue on this somewhere some time in the future, over a cup of coffee. Love and peace!

Eng Hao Eng Hao is a post-graduate student from NTU Chinese Division and a member of Drama Box's youth wing ARTivate. He is also a freelance writer who does editing, researching and translating.


Two copies of the book Drama Box and the Social Theatre of Singapore: Artistic Autonomy and Cultural Intervention (worth $24 each) to be given away! Share with us your feedback on our e-Newsletter either on our facebook, or email our editors, Kate & Eng Hao, at newsletter@dramabox.org. We will randomly pick two lucky readers and give them a copy of the book!

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