Letter from Audrey Wong Nominated Member of Parliament and Co-artistic Director, The Substation, Sep 17, 2009
THERE has been much talk about social and religious harmony lately, with the Prime Minister at the National Day Rally emphasising the importance of preserving common spaces for all Singaporeans regardless of race, language or religion. Schools, workplaces, and sports are three such spaces - and, perhaps, arts and culture should be added to the list.
If we understand "culture" to mean a set of customs, values and practices that are shared or commonly understood among a group of people, as well as the intellectual and artistic aspects of human life, it's clear that the arts and culture generate shared social capital.
Singapore has articulated its official core values, but it takes more than slogans for values to be embodied in people's lives.
"Culture" and the "arts" - the expressions of culture in structured aesthetic form - help people to think through their identities, histories and memories. The enjoyment of many art forms - for instance, painting, music, dance - is not tied to a particular language. People from different ethnic and religious backgrounds have collaborated successfully in the artistic process. Yet, we don't always take full advantage of this diversity: it is rare to see a non-Chinese at a Chinese play, or a non-Malay at a Malay play, even with the provision of English surtitles. Yet, we happily listen to world music sung in unfamiliar languages.
But there is hope.
In contemporary theatre and visual art, it is common to see collaborations between artists from different backgrounds. Directors like Ong Keng Sen and Alvin Tan (in collaboration with playwright Haresh Sharma) are tapping into the rich vein of multiculturalism in Singapore, working with artists across social, cultural and language barriers, even beyond Singapore. The late dramatist Kuo Pao Kun was another pioneer, emphasising the importance of creating work that's rooted in local culture(s).
A recent work which received excellent reviews was the play, National Language Class, by theatre company spell#7, which was founded by a Singaporean and a Briton. Both live in Singapore. In this play, staged last year, a Chinese actress and Malay actor present a scene from a painting by Chua Mia Tee depicting a group of young Chinese learning Malay in a classroom in the late 1950s/early 1960s - a time when our people dreamt of becoming a new nation.
The play brought up questions such as whether we are defined by the language(s) we speak, how we articulate ourselves as a nation, and how we manage - or view - our differences.
Our diversity is seen in the arts, not because the artists deliberately set out to depict these themes, but simply because the artists live the Singapore experience, and live in these shared spaces.