Illustration by Yeji Yun.

Educating the “Gifted” in Singapore

Also available in:  Chinese  Arabic

In 1989, Dr. Neville Ellis, an art teacher in one of the top high schools in Singapore, published an article titled “Will the Gifted Blossom?” in School Arts magazine. The essay provides an account of how Singapore’s Art Elective Programme (AEP) was established, refined and implemented in a handful of top-ranking secondary schools. Initiated by the Ministry of Education in 1984, the program was intended to provide an enriched environment for a small number of students to realize their creative talents and develop their artistic vision. 

Reading the article, one gets a glimpse of the careful planning and considerable resources invested in the enterprise, which surely anticipated a healthy “return on investment”—a term in increasingly common usage among business and government circles—given the calculating, materialistic ethos driving Singapore’s development. Though Dr. Ellis did not actually provide a straightforward answer to the question posed in his article’s title, one can nonetheless infer from it a certain doubt, even a hint of cynicism, toward the likely success of an endeavor of such scale and intricacy. 

In recent years the Singapore government, through its various ministries and boards, has continued to invest heavily in the development of visual arts education. Twenty-four years after the introduction of the AEP, the School of the Arts (SOTA), Singapore’s first secondary school to offer a specialized pre-tertiary arts curriculum for students, was launched. SOTA’s impressive multistory building sits on a piece of prime real estate near Orchard Road, within short walking distance of the National Museum of Singapore and the Singapore Art Museum. As a focused arts school—“arts” in this case includes music, dance, theater and the visual arts—SOTA’s self-proclaimed vision is to “shape and impact society through education in the arts” by providing a “vibrant environment for learning that is uniquely anchored in the arts, celebrating experimentation, expression and discovery, with the aim of nurturing artistic talent and developing leaders who will draw on their creativity to enrich society.” 

At the tertiary level, Lasalle College of the Arts, which relocated to its current campus in 2007 with sizable financial backing from Singapore’s Economic Development Board, and its long-standing counterpart, the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, both showcase a vibrant range of arts activities in the arts precinct in the city center. Only last year, the Center for Contemporary Art was inaugurated, under the aegis of Nanyang Technological University, at Gillman Barracks, alongside the existing cluster of international galleries. The scale of government investment and planning in art education is certainly impressive. The focus, however, seems to favor investment in art as an economic measure rather than the development of art for its own sake. In addition, the intention to establish Singapore as an international arts hub seems even more pronounced today than in previous governmental “visions,” such as the “Renaissance City” and “Remaking Singapore” campaigns, which were launched in 2000 and 2002 respectively. 

It is true that students from AEP schools, junior colleges and SOTA all produce excellent results in their examinations and graduating exhibitions. But when it comes to choosing which discipline to pursue at university, an overwhelming majority of these gifted individuals seem to have set their sights on professional careers in fields more lucrative than the arts. In response to the question of how Singapore has performed as an arts hub, prominent art historian TK Sabapathy has commented that, at present, Singapore operates mainly as a place for the transshipment of art products, and fails to operate as an active and sustainable center for the creation of these products. He reasons that the circumstances in which artistic production takes place in Singapore still have not been sufficiently cultivated. In particular he suggests that the role of the artist, or the “individual,” is still underappreciated: “I’m not so sure that the term individual is sufficiently respected or respectful here; it is still a cautionary term.” In other words, Singapore society remains tightly regulated and the space for the individual to think within is still carefully monitored, or to again quote Mr. Sabapathy, “is still not sufficiently freed up.” 

Having lived and worked overseas for more than 30 years, I take it almost as a given that an artist requires freedom in order to engage in radical research and experimentation, especially when finding new ways of challenging established modes of visual arts practice. Since returning to Singapore in 2003, I have seen the cultural, social and political pressures that are exerted by the government to ensure that individuals conform to conservative and safe norms. Hence the artist is required to exercise extreme caution, which eventually stifles the will to think critically and creatively. 

As a teenager during the 1950s, I certainly would not have been considered “gifted” enough to gain admission to either the AEP schools or SOTA, had these initiatives existed. However, I was in some ways fortunate to grow up in Singapore at a time when society was more forgiving and concerned about community well-being. The individual had to develop a fighting spirit in order to pursue dreams and ambitions, and it was still possible to make mistakes. Most importantly, it was a time when one could still be a dreamer and an idealist. 

However, in Singapore’s current sociopolitical landscape, the “gifted” are choosing to “blossom” in professions that ensure material comfort. And even those prepared to embark on the challenges of becoming a contemporary artist may still find it more conducive to grow their career in a place where the return on investment is measured not just by dollars and cents. Perhaps, in addition to Dr. Ellis’s question “Will the gifted blossom?” we should also be asking two further questions: Are current educational approaches really designed to nurture those destined to be our future arts practitioners? If so, how can we encourage these individuals to blossom in Singapore rather than elsewhere?