Over the Chinese New Year holidays, a conversation among relatives turned to the arts programmes - an occupational hazard of mine - in our public schools. I quipped that some schools had strong dance programmes, which also encouraged students to take part in traditional dance outside a student's own ethnic group.
I drew on a memory of watching a student show I caught last year, which was the culmination of a dance development programme funded by our National Arts Council. Among the various acts was an Indian dance troupe, comprising a few ethnic Chinese girls, performed with such lively precision and joy.
One relative spoke up and expressed discomfort. "Why does a Chinese student want to learn Indian dance? I mean it's okay to be exposed to it but why does she need to be so immersed?"
I asked, "Why not?" and there was an awkward moment in the midst of our pineapple tart- munching. I went on to say, partly in the interest of not dampening festive spirits, that these students were not likely to pursue dance as a career and that their interest was akin to many of our music students who slog for a Grade 8 certification in piano, but eventually do not choose music as a career.
This personal anecdote is apt, especially in the context of a recent call by Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam for Singaporeans to take a deep interest and participate in each other's cultures. But it also suggests there is a perception that there are limits to the depth of that interest and how much one can participate actively.
But at a philosophical level, why can't a Chinese boy or girl pursue Indian dance at the highest level?
Art forms themselves are certainly creed- and colour-blind, though a few may be tied to longstanding ethnic traditions or language (for example, Chinese or Jawi calligraphy).
Singapore has always recognised the uniqueness and depth of our ethnic cultures, and has never advocated a fusion melting pot but a deep respect for the strength and richness of these cultures.
At the core of this discomfort, I think, is the fear that the Chinese girl who immerses herself in Indian dance is diluting her Chinese-ness, expending time and energies better spent elsewhere. Is there even perhaps an anxiety that she may interact with or date a boy from a different ethnic group?
As a cultural policymaker, should we proscribe the extent to which we encourage people to immerse in another culture? Obviously not. Indeed, we should create more opportunities. In an ethnic Chinese-majority state, there is always a need to help Chinese Singaporeans - including newly naturalised ones - to be able to empathise with different ethnic groups, which is an area the arts have great potential to do.
Encouraging arts companies to provide for audiences of different linguistic and ethnic backgrounds is important. Beyond English subtitles at shows, there is need for more information and context, and effective targeted marketing.
The other reality is that in our small marketplace, there will be few who can successfully pursue art at the highest level in the first place. So if there are young people who have talent, passion and, importantly, stamina, we should encourage them, while at the same time allay the concerns of fellow Singaporeans who may have reservations.
We can also have more confidence in our diverse ethnic heritage, which is deep but also distinct from their individual origins. Indeed, Singapore has a long tradition of happy adaptations which don't detract from core identities.
Think of the Tamil-speaking Chinese goldsmiths in Little India, or how characters in Jack Neo's latest movie, Long Long Time Ago, communicate in Pasar Malay or how the notion of a Nanyang identity has shaped the practice of oil painting or Chinese orchestral music.
In this interplay of influences, these different strands - untidy, organic and continually evolving - come together to add up to an expression of our national culture.
There is little doubt art can help reflect and forge a sense of national identity. Consider the chronicle of Singapore's history, so eloquently told in the Singapore galleries at the National Gallery. And few would disagree how the best songs (Dick Lee's Home comes to mind) can evoke a sense of place and even become an anthem for people with shared experiences and memories.
But, of course, art is multifarious in its expressions and we should be careful that art is not reduced to a one-note exercise to burnish national pride or foster social bonds.
The best of art - and these transcend national borders and even time - engage and entertain but also hold up a mirror to society and humanity at large, asking questions about why we are here and indeed how we can lead a good purposeful life.
With increased exposure to quality art in our schools, our well-stocked public libraries, the creation of so many stories that stir the imagination and the plethora of both accessible and challenging art in the Esplanade and our museums, there is more cause for optimism than despair. The arts can lead to a more discerning and thoughtful populace, one which has developed a keener sense of aesthetics. But some may say that journey will take a long time, given our famously pragmatic ethos. But at least we have a vision of what the end point looks like.
How do we get there? That's for us at the council to work out, together with the arts community and many interested stakeholders.
For now, here's one simple suggestion to everyone, including those who may not particularly value the arts: Reach out and catch a show, read a book and see an exhibition that is outside your comfort zone. We never know how our eyes and minds will be opened by fresh experiences, till we give ourselves a chance.
The writer is the deputy CEO of the National Arts Council and a published poet.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 12, 2016, with the headline 'When Chinese girls perform Indian dance'. Print Edition | Subscribe
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