No arts NMP selected; arts community disappointed but mulling the starting of an advocacy group

The arts community's candidate for Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP), theatre veteran Kok Heng Leun, failed to be selected. -- PHOTO: DRAMA BOX
The arts community's candidate for Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP), theatre veteran Kok Heng Leun, failed to be selected. -- PHOTO: DRAMA BOX

Down but not out. That has been the mood in the arts community after its candidate for Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP), theatre veteran Kok Heng Leun, failed to be selected.

Since the NMP scheme began in 1990 to provide more alternative voices in Parliament, the arts sector has had two NMPs. Former arts administrator Audrey Wong, who now teaches arts management at Lasalle College of the Arts, was the arts NMP from 2009 to 2011. She was succeeded by actress Janice Koh, whose 2 1/2-year term ended last Friday.

The arts is not the only sector without representation among the new slate of nine NMPs announced on Monday. Also missing is an advocate for nature and environmental issues, in the vein of outgoing NMP Faizah Jamal, a polytechnic lecturer and Nature Society member.

The new NMPs were selected by a parliamentary committee, chaired by Speaker of Parliament Halimah Yacob and comprising two ministers and five other MPs, including Workers' Party chief Low Thia Khiang.

NMPs are expected to add to the breadth and depth of parliamentary debates on issues facing Singapore such as ageing, sporting excellence, entrepreneurism and retaining the nation's heritage.

Many in the arts community, however, are disappointed that an arts NMP was not selected for the new term because the previous arts NMPs had raised the profile of art and cultural issues, and the community was hopeful that such awareness could be sustained.

The Substation's artistic director Noor Effendy Ibrahim, 40, says: "The previous two arts NMPs have emphasised the importance of the arts in developing a well-rounded society and we had hoped that Kok Heng Leun would be able to further the conversation. But this is unfortunately not to be."

Mr Kok, 48, artistic director of home-grown theatre company Drama Box, said in an e-mail to supporters that he is disappointed that he has "not been selected to serve the community in Parliament".

But he has been heartened by the journey, especially the public's interest in having an arts advocate in Parliament. "Those who attended the town hall meeting in May for potential arts NMP candidates included not just those in the arts but also arts audiences and observers, who were concerned about how art and culture policies can play a bigger role in society," he told the Straits Times.

Sharing Mr Kok's disappointment is Ms Koh, 40.

She said: "For the arts community, the arts NMP is an important bridge to Parliament and to Government, so it is a huge loss for us.

"As the previous arts NMP, I believe some of the issues I raised on identity, culture, media, education and heritage resonated with people beyond the arts sector. It is now incumbent on the elected NMPs to continue reflecting these concerns."

During her term as arts NMP, she raised the need for a national film institute to further promote Singapore's film industry internationally and to raise film literacy here. She also called for the authorities to consider integrating drama and drama pedagogy formally into the core curriculum of primary and secondary schools, and for the Government to grow the space for public debate instead of drawing more boundaries for civic discourse.

Mr Terence Ho, 45, general manager of the Singapore Chinese Orchestra, however, is sanguine about the absence of an arts NMP for this term. He is confident the new NMPs will continue to raise issues on arts and culture.

He says: "Art is everywhere, art is soft power, and when you talk about heritage, you talk about the arts. I believe that the NMPs, regardless of the areas they represent, will look at the whole picture of Singapore's development and continue the dialogue."

Others, such as artist and founder of urban art collective Rscls, Zul Othman, 34, view the outcome as an opportunity for the arts community to come together, instead of relying on a single representative, to engage policy makers as well as the public.

Indeed, some in the arts community, including Mr Kok and Mr Alvin Tan, artistic director of theatre company The Necessary Stage, have been mulling over this idea and are thinking of starting an advocacy group for arts and cultural issues.

Mr Kok says: "A group of us have been talking about starting an arts advocacy NGO for some time. It would be like a think-tank that collects and analyses data, looks at long-term policies and engages different stakeholders, the public and Government, to talk about these issues from a deeper, well-researched perspective."

Mr Tan, 51, says: "The idea is not a reaction to the arts community not having an NMP. We have been mulling over it since last year but it has come to the foreground now."