Staying alive: Why the arts remain essential in a crisis

A fortnight into the circuit breaker, I found myself sitting down with two students over Google Hangouts, ready to discuss the poems they had written.

Since safe distancing measures kicked in, I've missed having these mentorship sessions in person: talking about rhyme and rhythm over teh, and watching them develop into confident young writers.

Launched three decades ago by the Ministry of Education, the Creative Arts Programme has allowed a generation of young people to discover the joy and comfort of writing, and grow under the guidance of wiser friends. The programme threw a lifeline to my younger self at 15, and now, serving as a mentor - in these tumultuous times, no less - has been my own way of paying it forward.

I've also missed being in the classroom. Over the past few years, I've taught writing workshops in various contexts, including at schools without literature programmes of their own.

When the first Covid-19 clusters emerged in February, some of us writers filmed video workshops at Sing Lit Station, a non-profit organisation working to expand access to creative writing education. Students "attended" them in small groups, and we took questions live on Slack. Once schools reopen next month, depending on which precautions remain in place, we'll have to find other ways to adapt.

With theatres and bookshops closed for the time being, and classes and concerts cancelled, many arts organisations have had to reinvent themselves. Publishers and producers struggle not only to balance the books, but also to reach audiences in a highly competitive digital space. And many artists, constrained by resources or the features of their art forms, are now in a highly vulnerable position.

But there are more hopeful stories too. Home-grown theatre companies Wild Rice and Pangdemonium, for instance, have seen their audience numbers grow by twentyfold, or even a hundredfold, by making productions freely available online. If these are anything to go by, it seems that there are many among us who are more likely to turn to the arts when all else seems bleak.

Here in pragmatic Singapore, the idea that the arts can be more, not less, essential in a crisis may well be seen as naive, or at least contrary to conventional wisdom.

In my day job, I've seen first-hand the efforts of medical professionals and essential staff to keep our healthcare system running in a time of crisis. Many, like my own parents, both doctors, take profound risks on our behalf, leaving the safety of home to ensure that patients can still be seen and cared for.

As a volunteer in the migrant advocacy space, I've also come face to face with the heavy toll this crisis has taken on our migrant community. Beyond the spread of Covid-19 in workers' dormitories, so many workers have been anxious about whether they can continue to support their families back home.

In the face of all this, the arts seem powerless at best; at worst, a distraction from the necessities of the moment. Poetry, after all, can neither heal a patient nor stop a pandemic.

So why, then, do what we do?

Why find ways to reach new audiences, and why does it matter that months from now, writers and artists will be able to return to their feet?

Those who value the arts primarily for their entertainment or commercial value will be hard-pressed to answer this question. "Cultural capital", attractive under more upbeat circumstances, rings hollow when we consider the scale of human suffering inflicted by Covid-19, and its economic repercussions.

Yet in other ways, the crisis has shone a clarifying light on why we need the arts.

Times like these can be profoundly unsettling, and the arts offer a way to make sense of what we are going through. Not only as individuals whose worlds have been upturned, but collectively, also as a society that has lost our shared ways of life. One attempt to do this is the Instagram account (@tape_measures) started by artist Berny Tan to collate photographs of how the marking of safe distances has radically altered our public spaces, a reminder of their reassuring openness during ordinary times.

The arts also turn our gaze outwards, so we see and make sense of those in more precarious situations. In a Facebook group called Daily Life in Covid-19, the Migrant Writers of Singapore collective has invited members to share their poems responding to the crisis. Many of these give voice to a community who, even in normal times, face homesickness and harsh treatment. As domestic worker Ellen Lavilla writes: "How long to home, God?/The world is on my shoulders once again."

Third, building on an understanding of our own position and others', the arts allow us to imagine a better post-crisis world. Many readers took comfort from a comic by graphic novelist Sonny Liew and epidemiologist Hsu Li Yang, which circulated widely after it was published on the Mothership website several weeks ago. Reflecting on "the lasting impact" of Covid-19, the authors write with cautious optimism that there is hope yet, for a "more equitable, kinder and gentler" world.

Finally, if Covid-19 has laid bare some of society's sharpest divisions, the arts show us how to approach these honestly, and, in time, heal them.

Taking our cue from The Community Theatre, an ongoing project by Beyond Social Services that foregrounds the voices and experiences of marginalised youth, might we create similar spaces to examine the faults revealed by this crisis, and lay some of our longstanding prejudices - especially against the most vulnerable - to rest?


More than the observations we might draw from any one poem, I try to tell my students that when we teach and practise the arts, it is an exercise in these things. Because after the last patient has been treated, when our city begins to rebuild, we will need a full and active capacity for each of these traits.

And in the meantime, we will do what we can to keep our bookshops, galleries and theatre companies afloat. We will support artists who have encountered hardship. And we will not stop teaching, writing, or producing art about the world that is changing around us.

Because these things are more essential than we know.

• Theophilus Kwek is the author of five volumes of poetry, including Moving House, which will be released by the United Kingdom-based Carcanet Press next month. He works in the healthcare sector.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 15, 2020, with the headline Staying alive: Why the arts remain essential in a crisis. Subscribe