Ways to make traditional arts contemporary

This spectacular Narpani peacock float beat 13 others to clinch the Most Popular Float award at the 2015 Chingay parade. Writer suggests that the Chingay festival is a good example of how contemporary cultural life could be Asianised. 
This spectacular Narpani peacock float beat 13 others to clinch the Most Popular Float award at the 2015 Chingay parade. Writer suggests that the Chingay festival is a good example of how contemporary cultural life could be Asianised. 

THE deputy chief executive of the National Arts Council (NAC), Mr Paul Tan, wrote in a May 11 commentary in The Straits Times that "with our modern outlook and increasingly English-speaking disposition, we should make more effort to remember the cultural diet our pioneers were weaned on".

As someone involved in the tertiary education sector here in the mass communication field for the past 15 years, this is an issue that concerns me.

We have in Singapore three of Asia's leading cultures - Chinese, Malay and Indian. Yet, young people here tend to think these cultures belong to the past and not the present. For example, I have often seen students' productions at polytechnics, universities or arts colleges here that are copycat versions of Western cultures rather than those of Asia.

Here are some of my ideas on how Singapore could develop a strong contemporary traditional arts sector.

In March, the Government announced that $25 million of funding will be pumped into the traditional arts in the next five years. Much of this will be allocated for arts education. I hope that part of it will be spent on helping arts teachers get better exposure to teaching traditional arts, perhaps by funding exchange programmes with leading arts institutions in countries like China, Indonesia and India.

I have often watched Chinese opera performances, especially during the Hungry Ghost Festival, where the audience comprises just a handful of very old people. Perhaps addressing historical stories may not be that attractive to young people.

Why don't we use Chinese opera to address social issues relevant to contemporary society, such as alcoholism, drugs, gambling, raising a family and romance? This could be done without diluting its cultural presentation - I once saw a performance in Chinatown where the singing was in English, but the style was traditional Chinese opera.

I have noticed that students are encouraged to do creative things for Halloween that adopt mainly American cultural expressions. Can we do the same during the Hungry Ghost Festival using Chinese cultural expressions?

The Esplanade has done a great job in developing the arts scene. Yet, there is a lot it can do to promote local cultural expressions. It has very good festivals during Chinese New Year, Hari Raya and Deepavali to promote the three ethnic cultures. But it is yet to come up with a festival where different Asian cultures can interact.

Last month, in countries in our neighbourhood, there was a celebration of the dawn of a new year, based not on any particular religious teachings, but on ancient astrological knowledge.

It is also a harvesting festival. The Esplanade (or the new Singapore Indoor Stadium) could have a cultural programme around the theme of a harvest festival with an Asian flavour. Using the arts, this could focus on Asian agrarian societies and educate young Asians about how their cultures developed.

A good example of how contemporary cultural life could be Asianised is the Chingay festival. At first, its performances were mainly "modern" items reflecting global Anglo-American culture. But over the years it has evolved into a community arts festival with a high percentage of Asian cultural expressions, in a contemporary setting with a lot of community participation.

Recently, I had a discussion with a group of Buddhists on why Vesak Day is celebrated mainly within the confines of Buddhist temples and how we could have a cultural festival during this time that could bring together Buddhists of various cultural backgrounds here, such as Chinese, Myanmarese, Sri Lankan, Thai, Taiwanese, Cambodian and Laotian.

We thought an annual street procession (similar to Chingay but with a different cultural flavour), perhaps from Chinatown to the Padang, may be a good idea.

Some time ago, the NAC funded a radio station called Passion. I hope it can be revived, but in a community radio format. You could work with local artists, community groups and special-interest cultural groups. Young people could be trained and encouraged to create special entertainment programmes with an Asian flavour and senior citizens could produce programmes that reflect their cultural tastes.

With much talk about Asean community-building, it is time to look at how to give these ideas teeth.

Indeed, one of the topics at this month's meeting between Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping will be on how to rekindle the spirit of the cultural flow through the ancient Silk Road.

Singapore is in a good position to create modern cultural productions and festivals to promote this idea and create new cultural links.

Some of the ideas above to develop our cultural traditional heritage can not only enrich the local community - especially the young - but also benefit future generations in terms of having a unique cultural identity, one not imposed by the West. Modern Singapore's development of a strong traditional arts sector could be a role model for other Asian countries.


The writer teaches international communications at Nanyang Technological University and is a former head of research at the Asian Media Information and Communication Centre.