Arts can help S'pore build collective identity in polarised world: Edwin Tong

Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Edwin Tong at The Arts House during the launch of Sembang Ilmu Plus (+). ST PHOTO: GIN TAY

SINGAPORE - In a world marked by polarisation and fault lines, Singapore faces the critical question of how to develop and uphold a common strength and identity, said Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Edwin Tong on Saturday (June 18).

Race and religion are fault lines that have sometimes become "fertile ground" for activities carried out by those seeking to accentuate differences and divide people, and trends such as the rise of social media have also been a driver of such divisions, he added.

"The secret sauce ingredient for us to take the country forward will be in a common mindshare, in a shared heart, and building a strong inclusive Singapore, not just as a slogan, but one where we truly mean everyone has a place in Singapore," Mr Tong said.

Against this backdrop, the arts can provide a strong common denominator and help to strengthen Singapore's collective identity, the minister added.

"By sharing our experiences in and through art, artefacts, historical value... All of these can help us better understand one another."

Mr Tong was speaking at The Arts House during the launch of Sembang Ilmu Plus (+), a new platform started by the Malay Heritage Foundation (MHF) for young Singaporeans of all ethnicities to discuss issues relating to the arts, culture and heritage.

According to the MHF, "Sembang Ilmu" roughly translates to "let's chill out and chat" in English. It is a continuation of the MHF's earlier Sembang Ilmu Series of forum sessions, which was launched in 2020 and focused on discussions of issues related to the socio-cultural development of Malays in Singapore.

Mr Tong noted that platforms such as Sembang Ilmu Plus (+) provide an important foundation for not only developing a common understanding but also for turning ideas into positive action by engaging young people to work with the government, civil society and other groups or ground-up initiatives.

Several members of the arts community also spoke at the seminar-style event.

Veteran theatre practitioner Shaza Ishak, who is the managing director of theatre company Teater Ekamatra, spoke on the difficulties faced by organisations like hers in fund-raising.

She said arts groups that focus on ethnic minority issues are heavily reliant on ticket sales and government grants, as they receive little to no private funding.

Ms Shaza said few givers are from ethnic minority backgrounds, which could be one reason not many are giving to ethnic minority arts groups.

She suggested another problem could be the lack of diversity among the leaders and decision-makers in philanthropic organisations, which could be a blind spot that affects how arts groups that focus on ethnic minority issues are valued.

"A variety of backgrounds in terms of differentiation in socio-economic status and education as well as professions among leaders and management could increase the probability that diverse artists and art forms will be more fairly valued and assessed in ways that are more appropriate for the cultural and social context," Ms Shaza added.

"We need to acknowledge that perhaps the cause of this situation is the way the arts sector has been shaped based on colonial values and traditions, reductionist CMIO (Chinese, Malay, Indian and Other) approaches to our understanding of race, ethnicity and culture, upholding certain art forms over others."

Poet and photographer Marc Nair, arts educator Amin Farid and independent scholar Wong Chee Meng also spoke at the event.

Dr Nair spoke on the purpose and value of the arts in Singapore, and how poetry and other art forms can challenge modern "transactional" ways of thinking.

Dr Amin touched on how Malay dance provides opportunities for shared intergenerational experiences and ideas, while Dr Wong discussed his work on issues such as intercultural exchanges and cultural appropriation in the arts.

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