Photo: Titled ‘Critical Space For Engagement‘, acrylic painting by Teresa Teo Lay Yan (Not for sale item).


By Teresa Teo Lay Yan

An interview by Bharati Jagdish with theatre veteran and Director of the Singapore International Festival of Arts, Ong Keng Sen, who questioned whether Singapore truly has a viable arts scene (Ong Keng Sen ’embarrassed’ talking about Singapore in front of international artists, Channel News Asia [Online], posted 24 Oct 2015 12:24)

I read this interview article with interest and wish to share some personal thoughts coming from an ordinary Singaporean’s viewpoint.

“Are we still human?” Director Ong asked and he used the term ‘social conditioning’.

Some amount of social conditioning is’nt that bad e.g. no chewing gums, no littering, non-smoking area, having to queue which led to a green, clean and less disruptive garden city of today.

Social conditioning is only harmful if it robs us of our critical thinking, our self-expression and innovation and our creativity to solve problems. If that be so, it will prevent us from being a thinking and questioning human being and is highly discouraged.

I agree with Director Ong that the arts should be encouraged to be a ‘critical space’ to ignite, to provoke and at times to anger, a space for diversive voices, what he refers to as ‘a natural ombudsman for society’. No discipline or public space is as permeable as the arts space.

Do I feel that our government have really ‘entrenched certain perspectives’ concerning the arts as mentioned by Director Ong? Our focus then was on building the economy during the survival years of self-independence and emphasizing on academic achievements and rankings has placed the pursuit of the arts at the bottom of the list.’First thing first’ kind of tackling national issues and social problems, a very Singapore style.

The arts is for the elite in society, a prestige or status symbol and beyond the reach of the lower strata in society as most people would have thought. Does it have to be so? Director Ong cited how the arts is evident in the lives of the commoners in Bali. Do we then say only the rich in society can enjoy and appreciate art?

Art for art’s sake is definitely not for pragmatic Singaporeans. They don’t even want to pay to go to a concert or sometimes when is free admission, other priorities kick in. Is it possible to shift the paradigm? It takes time and when the arts is valued by the mass.

“…the government continues to instrumentalise the arts, and not allow the arts to exist for itself.” said Director Ong Ken Sen. Personally, I think this stems from the fulfilling of the KPIs for any venture, whether art or non-art projects, be it self-funded or funded by funding bodies. Pragmatism comes into play that anything not purposeful or useful is considered not worth venturing into.

Just to give an analogy about a child’s play. Does it have to start with being purposeful? Most child’s free play becomes purposeful as it progresses and he or she did not deliberately start with a purpose in mind but the purpose will prevail as the child explores. Unfortunately, is the adult who sets their own agenda to make the child’s play purposeful, not the child’s agenda.Nothing is purposeful till the child finds it purposeful.

In the same vein, the arts is only useful if the artist finds it so to benefit the wider community and not for a third party to instrumentalise it.

Last but not least, for the paradigm to shift, we must first shift our linear thinking, think like a curious child, dare to disagree and not be afraid of disagreement. It forms the basis and gives us reason to engage meaningfully and of course with civility, such is an artist’s trajectory towards art partnership and civic engagement.



Jagdish, B. (2015). Ong Keng Sen ’embarrassed’ talking about Singapore in front of international artists. Channel New Asia [Online].


About the Author:

Ms Teo Lay Yan Teresa is the founder and managing director of Dove Doodle Pte Ltd. She writes for the Company’s blog and engages the community through the visual arts. To learn more about the author, CLICK the ‘Founder’s Profile’.