It is tough to imagine a world without arts and performance. How can we live a full life without music, books, concert performances, and museums? Arts in all its different medium connects people emotionally and intellectually, and can be accessible to people of all backgrounds and cultures. This article discusses the relevance of arts today, and particularly, the state of the arts locally here  in Singapore.

What is art for? This video below explores some purposes of art.


Art keeps us reminds us of the beautiful things in life, keeping us hopeful despite the terrible events that we have experienced. Some art reassure us that pain and loneliness are universal emotions, as artists express these emotions publicly through their visuals or music. Art can also be a propaganda for important messages that people need to know. These reasons may seem quite impractical (as some may believe) but there is definitely value in being able to appreciate the arts as a society progresses.

Investing in the arts is for the inherent value of culture. It is for entertainment, for enhancing the quality of life, and also for defining our personal or national identities. Some may wonder then, why is the arts scene not as vibrant in Singapore? It may be attributed to the pragmatic approach taken in the foundational years of nation-building. During those days, Singaporeans were encouraged to study more technical subjects like mathematics and science to contribute in the industrialised economy of the 1960s and 70s. Singapore’s first prime minister, the late Lee Kuan Yew, famously remarked to university students in 1968: “Poetry is a luxury we cannot afford.” It is not surprising then that that generation grew up with the mentality that technical and hard skills create more value in life than soft skills.  

Today, the economy is more developed, and people generally have higher standards of living. More people are turning to the arts and developing the local arts scene, although with some growing pains. Several arts event have been launched but only some successfully retain the interest of the enthusiasts, and remain commercially viable.  

With regard to the less commercial aspect of arts, ground-up communities are formed as people participate in activities, such as dance, spoken word poetry, or make music together in a band. One case study of a growing community united by art is the blue-collar migrant workers who turn to poetry. Besides using poetry as a form of stress-relief and self-expression, their poetry is also a channel in which advocacy can happen. Through their works, such as MD Sharif’s book, ‘Stranger to Myself: Diary of a Bangladeshi in Singapore’, more people can learn about the relatively unpublicised issues faced by migrant workers. This is also a special way for the migrant community to connect with one another, and with the locals.

Ultimately, the arts enable us to express our identities. The expression of identity through the arts in turn creates a sense of vibrancy in a society. While many who live here may think that Singapore is boring with not a lot of exciting activities to do, it is hoped that the growing arts scene may help our city-state find her own identity and expression.

Questions for further personal evaluation:

  1. Do you think making arts subject examinable diminishes the ability for students to enjoy the art form? Why, or why not?
  2. How has any form of arts made an impact in your life?

Useful vocabulary:

  1. ‘propaganda’: information, especially of a biased or misleading nature, used to promote a political cause or point of view
  2. ‘gripes’: a minor complaint
  3. ‘ratify’: sign or give formal consent to
  4. ‘panacea’: a solution or remedy for all difficulties or diseases

Here are more related articles for further reading:

  1. South China Morning Post: It is more difficult for Singapore to attract regional galleries and artists due to its smaller market, and higher costs of living and doing business as compared to other Southeast Asian countries.

“The crowd of around 9,000 that gathered for the Art After Dark festival at Gillman Barracks – part of Singapore Art Week – certainly helped to dispel claims that Singaporeans are not interested in contemporary art.

Sure, many of the young hipster crowd were there for the all-night music performances and booths selling craft beer and lobster rolls. But there were queues for the galleries, too.

Singapore’s visual arts scene has grown steadily over the years with over 1,000 exhibitions held annually, says Low Eng Teong, assistant chief executive of sector development (arts) at the National Arts Council.

“We acknowledge that the commercial art market here may not be growing at the same rate as audience interest in the visual arts, but we are seeing a steady interest from collectors. While attendance at Singapore Art Week events may not translate directly into sales, the collaborative efforts of all in the arts ecosystem coupled with Singapore’s geographical location as a gateway to accessing southeast Asian art, have helped enhance Singapore’s role as a regional arts hub,” he says.”


  1. Channel NewsAsia: Fewer students are taking up Literature as a subject at the O-Levels, and it is a worrying trend that reflects an unwillingness of students to learn more critical reading skills.

“She believes the current situation should be looked at because a lack of investment in literature education could lead to a society lacking in critical readers.

“We need to understand that literature education is not simply about reading literature. Literature education is fundamentally about criticism – it trains students to read closely, to read deeply and to read critically. These are vital skills,” she said.

Associate Professor Angelia Poon, Head of English Language and Literature Academic Group at NIE, shares the concern that a lack of exposure to literature could mean students do not develop some critical skills.

“Literary texts dramatise a wide range of human, political, social and cultural issues that are germane to students who have to negotiate the complexities of a globalised world. They challenge students to consider different perspectives and the literature classroom provides a space for informed discussion, critical debate and close reading that one is hard pressed to find elsewhere,” she told Channel NewsAsia.”

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