Singapore—Covid-19 divided our world between who’s considered “essential” and those who aren’t. And with reason, as lockdowns were imposed to prevent the spread of an infection that moved swiftly, silently, and at times fatally.
On Sunday, June 14, in an article entitled “8 in 10 Singaporeans willing to pay more for essential services: Survey,” The Straits Times (ST), in both their online and print editions, featured an infographic of a survey wherein 1,000 respondents were asked which jobs are the “most crucial in keeping Singapore going.”
The number one job that Singaporeans considered non-essential is that of an “artist,” with 71 percent of the respondents voting for it.
Artists and creatives around Singapore reacted to the infographic in different ways.
Wong Yong En, who studied at both Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music and the School of the Arts, Singapore, posted a version of ST’s infographic.
this is ur dumb infographic without artists, stupdate: hello i did not expect my little joke to blow up like this; if…
Writer, photographer, and podcaster Joel Lim posted a picture of the infographic on Instagram, and wrote that he was not surprised at the results of the survey.
“Why? Because time and time again, after my peers and I decided to pursue a further education in the Arts, we have been met with scepticism, frustration, disappointment, and even ridicule. Imagine being young, passionate kids with a burning passion, having to deal with people trying to extinguish that flame time and time again.
But in results-driven Singapore, there’s no use arguing. Everything needs to be backed by data, by facts, by case studies.”
He then went on to list the ways how “artists have been absolutely essential” and expressed hope that “in the next survey, artists in Singapore can get the respect they deserve.”
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What a way to start my Sunday morning – to find out that my fellow Singaporeans deem artists as least essential (look at the headline: “Essential, or not?”, as well as the ranking). I’m dejected, but am I really surprised? Not one bit. Why? Because time and time again, after my peers and I decided to pursue a further education in the Arts, we have been met with scepticism, frustration, disappointment, and even ridicule. Imagine being young, passionate kids with a burning passion, having to deal with people trying to extinguish that flame time and time again. But in results-driven Singapore, there’s no use arguing. Everything needs to be backed by data, by facts, by case studies. Show, don’t tell. So, here are some ways in which artists have been absolutely essential. Without artists, those easy-to-comprehend visual guides for the Budgets, or the dissemination of masks, or the new laws and measures will not exist. Without artists, entertainment and edutainment (video games, books, tv shows, music, radio shows/podcasts, etc) will not exist. Without artists, that inspiring and unifying song we all sang at 8pm at our windows will not exist. And ironically enough, without artists, infographics that inform, like this one, will not exist. Works of artists have been used to educate, to bring joy, to encourage critical thinking and to inspire hope. That, to me, in a time like this, is essential. Artists have done more than enough to deserve better than to be voted #1 among jobs deemed least essential. Perhaps this can help inform my fellow Singaporeans. Hopefully in the next survey, artists in Singapore can get the respect they deserve.
Freelance filmmaker Julie Heather wrote that the survey had made her “sad,” and being the creative that she is, she “made some art” in response.
#straitstimes published an article that claimed Artists are the least crucial to “keep Singapore going”. It made me sad,…
Some artists, however, urged their fellow creatives to keep things in perspective, and to not lose sight of the main point of the ST article. Award-winning playwright Alfian Sa’at wrote in a Facebook post, “But it’s also important to maintain some perspective. Who are the most essential workers during a pandemic? I myself won’t be putting an artist in the top 5. The most pressing thing about the article is why some of the workers considered most essential are also the ones earning slave wages.”
For, UK-based Singaporean playwright Joel Tan, the furor over the infographic had reached “a very disturbing and un-self-aware fever pitch.”
In a lengthy Facebook post on Tuesday (June 16), Mr Tan wrote, “First please can we accept that the article was not about us.” Like Mr Sa’at, he reiterated the point made in the ST piece, “If a case was being made, it was for raising the income of historically exploited and underpaid workers who do essential work,” and added that it was “very disturbing that the article and by extension, these underpaid exploited workers, have since been eclipsed by this bourgeois outrage. It is literally the opposite of the social realist critique that is a function of some of our practices.”
However, he wrote that he understood the context from which many artists had reacted to the results of the survey, but called for artists to “accept that the ‘work’ we do is not the same work that is being described by this article.”
Mr Tan also pointed out ways through which artists are appreciated.
“People actually pay a portion of their wages to see and experience our work. And that is precisely because the artist is highly valued in society. In this society, particularly, it is especially a bourgeois leisure pursuit of the wealthy and educated. As a result, many artists also enjoy tremendous cultural and social capital. Our opinions are sought on matters, we are sometimes commissioned to make work about our opinions on things. Has it occurred to anyone that we might possibly be over-valued?”
The playwright also asked artists, “Do we not have better things to invest this anger in?…how much of the work we make is for ourselves (and there is literally nothing wrong with this)? What is urgent, and what is ego? Leave your ego at the door, it is said in some rehearsal rooms.
Everyone has a soul. It isn’t just cultivated by consuming art but also by making it. Everyone should have free rein to express their creativity, to channel their love and hope and anger into the work of their hands, and have that shared and seen by others. The people most opposed to this proposition are the professional artist class, who have a vested interest in maintaining the boundaries between essential and non-essential art. It is in very, very poor taste to be making noise about this right now.”
I didn't want to wade into this whole 'artists are non-essential' thing because to me it is such a non-issue, but omg it…
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