RedDot Academy

THBT all forms of contemporary art have as much merit as more traditional forms of art.

Part 5 of 6

The debates we engage in should not end after the final bell is rung.

This is the fifth installment of a six-part series which looks at how debate topics from the 2018 Singapore Secondary School Debate Championships (SSSDC) 2018 relate to Singapore’s society today.

After the judges have rendered their verdicts, the pens & cards are packed away and the journey home begins, our minds and thoughts should still be filled with the words we spoke and heard during the hour of spirited argumentation. Why?


Because debaters will grow up to be the movers and shakers of tomorrow. You will be our leaders, our lawyers and our social levellers. Yours will be the voice for those who have none and yours is the will that brings change to our society.


We should thus relish every opportunity to consider how the topics that we discuss in the abstract will come to have a concrete impact on the real world that we live in. In this regard, RedDot Academy is pleased to bring you “After the Bell,” a series of reflections on how issues within our debate motions impact our own little Red Dot of Singapore.


We are proud to introduce our next guest contributor: Agrim Singh, an experienced debater, adjudicator on the Singapore and international circuit and Hackathon extraordinaire. He currently splits his time between building out augmented/mixed reality products and producing music.

This debate saw teams argue whether contemporary art deserves to have as much merit as traditional forms of art, with issues discussed aimed at establishing the differences between the two art forms – the different media art exists across and how these outlets are further diversified in the modern era, and the point at which art deserves merit – think longevity and endurance over time, or perhaps the message espoused. Or it could just be its sheer beauty.


Naturally, this debate, on its surface, does not seem to relate to Singapore since we’ve not been seen as an Arts hub, historically speaking at least. However, Singapore makes a concerted effort to push Arts, performance arts or otherwise, through grants and numerous performance spaces and avenues. Moreover, what consists of meritorious art and how that is ascertained remains up for discussion as well.

What is meritorious art according to Singapore and how should we judge it?

Singapore has a burgeoning art scene and, to its credit, has taken appropriate steps towards building an ecosystem for arts development such as through the establishment of teaching institutions and incubating local artists, the primary recipients of scholarships, grants, awards and subsidies – and a justified way of looking at merit through the lens of which artists and works receive these awards. The National Arts Council offers funding as well as support for events such as the Singapore Design Week. Additionally, artists have access to subsidized rental for art spaces such as at Gilman Barracks. Thus, merit by way of definition is accorded to art and artists who are able to use these systems to their benefit. Of course, this also comes with hitting Key Performance Indicators for these government bodies which implies overproducing art in the name of productivity to justify funding.


That said, how much of this encourages new or contemporary forms of art? It is often noted that grant money comes with heavy strings attached, and it is where we see that this idea of ‘merit’ comes with conditions. The NAC has not been hesitant in withdrawing funding for crossing politically-sensitive lines, the most famous case in recent memory being that of Sonny Liew whose work “The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye”, an alternate look at Singapore’s history, took home three Eisner Awards which are regarded the Oscars of the comic world. In a world where contemporary or more modern art focuses on ideas and feelings that capture the zeitgeist, artists who find themselves at the crossroads of religious, political or social topics are often thwarted by regulations and censorship, having no choice but to decline funding if the conditions set are not palatable. Forcing an artist’s hand to adapt their work to the grant application fosters a form of self-censorship that hurts the local scene’s vibrancy.


Furthermore, this self-censorship exists over where this art can be displayed. A city which prides itself on wanting to be a regional hub for the arts, competing with the likes of Manila and Hong Kong, often finds itself artificially restricting where this art can be displayed. Singapore won’t see a local Banksy with its restrictions on graffiti, seen as vandalism. A safety-first approach led to the Jalan Besar Town Council taking down the gold mylar sheets, which were hung by Singapore artist Priyageetha Dia, after receiving complaints from residents saying it reminded them of joss paper and that shared spaces are perhaps not appropriate for this. It suggests that meritorious art appeases all, or at least a vast majority, and especially so in Singapore where the government tries to toe a fine balance between freedom of expression and sensitivities of race, religion and politics. Not quite the free market of ideas one hopes for.

Addressing the myth that debates about Art do not apply to Singapore

As much as Singapore has been seen as a cultural desert, there has been a doubling down of effort over the last two decades to transform Singapore into a hub for South-east Asian art. This has seen a rise of showcase museums, a spectacular national gallery and performance spaces like Esplanade which are dedicated to the Arts. But even with the state-led push, and generous support from the National Arts Council and Singapore Tourism Board (up to 85% of Singapore’s arts scene is funded by the state, according to 2016 data) it would be a stretch to suggest there exists an organic, vibrant arts scene in our country.


The heavy-handed, top-down approach has meant that in order keep a steady foot-traffic at galleries, performance halls and art fairs organizers have to pander to what is “good and accepted” art. This, in Singapore, has translated to what would count as “high society art”. The National Gallery has seen greater footfall over the past six months not because of its dedicated spaces for South-east Asian art but rather its rotating exhibitions by Yayoi Kusama (which found appeal for a variety of reasons, notably social media) as well as the Century of Light exhibition where pieces from Musée d’Orsay were brought in. Similarly, one is likely to find a chamber orchestra performance or ballet at Esplanade rather than fringe dance forms like Krumping. Our inherent prejudice to the types of art showcased limits the organic progression of art in Singapore.


More crucially, a thriving arts scene relies on experimental and fringe arts taking centre-stage. This would necessarily mean allowing the artists to make and exhibit works that are not occupying an already saturated domain and are not being asked to mass-produce their pieces in the name of justifying funding. If Singapore wishes to keep this a top-down approach it will have to balance creating an organic arts scene with reluctance of audiences in Singapore to pay for art. Singapore Night Festival is one of such festivals that has started to find a balance between the two before audiences start valuing art in and of itself.

Lastly, large parts of distinct art movements like Impressionism with Monet and Renoir or Expressionism with van Gogh and Gauguin were considered anti-establishment back in the day but are celebrated in the modern era. These are masterpieces today because of the offer of alternative approaches to art back in the day that people came to enjoy. Contemporary art forms offer the diversity in message and media that the art world is all the better for, and it starts with systemic efforts and approaches to support artists who work with these forms. Singapore is home to many modern day artists and slam poets who are unafraid to speak their minds and contributing to the scene in plenty but it, and the growth of the larger artistic movement in Singapore, remains a work in progress.

Thank you for reading! Want more? Read the rest of this series below!

Part I of this series: This house believes that cultural treasures should be returned to their countries of origin.
Part II of this series: This house would require citizens to pass a political general knowledge test before voting in national elections.
Part III of this series: This house would ban an entire nation from major sports competitions if a significant number of their competitors are found to have taken performance enhancing drugs.
Part IV of this series: This house believes that individuals who buy non-essential items are morally responsible for the deaths of starving people.
Part V of this series: This house believes that all forms of contemporary art have as much merit as more traditional forms of art.