Community Cultural Development in Singapore: Our Backstory and a PerspectiveBy Felicia Low Artist
Doctoral candidate in Cultural Studies
(National University of Singapore)
Community Cultural Development Symposium 2012
September 17, 2013
Good morning everyone! Welcome to the symposium! Thank you for being here. Before I begin I would like to thank Mr. Senior Minister Mr Lawrence Wong for accepting the invite to be here. Thank you Mr Hee and Mr Tan, for making this possible, You know, 2 years ago, all this didn’t exist. No one really knew what was ‘community cultural development’, or CCD was. In fact, I think its still a little hazy – and it should be, because its only 2 years old and finding its feet in Singapore. How did the CCD all begin? Out of my frustration – I could have done art piece after art piece, with community after community – towards what end? How could there be a deeper discusssion about the practice? How could I measure the worth of the work? And so ‘community cultural development’ was born at the Substation one afternoon, with 12 other artist.
But, that is another story for another day. Community Cultural Development, CCD, in Singapore: our Backstory and a Perspective: What has been the history of Community Cultural Engagement and Development in Singapore?
First, let’s look at the official definition of CCD: Community cultural development has been defined as a form of artistic practice which seeks to emancipate and develop an identified community. This ‘community’ can be based on common territory, common interest and shared concerns. It emphasizes a consideration of concerns within a group, and is a critical means for communities to understand their position within the forces of globalization, which sometimes renders them powerless and voiceless. Inherent in CCD is the ideal of enabling communities to be culture-makers, rather than followers, active problem solvers and thinkers, rather than passive do-ers. I am going to convince you that CCD always existed in Singapore, except that it was never framed as such… Let’s begin from the beginning.
In 1965, Singapore gained independence from Malaya. Having been a British colony over 100 years, like many other Asian nations, nationalism was a vehicle through which identity and unity amongst the people could be built. The promotion of culture, the arts, and in particular the traditional arts, was seen as one of the ways to establish nationalism through tradition. The move towards traditionalism was also one which went against, what was known at that time as the ‘yellow culture’, or the proliferation of Western cultural forms, through modernity, that diluted the roots of our Asian tradition. Through the promotion of the traditional arts (already, back then, artists were encouraged to teach/ demonstrate their skills in schools or community centres) the space of the arts became open to the person-on-the-street as the arts became a means for everyone to explore her cultural roots and to collectively be impressed by it as their Singaporean identity.
In the 1970s Kuo Pao Kun carried out a series of plays which highlighted the plight of youth, women and farmers in the face of rapid industrialzation and modernization in Singapore. Pao Kun worked with the farmers, women and youth, who were versed in a variety of dialects, to reflect on their social and professional status as they struggled to survive, professionally and socially in modern Singapore. Women, accustomed to more conservative Asian lifestyles had to work in sales such as tourism. Farmers now belonged to an agricultural sector of diminished status compared to the foreign factories sprouting up in Singapore. All this took place amidst the tensions of the cold war, fueled by neighbouring Vietnam and the Philippines. The expressions of Pao Kun’s plays were deemed leftist and communist. Pao Kun was imprisoned for some time. He later won the cultural medallion, but had declared that art must not be political.
(Slide 4) In 1994, Alvin and Haresh were taken to task for attending workshops on Forum Theatre by Augusto Boal. Forum Theatre was then given a Marxist label and was subsequently banned. I would like to quote Alvin directly, since he is still alive! And I know he won’t mind me saying this. Very often we quote our forerunners too late, way beyond their lifetime. This is what he had to say about the Marxist allegation in 1994:
Quote: ‘Forum Theatre is about a community working together in capacity-building, to put strategies of emancipation to the test. The community test-drive various proposals to empower the oppressed, to dismantle the arsenal of oppression so that the protagonist is able to escape the tragic destiny to create a more hopeful narrative.
When a community does that amongst ourselves with no representative from the dominant authoritative government, we are perceived as siblings working on self-empowerment without parental guidance. In a paternalistic society, that can be taken as defiance. Wanting independence can be perceived as ingratitude. We were probably seen as desiring autonomy and valuing self over community or society.
Whatever the case may have been, the form became proscribed for about 10 years in Singapore. We were fighting to get it re-instated. One bans a story, a movie, a play but whoever has heard of a country banning an art form? Singapore than had articulated our aspiration to be an arts hub. How do we emerge with this reputation? Won’t we be a laughing stock. When we grew tired and kept quiet, the government revised the censorship policies and one of the revisions included lifting the ban on forum theatre. The government must not be seen to make the changes under any pressure from its citizenry. When left alone, with no pressure, the government changed in their own time, on their own terms.
Today, forum theatre is employed by the government for social cohesion and integration programmes.’ Unquote
Based on the official definition, CCD has always existed because the arts have been used as a means of negotiating the effects of modernization and globalization with various communities. CCD does exist – governmentally AND non-governmentally. Except that it was not given the term ‘community cultural development’. It was called ‘community outreach’, or ‘charity’ when it was about bringing the arts to the masses, especially the disadvantaged. It was called communism when it tried to engage people based on the social-political issues of modern Singapore. Called names, made to bear the burdens of politics, it fell silent and lost its potential for influence. It couldn’t articulate the significance of its benefits to this country.
But it cannot be silent anymore. The ‘community’ and ‘culture’ in Singapore have outgrown the fears of the cold war. We live in a global age where to stick to traditionalism alone risks fundamentalism which could very well lead to terrorism. The relations between ‘community’, ‘culture’ and ‘development’ have become so complex, the term ‘community arts’ alone is too simplistic – simply denoting a programme, or project for the community. It cannot carry the weight of the social, economical and political web of relationships that form ‘communities’ in the first place, that hegemonizes particular forms of culture, directing development on a particular democratic and capitalistic course. In order to speak the nature of its complexity, I have chosen to give it the name ‘community cultural development’ and I am choosing to present it as a web of complexity.
Some of you have been to my workshop on Levels of Engagement. Today, I will try to frame these levels in a different way. The arts, from what I can see, engages communities in 3 essential ways. Firstly, we have general engagement – that is fun, interesting, all encompassing. Secondly, we have ‘Intervention, where an artistic approach is used as a form of intervention, to effect change on the target community such as bettering the status of the community educationally, socially or professionally, through for example, enhancing cognition-development and social development. Finally we have ‘representation’, where the community uses an artistic means to represent its voice, inorder to effect change on social norms towards greater equality or justice. Incidentally, the use of the traditional arts in our early independence days is a form of representation as it represented our Singaporean identity. This form of representation is also used by those known as ‘rights’ or advocacy groups.
Let me give you an example of all three: This is the Ystars. I use them as an example because their parents have absolutely no issue with me using their children’s pictures and videos for presentations. Kok Wai knows them far better than me, but I have been working with them for about 4 years now. They are the co-tenants of my space in Goodman Road, and they are made up of about 18 young adults with Downs Syndrome. They come together every Saturday to dance and do art and all this is organized by their parents. On the one hand, they take part in the arts together to engage on a general level with one another and the volunteers. However, it is also more than engagement. Many of them no longer go to school, and these arts sessions are a means of educational intervention, to enable the ystars to continue to expand their ability pedagogically.
On some occasions however, the Ystars appears on a Representational platform. My work with them at the Ion in 2010, Inclusively Yours, commissioned by The Necessary Stage, aimed to make a mainstream shopping mall accessible to those with special needs. Make over specialists from Top Shop had to do a sales pitch to the Ystars and explain fahsion tips to them. The Ystars got to select their favourite designs at the art gallery, and also communicated with waiters at Fish and Co to order their own self-selected dishes. They became models for each shop, and had their adverts displayed at the LCD screens at the Orchard MRT station exit to the Ion. In this instance, the art work took on a representational dimension, representing a marginalized community who have been and still are excluded from mainstream leisure activities and facilities.
Another Representational event occurred when they danced to lady gaga’s ‘Born This Way’ for the Arts Festival this year. According to the parents, this dance was the most well received of their collection of dances. I think the representational shift occurred because of the meaning of the song – It sang of autonomy and independence, something that our society finds difficult to equate with persons with Down’s Syndrome.
Engagement, Intervention, Representation: Singapore, conservative as it may seemingly be, has had its share of all three. All three however have their areas of contention. How different is art from sports if it is just to establish general engagement? It’s like going to the funfare or school carnival. Who are we to establish methods of interventions for others, who have less cultural or financial capital than us? Are we imposing our standards of norms on what we think are deviant or errant – how do we know we are benefitting, and not oppressing the communities we work with within an interventionist setting? Lastly, if we claim to represent a community, and make claims towards the impact of social change, how can we ensure that we have made an ethical, authentic representation of the participant community? How can we ensure that the representation is not one that reflects our own political agenda, rather than the real issues of the target community – which may very well be bread and butter issues, not necessarily political ones.
In 1887, Tonnies put forward two concepts of ‘community’ still relevant today. The ideal Gemeinscaft, denotes the traditional good old kampung days that we are ironically trying to return to. Gesellscaft however, is our modern reality, where we come together as a community only because it is in our transactional favour. Community is hence a process of trying to change the selfish transactional reality into one of a traditional common good that requires sacrifice. It is a somewhat unachievable ideal based our current capitalistic reality. ‘Community’ is therefore a process, always elusive and out of reach – and this is why community-building programmes continue to proliferate – to constantly reach for what is elusive.
Bauman breaks up the modern transactional community further, in his book written in 2010, two types of individuals emerge – the individuals de facto who form the aesthetic community, and individuals de jure, who form the ethical community. Aesthetic communities are made up of autonomous individuals who have cultural, financial capital, but feel lonely and so join others who share their concerns or interests to feel the warmth of belonging – as long as it does not require any sacrifice on their part. Their involvement in the aesthetic communities can be dropped at any point if too much inconvience is involved. Ethical communities on the other hand are made up of individuals who do not have enough cultural or financial capital to become autonomous. These individuals look for communities that are fixed, long-standing, warm & loyal. The ethical community is made of unshakeable obligations and security in place of the uncertainly the individuals face because of what they lack. Ethical communities, more similar to the ‘kampung spirit’, take form because individuals belonging in one have greater access to capital which can help them reach their goal for autonomy. Let’s pause and think – which group does the community you work in belong to? Which do you belong to? The situation can be quite complex. Concert goers are as much an aesthetic community as those who are part of a rights group. When those in the Ethical community gain enough capital to become autonomous, they become part of aesthetic communities and lose the sense of the ‘kampung spirit’. Just analyzing these two concepts from Tonnies and Bauman alone, we can see that ‘community’ is now a factor of contention used and abused by different people, depending on their social, economic and political situation. In the age of globalization, many are excluded, AND many feel they are entitled to exclusive rights. This alone is enough to fuel misunderstandings and tension. As artists who claim to engage with communities, we need to know why we want to engage with these communities, the kind of community we are working with and the politics of ethics and representation surrounding our work.
I’d like to think that Singapore is marked by diversity, rather than homogeneity, that cultural difference is encouraged, together with an ability to respect and appreciate cultures of difference from ground up and top down. I’d like to think that general engagement, intervention and representational approaches to arts engagement with communities creates social harmony that is not homogenous, but instead is a harmony with a good range of lows and highs. I was told that the Majula Singapura (our national anthem) is not an easy song to sing. It swerves to the shape of lows and highs that only a trained voice, or a master singer, is able to sing. Perhaps social harmony in Singapore can like her national anthem, made up of lows and highs, that a trained, professional artist is able to manouver when engaging with the diverse and perhaps even erratic communities in Singapore. This is why we need the arts. Basketball is great but we all play the same game with the same rules. With the arts, we get a varied terrain, we get to play and fight in each other’s fields, see each other’s sights. Artists who engage with communities exercise the aesthetic tools of respect and appreciation of diverse ways of life– these work on not just the hard and heartware of Singapore – it works on the deepening of our soul – for those who believe we have souls, that is.
Community Cultural Development – we need to give it an existence because it is high time we recognize the complex significance of the arts when it engages with communities. It is also about time that we give recognition to, what is for many of us, a lifetime’s profession.
So before I end let’s review the situation with the arts and the community thus far. We can say that the ‘community’ has been politicized – both towards the establishment of national identity – which is implicitly assumed to be homogenous and united AND also towards the establishment of social movements that establish difference, which is implicitly thought to be conflictual
What I did was to change ‘community’ to ‘arts’ and try to place the same arrows against the same ‘use’ value – and it worked! It still made sense and reflects the situation we face. The arts has also been used to generate the kampung spirit AND to establish difference. Now, please note: I am not saying that one is better than the other. I think both approaches are inevitable, and as arts practitioners we need to open up the politics inorder to get out of its cycle of confrontation. How can we do this?
Let’s see what happens when we de-politicize both the arts and the community: Regardless of general engagement, intervention or representation, what might happen is that the community gets to define its own terms of creation, its own benefits and significance. This then brings about new forms of expression, new dimensions of aesthetics and an independent, process led means of thoughtful critique regardless of one’s qualifications.
So let’s talk about this when we talk about the community arts: Expression, aesthetics and critique. I think its more interesting than arguing about who got more money – the man on the street or the artist. Its more intellectually stimulating than bemoaning the government’s agendas overshadowing the arts.
Because when we talk about the expression, aesthetics and critique of artistic processes and products by the community, we inevitably meet the everyday, the politics and most important of all – the unexpected… and who knows where the unexpected may lead to – Would anyone like to make a guess???
Social Change!! The unexpected can led to social change. So let’s be open to the surprises of the unexpected at this symposium. Have a good time everyone and thank you!