THE FOLLOWING EXCERPT IS FROM OUR chat Between singaporean nominated member of parliament and artistic director of dramabox, Kok Heng Leun and artist Yom Bo Sung, Kirin Heng and Melanie Chua on 18 August 2017. THIS CONVERSATION was about various issues arising from ‘the’ Singaporean identity, as well as what the arts mean to Singaporeans. Owing to the depth of each issue discussed, this Brackchat excerpt is split into four parts. It IS PART OF THE ARTIST-WRITER PAIR SERIESREAD MORE in the upcoming Energy Issue.
singapore brack Ben Yom, Kirin Heng and Kok Heng Leun

From left: Yom Bo Sung, Kirin Heng and Kok Heng Leun

On visual literacy 

KHL: Visual literacy is something that is very lacking, in Singapore especially. For example, when you see an advertisement, are you able to discern all the different symbols being used? I don’t think Singaporeans really do. Everything is taken at face value. So a naked painting for them is about nakedness. Not what it is. In Singapore naked paintings in public places is an issue because we’ve never seen naked sculptures around us. Whereas when you go to Europe, it is seen as more than just a body, it is seen as a piece of art. In a way, every art piece, especially visual art, is about visual languages. A visual literacy is so lacking here. So that every time a painting that just depicts two people embracing, [people here] can’t go beyond that embrace.

I think in the first place our education has never allowed us to develop visual literacy. I mean, I was just talking to NIE that day, to some of the VPA (visual performing arts) people, asking them, “do we have enough arts teachers?” They said yes. But yet you realise when the Singaporean government says yes, what happens is that each primary school has one art teacher. But one art teacher to teach a whole cohort of six levels? You know, it’s about a thousand over students. I don’t think the teacher can teach well. So they’re probably regurgitating. So what do the students learn? I think arts education on a whole in Singapore is really quite bad, so there’s no visual literacy. Which is most important because the first thing you do when you’re born is open your eyes and see something. Everything is about seeing. And we’re so used to our sight that we think what we see is what it is. And yet we’ve never been able to unpack what we see.

That’s why languages became our way of communication and it’s the easy way. And we keep thinking that languages are the thing that help us to communicate when actually it’s not. We don’t even see our body language when we communicate and we’re not very conscious of it. We’re not even conscious that language is actually a very complex creature by itself. Words that you use, the he or the she in all these contexts… We’re just not very critical of this.

KH: And they don’t really emphasis rhetoric [in schools] either. Or persuasion.

KHL: Yes. They can’t. That’s where education plays a very important role.

Y: Unless you do English literature. That might be different.

KH: But I do feel it’s more…

Y: About analysis.

KH: And it’s less about speaking and body language. Or about argumentation.

KHL: And you don’t even enjoy the language. You don’t read it out. You don’t actually sense how the language is being constructed. Poetry is taught on paper, you know. Here is what the poetry is like. Here, the rhyme. But I don’t know whether the teacher reads it there or not.

Because poetry is actually music. It is a music in itself. But when it’s taken as something to just analyse the context of, then you lose the aspect of one of the best forms of art.

Y: Do you think that the education system is also responsible for how Singaporeans categorize themselves? I’m coming at this from the situations when my peers show me a painting and say “I can’t appreciate this. I think that is too intellectual for me” or “I think that is too artistic for me.” Whereas if you were to tell an American that you can’t come into this exhibition because it’s too intellectual for you, there would be protests. And here, they would just accept it and leave.

KH: Or it’s too ‘artsy’ for them, too niche for them.

KHL: All those excuses are lazy excuses. It’s a matter of laziness, not wanting to take the leap forward, on the part of the viewer, the audience. It’s also related to how society has been constructed. We’ve been given so much safety that you’re always assured that if you’re in here, if you belong in this category, that’s how you should progress. And so take for example, streaming is actually a game of putting people into the right box, into the right place so that you function in the machine.

In the machine you don’t ask what the other thing is doing. You do what you need to do. We are framed like a machine.

And in fact, our education system is like that. Our education system is ultimately… That’s why they will never take away PSLE (the Primary School Leaving Examinations). Because they need to know how each of us perform, so that they know where you will go in the next phase of your life, and your next phase of your life is not your life actually, it’s your economic lifespan. You need to be in here, so that you can move into this, move into [that]. Then, you will join in that whole big economic machinery in that particular unit. When they are framed in this way, taught in that way “aye, I’m a maths student”, “I’m an economics student”, “I’m a teacher”, “I’m — whatever”, it actually is a frame of what you should do and can do best.

You feel comfortable in it because you’ve been told that this is how you can be the best of what you are. You would not want to venture out, you see. For fear that you will fail. They already put you in there, so this is the only way you won’t fail, and [instead] be successful in life. Especially because we’re such a middleclass city. Middle-class people are always trapped in the situation where you do not want to lose out and you cannot afford to fail.

I do think it’s the education system. I also think it’s very convenient and lazy. But maybe because they’re so tired of [competing]. [As a theatre practitioner], you’d get an audience who’d just come to enjoy [and for] entertainment. “Why do you make me think so hard?” [they’d say]. As if thinking is hard work. Why? Because since young, thinking for them is trying to sort out the maths problem, science problem. All thinking is used in that way. Never used creatively. So thinking is a chore. Never a liberation.

M: That’s quite chilling. But yes, it feels quite real. Because here’s the dichotomy — where we go to work and to the mall. And then we study, or go on Facebook.

(Featured image from 50 years of Theatre Memories, source: