The Value of the Arts in Singapore: An RG-EJ Investigation

By Elizabeth Khoo (21-U1), Emma Lee (21-O1), Katelyn Joshy (21-U1), Saara Katyal (RGS) 

“Wait what, you’re taking the arts stream?” I remember my neighbour reeling back in surprise when I told her my plans for Junior College. “How about your future? Won’t the sciences prepare you better?” 

In Singapore, the pursuit of the humanities has often been a trivial consideration and its relevance to modern day society is continually in question. Singapore is a deeply competitive society and many Singaporeans (especially older generations) are pragmatists who view the mastery of the sciences as the key to success, causing them to neglect the arts. To them, the science stream, the ‘tried and tested route’, promises stability. Thus, this explains the high subscription to the STEM pathway. However, what does our current generation have to say about the value of arts in our current lives? We surveyed some students from EJC and RGS to find out. 

There has been a shift in our perception of the importance of the arts, as over 90% of our survey respondents from Eunoia Junior College and Raffles Girls’ School / Raffles Institution have indicated that the arts (history, literature, geography, fine art and music, economics, etc.) are of the same importance in society as the sciences. Furthermore, almost all respondents rejected the notion that the arts stream was an easier pathway than the sciences. This reveals a considerable progress from the usual view that the arts are ‘useless’ or ‘easier’ subjects.

However, there are contradictions between the progressive stance that students have chosen to adopt and the academic choices they have made. For example, 59% of students who entered science stream stated that they did so for ‘practical reasons’ in university applications and educational opportunities; whilst 46% of these students perceived taking the sciences as more rewarding career-wise in the long run. These statistics show that although students claim that their attitudes towards the arts have shifted, they still have subconscious presumptions which cause them to choose certain academic pathways. These all point toward hidden biases and prejudices that are reminiscent of traditional Asian mindsets.  

Forms response chart. Question title: Why did you choose this subject combination?. Number of responses: 39 responses.

    We have also heard of many Singaporean parents who make their children enroll in university courses such as medicine and engineering simply because they think that these paths will lead to future financial stability. Comparably, we rarely come across families who readily encourage or guide their children to pursue the arts. This corroborates the research we conducted on the point that Singaporeans, including youths, still more or less subscribe to the traditional ideas of success which reject the arts as a potential career path, hence disregarding the importance of the arts. This can be attributed to parental moulding in their perceptions of what a ‘successful’ career path consists of.

Forms response chart. Question title: Do you think that you will land a less well paying job/ have a lesser career prospects if you take the Arts?. Number of responses: 39 responses.

Most alarmingly, more than half of the respondents believe that enrolling in a humanities or arts stream will lessen your career prospects. This is one of the longest standing misconceptions of the Arts. Since the arts are broad-based and multidisciplinary in approach, they are “less closely linked to a well defined job path after graduation”, and thus this leads people to assume that taking the arts will hinder your career progression in the future. This unfortunate misconception has only been reinforced by other external forces. For instance, UK education minister Gavin Williamson introduced schemes to focus on “subjects which deliver strong graduate employment in areas of economic and societal importance, such as STEM”. In Australia, the prejudice against the arts is even more blatant, as university students enrolling in humanities courses must pay higher school fees, in order to incentivise taking other courses which are more “job relevant” choices.

Contrary to popular belief, however, the Arts provide students with invaluable soft skills and 21st century competencies that will help them excel in the workplace. These skills include critical thinking & analysis as well as good communication. For example, in an Arts education, students are exposed to disciplines like history where they learn that historical events are the result of an interplay of factors. They learn to weigh these factors in order of their importance and ascertain which factor was most influential in leading to the observed outcome. Humanities students are also taught to express themselves eloquently through debate on various issues, thereby developing them as natural presenters and communicators that exude confidence. Moreover, geography also equips students with essential data handling skills. The lack of these skills has been shown to hinder 94% of productivity at work. As a result, liberal arts graduates are highly sought after. For instance, a recent study by Singapore Graduate Employment Survey found that Yale-NUS class of 2017 graduates achieved an employment rate of over 93 percent within the first six months of graduation, as compared to the overall employment rate of 88.9 percent. Furthermore, these graduates are shown to compete well even in technological fields. Therefore, it is incorrect to say that an Arts student would be at a disadvantage when pitted against his/her STEM counterpart when vying for a job position.

THE WORTHY IN THE ‘WORTHLESS’

An arts education exposes us to a wide range of disciplines. This encourages flexibility in thinking and allows us to approach problems from multidisciplinary lenses, thus enabling us to adapt better to the changes in the world. For example, at Yale-NUS, a college known for its liberal arts education, students are required to read classics of literature and philosophy from all over the world, such as India, China, Africa and Europe, as well as study scientific inquiry and quantitative reasoning. Thus, contrary to popular belief, the liberal arts / humanities and the sciences are not mutually exclusive. In fact, a liberal arts education actively includes the sciences, where these subjects are studied as distinct and interesting ways of thinking, rather than a set of tools to solve a specific problem on, say, engineering. Therefore, choosing to focus on the humanities equips us with the skills to learn new things fast and apply them across many disciplines.

In conclusion, it is heartening to see more students being aware of the merits of an arts education. However, due to various misconceptions and external pressures, there are many who still feel pressured into taking the sciences anyway. We have already made the first step forward, but more work needs to be done if we truly want to integrate the humanities into our everyday lives.

Bibliography:

  1. BBC. (n.d.). Why ‘worthless’ humanities degrees may set you up for life. BBC Worklife. https://www.bbc.com/worklife/article/20190401-why-worthless-humanities-degrees-may-set-you-up-for-life.

2. Guardian News and Media. (2020, September 10). ‘Humanities graduates are just as employable’: do the sciences really lead to more jobs? The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/education/2020/sep/10/humanities-graduates-are-just-as-employable-do-the-sciences-really-lead-to-more-jobs.

3. Myths vs Reality: Busting 5 myths about Humanities. National Skills Network. (2020, December 17). https://www.nationalskillsnetwork.in/myths-vs-reality-busting-5-myths-about-humanities/.

4. Nardin, T. (2021, February 21). Commentary: A liberal arts education in Singapore and the usefulness of ‘useless’ knowledge. CNA. https://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/commentary/commentary-a-liberal-arts-education-in-singapore-and-the-10155030.

5. Subhani, O. (2020, July 6). Report: Lack of data skills hinders productivity of 94% of employers. The Straits Times. https://www.straitstimes.com/business/companies-markets/report-lack-of-data-skills-hinders-productivity-of-94-of-employers.

kaleidoscope: slices of life – A strange sensation

Written by: Nigel Ng Ngan Siang (21-A3), Tan Le Kai (21-I4), Zuo Yuning (21-A1)

Every passing second, the angry irritation grows in her trembling heart.

‘Hack this… Why am I so angry for no reason?’

Her feelings indeed have no apparent cause, long-term or short-term. Physically she is in the best state possible. She is not hungry, she is hydrated, and she does not in any way feel tired. There should be nothing troubling her mind too. As a student she should be happy with the ‘A’ grade she has obtained at a recent test, and as a fan of novels she should be glad to have just bought a copy of her favourite series. Really, what is there to be this frustrated about?

Is there anything? No? No. 

Unless…

Mind blank, she still has no idea.

Looking up at the sky, her eyes are attracted to the yellow circle hanging in the endless, boundless space. Earth’s celestial partner radiates beams of gentle light and casts them right to where billions of human beings came and went, the mortal world whose gentle glamour is reflected by the yellow mirror up in the night sky. The power of any mirror lies not in that it displays appearance without any bias, but in that it offers any passer-by a chance to take a closer look at herself. Even the darkest soul can be lit by this gentle light, for it calms minds with the magnificent wisdom of the natural world. Surrounding the moon are bright spots blinking naughtily at the girl in the room, comforting mortal beings and assuring them of peace and permanence. Everybody knows that even stars will die one day, but all that matters is that those bright dots have been there for billions of years and will stay there for billions of years to come. Glancing at them is enough to remind humans of the transiency of their existence and prompt the most egoistic person to revise their arrogant self-perception and know better their place in the world. 

Knowing one’s position is a giant step towards calm. Even her erratic mind has gained some peace.

And once again, she can think properly.

There is a reason why she’s angry.

It’s nothing but… she yearns for something.

The presence… The company of a certain somebody… 

The somebody whom she is so familiar with, the somebody who she knows has loved her since day one.

But why is this feeling assaulting her now?

She has known her junior and roommate for such a long time, but for so long the two of them have been so distant. She doesn’t feel like they are the same kind of people, for the one year difference in age has made it hard to understand her roommate’s thoughts. She also doesn’t ever think she can be on the same page with the other girl, for her frequently unpredictable mentality can frighten her a little at times. She definitely cares for the younger girl’s well-being, but that’s a friendly concern rather than a romantic interest. Definitely, is it not? In this room it has always been the younger girl constantly attempting to display her ‘burning love and passion’ to her elder roommate through annoying antics, and for the longest while she has relentlessly punished her roommate every time that happened and denounced her same-sex love as ‘twisted’ and ‘weird’. She might have been right at those times, but how could she explain the prickling sensation that creeps to her heart whenever she recalls the younger girl’s face now?

Maybe… No, definitely… This can definitely be explained by what happened a few days ago. When one’s illusory understanding of self and others is shattered by the least expected person, he/she likely won’t live on with the same beliefs and attitudes as before. It was the idiotic arrogance she carried with her that lowered her guard against her dizzy head and hazy cognition. When she lost consciousness and fell onto the cold cobblestone floor of the back alley at ten at night, she thought that nothing could save her from descending towards where she originally belonged. She did boast the title of the all-round top student at her school, but that couldn’t help her powerless body straighten her shaky, cotton-like legs. In fact, she could not even push her eyelids open. Heat departed her body, and a single drop of tear made its way down her stiff cheeks, wetting the ground down beneath. It went just without any stickiness of fluids, as if the liquid molecules had contracted, freezing in the endless night.

That’s why the return of senses shocked her. Pain, the saturated, dry kind of pain, throbbed in her head like a ticking bomb. Her inflamed tissues, angry trapped monsters, pounded against her confines as if they were no longer content with staying in her weak body. Putting strength in her eyes, she forced them open by just a little only to have them pricked by the dazzling motionless white shining above. Slowly her eyes adapted to the brightness, and she realised that the white above is not at all stationary; instead it is in frantic motion, flashing before her eyes ceaselessly. Am I moving? She asked herself. That was certainly the case, for the deafening noise assaulting her eardrums and the bumpy journey whacking her spine vociferously proved the point. How am I here? That’s the second question she wanted to ask. She couldn’t remember what had happened; in her mind there weren’t sounds, images or emotions for that period of time. The only thing she knows is that instead of the creepy, horrid chill of death, it is a pleasant, numbing warmth that surrounds her body now. Clenching her teeth while stretching her stiff arms, she can feel an overwhelming mass pushing them down. 

I see. I’m in a moving bed, am I not?

Her second question remained unanswered, but the mere comfort from being at this time and staying at this place made that whole inquiry irrelevant. Yeah, nothing can possibly threaten her here, and she just needs to let her eyes close and relax.

Is it after a very long time or just a moment that motion stopped and she was transferred to a larger, warmer bed? She didn’t know; she didn’t care. Her eyelids grew heavy, and like a submarine her mind sank to the depths of the dark sea.

In her subconscious, as she traversed the placid black, a sonic signal penetrated the dense water, reaching right for her inert radar. Soul, just returned to her body, trembled with unknown pain.

She decided to open her eyes. She doesn’t want that agony to persist.

The first thing she could see was a gilded ceiling, and the first thing she could feel was a cheerful chill that seemed to come from the air-conditioner. It was not the morning calm in the room, however, as occasional sobs kept interrupting the peace.

Wait… Who is that…?

Her neck was in excruciating pain, and she forced it to tilt to the side just slightly, with pure determination. There a familiar figure entered her sight; that slim and short physique was so familiar to that something in her mind. But… AUGHH! Somehow she forgot the identity of the someone sitting right next to her, but since she knew instinctively that that person is particularly important to her, this feeling is all the more painful. She must recall, for her own good.

And her efforts paid off. Even the hardest thing in the world can be achieved with enough hard work.

Wasn’t this girl sobbing at her side the very person she had woken up to meet every single day? Wasn’t this person her junior whom she always sought to protect, because she thought she is stronger, older and hence more capable?

Why was she here then? Why did things end up like this, with the life of the strong saved by the weak?

The sobbing girl seemed to have noticed her movements, as she lifted her hands to take a glance. The instant she saw the elder girl, she put her hands on her lap and squeezed out a smile on her face.

‘Ah, you are awake.’

The bright smile on her face couldn’t erase what had already taken place. The tears that easily escaped her roommate’s eyes were just a tiny part of the tremendous worry and concern boiling in her young heart. And yet even as she was suffering so much emotionally, she had tried her very best to hide her feelings deep inside herself. Was she worried about making others feel sad for her? Was she trying to take the whole burden herself? 

But… why? The elder girl couldn’t understand. She couldn’t understand why her roommate should feel so miserable for something she isn’t suffering from directly, and she couldn’t understand why her roommate refused to express her feelings. She just knew that at that very instant, she truly understood her younger roommate’s love.

Her love isn’t only about carrying out perverted antics; it implicates all the things she’s willing to do, and the lengths to which she will whole-heartedly go, to protect the person she loves

Her love consists not of ambitious statements and empty promises; its only substance is an unwavering guarantee of always being at her love’s side no matter what happens.

And, above all, it can’t care less about whether the favour is returned.

Isn’t leaving her love unanswered any longer a little too cruel?

As she looks up at the stars again, she finally gets it. She finally understands the source of her anger and her genuine desire, at this time and place.

The door clicks, and her heart stops.

‘I’m back…’

Standing up and turning round, she holds her breath nervously as she gazes at the face she has known for far too long. As she approaches the younger girl, she can see the slight shivers in her eyes.

‘Wh… What are you doing?’

She doesn’t reply, as she knows action speaks louder than words.

Stretching her arms ahead and leaning forward, she surrounds the girl in her embrace, robbing her of her breath.

‘I’m sorry. I know, you have been waiting for these words for way too long…’

She takes a deep breath.

‘… but, I love you.’