Adjournment motion on increasing support for the arts industry by MP Carrie Tan
Madam Deputy Speaker, I would first like to thank members for their patience, it’s been a long day, and I wish I can bring a song and dance item to break up the monotony of today’s proceedings. But that would not be allowed,al though I’m sure it will be very welcomed by members of this house.
I would like to raise this motion “That this house recognises the importance of the Arts and to increase support for Performing Arts Workers and the Arts Industry.”
Madam Speaker , the Circuit Breaker measures that were announced on 7th April sent our country into a tailspin. People were confined to their homes, separated from their loved ones, deprived of their usual social activities and anxious about the future. After ensuring that we had enough food and essential items, our next instinct was to seek comfort in anything that could provide a semblance of normalcy, many of us turned to Netflix, and YouTube, re-watched old films. We saw the videos on social media of people in other countries, singing, dancing, or playing instruments, performing on their balconies to provide solace and companionship to their neighbours. I was touched by those videos. I’m sure many in this House were too.
As the months dragged out, people sought ways to connect with others, to satisfy the need for connection that we as human beings fundamentally need.
In our lowest moments, as the number of COVID-19 cases climbed higher, many of us felt powerless. The arts helped keep us sane, helped us process our confusion and grief, and entertained us, lifting our spirits.
During the Circuit Breaker there was the poll in the newspapers which reported that Singaporeans thought artists had the most non-essential jobs. I was saddened to see that and felt it was unnecessary to include that poll of “non-essential jobs” at all. Perhaps the arts have become so commonplace and ingrained in our lives that we have taken it for granted.
The arts have contributed not just in terms of providing comfort and strength during difficult times, but also to our economy. The Arts and Entertainment sector generated $6.6 billion in revenue earned in 2017 and provided jobs and livelihoods for 26,300 people in 2018.
There was a time when the arts held a great deal of importance to our society and our leaders. From former Acting Minister for Culture Ong Teng Cheong who first recognised the importance of arts institutions in Singapore and created what is now the National Arts Council, to Former Minister of Information and the Arts, Mr George Yeo who aimed to turn Singapore into a culturally attractive global city through the Global City for the Arts project, we once saw the arts as a viable and important part of city-planning and development for Singapore.
However, it seems that the arts have fallen from their previous stature. Government funding for the sector has dropped almost 50% from $937m in 2015 to $458m in 2018. Artists today are struggling and many live hand-to-mouth.
This past month, I spoke with Edward, a 23-year-old Nee Soon South resident and professional actor, singer and dancer. Despite having a diploma in performance, he makes $10k a year – less than a $1000 a month, through his various freelance gigs. Edward worries about the future, specifically to what extent he will be able to support himself through his profession and whether he will ever be able to afford the expenses of starting a family.
When the circuit breaker measures were announced, all of the jobs Edward had signed on for evaporated, leaving him with zero income. He is now returning to school to “upskill” and shared with me about his worries – whether there will be any opportunities left available for him in the Arts sector when he re-enters the workforce in a few years.
Chronic income pressures on arts workers as well as other workers, come from a lack of regulations on a group of employees called “permanent casuals”. They are among the 47% of freelancers that make up the Arts and Entertainment sector, higher than the 14% at our national level. Although they might work full-time or part-time, they are paid hourly with no health or leave benefits. Such workers don’t benefit from JSS because they are only paid for their time and therefore have no regular pay from their companies to begin with, they also don’t qualify for the Self-employed Persons Relief Scheme because they often work exclusively for 1 company.
Outside of such workers, existing job support measures only provide 10% of support to the arts and entertainment sector, even though this sector is still unable to return to its former operating capacity. From January 2021 onwards, JSS support will be reduced to zero. There is a real risk that people like Edward may not have opportunities to return to, if or when the sector does recover.
Lack of stable income, heightened by COVID-19 restrictions, are forcing arts workers to seek other jobs. The arts and entertainment sector is incredibly diverse. It is not just made up of writers, actors, musicians and poets. It also includes lighting and sound technicians, school CCA teachers, museum operators, fashion designers, event photographers, and many more highly skilled people who produce and enable the productions that we consume. If we continue to do nothing more for them in terms of financial support during this time, they may be lost to other sectors, to the long term detriment of our arts and entertainment industry.
An entire sector may be at risk of being wiped out. I was disappointed that in the latest Ministerial Statement by Deputy Prime Minister yesterday, there was no mention of any extension of support to the arts sector workers.
To be fair to the government, the $55 million Arts and Culture Resilience Package is certainly helpful, but it can be enhanced to make the support accessible for all arts workers, including permanent casuals.
The Digitalisation Fund specifically is also a good initiative in the right direction, but is currently only available for productions rated G. Granted, NAC and IMDA may be approaching these funding criteria with consumer perspective and safety in mind, but I urge consideration on the limitations to creativity and marketability of our arts productions if only G-rated productions can receive funding. Parental controls on online media platforms exist for a reason, for parents to be involved and exercise the necessary control over children’s media consumption. This should not be a responsibility that is shifted over to the state, with costs that the arts and entertainment sector ends up bearing, to the detriment of an industry’s vibrancy and sustainability.
If we invest in its development and the development of those who are keen to have a career in the arts, it can provide financial upliftment to individuals and families. Take the story of my resident Yusri, better known as Shaggy in the industry. Despite being from a low-income and challenged family, he made a career and eventually a business out of being an arts technician and multimedia designer for stage productions. He saw the arts as a way out of poverty and that it has, so far. His work in the arts has provided him with a better life than he had when he was growing up. Yusri is quite established now in his livelihood after spending more than 10 years in the sector. He was personally also highly resourceful in seeking out courses in business and marketing that could help his arts career.
Despite the progress thus far, Yusri sees such opportunities disappearing for those starting in the industry today, like Edward.
Where in the past it wasn’t necessary to have a degree to begin work in the arts and entertainment sector, it is now increasingly important, despite wages staying the same. He also shares the same anxieties about the future as Edward.
The arts and entertainment industry is one that has tremendous potential, unlimited in its “export capacity” thanks to technology and the internet. It would be a mistake for us to miss out on developing our arts and entertainment sector with a view towards its internationalization. We can learn a lot from South Korea’s example, whose arts and entertainment industry brought the country SGD$39.8 billion in 2018. Besides being now known globally, Korean entertainment has created subsequent demand worldwide for Korean-branded merchandise including cosmetics and food.
Even the example of a local food establishment cited by DPM Heng yesterday – Seonggong, is also Korean branded. This is the result of active and committed investment by the Korean government since the 1960s, in preserving traditional and modern culture, and actively promoting it internationally. Singapore can emulate Korea’s example, and go even further, potentially increasing our soft power internationally as well.
I hope that the Government will consider investing more into the development of the arts. Create business mentorship and marketing training specifically for artists and entertainers
so that they can acquire business literacy to make better livelihoods out of their talent and craft. The arts and entertainment sector can also benefit from professionalization such as a wage framework guideline so that artists are not subject to the devaluation of their work and a race to the bottom to get jobs, which happens often currently.
In our “Future Economy” deliberations, I sincerely hope the arts and entertainment sector will receive due consideration for its potential. When I was 16 years old, I told my parents I would like to study fashion design and become a fashion designer. They told me I wouldn’t be able to make a decent living out of it, and insisted I get a degree in NUS, which I did. I’m sad to observe that 20 years on, this still rings true.
Singapore Tourism Board marketed us as a country where “Passion is made Possible”. It was a wonderful campaign, but such efforts should go beyond being a short term marketing campaign. We need broad and deep capacity-building, for the diverse talents and passion for our people to thrive.
To summarize, I have 4 specific proposals for the House to consider and to support:
– In the immediate term, to increase and extend JSS support for arts workers, and income support to permanent casual workers who didn’t qualify for the Self-employed Relief Scheme
– to broaden the eligibility criteria for the Digitalization Fund beyond G-rated productions
– to develop a wage framework for the arts sector, in consultation with the sector’s workers
– to invest in capacity-building of the arts & entertainment sector through overseas exchanges, scholarships, as well as business and marketing training for arts and media students, artists and arts producers.
In 1930s America, Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal included a “Federal One” project. The federal government hired more than 10,000 artists to create works of art across the country, including murals, theatre, fine arts, music, writing, design, and so on. It was part of a plan to stimulate economic recovery during the Great Depression, where there was widespread poverty and high unemployment. This plan helped put artists back to work while lifting the spirits of a people and inspiring them towards a hopeful future amidst the economic turmoil of that time. We could take a leaf out of that book.
Art can be a great nation-building tool, forging common identity among the people amidst a crisis. And what do we envision, when we say Singapore Together? Singapore is not just a nation of engineers, scientists, technologists and doctors. Amongst us are playwrights, songwriters, painters, poets and storytellers. A truly inclusive economy of the future is one that allows all diverse talents to thrive.
To borrow the words from a famous American actress Stella Adler, who founded the Stella Adler Conservatory of Theatre in 1949, and was also teacher to Steve McQueen and Robert DeNiro, “When life beats down and crushes the soul, art reminds you that you have one.” Let’s not allow the arts sector to languish any further.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker.
Watch the speech and response by MCCY here