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Making A Scene: Arts Education, Interrupted

School's back but what's different?


Published: 1 Oct 2020

Time taken : >15mins

Arts education has a very important place in all schools in Singapore. It is part and parcel of what we call holistic education for our students. You will never find a school, any school in Singapore, which does not offer art and music lessons to its students. So I think fundamentally we need to acknowledge that it is not a luxury. It is central to one’s being, and central to one’s ability to discern who he or she is, and that whole identity formation.

Mary Seah, Principal, School of the Arts Singapore (SOTA)

Depending on individual perspectives, that response from a key arts educator in Singapore may strike one as a very obvious statement, or a surprising one considering recent discourse about the arts here. In June, for instance, Sunday Times published a poll that ranked the artist as the top ‘non-essential’ job, sparking many public debates about the value of the arts in a time of crisis. 

What is objectively true: the current pandemic has made a huge impact on arts education. The necessity of safe distancing measures means arts students’ access to in-person instruction, school resources, and peer collaboration has been interrupted. With the performing arts industry still in a state of suspension, students training to become professional performing artists are also facing a future full of uncertainties. 

In this episode, Clarissa Oon, Esplanade's Head of Communications and Content, speaks to School of the Arts Singapore (SOTA) principal Mary Seah and T. Sasitharan, the director of the Intercultural Theatre Institute (ITI). Both institutions offer unique pedagogies. SOTA is Singapore’s first national pre-tertiary specialised arts school, with a six-year integrated arts and academic curriculum for students want to build a strong foundation in the arts to prepare for more diverse future aspirations. ITI trains students for professional careers in the performing arts, and it centres traditional Asian forms of theatre and also has a focus on social engagement and cultural awareness. We find out how these schools are responding to the challenges and opportunities induced by the pandemic. 

Pressing bread-and-butter issues during this crisis may well push support for the arts, including arts education, to the backburner. After all, independent arts institutions face financial pressures, even in the best of times. Already, in July, it was reported that ITI would be vacating its current premises in a conservation bungalow owned by the Singapore Land Authority by the end of the year, due to a hefty increase in rent. 

So if the arts are essential to identity formation, then this is a critical period for continuing to make sure arts education remains an integral part of the Singapore landscape. From teaching students new digital skills to supporting their mental health in this new age of isolation, our guests share their insights on how to navigate the way forward. 


I think the new actor, as it were, will have to deal with the anxiety of loneliness much, much better. I think that this is going to be fundamental in the way in which he or she is going to be able to navigate a new world in which they can be creative and productive.

T. Sasitharan, director of ITI

Further explore:

Check out the infamous poll on the essentiality of occupations as perceived by some respondents during COVID-19.

Are artists non-essential? Critic Lee Weng Choy shares his thoughts.
Graduating into the performing arts scene right now is not for the faint of heart. A recent National Arts Council survey reports that arts freelancers expect their income from the arts to fall by 70 per cent in 2020.


Making A Scene Ep. 5 is produced by Hong Xinyi and Wong Kwang Lin for Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay. The theme music of the podcast is More Than We Know from the album Seamonster by The Steve McQueens, a Mosaic Associate Artist supported by Esplanade. Many thanks to the Intercultural Theatre Institute for permission to use excerpts from the talkback session that followed the online presentation of its students’ Final-year Theatre Making Individual Project 2020.

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