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Young Singaporean creatives respond to survey that says 'artist' is the top non-essential job

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Skilled in photography, writing, design and music, four talented youth artists tell us why art is essential to our society.

The Sunday Times sparked community outrage with its Jun 14 news article that listed 'artist' as the topmost non-essential job in Singapore during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The article reported the findings of a poll commissioned by consumer research firm Milieu Insight, which asked 1000 respondents aged 16 years old and above to identify the jobs that they perceive to be the "most crucial in keeping Singapore going".

About 71 per cent selected 'artist' as the top non-essential job.

ST-inforgraphic
'Essential, or not?': The Sunday Times poll that triggered public outcry on social media had ranked 'artist' as the top non-essential job in Singapore.
PHOTO: YEOLO.SG 

In the age of COVID-19, the difference between 'essential' and 'non-essential' has been a persistent topic of conversation. 

Creative freelancers already bear the brunt of a lack of projects during the pandemic, with some pointing out that the poll seemed to only further discredit their craft, while solidifying pre-existing notions about the arts being redundant.  

Singaporean artistes such as Hossan Leong took to social media to express their anger. Popular meme page Yeolo.sg and local artist highnunchicken have also voiced their frustrations through snarky illustrations and memes. 

Four youth creatives and artists told Youth.SG why they think the arts are essential to our society and our very souls, especially in this pandemic. 

Having the privilege of seeing a creative process to fruition 

While the poll results did not take her by surprise, Esther Vivienne Yeo, a portrait photographer with five years of experience, feels that it will only perpetuate the stereotype that a career in the arts and culture is but a pipe's dream. 

"I don't know if we need a national survey legitimising that prejudice into words," said Esther. 

To Esther, pursuing an artistic career grants her the privilege of "being part of the creative process of seeing an idea form and take shape into a final product", something which many people unfortunately are not privy to.

Esther-potrait-photographer
Esther did a photo series during her exchange in Germany last year, which was printed in the school magazine.
PHOTO CREDIT: ESTHER VIVIENNE YEO

"I don't think I've been questioned more than I've been pitied for pursuing the arts," said Esther. 

Being deemed as having no future and asked questions like "So you want to work in a museum?" is a disheartening rhetoric this 23-year-old faces. 

"It feels discouraging when you know there's a knowledge gap you want to bridge about working in an arts profession, but people are just disinterested," said Esther, who is a third-year communications student. 

Finding freedom of expression in music

Amanda Kye Tan, a current Bachelor of Music student at Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, had experienced several hurtful remarks in the midst of her career switch from a veterinarian. 

"People called me a 'dropout' or thought that I was pursuing music because I 'couldn't do' veterinary science," said the Singaporean violinist, who realised that her heart was in music halfway through her veterinary studies.

Having the freedom of expression is what Amanda loves the most about studying music. She said: "I can channel my emotions into my art and mould the music according to how I want it to be, so that my audience can enjoy it like I do." 

Amanda-orchestral-conductor
Amanda was also an orchestral conductor for the Singapore Chinese Orchestra at one of their biennial workshops.
PHOTO CREDIT: AMANDA KYE TAN

"We take for granted things designed by artists that we don't notice until something is changed," said Amanda, who is heartened that the poll might have prompted people to reconsider the value of art in their lives. 

"What makes a job more 'essential' than another? Everything is important and serves a purpose. Maybe it's time for us to change our urge to categorise everything, and learn to accept," said Amanda. 

In a global pandemic, we need arts more than ever

Although Singapore has always been lukewarm towards its arts community, Raphael Cheong, a 23-year-old freelance creative, remains hopeful that this stay-home period has demonstrated how the arts can help tide people through difficult times. 

"Can an artist cure a COVID-19 patient? Probably not. Can an artist provide solace and retreat for the people, as we navigate a world with COVID-19? Definitely," said Raphael, who has always had a passion for writing and currently runs his own music blog.


Raphael picked up design after being inspired by professional creatives that blended writing and design together.

"At first glance, the infographic did feel like an unnecessary attack on the arts scene," said Raphael. 

Nonetheless, moving forward, Raphael believes that as a society we should start recognising how pervasive the arts is in our lives. 

"That drama you just binged? That's art. That song you've been playing on repeat? That’s art. That illustration you have as your wallpaper? That’s art. 

"The world turned to art to help with staying home. Here's hoping they don't neglect it the moment that lockdowns are lifted," said Raphael.

Documenting her self-discovery journey through the arts 

Local singer-songwriter JJ Neo was shocked that people found creators of arts to be non-essential: "Self-expression, uniting different cultures, giving a voice to those who have none... how could we deem being human as non-essential?" 

"I've learned to simultaneously introspect and observe the world when I'm creating something, and this pushes me on a path of constant growth and change," said the 24-year-old, who is managed by The Celebrity Agency. 

JJ-Neo-singer-songwriter
JJ finds it a challenging adjustment to create or collaborate on something deeply personal from a distance.
PHOTO CREDIT: JJ NEO 

Like many artists, JJ now grapples with recreating similar experiences of sitting in a studio and having genuine conversations with others about the heart of a song on virtual platforms. 

Nevertheless, the singer remains unwavering in her pursuit of music: "During this pandemic, we've experienced the power of the arts firsthand; hopefully this is sufficient grounds for it to be given a better place in our society," said JJ. 

When asked about practical advice for budding artists: "There's no such thing as 'your best song ever' or 'your best poem ever'. Your work will change as you grow, and it's a beautiful reflection of your self-discovery journey."

Not all artists wear berets, but the arts play a vital role in bringing us together, keeping us uplifted, and filling the void in our lives as we traverse one of the most dramatic shifts any of us have seen in our lifetime.

BANNER AND TEASER CREDIT: ESTHER VIVIENNE YEO, AMANDA KYE TAN, RAPHAEL CHEONG AND JJ NEO

Feeling bored at home? Hop on to Cr8studiosg to watch chat shows, stand-up comedy and music performances! Or visit MehGoWhere.SG for more resources or things to do!

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