They say Singapore’s got no talent, that we are only booksmart, that we are a city of jaded office workers. I beg to differ.
So many Singaporeans have risen up and done us proud in so many ways, be it our national icon for swimming, Joseph Schooling, or singers like Stephanie Sun and JJ Lin, who is now a very popular figure in Taiwan’s music and entertainment industry.
However, no matter how many medals we’ve won or Singaporean representations at international stages, it’s still hard to see our nation as one with talents.
For example, on the context of aptitude, you would think of music, film, and entertainment when you think of countries like America, Korea, or Taiwan, or sports when you think of countries like Brazil or France. But what would you think of when I say Singapore?
Honestly, food. What else? Even if you could come up with one or two names that have done Singapore proud, these handful of recognised talents are often considered lucky for being able to make it that big. And their contributions aren’t significant enough to be tied to our ‘nation’s speciality’.
Perhaps, we’re just known for our robust markets and workforce. Anything else are considered ‘unconventional’. And in Singapore, there is a deep-rooted belief that there is “no future” for such ‘unconventional careers’, like singers, dancers, or artists.
Basically, anything arts-related is deemed as impractical. Though it sounds sad, there is truth to such remarks because of the limited ways Singapore recognises talents.
A Rigid Definition Of Success
According to the Oxford dictionary, a talent is someone who possesses “natural aptitude or skill”.
Naturally, we measure someone’s aptitude or skill by how well they do what they do, or how successful they do it. We associate talent with success because the ability to cook a bowl of Maggie curry wouldn’t instantly make one a Michelin-starred chef.
However, the stiff mindset of only recognising talents when they are successful enough creates a whole host of other problems.
While it is a fair consideration that helps separate the casual hobbyist and the dedicated ones with a higher calibre, it is also an obstacle that prevents those with potential to fully unleash their capabilities.
The Ben Davis case was a good example. There are many points to debate about, but that is not what I’m driving. Instead, his case shows the very rigidity of the way we recognise talents. Or rather, how our governing bodies deem as ‘worthy enough a talent’, because apparently, a sportsman has to “represent Singapore in international competitions like the Olympic Games and are potential medal winners for Singapore” to be granted deferment for NS.
By following the books and emphasising that they are just following what have been set in stone, our leaders are essentially reinforcing the belief among Singaporeans that one is only considered a talent if one fits a certain mould.
It also shows that in Singapore, one needs to make it really big before one is a talent worth recognising.
Even as a kid back then, I remember the sayings about how you shouldn’t be proud of yourself until you get straight As or if you get first in class. Think about it: We only celebrate the achievements of Singaporeans if they far enough as to getting the podium spots. Can you imagine dedicating months of training for a world’s biggest competition only to be booed for getting any medals or not winning anything?
How are we going to spot talents with such a prejudiced mindset? Is this the kind of environment we want to have to nurture talents?
Are We Too Pragmatic For Our Own Good?
This insular sense of success and talent also stems from a very practical part of us: The need to earn a living.
The first thing that comes to our minds when we think of success is someone who is rich or holds a high-paying career, who owns a car, lives in a nice house, and basically has most of the 5Cs.
Our competitive society and the value of pragmatism have been so ingrained in us that it makes us fear failure. Instead of exploring possible ‘what ifs’ in a path less taken, most Singaporeans would opt for the safer route. Furthermore, there are no free meals and one still need a proper income to survive in Singapore.
I’ve known of many talented Singaporean dancers who have flown overseas on their own accord to compete in street dance competitions when I was in poly. While a handful had the opportunity to turn dance into their career, majority of those prominent and well-respected dancers back then, who inspired many generations of dancers after, are now salesmen, teachers, fathers, and housewives – for survival. They just could not earn a living from dance in Singapore. I can only imagine how much more potential they have and how much they could have achieved if they were granted more opportunities in dance here.
We have been conditioned to focus on academics since young and thus we reserved the concept of success for those who make it big in the workforce or economy, to conventional paths like doctors, lawyers, and businessmen.
We will be awestruck at Singaporeans getting into the list of the richest people in the world, but apathetic towards those who accomplish things on alternative paths.
Take for example the recent achievements by two local choirs: NUSChoir was awarded the prestigious “Choir Of The World” title at an international music festival in UK; and ONE Chamber Choir took home three golds at the biannual World Choir Games, which saw 300 choirs from over 60 countries and regions competing.
I bet more Singaporeans know about the trivialities in the spat between Hong Hui Fang and Pan Ling Ling than the aforementioned achievements. The love for drama is one, but the fact that Singaporeans just don’t care is the main issue here.
No Love For Our Talents
It takes two hands to clap. While government support plays a big part in supporting local talents, Singaporeans’ appreciation for our own talents is equally important.
Many of us don’t give a damn in anything that doesn’t affect us. And having grown up in a society that didn’t expose us to different forms of arts and didn’t prize the arts as of value, many of us grew up not knowing how to appreciate the arts.
I personally never knew how to appreciate niche art forms like pottery, acapella, or even horticulture, but with social media and the support from opinion leaders and government bodies in various campaigns, exhibitions, and events, I’ve begun to understand those better. While I am not a convert, I now see the artistes’ labour and am able to appreciate the aptitude that is required to achieve what they presented.
The worst that anyone can do is to be sceptical, and I can’t help but admit that many Singaporeans are exactly that – sceptics.
Throughout the years, I have heard so many vituperative comments passed on local talents: On how local artistes try too hard to imitate famous American personalities; on how our actors and TV shows will never be as good as those from Hong Kong; on how Singaporean athletes only make it big because they have the money to ‘buy themselves a spot’.
Even the most prodigious wouldn’t go far if they are belittled or denigrated for their efforts.
I’ve had the chance to speak with Singaporean millennials chasing unconventional paths, like theatre arts company, The Second Breakfast Company (2BCo), and eSports team, Team Sovereign. Listening to them share their struggles, the one sentiment that was consistent is the lack of local support, not just from the government in terms of fundings or creating more opportunities, but from everyday Singaporeans.
Let’s just say that no matter how much grants the government gives, for example, 2BCo, they will still not survive or go far if no one turns up for their plays.
Just like how moral support helps a friend in need get by a trying time, the best way to help our local talents grow is by being accepting, encouraging, and appreciative of their efforts. Only when we change our mindsets will we be able to change the landscape for our talents.
(Header Image Credit: P&BC Consulting)