For a Better World

Published on 13 March 2016

The Singapore International Foundation turns to arts and culture to do good by building bridges with overseas communities.


In 2011, Dr Esther Joosa packed her bags and headed to Tamil Nadu to volunteer with the Singapore International Foundation (SIF) for a social stories project with people infected with HIV/AIDS. “Very little is known about the women and children who carry this virus and how it affects their lives,” says the arts educator and researcher. “Many of the women are widows, and widows in India already have a very low status in society. They are further taunted because they have HIV/AIDS, often passed to them by their husbands.”

For this project, she used Plaster of Paris masks and had the women apply them onto one another. After modelling the application, she recalls a spontaneous movement in the whole group. “The children and adults started to apply the masks as a collective, and I sensed their empowerment as a community,” she recounts. “There was little for me to do except to become a bystander. By moving to the side, I recognised that it was not me, but the arts that had given them symbolic tools to express themselves in their sorrows and hopes.”

Decorating the masks with paint and other materials provided the women with an opportunity to experience their self-worth in womanhood. “The masks allowed them to see an imprint of who they were and could be,” Dr Joosa elaborates. “It changed my perspective on my role in this project and my outlook on volunteerism. I left with new ideas about building shared values and empowerment.”

This volunteer experience with the SIF so moved her that she returned to Tamil Nadu in 2014, and will be back again this year, as part of the SIF’s Arts for Good programme.

“My focus is to unmask stereotypical notions of their illness,” Dr Joosa says. “The global messaging for the past three decades has hardly ever recognised the afflicted as contributors to society. People infected with HIV/AIDS can live among us without posing any threat. They can be hugged and touched. And with appropriate medical and emotional care, most can live a relatively healthy life and contribute just like anyone else to society and the community.”

UNMASKING HIV Arts educator Dr Esther Joosa uses Plaster of Paris masks to engage and empower women living with HIV/AIDS in Tamil Nadu, India.  PHOTO Arun Ramu

Global Friendships

As a catalyst for good, the SIF’s vision is really quite simple: Making Friends for a Better World. Soh Lai Yee, head of the foundation’s Cultural Exchange programme division, explains that cross-cultural interactions provide insights that strengthen international understanding. This, in turn, inspires action and enables collaborations for good.

For this reason, the SIF brings Singaporeans and world communities together to promote awareness of social issues, share best practices, and to harness these friendships to effect positive change. These cross-border initiatives cut across five areas: education, healthcare, business and livelihood, environment, and arts and culture.

In fact, arts and culture have been a key feature of the foundation’s work since 2000. Soh explains that when the “artists interact and collaborate with their global counterparts, they not only share a facet of Singapore culture in their role as citizen ambassadors, they also draw inspiration from other cultures, enriching their own work and lives”.

Some familiar faces among the SIF’s citizen ambassadors include actors Lim Yu-Beng and Tan Kheng Hua. Tan was involved with SIN-PEN Colony, which sought to build greater understanding of Singapore’s and Malaysia’s shared heritage at the 2014 George Town Festival, while Lim directed 2 Houses, a play performed by Malaysian and Singaporean actors.

“Artists are playing a more active role than ever before,” Soh observes. “Therefore, an ‘Arts for Good’ focus was a natural next step. This cultural exchange programme aims to support and enable artists and the community to leverage the arts for a better world.”

PHOTO Esther Joosa

Musical Links

In the last two decades, the SIF has built bridges with communities all over the world, collaborating on programmes in about 50 countries, with a focus on Southeast Asia, India, China and Japan. Projects involving arts and culture vary in breadth and purpose.

‘Play Me, I’m Yours’, for example, sees pianos installed in public spaces. First conceived by British artist Luke Jerram in 2008, the installation has since travelled internationally, reaching over six million people, with more than 1,300 pianos installed in 46 cities across the globe.

The Singapore edition of ‘Play Me, I’m Yours’ was launched on 13 March. Presented by Playtent and the SIF, the artwork will be showcased in 25 locations across Singapore, from 14 March to 2 April. These street pianos, decorated by 25 local artists and Social Welfare Organisations, serve as focal points for the community to gather and engage. Events such as music performances and workshops are held around the pianos. Besides encouraging community bonding, they also raise awareness and visibility for these organisations’ causes.

The directors of Playtent — Claire Devine, Rebecca Lee and Jean Low — had travelled to Melbourne and Hong Kong to witness the impact of ‘Play Me, I’m Yours’ on the local communities. They believe that by bringing the programme to Singapore, potential cross-cultural dialogues will open up.

“As Singapore’s involvement in this global movement will be publicised on the programme’s international website, we hope that by joining in, we will build bridges between communities here and abroad and create ongoing and sustainable relations with global networks,” says Lee. “Also, Singapore will be recognised for its all-inclusive attitude to community arts and its proactive approach to cross-cultural relations.”

PAINT ME, PLAY ME  Decorating pianos for ‘Play Me, I’m Yours’ — design by Jelly Bean Attic entitled ‘Home’;  volunteers from Singapore Council of Women’s Organisations decorating their piano. PHOTOS Jelly Bean Attic & Wilma Limmen

Sight Specific

For Singaporean fine art photographer Alecia Neo, it was a work project in Taipei that first put her in touch with the visually-impaired community. When she returned to Singapore, she founded Unseen: Constellations, a platform where visually-impaired teenagers could explore their future selves via role-playing, art-making and a mentorship programme.

Initiated in 2012, this project of passion was a two-year journey. “In the process, the teenagers created music videos, short films and audio books, and these were largely inspired by their own experiences and reflections,” Neo says.

Supported by the SIF’s Arts for Good grant, Neo expanded her artistic work with the visually-impaired across borders to Kuala Lumpur. Last December, she collaborated with Malaysian sound group Toccata Studio and theatre practitioners from Theatrethreesixty, and led a series of arts-based workshops for visually-impaired youth from Malaysia’s Dialogue in the Dark.

Entitled Unseen: Shift LAB KL, this Singapore-Malaysia collaboration is still evolving and seeks to explore how perceptions shift if we rewrite our narratives. “I think the arts offer a rare opportunity to experiment and dream up possibilities, which can be difficult in other disciplines,” Neo reflects. “As such, it helps to shift mindsets by allowing people to see alternative ways of living and being.”

An exhibition of these works will be held at Objectifs: Centre for Photography and Film from 18 March to 17 April, but beyond that, Neo believes the new friendships formed with the Malaysian host, participants, volunteers and fellow artists can be harnessed over time to do more good.

THE UNSEEN, SEEN Empowering visually-impaired teenagers through art: Singaporean fine art photographer Alecia Neo extends her outreach to Malaysia with Unseen: Shift LAB KL.  PHOTO Unseen Art Ltd

It Begins at Home

For some, the inspiration behind initiating a philanthropic project has roots closer to home. For Imis Iskandar, it was his father being diagnosed with lung cancer that impacted his life. In 2010, he left his full-time job as a designer and educator to take care of his ailing parent. It was during that period that he became more aware of cancer sufferers in the community.

This compelled him to initiate CHAIRITY — a platform that taps on the creative talents of artists and designers to decorate chairs to raise awareness for cancer. Held in Singapore in 2012, the event moved to Kuala Lumpur in 2014, then back to Singapore in 2015. This year marks its fourth edition.

Imis admits that he kept the project a secret from his family at the beginning as he wasn’t sure how they would react. But his father caught a radio interview he did and was very moved. In retrospect, Imis says, it turned out to be a blessing in disguise. “This project kept my father motivated and lifted his spirits. He would paste all the media clippings on CHAIRITY on the wardrobe in his room, and proudly tell anyone who visited him about the project.”

Sadly, his father’s condition worsened two weeks before the launch, and he became bedridden. But to Imis’ surprise, midway through the event, during his speech, his father was brought in on a stretcher. “I was told he had called the private ambulance himself. His determination to be present was very strong,” recounts Imis, adding that his father passed away the morning after the exhibition.

Even after his father’s death, Imis continues his project. This year, CHAIRITY Jakarta, Arts and Design Against Cancer — which is supported by the SIF’s Arts for Good grant — will see some 40 renowned artists and designers from Indonesia and Singapore decorate 50 chairs to express their personal interpretation of, and experience with, cancer.

But, why chairs? “Coming from a design background, I’d always had an interest in furniture, but more so because my late father was in the furniture business,” explains Imis, adding that these decorated chairs will be showcased in an exhibition in Jakarta from 2 to 15 April, followed by a gala dinner on 16 April, where they will be auctioned off for charity.

“The funds raised will be donated to the Children Oncology Foundation of Indonesia, and go towards funding the building of a boarding home,” says Imis, explaining that the children who come from out of town often have no place to stay during their treatment process. “Very often, there is a waiting list for hospital beds and the condition of these children worsens. With this boarding home, they will have accommodation during their cancer treatment.”

Beyond Our Shores

Supported by the SIF’s Arts for Good programme, artists from Singapore continue to build these inspired and inspiring bridges with communities overseas, bringing their artistic talents and expertise to drive positive change.

Dr Joosa will be heading back to Tamil Nadu from 9 to 15 May for a new project. Entitled Unmasking HIV, it is an extension of the earlier project series — Unmasking the Face of HIV — she had initiated for children living with HIV/AIDS as an SIF Singapore International Volunteer in 2011 and 2014.

Renewing her partnership with Indian non-governmental organisation, Buds for Christ, and in collaboration with three student-artists from local art colleges, Dr Joosa will lead a series of workshops for 20 care-workers, artists and selected beneficiaries. This empowerment programme serves to train local stakeholders as arts facilitators.

“Reaching out through arts and culture allows us to learn from each other and to co-create a common platform to work and grow together,” reflects Dr Joosa on her personal journey. “My relationship with the SIF has grown from an opportunity to volunteer to a recognised professional partnership based on trust and empowerment. Our relationship has evolved into a deep commitment to shared goals, to build a more inclusive world.”

The SIF’s Soh believes that while Arts for Good is operating in a relatively nascent space, the interest from Singaporean artists to partner the SIF as citizen ambassadors is very encouraging. “We see Singapore’s potential as a growing arts and cultural hub to be the stage to foster greater dialogue, exchange and action in harnessing the arts for good.”

To find out more about SIF’s Arts for Good programme, visit, or get in touch with them directly via email at [email protected].

ALL FOR CHAIRITY Designer Imis Iskandar rallies artists and designers from Singapore and Indonesia to raise awareness and funds for cancer through CHAIRITY. PHOTO Imis Iskandar

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