Follow Your Art

Published on 25 November 2014

Building a career in the arts is not so inconceivable with the growth of creative colleges.


knew in secondary school that I wanted to do something in the arts. I figured out quite quickly that I needed to be in an environment where I got to study the things I liked or I wasn’t going to excel,” shares Wahyuni Hadi, Executive Director of the Singapore International Film Festival 2014 (SGIFF). Hadi was also co-producer of Ilo Ilo, winner of the Caméra d’Or at the 66th Cannes Film Festival and Best Feature Film at the 50th Golden Horse Awards.

Serendipitously, a classmate told her about an arts school called LASALLE College of the Arts. Then a uniform-clad St Margaret’s schoolgirl, Hadi checked out the college and fell in love with the environment. “It reminded me of the TV series, Fame!” she quips. She enrolled in its Art Management programme, progressing from diploma to degree to masters.

Embracing Your Element

In his bestselling book The Element, Sir Ken Robinson hammers home the belief that we need to embrace our ‘Element’, which he defines as the point at which natural talent meets personal passion. When we arrive at our ‘Element’, we feel most ourselves, most inspired, and can achieve at our highest levels.

The late Brother Joseph McNally founded LASALLE upon the belief that every child gifted in the arts should be given an opportunity. Prof Steve Dixon, current President of LASALLE, shares a story that deeply moved him. “A boy named Jackson Tan had hit a roadblock in his studies, but Brother McNally saw talent in him and gave him the chance to enrol in LASALLE, which became a turning point in his life. 

“At LASALLE, Jackson met his fellow PHUNK Studio members and together they’ve gone on to achieve international renown, collaborating with major brands such as Nike, Diesel and UNIQLO. In 2007, they received the President’s Design Award,” says Prof Dixon. “Jackson’s story exemplifies the spirit of our founder, that everyone should have the chance to realise their full potential.”

Other successful graduates who have walked LASALLE’s corridors include singer Kit Chan, filmmaker Boo Junfeng, singer-songwriter Inch Chua, photographer John Clang, artist Amanda Heng and actress Oon Shu An.

Alumni of LASALLE: (from top) Inch Chua, Boo Junfeng, John Clang. (Photos:  LASALLE College of the Arts)

Constructing the Landscape

NAFA’s outdoor class at St Thomas Walk, post- World War II. (Photo: Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts)

In a pragmatic country that has long focused on what is economically viable, Singapore only turned its national attention to creative colleges in 1998, when a paper entitled ‘Creative Singapore: A Renaissance Nation in the Knowledge Age’ was presented in Parliament by then-Deputy Prime Minister, Dr Tony Tan.

In this report, it was proposed that private arts colleges, LASALLE and Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (NAFA), be given polytechnic-level funding to develop into full-fledged, degree-level teaching institutions.

In addition, the report proposed that a new Institute of the Arts be established at the National University of Singapore (NUS). In 2001, the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music was founded, in partnership with the Peabody Institute of The Johns Hopkins University.

The vision, according to Dr Tan, was “to accord a new purpose for the arts in our society, to define a new future for the arts, and to unleash the creative potential of Singapore.”

Remembering the Pioneers

Singapore has always had arts institutions, but they were privately funded. NAFA — which was founded in 1938 — had relied solely on funding from Chinese businessmen. For 40 years, the school mostly ran at a loss. In the pre-World War II years, founding principal Lim Hak Tai was known to take on secondary teaching jobs to pay staff salaries.

Despite its early struggles, NAFA produced 12 Cultural Medallion recipients and 13 Young Artist Award recipients. “When I enrolled in NAFA around 1975, it was the only established fine arts school with experienced teachers, such as Chen Chong Swee, Georgette Chen and Lai Feng Mei,” recounts sculptor Han Sai Por, who received the Cultural Medallion in 1995. “I’m grateful that NAFA provided me with a strong base in art. It was very important for my artistic development.”

Goh Boon Teck, co-founder and artistic director of Toy Factory Productions, and a Young Artist Award recipient, adds: “An arts school allows you to immerse yourself in the arts community. I treasure my time in NAFA, being surrounded by so many talents in a creative environment, and learning from them.”

Another notable arts institution in Singapore’s history was Baharuddin Vocational Institute. Founded in 1965, it nurtured a generation of local designers and craftsmen in commercial art, dressmaking, furniture design, pottery and later, graphic design. In 1990, the entire Applied Arts department moved to Temasek Polytechnic to start its School of Design. This led to the eventual closure of Baharuddin.

NAFA Celebrated its 75th anniversary in 2013, with President Tony Tan gracing the gala even
The Straits Times Life! Theatre Awards 2013 Best Actor, Matt Grey, in class at NAFA. (Photos: Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts)

Arts Classes for All!

Arts education now extends to the curriculum in mainstream schools.

The National Arts Council’s Arts Education Programme (NAC-AEP) was introduced in 1993, setting up a database of programmes run by professional artists that schools can purchase for their students. These programmes span six art forms — dance, film and multimedia, literary arts, music, theatre and visual arts — and three programme categories, namely arts exposure, arts experience and arts excursion. Other arts education initiatives by NAC include:

Artist-In-School Scheme (AISS), which allows schools to apply for a seed grant of up to S$10,000 or 50 per cent of the qualifying cost to customise arts education programmes to meet the specific needs of their students.

Teaching Through the Arts Programme (TTAP) encourages mainstream schools to experiment with arts-based pedagogy as an alternative approach to learning. Conducted during curriculum time, these programmes expose students to learning concepts in Maths and Science through innovative arts activities.

For more information, visit

Students at Bukit View Primary School learning about animal respiratory systems through tableaux or freeze-frames a drama strategy facilitated by teaching artist Serena Ho. (Photo: National Arts Council)

Never Too Young, Never Too Old

LASALLE celebrated its 30th anniversary earlier this month with a gala event and performances by its students. (Photo: LASALLE College of the Arts)
A NAFA dance production: Still Waters Run Deep Swirling by Jeffrey Tan. (Photo Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts)

Today, arts education in Singapore permeates every level of education — from pre-school to post-graduate degrees —  acknowledging a need to not just educate arts practitioners but future arts audiences as well.

In his address at LASALLE’s 30th anniversary celebration on 5 Nov of this year, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said, “We’ve been building peaks of excellence in many different areas in order to create multiple pathways to success, and this is not just a structural shift in our economy, but a cultural and mindset shift.”

Moreover, tertiary arts education is not just for students fresh out of secondary schools or the School of the Arts (SOTA), Singapore’s first pre-tertiary arts institution. It’s for practitioners looking for continuing education or anyone looking for a mid-career change.

Reflects SGIFF’s Hadi, “I didn’t have the resources to study overseas, but Singapore has it all. I believe you can find your place in the arts here, and you can excel and reach international standards in your work.”

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