Analysing General Paper Essay Topics: The Arts
The A Level General Paper examinations are a nightmare for almost every JC student. A Level General Paper is very demanding as students are expected to have a treasure trove of examples (i.e. be very knowledgeable in current affairs), as well as the ability to write a well-balanced, cogent, and nuanced essay. However, given that it is a prerequisite to many university courses, A Level General Paper is unavoidable. In our previous articles, we have covered essay analysis and structure, as well as the theme of politics and media. In this article, we will dive into ‘The Arts’, which is one of the 7 A Level General Paper themes (Fig 1.). With 66% of our students scoring distinctions (across all subjects), you can rest assured that our teaching methods are sure to help you score.
Fig 1. General Paper themes taken from the SEAB syllabus
According to the Cambridge dictionary, ‘art’ is defined as the making, showing, or performance of painting, acting, dancing and music, etc. There are many different types of art forms; the more popular modern ones include singing and dancing, while older and more traditional visual arts may comprise paintings and sculptures. Arts, however, can also refer to liberal arts, which would include social sciences and the humanities.
During your A Level General Paper examinations, be it in your essay or AQ section, it is always a good idea to answer in the context of your society. In the Singaporean context, The arts are integral in developing a culturally vibrant society, giving Singapore a unique national identity and fostering a strong social bond that helps to keep our citizens close. Performing arts like various ethnic dances are rich in culture because they represent the history and precious ethnic tradition of the people. For many ethnic groups in Singapore, these dances not only serve as a way for the people to preserve their traditions but also as a way to express their ethnic pride. Some examples of ethnic dances include the traditional Malay dance and Indian dance, which are traditionally performed at weddings and festivals like Hari Raya and Deepavali respectively. As a multi-racial, multi-ethnic and multi-religious society, Singapore celebrates all types of cultures and traditions; this is a very crucial factor to maintaining the racial harmony that we have strived so hard to achieve (note the 1964 racial riots).
Besides dances, songs are also under the umbrella of the performing arts, and the specific genre of songs ‘Xin Yao’ has uniquely shaped our national identity. ‘Xin Yao’ was a way for the people to come together and express their common feelings via these songs. It is noteworthy that ‘Xin Yao’ was at peak popularity during the 1980s, which was when Singapore was a young nation, fresh from our separation in 1965. During the volatile early years as a nation, we had little to no national identity, and many were apprehensive or worried about the future of their country. Many ‘Xin Yao’ songs were thus, written on common troubles and everyday life in Singapore, serving as a very first genre of songs that were representative of our country. Such unity was in fact crucial in the nation-building of a young nation. Visual arts also preserve our history and traditions. Paintings found at the National Gallery of Singapore often depict our days as a fishing village, and when the kampong spirit was still alive. Such paintings remind us of how this first world country was once a kampong village, and it is important for us to remember our humble beginnings.
The Issue With Arts in Singapore
As we have mentioned, even though the arts are a crucial component of nation-building, the arts scene remains relatively overshadowed by Science, Technology, Engineering and Technology (STEM) sectors. The arts are often overlooked by locals in everyday life and their presence is unfamiliar despite previous attempts by the government and various organisations to remedy it. Past efforts include the opening of the National Gallery and the Art Science Museum, as well as the Renaissance City Project, which we will go into detail later on. In this article, Zenith will explore two forms of the arts: the traditional forms of art like visual and performance, as well as the liberal arts.
From a young and tender age, the majority of people in Singapore have been conditioned to focus on STEM subjects. In Singapore, this notion that the arts are not as important as the sciences comes from a very logical and economic point of view. As a small and open economy, Singapore is very reliant on trading, investment and medicine (Singapore is now a pharmaceutical hub) to generate income. Many also tend to associate diplomas/degrees with professional job titles, instead of actually associating the skills required to a specific job title, thus, giving rise to the belief that a liberal arts degree will not get one far in life. However, the liberal arts train students in analytical thinking and communication skills. Certain majors like Sociology, and Anthropology study human behaviour, enabling us to conduct research in order to identify and better societal issues.
As we analyse traditional art forms in Singapore, we have to note that the local media industry is small, with the visual arts community being even smaller. This makes it difficult for artists to make a living, driving them out into other sectors that pose as more lucrative career pathways. Many artists are forced to sacrifice their passions, and without significant intervention in addressing this issue, it remains challenging to convince young talents to pursue a career in the arts sector, thus further emboldening this cycle.
Here are some examples:
The decline of ‘Xin Yao’: As mentioned earlier, Xin Yao is unique to Singapore, and it is a contemporary Mandarin vocal genre that emerged and rose to fame in the country between the late 1970s to 1980s. Xin Yao songs were composed and sung by Singaporeans as an outward expression of their thoughts and feelings on the topics of love and friendship. Xin Yao is a Chinese noun comprising two words: Xinyao is a Chinese noun comprising two words: ‘Xīn’ which is an abbreviation for Singapore, and ‘yáo’ (谣) for song. The extended form is Xīnjiāpō gēyáo (新加坡歌谣), which translates to "Singapore songs". Despite the huge role that Xin Yao played in shaping our national identity, the decline of Xin Yao occurred in the 1900s, and as of today, not many people appreciate Xin Yao.
Disbandment of The Sam Willows: The Sam Willows is arguably one of the most popular bands in Singapore. When they first entered the music scene back in 2012, they captured the ears and hearts of fans in Singapore and around the world. They released their first full-length album, Take Heart in Oct 2015 which achieved Gold award status in Singapore. The music video for the title track amassed over 1.6 million views on YouTube. The band was composed of homegrown artists, and at the peak of their career, The Sam Willows were on the Forbes 30 under 30 Asia list. However, the band’s popularity was unfortunately short-lived, and after 6 short years, The Sam Willows disbanded in 2019. The short music career that even one of the most popular bands in Singapore experienced, gives the impression that a music career in Singapore will not be successful in the long run. Singaporean bands or artists may suffer from lower popularity ratings as many locals lean towards music from other regions such as America and Korea.
Efforts To Counter This
In order to increase appreciation for the arts, there have been efforts by the Singapore government and its related bodies. The National Arts Council (NAC) has started ‘Our SG Arts Plan’ to promote art culture, and the government has also devised the ‘Renaissance City Project’. Not forgetting non-governmental interventions like Yellowren Festival by Yellowren Productions.
Our SG Arts plan
Singapore has come very far since our independence in 1965, and as our economy developed with the change of our physical landscape, our cultural policies kept pace, shaped by the aspirations of the people. However, whilst the arts sector in Singapore has achieved some recognition, the NAC deems their work incomplete and aims to achieve more. Thus, Our SG Arts Plan (2018–2022), was developed in close consultation with the arts community. It maps the NAC’s priorities to bring Singapore’s arts development to greater heights. The NAC has identified three strategic thrusts:
Inspire the people
Where Singaporeans will be empowered to create, present and appreciate excellent art
Connect our communities
Where Diverse communities come together to enjoy and support the arts.
Position Singapore globally
Where our art, cultural icons and works are appreciated by audiences and critics at home as well as abroad
Guided by these three strategies, the NAC has come up with the following eight priorities that will guide future arts and culture initiatives:
Strengthen NAC's role in leading and championing the arts in Singapore
Increase our focus on growing audiences
Build diverse capabilities in the arts sector
Increase sector-wide support for freelance arts professionals
Use technology to improve art-making and outreach efforts
Strengthen research in the arts sector
Strengthen programme design to maximise the impact of the arts on society
Take Singapore’s arts beyond our shores
Renaissance City Project
The government has also devised the Renaissance City Project with the goal of transforming Singapore into a distinctive global city for the Arts. The Renaissance City Report, also known as the Renaissance City Plan (RCP), was accepted by the government and unveiled in parliament by Lee Yock Suan on 9 March 2000.
The RCP provided a vision and plan for the promotion of arts and culture in Singapore with two objectives:
To establish Singapore as a global arts city conducive to creative, knowledge-based industries and talent
To strengthen national identity and belonging among Singaporeans by nurturing an appreciation of shared heritage
22 years later, with increasing global competition and the rise of the Chinese and Indian economy, arts and culture play an even greater role in distinguishing Singapore from other cities in our region. The vitality and liveability of our city are important factors in enabling Singapore to continue to boost our international prowess to attract talent and investments. The RCP had already seen two phases – RCP I from 2000 to 2004 and RCP II from 2005 to 2007, with tremendous results, raising arts activities, arts audiences and museum visitorship significantly since 1999, before RCP was introduced. RCP III now represents the culmination of two years of public consultation and strategic planning. RCP III now aims to:
Develop Singapore as a World-Class Cultural and Entertainment District with major arts as well as cultural offerings
Position Singapore as the choice destination to create and premiere original content focusing on Singapore and Asia (like the filming of Crazy Rich Asians)
Showcase homegrown art content internationally
Yellowren Arts Festival
Other efforts also include the yearly Yellowren Arts Festival organised by smaller associations like Yellowren Productions.
The Yellowren Arts Festival is hosted yearly by Yellowren productions. ‘Yellowren’ is a fusion name, yellow being the ‘colour’ of the Asian majority and ‘ren’ being the romanization of the Chinese character, ‘人’, which means people. Yellowren Productions is a leader in community arts-based in Singapore and Japan, and its aim is to steward the arts in generating culture and community. Yellowren creates a platform for innovative artists to bring and bridge the expressions of their works within communities, igniting conversations, relationships and stories. The main focus on the areas of development includes the biannual Yellowren Arts Festival (Fig 2.), where you can find out more about it here.
Fig 2. Logo for the 2021 Yellowren arts festival
Sample Questions + Analyses
In this section, we will be taking you through the question analysis process, and will provide one PEEL paragraph for your reference.
Q1. ‘We are merely paying lip service to the arts.’ How true is this in your society?’ (ACJC 2019 Prelims)
Question type: Absolute question
Debatable Issue: Whether or not people in Singapore actually take action to foster an appreciation of the arts, or if the claims are made without concrete action
Keywords: ‘merely’, ‘lip service’, ‘the arts’
Context: Your society
In Singapore’s fast-paced and pragmatic society, it is arguable whether something as intangible as the arts holds any weight. While the arts often refer to its traditional forms such as visual arts and the performing arts, arts can also take on the form of education, like the liberal arts. Despite the fact that there is a huge focus on the hard sciences and mathematics in Singapore due to the nature of her economy, there are also a few schools that focus on developing young talents in the arts, like School Of The Arts (SOTA) and Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (NAFA). In recent years, it is undeniable that there are good changes in the arts scene, especially because of governmental efforts like the Renaissance City Project, where the government has recognised the need to develop the art sector in Singapore; the opening of various new museums and art display pop-ups are testament to this. In terms of education, the government has also been acting to shift their focus in providing students with a more holistic education that includes and celebrates the arts. As such, we cannot claim that Singapore is merely paying lip service to the arts.
Other sample questions:
‘There is no place for the arts in society.’ Discuss.
‘The arts do not matter in times of crisis’. Is this true for your society?
When making a claim, remember to back up your argument with concrete evidence, and what better way to do so than to pull in accurate data? Here at the Top General Paper tuition programme in Singapore, Zenith advises you to use statistics for every 1 in 2 paragraphs. We have compiled a few resources for you:
Singapore's cultural statistics: This is a data summary of the arts scene in Singapore.
Facts about an art education in the US: This article helps to facilitate a supporting stance of the liberal arts.
Total value of the Arts sector in Singapore: This article helps to give you a clearer view on how the economic value of the arts sector is changing.
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