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Art’s sketchy existence in schools

Students at Chua Chong Yong’s art workshop (pic courtesy of Cais Project)

ART and creativity are no longer the dominions of the bohemians or the elite. Increasingly, countries like Malaysia and Singapore are acknowledging that creativity has a direct economic manifestation — the creative industries — and are incorporating it into the economic agenda.

The creative industry is an important part of the services sector. In the US, the creative sector accounts for some US$2 trillion in wage and salary income — almost as much as the manufacturing and service sectors combined.  The US video gaming industry alone accounts for US$8.6 billion in revenue in 2007. It is even closing in on Hollywood (US$9 billion in 2006) and the adult entertainment business (US$12 billion in 2006).

While infrastructure and investment grants are pertinent to the growth of Malaysia’s creative industries, like Singapore, the country is facing a shortage in talent who are keen on the arts. And stakeholders in the industry say the talent gap exists due to the lack of emphasis on art education in schools.

Burgeoning industries

Under the auspices of the Ninth Malaysian Plan (9MP), the government is investing some RM150 million for the development of creative multimedia. Furthermore, Multimedia Development Corporation (Mdec) has established the Malaysia Animation Creative Content Centre (MAC3).

Hasnul Hadi Samsudin
(pic courtesy of Cais Project)
MAC3 is set to create some 13,000 new jobs by 2010 and create investments amounting to RM1.1 billion — 60% of which would be export-driven, says Hasnul Hadi Samsudin, manager in the Mdec’s creative multimedia department.

MAC3 would help local companies produce animation works, games, visual effects, mobile contents and computer graphic related content.

While there is no shortage of investments, Hasnul said, the creative industries can only thrive if it has a steady pipeline of creative talent. He said Malaysian universities produce more than 2,500 graduates a year who are trained in multimedia skills. But it appears that companies have difficulties finding skilled employees who can apply their tools of the trade creatively.

“Working with companies that come into Malaysia, they always emphasise basic creative studies, not just as a tool like animating in 3D but knowing art as a discipline. It’s not about the tools, but rather how the tools are used to express creativity,” Hasnul says in an interview.

Venture capitalist agency Malaysia Debt Venture’s (MDV) 2007 white paper on Developing Digital Content Industry in Malaysia, concurs. 

“While Malaysia produces some individuals with outstanding technical creativity, a critical mass of such individuals is absent,” it said.

“What the industry needs is trained and experienced human talents — lots of them. The creativity deficiency stems from the fact that the current education system focuses too much on producing more ‘As’ in Mathematics and Science without giving similar emphasis to the arts,” the research noted.

Art in school

The KBSM curriculum for secondary schools provides art classes from Form 1 to Form 3 for 80 minutes a week. Nevertheless, Margaret Martinez, the principal of Sekolah Menengah Kebangsaan Stella Maris, says art often shares the same fate as Pengetahuan Moral and Pendidikan Jasmani.

Art period is often seen as a mere respite from other academic subjects. In an exam-oriented culture, art has never been afforded equal importance as math and science because it isn’t tested in the PMR exams, Martinez tells The Nut Graph.

From Cais, wire sculpture titled “Schoolmaster” (after the fish species), by Tengku Sabri and Mastura Abdul Rahman

Most parents have little expectation for youths to develop artistically, much less excel, as long as their children are readied for conventional, “respectable” professions of the doctor, engineer and lawyer variety.

“How many prodigies have we lost because of this?  How many great artists have been persuaded to give up their pursuit of art because they scored ten As and gained admission to accountancy or medicine or law?  How many parents would allow such a student to go to art school?” Martinez says.

Art may be a secondary subject, but other organisations have taken on the task of inculcating a sense of art in schools. Non-governmental organisation for the arts, Rumah Air Panas (RAP), is such an organisation.

In March 2008, RAP jointly initiated the Contemporary Art in Schools (CAIS) project with Sekolah Menengah Kebangsaan Stella Maris. The project is aimed at creating a platform where students are able to view, experience and enjoy art at a series of workshops, talks, tours and exhibitions held in familiar spaces within school grounds — be it in the library, laboratory and locker room. Watch CAIS Project’s trailer:

The project culminated with a public exhibition held from 30 Aug to 6 Sept 2008. Artist-led workshops were held throughout the show, allowing students to produce, be it a mural, a performance or an installation. The event was held at the secondary school and attracted hundreds of visitors, apart from its students, over the one week period.

Yap Sau Bin, member of the CAIS team of curators, said the exhibition was an opportunity for students to develop their ability to appreciate and explore creativity and the arts.

“We wanted to demystify the art-making process. You can actually go to [the] studio [to] meet up and discuss with the artist. There are different dimensions in the spirit of art-making,” Yap, who is also a Multimedia University lecturer, says.

“Student involvement in the workshops has been enthusiastic and resulted in creative engagement with the artists in a variety of ways, all of which are essential to the process,” Martinez notes.

A talent-building culture

One of the solutions to the talent shortage, MDV’s white paper suggested, is to develop a creative “talent-building culture from the primary school that is embedded in the schools’ curricula.” The students’ involvement and interest in the CAIS project is an archetypal example of how art could be incorporated in schools.

Hasnul said Mdec will invest some RM30 million on training and developing industrial-relevant talent from students, graduates and  professionals starting in 2009 to address the talent shortage.

Vincent Leong’s video installation, “Run, Malaysia, Run!“, in Stella Maris’ locker room, for the Cais Project

Likewise, according to the 8 July 2008 speech of Singapore’s Information, Communications and the Arts Minister Dr Lee Boon Yang , the city-state government would allocate S$10 million over the next five years to nurture promising talent in the creative industries.

But more recently, Singapore advanced further by setting up the Singapore School of the Arts, which serves as a platform “where students can thrive in a dedicated specialised arts learning environment that is vibrant, energised and committed to schooling an individual who can contribute back to the larger Singapore society.”

According to its website, the School of the Arts provides an opportunity to nurture those who are talented and passionate about the arts to be the next generation of creative individuals to live and work in Singapore.

Similarly, Martinez says the government should consider setting up an art school, just as the education system now has technical and vocational schools.

“If the government is serious about nurturing creativity, we need schools for the arts.  There are students in schools today who just want to do the basic literacy and numeracy subjects and take all their options in performing arts and visual arts,” she says.

Even Singapore’s former Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong has boasted the merits of creativity and “individual expression.”

“Studies have shown that the arts can help individuals to become more creative, in areas beyond the arts. They are an important source of inspiration and a powerful avenue for individual expression. Furthermore, a culturally vibrant city attracts global creative talent,” Goh said in his 2002 Singapore national day rally speech.

Students painting a mural
Students painting a mural on their school wall under the Cais Project

Singapore and Malaysia are both vying for investments from big budget Hollywood animation studios, and video game and film production companies.  Increasingly, countries realise that in order to develop the creative industries, society must have an affinity with not just math and science, but with the arts as well.

Should Malaysia want to reap economic gains from creativity, it must first recognise the importance of art education in schools and in society. TNG

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6 Responses to “Art’s sketchy existence in schools”

  1. Hwa Shi-Hsia says:

    Arts are for stupid people.

    This is not what I believe, but it’s what the people who designed the KBSM apparently believe. It impoverishes everybody by depriving students who are not good at science and maths of the respect and support they need (because teachers treat arts stream students like hopeless cases and don’t make an effort at good pedagogy) and deprives students who *are* good at these more “important” subjects of the chance to take classes that let them be more creative.

    I took art courses AND honours-level science and maths during a year and a half of school in the US (this was an ordinary public school, by the way). Then I went back to Malaysia for Forms 4 and 5. One of my friends was a very cute girl who was hopeless at maths and loved singing and drawing, but was in the “good” (i.e. science stream) class because her parents and teachers wanted her there.

    The system is broken.

  2. azhar says:

    It’s good MDEC and the Malaysian government are finally looking into digital creative content.

    Not to forget comics also is another basic foundation entertainment of creative content that can spawn into animation, games, merchandise, etc.

    The government should initiate more creative programmes not with companies, schools and colleges but also not-for-profit organisation bodies.

  3. ilann says:

    You can have all the hardware in the world but if you don’t have the software, then it’s all junk.

  4. ron says:

    I agree with Hwa Shi-Hsia’s analysis. Coming from a Malaysian public school, there is a perception that after Form 3, all good students go into the Science stream while Arts or Commerce streams are a dumping ground for those who couldn’t make the grade.
    Although I did Science, I also enjoyed art subjects, and am thankful I was the last batch of SRP students when art was still tested.
    We really should change public education and cultural prejudices so that students can discover and pursue their interests without bias and any associated stigma. Only then will we get more Malaysians who truly excel at what they do, simply because they are passionate about it.

    I was fortunate to be able to pursue my tertiary education in Australia, and I noticed that unlike my Malaysian counterparts who choose courses because they were considered safe career choices, the Australians did courses they felt passionate about. And that made a difference between being average and really excelling.

  5. Sooth says:

    Well, things like this cut both ways, though. I had no interest in the art class in school but I was forced to sit through 80 minutes of Pendidikan Seni torture every week, not counting the time needed to finish my art homework. How I longed to be doing something else instead.
    Sometimes, I would totally forget about the homework until the next week when we had the class again. I swear I still wake up in cold sweat 15 years on, thinking I had forgotten to finish the art assignment again.
    The system is definitely broken. 🙂

  6. Christina Teo Li Cheng says:

    Sau Bin…keep up the GREAT work with you team. Yes…indeed! The arts must be taken to another level…do watch watch where Sir Ken Robinson talks about schools killing creativity.

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