Siapa Nama Kamu?

Siapa Nama Kamu?

February 14, 2016

When meeting someone for the first time it is customary to ask, “What is your name?” (Siapa nama kamu? in Malay). As a first time visitor to Southeast Asia and Singapore, I’ve been asking that question frequently. I’ve been delighted by the many answers I am discovering.

During a recent visit to the National Gallery I had the opportunity to plumb the meaning of names and identity as expressed by artists from the region. The term “Nanyang” means “south sea” in Chinese and was used to encompass all the waters south of the Middle Kingdom. The term has evolved to mean what we now call Southeast Asia: lands (and waters) south of China and east of India. The region is richly diverse and hosts wildly divergent cultures. These were on display in the thoughtful exhibitions housed at the National Gallery. The curators map the artistic trends from colonial fascination with “the exotic Far East,” to robust political protest art screaming at the violence of the time, and to cerebral “art is not art” manifestos that defy easy categorization. What does all this mean with regard to a young, prosperous country on the cusp of interesting change? At the very least the art of the region offers a window into the creative process happening in real time. It is a process seeking expression in other venues as well. Art often imitates life; and the life of a people can be stirred by art.

Singapore’s educational system is one of those venues where change is simultaneously occurring from the bottom up and from the top down. The system clings tightly to the Confucian model of progression through rigorous examination: the cultivation of the “ideal gentleman” occurs through a careful and deliberate mastery of the classical texts. As seen in Chua Mia Tee’s National Language Class, strong nationalist feelings were tied to a formal, didactic teaching style that ensured “proper” education for the masses. A new nation was in survival mode and it needed to efficiently civilize the population. Tee felt that art should reflect the aspirations of the society and he captures the yearning for freedom and a desire for improvement.  This yearning is still in play today in the nation; however it is finding a new voice.

The challenge the existing educational system faces is related to the emerging economic reality in Singapore. The masses no longer need “civilizing” and the rigorous Confucian model may be filtering out other kinds of talents. The Ministry of Education has adopted a system of “Future Schools” that have

lang4Chua Mia Tee
National Language Class
Oil on canvas
112 x 153 cm
Collection of National Gallery Singapore

been given autonomy to explore these new approaches (21st Century Compencies). The national language lesson of today is conducted in English, not in the Malay depicted in Tee’s portrait. Entrepreneurship, not the welfare of the masses, is the new mantra.

Western ideas have been grafted onto indigenous culture and a new hybrid is emerging. Lee Man Fong’s Self Portrait is an excellent example of this hybrid. An artist versed in both classical Chinese ink drawing, he swiftly adapted the techniques of western painting to his own ends. In this work we see a Rembrandt-like individual in casual garb surrounded by the iconic artifacts of his studio. Western techniques have been applied to Asian contexts, often with surprising results. The School for Science and Technology, a secondary school opened in 2010, is a perfect example of this hybridization. It is a “bottom up” manifestation of the yearning to find a new way: it contains Maker Spaces, Design Studios, an Innovation Lab as well as a robust


Lee Man Fong
Self Portrait
Oil on canvas
99 x 102 cm
Collection of National Gallery Singapore.        


commitment to science inquiry and a commitment to “transform learning.” It looks and feels like a high end American school with an Asian twist: students bow to their teacher at the beginning of class and thank him/her; students gather quietly in the auditorium  for morning assembly, sitting silently as they read for 20 minutes then rise to sing the National Anthem and the School Song; students have cell phones, but they are not the huge distraction they are for many American teachers. All students face O-level exams at the end of secondary school; however, teachers are chided by the Vice Principal not to focus on “covering the syllabus” but to “uncover learning.” It is a remarkable school and represents the shape of things to come in the country.

So, what is this country’s name? As Treebeard tells Pippin in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, “Names keep growing and changing, so in Old Entish we give voice to those changes.” This country’s name is also growing and changing. Will it be take on more bold and irreverent quality such as Jim Supangkat’s Ken Dedes, or will nostalgia for the “peaceful old days” prevail, as in Wakidi’s Ngarai Sianok (Peaceful Canyon)? Only time will tell.


dede2Jim Supangkat
Ken Dedes
1975 remade 1996
Plastic, wood, marker pen and paint
125.5 x 41.5 x 26 cm
Collection of National Gallery Singapore


Ngarai Sianok
Oil on canvas
85 x 145 cm
Collection of National Gallery Singapore



Why you so liddat ar?

Notes from the Field: A Fulbrighter’s Experience in Singapore

This is a personal website/blog. All views and information presented herein are my own and do not represent the views of the Fulbright Program or the U.S. Department of State.


February 8, 2016

Why Singapore?

What is the attraction to this most unlikely of destinations? The simple answer is that Singapore keeps popping up at the top of many interesting and varied lists. For example, in both the TIMSS (Trends in Mathematics and Science Study) and PIRLS (Progress in Reading Literacy Study) assessments, Singapore scores at the top for both math, science and reading literacy in most of the years the assessments are given. In the Heritage Foundation’s Index of Economic Freedom, a metric that evaluates countries using criteria such as the rule of law, regulation efficiency and open markets, places Singapore second globally. Bon Apite Magazine describes the food scene in Singapore as “heaven on earth.” If all of these “best of” lists weren’t enough, there is the fascinating blend of east and west that permeates Singapore’s culture. It is a young country rich with promise and steeped in curious contradictions. For an outsider looking in it is natural to say, “Why you so liddat ar?” (Singlish for “Why are you so like that?”). This site seeks to answer that question.



Asia’s “it child”: A sky high view of a city with sky high ambitions.


Singapore’s Educational Landscape

To better understand Singapore’s brief but colorful history, I found it invaluable to visit the National Museum. Housed within the Palladium style structure are galleries that bring the history to life. Three main trends emerge in the museum: 1. the colonial era of Mr. Raffles and Mr. Farquart are foundational in setting the economic and political structure of the future country; 2. Independence and birth of a city state in 1965 focused on survival and  squashing dissent; 3. Modern Singapore as a multiethnic, prosperous nation.


Don’t be fooled: the formal exterior of the National Museum contains a modern view into the nation’s past.

The early years of the country were dominated with one concept: survival. The school system of that time was minimal, focused on rote delivery and was largely unsuccessful in producing graduates (less than 25% of students completed 6th grade during that time). By the 1970’s, a greater emphasis was placed on keeping students in school and training them for potential employers. Singapore was attracting foreign investment and many manufacturers set up shop in the country. This “Efficiency” era saw a significant investments in constructing new schools and tracking students of like ability (the rationale was that students of similar ability would be more likely to graduate). This era sees the beginning of the extensive Educational Testing Complex that is in full bloom today: students are tested in every grade and sorted into respective tracks. Primary 6 is of particular importance: the results of this national exam determine the educational fate of most children in Singapore.

As the chart below shows, there are multiple paths that may lead to university, polytechnical school (community college in the US), specialized trade schools and the like. Given that Singapore was a British colony, the curricular infrastructure relies on Cambridge-A level and O-level summative exams that complete the sorting process. By the time a Singaporean student has completed secondary school, she has experienced extensive batteries of national standardized tests. A private test review industry has sprung up to support preparation for these tests and many Singaporean teachers act as private tutors.