The Malay Heritage Foundation

Nurul Shaza Mohd Ishak: Tunas Warisan Recipient 2021

The Malay Heritage Foundation (MHF) announced its first Tunas Warisan (Special Mention) award recipient at the inaugural Hari Warisan (Cultural Heritage Appreciation Day) organised by the foundation, in November 2021. Guest-of-Honour Madam Halimah Yacob, President of the Republic of Singapore, presented 31-year-old Nurul Shaza Mohd Ishak with an award in recognition of her dedication and contribution to the Malay arts and heritage sector. Her sister received Shaza’s award on her behalf as she was completing her Eisenhower Fellowship (Women’s Leadership Programme) in the United States during Hari Warisan.

Shaza is currently the Managing Director of Teater Ekamatra and an adjunct BA (Hons) Arts Management lecturer at LASALLE College of the Arts. She began her journey as an actor and then immersed herself in stage and production management to be more involved in the arts. In the last 10 years in Teater Ekamatra, she has strengthened and introduced many initiatives in the company such as the Eklectic series and the Artist Residency Programme to support freelance artists who needed space and a platform to showcase their works in progress. Being a strong advocate for fair wages, she has more than doubled the fees for artists and production members who are engaged in Teater Ekamatra productions.

MHF had the pleasure of interviewing Shaza to find out more about her experience as Managing Director for Teater Ekamatra, thoughts on being a Tunas Warisan recipient and her views on future opportunities for ethnic minority artists in Singapore.

Shaza’s sister, Ms. Nadia Abdul Rahim, receiving her Tunas Warisan (Special Mention) award from the President on her behalf at the Malay Heritage Centre. (Credit: MHF)

Q: What sparks your interest in the arts scene, especially in theatre?

When I was in Cedar Girls Secondary School, it was a prerequisite for students who took Malay as their Mother Tongue to join the Malay Language Drama Debate Society. As a teenager trying to understand myself and how my culture has shaped me, I threw myself into it and joined every competition there was. From debate competitions such as Bahas Berita Harian to theatre competitions such as Gema Puisi Artistik to NUS Sajak. When I was 17, I joined Teater Ekamatra’s inter-tertiary competition Pesta Peti Putih, as part of Temasek Polytechnic’s team. We won the competition and I started both volunteering and working with Teater Ekamatra. I started as a crew, worked my way up to become a stage manager and production manager. After working other jobs and feeling unfulfilled, I joined the company full-time as the Company Manager at the age of 21 years old. At Teater Ekamatra, I felt like I had found a second home. A home where we were allowed to have difficult conversations about race and religion and politics.

I was quite an angry teenager. There were so many questions that I had about the inequalities that people, mainly ethnic minorities, faced in Singapore yet whenever I brought it up to adults, I felt like they were dismissive of me and my questions. Sitting in for company meetings at Teater Ekamatra’s former office in Telok Ayer Performing Arts Centre was illuminating. It was the first time I realised that people could have conversations that were uncomfortable, difficult, and challenging. I felt right at home.

Q: You have been with Teater Ekamatra since the early days (in 2007), rising through the ranks and now serving as its Managing Director. It’s really a lot of hard work, steering the company through its ups and downs. What are the factors that motivate you to press on?

I am motivated by the idea of justice and equality and I believe that the arts are one of the many mediums that can push us to think about the state of the world and humanity. I’m incredibly motivated by the fact that I can produce works that I believe are important. Not only are the works socio-politically charged, but I am also able to work with a diverse group of people. Working with Teater Ekamatra has allowed me to not only produce works that centre on the ethnic minority experience but also to live it, in terms of the working conditions that I can create for my team.

Q: What do you do when you are not at work? Any hobbies or activities to pass time?

I used to travel a lot when I wasn’t busy with productions, spending about a third of my year abroad. I love planning trips and researching the places I’m going to or would like to go to. But now with the travel restrictions, I’ve found myself in front of the television more than ever before. I quite love studying so whenever possible, I try to sign myself up for courses and certificates. I’m incredibly curious as a person so there are very few things that do not pique my interest.

Q: You had recently completed your Eisenhower Fellowship (Women’s Leadership Programme, USA). Could you share with us your experience?

I hadn’t been out of the country for 1.5 years by then so first of all, it was amazing to be somewhere else. I spent 1.5 months in Philadelphia, New York, and Los Angeles, meeting fundraising experts and arts practitioners. It was incredibly enlightening and with every conversation I had, I realised I had peers all over the world who were facing similar challenges as I was. I think the biggest learning point for me was that sometimes if you can’t find the answer, you may have to find the answer.

Q: You are also known as an advocate for fair wages. Over the last 10 years, you have more than doubled the fees for artists and production members who are engaged in Teater Ekamatra productions. What prompted you to do so, especially more recently, the arts and heritage sector has been badly hit by the COVID-19 pandemic?

As someone who has been in the scene for over a decade, I realised that many people leave the industry because the arts didn’t seem like a sustainable career. This is especially true for ethnic minority arts practitioners because perhaps opportunities are far and few in between. High attrition of talents can lead to a lack of growth in the scene, in terms of our artistry, professionalism, and income generation.

The problem was very clear but the answer was not so much. In pushing for one thing, sometimes, you may lose another. For example, I try not to produce any shows where I cannot afford to pay people fair wages but that may mean that I produce fewer shows overall which again, has a direct impact because I am offering fewer opportunities. The answer is not so straightforward and comes with opportunity costs but over time, I believe paying creatives and production members fairly will result in the industry becoming less transient as a career option. When we have quality people getting paid well, our scene as a whole will be uplifted.

During the pandemic especially, it was important to continue creating opportunities for creatives and production members so that they remained on the scene. If we do not actively do so, we will be left with no one when the pandemic eases up. It would be a shame to have built up the scene for so many decades only for it to be completely decimated.

Nurul Shaza Mohd Ishak, Tunas Warisan (Special Mention) award recipient. (Credit: Nurul Shaza Mohd Ishak)

Q: In your Master’s thesis, you call for more equity in arts philanthropy and hope this will spark brand new conversations about more support for ethnic minority artists. What are some challenges faced by these artists in your conversation with them?

Arts philanthropy is relatively nascent in Singapore and nearly non-existent in ethnic minority communities. No one has ever measured the impact of this reality on the existence of Malay and Indian arts companies. Many arts companies the world over rely on philanthropy to support their operations and programmes. What happens if this is not a viable income stream? Does it stunt the growth of such companies? There are very few answers at the moment simply because we haven’t been asking these questions enough.

In my research for my thesis, I spoke to many ethnic minority artists about their relationship with philanthropy and fundraising. Many have never fundraised before. Some do not know how to fundraise, some are ashamed to fundraise as it felt undignified, and some simply have not considered it.

I am determined to raise the fundraising capabilities of the ethnic minority arts scene as well as effect a paradigm shift in the ethnic minority community to change their attitude towards arts philanthropy. I know that I cannot do this on my own and I am heartened that many in the scene want to be involved too.

Q: What does this Anugerah Tunas Warisan (Special Mention Award) mean to you?

The Tunas Warisan is particularly special to me as it’s an acknowledgment of the hard work I’ve put into the company and the industry. While awards and acknowledgments aren’t necessarily important, it does present you an opportunity to highlight your work and boost your morale to keep going and keep pushing. I did not expect it at all as there are many incredible people in the art scene that have helped me be where I am today. This award is as much theirs as it is mine.

Q: What are your hopes and aspirations for the arts scene in Singapore, especially for the local artists and practitioners? Any advice for those young Singaporeans who are considering a career in the art scene?

I hope that there will be more diversity on stage throughout the art scene. This would mean that Indian and Malay actors should not only be consistently hired by ethnic minority arts companies but by other arts companies as well. Their roles should be as diverse and varied as their other peers in that they are not cast only for comic relief, race-specific roles, or as bit characters.

I hope that every one of us, regardless of our ethnicity, will fight for the rights of ethnic minority representation in the art scene and beyond. Ethnic minority issues are national issues too.

My hope is that ethnic minority arts companies will be supported not only by the ethnic minority community but also by the society at large. Arts philanthropy should be more far-reaching and positively impact such companies as well. I also hope that more ethnic minority artists are given more opportunities around the world to represent themselves and Singapore.

My advice for young Singaporeans who are considering a career in the arts scene is to be bold. The arts scene is not easy. It’s a lot of hard work, long days and nights, and sometimes you will feel incredibly underappreciated, especially by society. Yet, if your heart is in the arts, you will find nothing more rewarding than this.

Q: What do you envision the art scene will be in the near future based on your experience and engagement with fellow artists and practitioners?

Honestly, I don’t know the answer and the image I once had is now quite blurry after the devastating impact COVID-19 has had on the scene. I would like to envision an arts scene that brings healing to the communities it serves as well as to the people who are involved in it. I see equal opportunities and fair wages for all where an art career is not scoffed at because it is viable. I see ethnic minority arts companies absolutely thriving because people understand the importance of giving to arts companies to support their operations and programmes. I see ethnic minority arts companies making a difference in society because they reflect the oft-ignored issues that ethnic minorities face.

Q: Describe yourself in three words.

  1. Driven
  2. Curious
  3. Grateful

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