The Malay Heritage Foundation

Sembang Ilmu Plus (+) Series #03 – Community Building through Cultural Arts

The Malay Heritage Foundation‘s (MHF) Sembang Ilmu Plus (+) Series (SIP (+)) returned with its third session in October 2023. SIP(+) debuted on 14 March 2020 as a spin-off from MHF’s previous event, Sembang Ilmu. It was designed as a forum organised by youths, for youths, aimed at engaging and empowering them on matters related to Malay heritage, culture, and the arts. While Sembang Ilmu primarily targeted Malay youths, MHF, in collaboration with Andika Warisan Temasek Foundation, has extended the reach of this platform to youths from all ethnic groups, thus introducing the new series as SIP(+).

Guest Moderator Ms. Liyana Nasyita Shukarman, setting the context and introducing the panellists. (Credit: MHF)

Saturday, 7 October 2023 – Mohamad Tauhid, emcee and a representative from MHF, opened the event, welcoming the audience and panellists to the Multi-Purpose Hall, Aliwal Arts Centre. Following a brief introduction of SIP(+), he introduced and welcomed the forum’s guest moderator, Ms. Liyana Nasyita Shukarman.

Ms. Liyana, a project manager who graduated with her Master of Arts from the Malay Studies Department at the National University of Singapore (NUS) with research focused on colonial and indigenous Malay knowledge production in the Malay Archipelago, is no stranger to the world of Malay language, literature, heritage, and culture. Previously appointed as Teman Warisan in 2021, she brings a deep passion and enthusiasm for these subjects.

Setting the context for the discussion, Ms. Liyana began by revisiting the title of the series “Sembang Ilmu,” in which she defined “sembang” as “talking casually” and “ilmu” as “knowledge”. She emphasised that contrary to popular beliefs, important discussions can always be conducted casually, including knowledge sharing. Following this introduction, she outlined the session’s objectives, highlighting its aim to shed light on how cultural arts and heritage, significant aspects of any society, can serve as a vital bridge and social glue in Singapore. Ms. Liyana welcomed the first speaker, Ms. Shilpa Dikshit Thapliyal, to commence her presentation, ‘Un-boxing Communities through Poetry’.

Ms. Shilpa Dikshit Thapliyal enlightening the audience on the capabilities of poetry. (Credit: MHF)

Ms. Shilpa Dikshit Thapliyal is a former Singapore computer professional and bilingual poet. She is a Pushcart and Best of the Net nominee and the author of the poetry collection ‘Between Sips of Masala Chai’ (Kitaab International, 2019). She serves on the steering committee of ‘Poetry Festival, Singapore’ and is pursuing her M.A. in Creative Writing-Poetry at the National Technological University (NTU), Singapore.

After a brief self-introduction, Ms. Shilpa made a thought-provoking statement that puzzled the audience: “all of us are connected through poetry”. Met with puzzled looks, she then cited the all-time famous nursery rhyme ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star’ written by Jane Taylor in her book “Rhymes for the Nursery”. That said, Ms. Shilpa highlighted that every one of us is connected through poetry because of the nursery rhymes we all grew up with.

In relation to the topic, Ms. Shilpa underscores the need to define ‘community’ before understanding how poetry can facilitate its formation. She described ‘community’ as a place where a sense of belonging is formed through a common identity, shared interest, and social interaction. She asserted that being part of a community provides a safe space for connection and mutual care. Subsequently, she mentioned that poetry allows individuals to understand their true selves by helping them face their emotions, reminisce about the past, and celebrate the present. It facilitates navigating daily experiences as we attempt to make sense of the ephemeral world through our unique perspectives.

That aside, Ms. Shilpa pointed out several reasons for poetry’s significance, including its connection to the mind, its role as an egalitarian art form that encourages diverse perspectives, and its healing abilities. These multifaceted roles that poetry can play make it an empowering catalyst for uniting communities – as one creates, writes, reads, and shares words, they collectively empower themselves and their community.

In light of this, Ms. Shilpa then presented the poetry landscape in Singapore, highlighting three main entities:, SingPoWriMo (Singapore Poetry Writing Month), and Poetry Festival Singapore (PFS).  She explained briefly that is an online database of poets in Singapore. SingPoWriMo is conducted annually, where poets tackle one prompt daily for a month. PFS organises yearly literary events in all four national languages. She then shared various events organised by PFS to reach out to different groups of individuals, including those with special needs and healthcare workers. Expanding beyond the local landscape, Ms. Shilpa highlighted the potential for poetry to establish connections with the international community, drawing from her experiences in various overseas poetry initiatives.

However, Ms. Shilpa acknowledged the presence of challenges in realising the full potential of poetry for nation-building, including the rising prevalence of Artificial Intelligence, funding issues, and the stigma attached to “confessional words.”

Ms. Shilpa concluded her sharing by reinforcing that humans have been attuned to poetry’s rhythmic qualities since ancient times. Its verses are easy to learn and pass down in contrast to long discourses and prosaic speeches. Indeed, poetry has found its place across various art forms, evolving. Yet, what remains consistent is the rhythmic nature of the words that continue to be poetic, simple, evocative, and memorable.

A/P Tan Chee Lay sharing his experiences and involvement in the local cultural arts scene. (Credit: MHF)

Associate Professor Tan Chee Lay is the Deputy Head of the Asian Languages and Cultural Academic Group at NIE, NTU. He was a former tutor of the Chinese Language Elective Programme at Hwa Ching Junior College and held the position of Executive Director (R&D) at the Singapore Centre for Chinese Language. A prolific writer of various genres, A/P Tan Chee Lay has published nearly 30 books encompassing academic writing, poetry, children’s picture books, short stories, and prose.

Entitled “Building Communities through Art and Culture – Fostering Connections and Creativity”, A/P Tan’s presentation centres around his experiences and involvement in the local cultural arts scene. He started right from the beginning when he returned from his studies abroad and noticed the absence of a community with a profound interest in the arts and culture. Coinciding with the introduction of the internet, he pioneered Grand Canal, an online platform where related journals were published for free.

This marked only the beginning of more extensive efforts. Recognising the potential of the arts to extend across various cultural communities, he sought ways to involve Malay, Indian, and English counterparts, ultimately leading to the formation of the Bilingual Singapore Student Literary Award in 1999. Impressively, A/P Tan shared that some participants from this early effort are still active writers. These efforts exemplify building a community through art, providing people a channel to express their views. In his words, “building (a) community through art is something like giving other people a voice”. As these voices come together, harmony is formed, further reinforcing the capability of the arts.

As one of the founding members of the Poetry Fest Singapore (PFS), A/P Tan continued by sharing the history behind its formation. He explained how the idea had initially stemmed from the observations of Emeritus Professor Edwin Thumboo, who had noted the decline of multilingual and multicultural programmes, unlike the case some 50 years ago. Along with several other founding members from different ethnic backgrounds, PFS was formed as an informal community characterized by its open interaction and relaxed nature. This setup facilitated the organization of multilingual events through collaboration with one another.

Following this, A/P Tan elaborated on the numerous events organised under PFS, starting with the inaugural Poetry Fest. In that event, founding members wrote poetry in their vernacular languages but learnt and, after that, recited the works of others. Through various events, PFS has indeed offered opportunities for individuals from diverse ethnic backgrounds to come together and celebrate arts and culture. This potential of arts and culture to unite diverse individuals goes beyond ethnic lines, encompassing various disciplines such as the film industry.

Apart from PFS, A/P Tan shared his recent initiatives and involvement in the arts and cultural scene. Among others, he mentioned a YouTube page called “Very Nanyang”, created in collaboration with another enthusiast, where they capture video recordings of artists’ residences. His presentation concluded with a discussion several other programmes and initiatives that transcend cultural and language differences, highlighting the potential of arts and culture to unite diverse individuals, regardless of their differences.

Ms. Azizah Zakaria sharing on accessibility to the arts, both as audiences and as creators of arts. (Credit: MHF)

Ms. Azizah Zakaria is an educator and arts manager with a background in stage and TV productions and print publications. Under various imprints, she has published works ranging from poetry to short stories and plays. Currently working in a polytechnic, she is also a member of Poetry Festival Singapore and the Malay Language Council.

Ms. Azizah began her presentation with a mini exercise to demonstrate how individuals process sensory information differently, which was apt for her topic, “Building an Inclusive Society through the Arts”. Her interest in this subject arose, in part, from her experience working with students who react differently to various elements, leading her to question how access to daily activities could be eased through the arts.

Ms. Azizah then quoted Leo Tolstoy, who defined arts as a means of communicating and expressing any experience. Thus, she emphasised that consumers of arts, regardless of their circumstances, should ideally be able to understand and relate to the art. As previously mentioned by other speakers, she reiterated that art is a powerful force for social integration; the more diverse groups in society are included in the arts, the more a culture of diversity and inclusivity is promoted, strengthening social cohesion.

Achieving this goal requires increased ‘access to the arts,’ which Ms. Azizah divided into two aspects: access as an audience and access as creators of art. The former is essential for arts producers and venue providers to consider as it pertains to enabling audiences with diverse abilities to access the arts. She shared several positive developments that have taken place thus far, such as wheelchair-accessible venues and allowing assistance dogs into some galleries. Additionally, she discussed the increasing prevalence of access guides provided by most significant venues, offering wayfinding through visual stories to help visitors better plan their journeys. In this, she noted that these access guides benefit a wide range of individuals, from those who need directional information to caregivers who need to plan routes for those they care for and even individuals who experience anxiety and benefit from knowing what to expect. Other initiatives include live sign language interpretation, audio description, and closed captioning. Notably, Ms. Azizah mentioned the life-changing introduction of AR glasses by London’s National Theatre in collaboration with Accenture’s XR Group. These customisable AR glasses broadcast subtitles for audiences who are hard of hearing. Needless to say, the advent and development of technology have facilitated fostering inclusivity through art.

Closer to her heart, Ms. Azizah highlighted the significance of ‘Relaxed Performance’, which she had been involved in with students at her institution. Relaxed Performances are typically tailored to neuro-diverse needs, including autism and sensory sensitivities. In such performances, the audience can exit and enter as they wish and, more significantly, become part of the performance. Ms. Azizah explained how these experiences forced her students to adjust their production designs to create a more conducive environment for the audience. Further, during the performances, they must adapt to different audience reactions.

This then leads her to raise the question of how and where to start such initiatives. In this context, she cited the motto not uncommon among organisations of such events, “Nothing about Us, Without Us”. Among others, this motto calls for art producers first to find ways to understand the needs of their target audience, whether through networking, volunteering, or even attending other performances. Only then can they expect to successfully meet the needs of their target audience and foster greater accessibility and inclusivity.

That aside, “access as creators of art” is another potent topic raised by Ms. Azizah. To achieve this, art must act as a levelling tool where everyone is given equal opportunity to express and create their art regardless of their ability. Art can become the platform where diverse individuals are included in its creation process, embracing a spirit of diversity and thereafter fostering empathy, ultimately bringing together a community. An aspiration worthy of more excellent reflection is whether or not arts could be a scene that is “ability blind” where everyone can be on the same performance stage or equally involved in art production without the need to segregate nor differentiate their abilities.

All in all, Ms. Azizah emphasises that accessibility and inclusivity in the arts require a long-term commitment and ongoing improvement that necessitates involvement from all sections of the community. Questions like marketing strategies and the viability of “universal designs” require collective efforts and thoughtful consideration. As she wraps up, she leaves the audience with a crucial question to ponder: who else are we missing out consistently?

Panellists addressing questions from the audience during the Q&A segment. (Credit: MHF)

The forum concluded with a Q&A segment where the panellists responded to several questions from the on-site audience.  SIP(+) is a spin-off from MHF’s previous event, Sembang Ilmu Series (SIS), a discursive platform for our youth and young professionals to deliberate and discuss issues related to the socio-cultural development of the Malays in Singapore from a contemporary perspective. Differentiating itself from the latter, SIP(+) aims to extend its outreach to youths from other ethnic groups. Through these sessions, participants from various ethnic backgrounds are exposed to issues and intrinsic cultural values that shape the Malay community and the perspectives of their Malay counterparts. Ultimately, SIP(+) seeks to sustain interest in arts and heritage matters over the long term. With this, MHF hopes to nurture thought leadership for future reference, build connectivity and creativity through creative collaborations, and groom future role models and icons for the culture and heritage sector, motivating and inspiring others.

Group photo with MHF Vice-Chairman Dr. Azhar (most left), moderator Ms. Liyana (most right), and the panel. (Credit: MHF)

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  1. Full Video: Part 1 | Part 2.
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