The Malay Heritage Foundation

The Launch of Sembang Ilmu Plus(+) Series: Art & Heritage for/in Society

Sembang Ilmu Plus(+) or SIP(+) is a spin-off from Malay Heritage Foundation (MHF)’s Sembang Ilmu Series (SIS). Debuted on 14 March 2020, SIS was designed as a forum organised by youth for youth to engage and empower our youths on issues related to Malay heritage, culture, and the arts. This year, MHF, with Andika Warisan, Temasek Foundation, is extending the outreach of this platform to youths from other ethnic groups, thus renaming the series Sembang Ilmu Plus(+). “Sembang Ilmu” roughly translates to “Let’s Chill & Chat!” in English. More than 70 students attended and participated in this inaugural session.

The launch of Sembang Ilmu Plus(+) was held at the one-of-a-kind venue spaces, Chamber, The Arts House. (Credit: MHF)

Saturday, 18 June 2022 — Over 100 attendees comprising mainly youths, witnessed the launch of the Malay Heritage Foundation’s (MHF) new initiative, Sembang Ilmu Plus(+) or SIP(+), a programme supported by Temasek Foundation, at Chamber, The Arts House. This new platform caters to young Singaporeans of all ethnicities to discuss arts, culture and heritage issues.

Renta Collective, founded by Aqmal N to promote the performance of literary works in different forms, including theatre, music, and traditional art performance, opened the session with a beautiful rendition of two famous Malay poems, “Kebanggan yang Hilang” (The Lost Pride) by the late Aliman Hassan, an educator, painter, writer and cultural icon, and Lidah-Lidah (Tongues) by A. Kadir Pandi, a former journalist.

Opening performance by Renta Collective. (Credit: MHF)

This was followed by MHF Vice-Chair, Mdm Rahayu Buang’s opening address. She shared that discourses such as the Sembang Ilmu Series would be even richer if youths from diverse backgrounds come together to have conversations that can foster a deeper understanding and appreciation of individual and shared cultural heritage. Thus, the idea of Sembang Ilmu Plus(+) was born. Touching on strengthening synergy and partnerships, Mdm Rahayu referenced an African proverb – “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” She acknowledged that efforts to promote and preserve culture cannot be done alone and thanked the community partners for their gotong-royong (mutual aid) spirit in organising the inaugural session.

MHF Vice-Chair, Mdm Rahayu Buang delivering her opening address. (Credit: MHF)

Guest-of-Honour, Minister for Culture, Community and Youth, and Second Minister for Law, Mr. Edwin Tong, was next invited to deliver his speech. Minister Tong noted that platforms such as SIP(+) provide an essential foundation for developing a shared understanding and turning ideas into positive action by engaging young people to work with the government, civil society, and other groups or ground-up initiatives.

GOH, Minister for Culture, Community and Youth, and Second Minister for Law, Mr. Edwin Tong, shared that Singapore faces the critical question of developing and upholding a common strength and identity during his speech. (Credit: MHF)

First up is Dr. Marc Nair, a prolific poet and photographer who has published ten volumes of poetry. Recipient of the Young Artist Award in 2016 for his contribution to the arts and literary scene in Singapore, Dr. Marc presented a lecture entitled “I’ll Be Your Mirror: The Artist in Society” to reflect on the purpose, function, and value of art and the artist in Singapore. He shared that “poetry has that simple power to speak to individual lives, to reflect and gently put a finger on the pulse of a moment.” Dr. Marc stressed that art is not a numbers game but meant as a cohesive force for good and society. More efforts are sorely needed to encourage people to embrace and appreciate art, whether in school, at work, or home.

He also shared a personal anecdote of his trip to the Hill of Love, also known as Bukit Kasih, one of the well-known tourist attractions in North Sulawesi, located in the Kanonang Village in the Minahasa regency. It is known as the Hill of Love primarily because of its significance as a harmonious place of worship for different religions and a centre of spirituality where followers of various faiths could gather and have private sessions. The venue is home to five houses of worship: a Christian church, a Catholic church, a Hindu temple, a mosque, and a local temple which attracts heaps of locals and tourists alike. Dr. Marc concluded his presentation with a few questions for the audience to ponder – (1) “What happens when we experience the works of art and how do we articulate that?”, (2) “What are your perceptual, emotional, and cognitive processes when we respond to art?”, (3) “What is common about your experiences across different forms of art and what is distinct?” and (4) “How can art be part of our identity?”.

Dr. Marc engaging the audience during his presentation. (Credit: MHF)

Dr. Amin Farid, a choreographer, arts education, and maritime Southeast Asian performing arts researcher, was next to present his lecture “Moving Bodies, Connecting Histories”. Dr. Amin touched on Ronggeng, a social dance practice, event and tradition from the villages, which involves dancing between men and women and with live accompaniment from a group of musicians and singers, who usually would sing in poetic prose known as the pantun. The recipient of the 2017 Singapore Youth Award and the 2018 India-ASEAN Youth Award added that the Ronggeng troupe consists of multiple performers, roving from one village to another, providing much need entertainment in the rural areas of the Malay Archipelago. According to Dr. Amin, it is common for these troupes to seek temporary refuge in one village for weeks before moving on to their next “port of call”. The women as ronggeng dancers do not have the power to choose their male patrons and partner on the dance floor. Their concerns are collecting as many tickets as possible to receive their dues from their respective bosses for the day’s work.

Women as ronggeng dancers have always been viewed as erotic and sensual women. This shows that women as ronggeng dancers have always been viewed in a bad light or associated with a negative image. Dr. Amin then shared that invoking the figure of a ronggeng girl is a means to show how an engagement with history provides us with a nuanced understanding of the artistic, communal practice. Through her absence in official Malay dance practice accounts, we are first made to wonder why she has been silenced. Dr. Amin also mentioned the Ronggeng Revival Project, which he spearheaded, and some focus group discussions with art veterans and practitioners. More recently, he curated an online portal, ARKITARI, which documents maritime Southeast Asian dances. The insightful lecture ended with a special dance tribute from Dr. Amin himself.

Dr. Amin concluded his presentation with a special tribute dance. (Credit: MHF)

An independent scholar with a research interest in the practice and management of intangible heritage in multi-ethnic Singapore, Dr. Wong Chee Meng, was next to present his lecture “Learning to be Intercultural”. Dr. Wong started by setting the context of his presentation, touching on intercultural awareness for social harmony, the concepts of intercultural learning, the roles of arts and cultural heritage, and the recognition of universal values. In his next slide, he shared that he tends to avoid using words such as race or racial because of their associations with bio-genetic features. Instead, he prefers to discuss cultures and heritages. Dr. Wong added that Singaporeans love to talk about multiracial and the CMIO (Chinese, Malay, Indian and Other) model. Still, the real question is whether it is enough for social cohesion. With the rise of social media, he explained that tolerance or simply putting a lid on an issue or potential conflict and not talking about it would no longer serve well. Hence, Dr. Wong stressed the importance of embracing multiculturalism, which refers to recognising and accommodating the diversity among different communities based on language or religion. In contrast, a preferred policy approach in Europe may be assimilation or intercultural dialogue.

Dr. Wong next discussed “intercultural competence”, under a framework of Intercultural Communication, as a means of dealing with cultural differences (e.g., flexibility or open-mindedness). He added intercultural learning as one underlying idea: “acquiring awareness on differences in subjective cultural contexts, thus enabling one to interact sensitively with others” (Bennett). According to Hofstede, “cultural values, as part of contexts, may be understood as the core of dimensions like cultural symbols and practices. Dr. Wong explained that the primary objectives of intercultural competence are to avoid misunderstanding and reduce conflicts due to cultural differences. On a closing note, he reiterated that being intercultural is not about erasing cultural differences. It is about respect, not about privileging any forms of hybridity for the sake of the cultural industry and a dynamic process of constant negotiation. 

Dr. Wong delved into the hybrid culture, a topic imminent in a multi-faceted society like Singapore. (Credit: MHF)

MHF’s first Tunas Warisan recipient, Shaza Ishak, was the final speaker. She began her presentation titled “Arts Philantrophy in Ethnic Minority Communities” by sharing personal anecdotes about arts philanthropy and fund-raising. The veteran theatre practitioner, who is also the managing director of theatre company Teater Ekamatra, highlighted the struggles and difficulties organisations like hers face in fund-raising. During her research study, Shaza interviewed many practitioners and arts managers of minority descent and spoke to them about their fund-raising journey. Many of them are no longer actively involved in fund-raising activities. They either do not know how to raise funds or do not have the time to commit. In addition, Shaza also mentioned that many have tried many times but failed. Hence, they feel discouraged and disheartened in fund-raising activities as their income stream.

Quoting an article from the Straits Times, Shaza said arts groups that focus on ethnic minority issues heavily rely on ticket sales and government grants, as they receive little to no private funding. She then asked the audience what would happen if the show did not sell or the inability to apply for grants because these arts organisations are not creating, most evident during the COVID-19 pandemic. Shaza said few givers are from ethnic minority backgrounds, which could be one reason not many are stepping forward and giving to ethnic minority arts groups. Another problem identified by her could be the lack of diversity among the leaders and decision-makers in philanthropic organisations, which could be frailty that affects how these arts groups focusing on ethnic minorities are valued. Shaza added that various backgrounds in terms of differentiation in socio-economic status and education as well as professions among leaders and management could increase the probability that diverse artists and art forms will be more fairly valued and assessed. According to Shaza, the root cause of this situation is how the arts sector has been shaped based on colonial values and traditions, reductionist CMIO, and approaches to our understanding of race, ethnicity, and culture, upholding certain art forms over others.

Shaza highlighted that arts groups that focus on ethnic minority issues heavily rely on ticket sales and government grants as they receive little to no private funding. (Credit: MHF)

MHF Board Member Ms. Nadia Yeo next moderated the Q&A segment, followed by Dr. Marc’s spoken word performance. Temasek Foundation was inducted into MHF’s Giving Circle and endowed with the title “Andika Warisan”. Andika is originally a Sanskrit word adopted and adapted into the Malay language. It signifies one of the highest accolades that can be bestowed to someone courageous, who leads with a sense of dignified authority, is very self-confident and self-reliant, has a forthright manner, and loves life to the fullest. During the royalty era, Andika was often a noble title bestowed to warriors who brought pride and honour to the sultanate.

“Promoting our rich local living heritage goes hand-in-hand with Temasek Foundation’s commitment to build a more resilient and rooted community in Singapore. We hope that through this programme, more can come and be enriched by the discourses and connections within and across ethnicities,” said Mr. Lim Hock Chuan, Head, Programmes, Temasek Foundation.

Head of Programmes, Temasek Foundation, Mr. Lim Hock Chuan, received the token of appreciation from GOH Minister Tong, with MHF Chairman, Dr. Norshahril Saat (right). (Credit: MHF)

SIP(+) concluded with a closing performance by Renta Collective. The session was joined by viewers tuning in from MHF’s Facebook Live and YouTube Channel.

SIP(+) is a discursive platform for our youths and young professionals to deliberate and discuss issues relating to the socio-cultural development of Singapore from a contemporary perspective. The seminar-style format features a panel of speakers, practitioners, and professionals from the arts and heritage field, presenting their views on wide-ranging topics related to culture and community. Participants from various ethnic backgrounds will be exposed to issues and intrinsic cultural values that shape the Malay community and the perspectives of their Malay counterparts. All SIP(+) sessions will be delivered in English.

Follow MHF on Facebook and LinkedIn and subscribe to our YouTube and newsletter for regular updates on all MHF events, webinars, lectures, and exciting news on Singapore’s Malay arts and heritage scene. Would you like to consider supporting the foundation’s initiatives to ensure that the heritage of the Malay community in Singapore continues to be protected, preserved, and promoted as part of the national agenda (Singapore story)? In this case, you may do so by supporting us through a one-time or monthly donation here.

Group photo with youth participants who attended the inaugural SIP+ session. (Credit: MHF)

Useful Links

  1. Full Video
  2. Opening Address by MHF Vice-Chair, Mdm Rahayu Buang
  3. Speech by GOH – Minister for Culture, Community and Youth and Second Minister for Law, Mr. Edwin Tong
  4. The Straits Times – Arts can help Singapore build collective identity in a polarised world: Edwin Tong
  5. BERITAmediacorp – Yayasan Warisan Melayu pelawa belia saran idea pupuk perpaduan sosial menerusi hasil seni dan kreatif
  6. The Sembang Ilmu Plus(+) Microsite
  7. Question & Answer Segment – From Slido
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