EUREKA — Sometimes it’s hard to escape the feeling that the United States is on the wrong track – especially after hearing David Commanday expound on the virtues of Singapore.
Singapore is clean, says the Heartland Festival Orchestra’s director, who was recently hired by that nation’s Ministry of Education to consult on the management of the Singapore National Youth Orchestra program.
Everything works. You’re not looking over your shoulder when you walk down the street.
Moreover, Singapore loves the arts – so much so that the government is willing to make sure that the arts are an important part of everything that students learn.
The reason is fairly simple: Singapore wants to succeed in the brave new global economy. And this brave new global economy requires thoughtful, flexible well-educated people – people who have benefited from a first-rate education. In Singapore, a first-rate education means a thorough education in the arts in addition to math and science.
Commanday knows about Singapore because he has visited the nation twice, once last year and earlier this year. On both occasions, Commanday served as an arts consultant for a country looking for ways to improve its educational system.
During his most recent visit, Commanday – a professional cellist – offered cello master classes and adjudicated student classical music performances.
“The arts are supported in a huge way in Singapore at all levels of education,” Commanday said. “They’re incorporated into public education. The government even financially supports the inclusion of the arts in some schools that we would label as privately funded. They have so-called private schools and so-called independent schools and there’s even a participation at the government level financially with supporting the arts at those levels.
“It’s not just band and orchestra. They have programs with gamelan orchestras (a traditional Indonesian music ensemble with drums, gongs, bamboo flutes and other instruments). And with folk dance from South Asia. And there are handbell choirs – that’s a very British tradition, and Singapore was a British colony, which is probably how that got established over there.”
Government supports arts education in other ways. For instance, youth orchestra members, who are selected by audition, don’t have to pay tuition to be in the orchestra. Government also will pay for private instrumental lessons for 36 weeks of the year.
But it’s not just Singapore’s emphasis on culture and education that impressed Commanday. The country, he says, is clean and orderly. Public services work. You’re not worried someone is going to hit you over the head or shoot you.
The CIA World Factbook tends to bear out Commanday’s anecdotal impressions.
“Singapore has a highly developed and successful free-market economy,” the Fact Book states. “It enjoys a remarkably open and corruption-free environment, stable prices, and a per capita GDP higher than that of most developed countries. …
“Singapore has attracted major investments in pharmaceuticals and medical technology production and will continue efforts to establish Singapore as Southeast Asia’s financial and high-tech hub.”
Interestingly – and in contrast to the United States – the Singapore government somehow finds it possible to make major investments in social needs like the arts while running a budget surplus. In 2011, according to the CIA Factbook, the government took in $40.53 billion in revenues. Expenditures were $37.18 billion.
To be sure, Singapore is hardly a utopia. It has its share of serious problems. For instance, although the nation is classified as parliamentary democracy, Amnesty International has criticized Singapore’s government for using criminal and defamation laws that give it broad power to punish government critics. Amnesty International also has criticized the government for harsh punishments such as caning.
Nevertheless, as Commanday points out,
Singapore may be on to something that often eludes many pennywise and pound-foolish Americans who are accustomed to thinking that music, art, dance and other art forms are expendable frivolities. The arts can encourage students to think creatively and critically – two qualities any nation’s workforce needs to succeed in a highly competitive global economy.
“The point I would make to anybody is that Singapore by all objective measures is leading in South Asia as an economy, as a nation,” Commanday said. “It’s a highly successful nation – whether you’re measuring the strength of its economy, or if you just look at its streets and buildings and how everything works. It’s clean.
“That nation is winning. And I think it’s a message to all of us – to every other nation and, obviously, to the United States. We all want to succeed in ways that Singapore is succeeding. Part of that formula is the engagement of their young people with the arts. It’s considered a fundamental element in a complete education over there. And it’s being supported.”
By GARY PANETTA (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Gary Panetta is the fine arts columnist and a critic for the Journal Star. He also has a blog, Bach and Lemon Shakeups, at pjstar.com. Panetta can be reached at 686-3132 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GaryPanetta.