A doctor or a lawyer. Or maybe an engineer? Oh, and banking’s good too.
These are examples of the popular career choices many Singaporean parents like to push their children towards, some more forcefully than others. In Singaporean society, these are often seen as the jobs that will earn you the most money and are therefore most sought-after and respected.
I grew up in a family of musicians, and my parents never had particularly strong feelings on what career paths my brother and I would take. I had a slight inkling that Singaporean society marked out some jobs as “better” than others, but the fact had never really been brought home to me until I began to talk to friends about the future. I was shocked by the level of envy expressed when I said that my parents left the decision completely to me.
“My dad wants me to go to XXYY (elite) school,” a friend would tell me. “Then after that I will go to study Law at the National University of Singapore (NUS).”
Or, “my mum insisted that I should be in the Triple Science stream, so that it’ll be easier for me to study Medicine later on.”
These were friends who had never displayed any particular interest in law, or medicine. When I pointed that out, they would just shrug and say, “My parents say I have to do this.”
Singaporean parents regularly sign their children up for all sorts of extra-curricular activities: ballet, piano, painting, etc. Yet very few of them actually consider the Arts to be a viable career choice. You play the piano as a hobby, but you don’t become a pianist. Some parents might even encourage their children to take up various activities just so they would have better chances of getting into the elite schools, which would stand them in good stead to… go to law school.
It was recently reported that the Singapore government has set aside S$274 million for arts and culture initiatives over the next few years in efforts to help the arts flourish. This is great news, and I certainly hope that it works (I refuse to believe that there is a lack of creative people in Singapore), but I often find myself wondering just how many people in Singapore still see the arts as “not a real job”, or as something that’s just not as important when compared to the crucial activity of money-making.
The Yong Siew Toh Conversatory of Music has been looking into reasons for why young Singaporeans may or may not be choosing to study practical music (with a view to a professional career). Although this exercise is more one of data-gathering rather than recruitment, the fact remains that the number of Singaporean students in the conservatory are low.
The same can also be observed in the Singapore Symphony Orchestra. Singapore-born musicians are very much in the minority; many of the musicians are foreigners who have gone on to receive Singaporean citizenship. It’s not really from a lack of trying to hire locals; there just aren’t that many to audition and pick from.
Having said all this, I have nevertheless noticed that there has been a slight shift among my circle of friends. Some who had been earmarked by parents to go into law or medicine are now working as graphic designers. Others are working as writers or photographers. Is this a signal that things are changing? Are parents finally opening up to the possibility of their kids doing artsy things as jobs? Or are my friends simply not representative of the population? (Or, worse, do I just not have that many friends at all?)
What is it like in the rest of this region? Are careers in the Arts less respected, or even viable, in Southeast Asia? Do parents still attempt to steer their children away from being artists towards being doctors, or are mindsets finally changing? Have these mindsets ever existed at all in your country?