Art and music education

Formal art and music education programmes in Singapore were established by the British colonial government in the 1920s and ’30s respectively. Private Chinese-medium schools also offered art education through courses run by professional artists. After Singapore attained self-government in 1959, art and music were regarded as non-core subjects and often taught outside of regular school hours. By the early 1980s, both subjects received greater attention from the government because the emphasis of the education system had shifted from industrial and technological training towards a broad-based education aimed at the holistic development of youths. To nurture students’ talent in art and music, the Music Elective Programme (MEP) was introduced in 1982, followed by the Art Elective Programme (AEP) in 1984. During the 21st century, the number of specialised arts institutions in Singapore increased while arts education was also enhanced in order to train talents to fill jobs in the arts sector. The Enhanced Art Programme (EAP) and Enhanced Music Programme (EMP) were introduced in 2011 to provide more opportunities for artistically and musically inclined secondary school students to develop their talent.

Key developments
Colonial period
When Singapore was under British rule, Chinese-medium schools were funded mainly by Chinese merchants and other wealthy members of the Chinese community.In these schools, art education was provided by professional artists such as Chen Chong SweeChen Wen HsiCheong Soo Pieng and Liu Kang.2

The appointment of Richard Walker as the first-ever art master of government English schools in 1923 marked the beginning of organised art education in these schools.3 At the time, art was often excluded from the curriculum and there were few trained art teachers.4 Walker was responsible for preparing students who took art as a subject at the Cambridge Junior and Senior examinations and for the training of art teachers. He successfully established art as part of the school curriculum.The objectives of his art education programme, which went beyond preparing students for examinations, included the stimulation of interest and imagination through art lessons.6 Until his departure from the Education Department and return to England in 1950,7 Walker nurtured a core group of Singapore’s early art teachers. Some of them later taught at the former Teachers’ Training College and its successor, the Institute of Education (now known as the National Institute of Education). He was credited for stimulating a lifelong interest in art among his students, which included watercolourist Lim Cheng Hoe.8

In 1936, Glan Williams was appointed master of music in the Education Department. His role was to coordinate the teaching of music in the colony schools. Prior to his appointment, music lessons were organised and conducted independently by each school.9 A general music curriculum based on a British model for teaching music through singing was established by 1950.10

1960s to 1970s
After Singapore attained self-government in 1959, the government led by the People’s Action Party viewed industrial and technological capabilities as necessary for building a fledgling nation. Consequently, the education system emphasised subjects of mathematics, science and technology.11 While art and music were still taught in schools during the 1960s, they were regarded as noncore subjects and often taught outside of regular school hours. Music extracurricular activities (ECAs; now known as co-curricular activities, or CCAs), however, received increasing attention during this period. Most schools had a number of music ECAs such as choirs and bands, which were started in 1962 and 1965 respectively.12 By the early 1970s, art and music were included in the curricula of both primary and secondary schools, but they were not compulsory examination subjects.13

During the 1960s and ’70s, the government’s bilingual policy and emphasis on equal treatment of all four language streams – Chinese, Malay, Tamil and English – shaped the general music programme in schools. Students were taught songs in the four languages, with some songs being taught in more than one language. Music teachers were encouraged to teach community songs that represented the various ethnic groups in Singapore as a means of bonding children from different communal backgrounds and promoting learning about their respective cultures. In addition, Singapore’s national anthem was taught in all primary school music lessons as part of nation-building. To promote national cohesion, national songs were introduced during the early 1970s. Music teachers were expected to teach these songs to prepare students for National Day school celebrations.14

1980s to 1990s
By the 1980s, the emphasis of the education system had shifted beyond industrial and technological training towards a broad-based education aimed at a holistic development of youths.15 Measures were taken by the Ministry of Education (MOE) to upgrade the standard of music programmes in schools, such as the creation of new music syllabuses that provided guidance to teachers on the teaching of singing, instrument playing and creativity, as well as the introduction of the MEP.16

In 1981, a committee headed by then Parliamentary Secretary (Education) Ho Kah Leong was established to reform art education in Singapore through reviewing curricula, teacher training and the establishment of special centres of arts for talented students.17 The introduction of the AEP was one of the committee’s recommendations.18

In 1988, the Advisory Council on Culture and the Arts was established. Led by then Deputy Prime Minister Ong Teng Cheong, the council was tasked to review the state of the arts and culture in Singapore, as well as to recommend measures to develop Singapore into a culturally vibrant society.19 Some of the key recommendations proposed by the council in March 1989 included: development of a comprehensive arts education system similar to that set up for academic and technical education; introduction of an “arts-in-education” programme in schools to enable students to participate in and appreciate arts performances and exhibitions; provision of state financial assistance for the upgrading of private art institutions offering diploma courses to the same level as polytechnics; and development of a tertiary arts education system.20

The council’s report also called for the establishment of a national arts council to lead the development of the arts in Singapore.21 The National Arts Council (NAC) was duly established in August 1991. Since its formation, the NAC has introduced a series of schemes to help nurture a lifelong appreciation for the arts among young Singaporeans. One of these schemes was the Arts-in-Education Programme (now known as the National Arts Council-Arts Education Programme, or NAC-AEP), which was started in July 1993 to complement the arts curriculum in schools. The programme exposes students in primary and secondary schools and junior colleges to different art forms by having arts programmes and workshops in schools as well as excursions to art performances and exhibitions in public venues.22

2000 to present
During the 2000s, greater focus was given to the “software” aspect of culture and the arts in Singapore. On 9 March 2000, the Renaissance City Report was announced in Parliament by then Minister for Information and the Arts Lee Yock Suan. The key objectives of the report were to establish Singapore as a global arts city and provide cultural ballast in Singapore’s nation-building efforts. The report recommended expanding arts education in Singapore, exposing students to the arts as an aesthetic experience, expansion of the AEP, as well as promoting learning through the arts to encourage the use of expression, creativity and imagination among Singaporeans from an early age.23

In terms of expanding arts education, the MOE responded by developing multiple pathways to cater to the different interests and talents of primary and secondary school students. This has resulted in more opportunities for young Singaporeans to develop their talent in art and music. In addition, there are more specialised arts institutions in Singapore with the establishment of the School of the Arts (SOTA), the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music at the National University of Singapore (NUS) as well as the School of Art, Design and Media at the Nanyang Technological University (NTU).24 During a speech delivered in 2011, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong conveyed that enhancing arts education in Singapore was “critical to the economy and society” partly because it would train talented people to fill creative and arts-related jobs.25

Currently, art and music education are provided for all students in primary schools and at the lower-secondary level.26 Students may also pursue art and music as elective subjects in the General Certificate of Education (GCE) Ordinary Level (O-Level) and Advanced Level (A-Level) examinations.27

The National Arts Education Award launched by the NAC in 2003 recognises schools that provide a holistic arts education. A total of 17 schools took part in the inaugural award, with Nanyang Girls’ High School receiving the top prize.28

Special programmes in secondary schools and junior colleges
Art and Music Elective Programmes
The AEP and MEP are offered at selected secondary schools and junior colleges to academically able students who are artistically and musically inclined. The programmes aim to develop the students’ artistic or musical talents, and to nurture future leaders who would play a positive role in the cultivation of the arts in Singapore.29

In 1982, Dunman High School and Raffles Junior College became the first secondary school and junior college respectively to offer the MEP.30 In the following year, the programme was introduced at Anglo-Chinese School – now known as Anglo-Chinese School (Independent) – Methodist Girls’ School and Tanjong Katong Girls’ School.31 The number of schools offering the MEP totalled 11 in 2016.32

The AEP was first introduced in 1984 at The Chinese High School and Nanyang Girls’ High School.33 The programme was started in another two secondary schools – Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus (now known as CHIJ Secondary) and Victoria School – the following year. It was also in 1985 when the National Junior College became the first junior college to introduce the AEP.34 As at 2016, the AEP is offered in eight schools.35

Both the AEP and MEP span four years in secondary schools and two years at the junior college level. Students under the AEP and MEP at the secondary level go on to sit for the Higher Art and Higher Music subjects respectively at the GCE O-Level examination. At the junior college level, the AEP and MEP lead to the GCE A-Level H2 and H3 art and music examinations respectively. Alternatively, junior college students under the MEP may also sit for the International Baccalaureate (IB) Diploma Programme Music at Higher Level.36

Enhanced Art and Music Programmes
To provide more opportunities for artistically and musically inclined youths to develop their talent, the two-year EAP and EMP were introduced in 2011 at selected schools for secondary three and four students. The EAP was started at St Andrew’s Secondary School and CHIJ Katong Convent, and the EMP at Chung Cheng High School (Main).37 As at 2016, the EAP is offered in seven schools, while the EMP is offered in three schools.38

To enrol in the EAP or EMP, students have to be admitted into the schools offering these programmes. EAP students take either art or higher art as one of their subjects at the GCE O-Level examination, while the EMP students are expected to take music or higher music as an O-Level subject.39

Specialised arts institutions
Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts and LASALLE College of the Arts
The Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (NAFA) and LASALLE College of the Arts (LASALLE) are private tertiary education institutions that specialise in the arts.40

NAFA, the first art school in Singapore, was established in 1938 by Lim Hak Tai and a group of Chinese arts education enthusiasts.41 LASALLE, on the other hand, was founded in 1984 by the De La Salle brother, Joseph McNally.42

The two institutions offer a range of diploma and degree programmes in the arts, such as fine arts, design, music, dance and fashion. In addition, postgraduate programmes are offered by LASALLE.43 As proposed by the Advisory Council on Culture and the Arts, both LASALLE and NAFA have been receiving government funding for their fulltime diploma programmes since 1999.44

School of the Arts
Opened in 2008, the School of the Arts (SOTA) is Singapore’s first pre-tertiary specialised arts school.45 Before it was established, art and music electives were offered only at selected secondary schools and junior colleges. A primary objective of establishing SOTA was to fill the gap in specialised art education for teenagers.46

With most students between the ages of 13 and 18, SOTA offers a six-year programme that is equivalent to a mainstream secondary school and junior college education.47 SOTA’s curriculum, which comprises academic subjects and a multidisciplinary arts programme, places equal emphasis on both areas. Students either graduate with an IB diploma or IB career-related programme.48

Baharuddin Vocational Institute
With the industrialisation programme and expansion of the tourism sector during the 1960s, designers and craftsmen were expected to play a key role in the Singapore economy. In 1968, the Baharuddin Vocational Institute (BVI) was established by the government to provide training in manual and applied arts for those who were artistically inclined and at least 15 years old. Courses were offered in a range of areas such as advertising art and display, furniture design and production, souvenir handicraft and fashion.49

By the 1980s, the BVI was awarding diplomas in applied arts.50 The institute closed down in 1990 and its programmes were transferred to the Temasek Polytechnic.51

Universities and polytechnics
National University of Singapore
In 1955, an art museum was established at the University of Malaya (which later became the University of Singapore and then NUS) to complement the studies of art history students. In 1973, the museum was closed down due to a lack of student enrolment in the art history course.52

Within the university’s Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (FASS), a music department was set up in 1972 to offer music as a minor subject as well as extra-curricular courses such as music appreciation and theory of music.53 The music department was reorganised in 1979 as the Centre for Musical Activities (now known as the NUS Centre for the Arts) to focus on music extra-curricular activities.54 Then in 1992, Singapore’s first degree-conferring programme in theatre studies was introduced within the FASS.55

In 2003, the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music opened its doors to its inaugural batch of students.56 Established by NUS in partnership with the Johns Hopkins University’s Peabody Institute in the United States, it was the first music conservatory in Singapore.57 The conservatory currently offers a four-year, fulltime undergraduate music programme as well as a postgraduate programme in music.58

Nanyang Technological University
The School of Art, Design and Media was set up at the NTU in 2005.59 The school offers both undergraduate and postgraduate programmes for those who wish to pursue careers or upgrade themselves as artists, designers and filmmakers.60

By 2006, all five polytechnics in Singapore had introduced courses related to the arts, such as film courses at Ngee Ann Polytechnic, fashion design at Temasek Polytechnic, as well as media and design courses at Nanyang Polytechnic, Republic Polytechnic and Singapore Polytechnic.61

Singapore Youth Festival
Launched on 18 July 1967 by then President Yusof Ishak at the Jalan Besar Stadium, the Singapore Youth Festival (SYF) is an annual event that plays a key role in the development of the arts in Singapore schools. Declared a national event in 1994 by then Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong, its objectives include raising the standard of arts education in Singapore, promoting an arts culture in schools, and encouraging participation in co-curricular activities that involve the performing arts.62

In April each year, the SYF Arts Presentation is held to benchmark the standards of participating schools’ performing arts groups, which include the band, Chinese orchestra, instrumental ensembles, choir and dance. Schools that have performed well are showcased in the festival held in July. The month-long festival encompasses a series of events and activities, including arts performances, exhibitions and workshops.63 The festival’s participants range from primary school children to tertiary students.64

Schools offering AEP65
Bukit Panjang Government High School
CHIJ Secondary (Toa Payoh)
Nanyang Girls’ High School
Victoria School
Zhonghua Secondary School

Nanyang Junior College

Secondary and pre-university
Hwa Chong Institution
National Junior College

Schools offering MEP66
Catholic High School
CHIJ St Nicholas Girls’ School
Crescent Girls’ School
Methodist Girls’ School (Secondary)
Raffles Girls’ School (Secondary)
Tanjong Katong Girls’ School

Anglo-Chinese Junior College
Eunoia Junior College (from 2017)

Secondary and pre-university
Anglo-Chinese School (Independent)
Dunman High School
Raffles Institution
Temasek Junior College

Secondary schools offering EAP67
CHIJ Katong Convent
Nan Chiau High School
Naval Base Secondary School
Ngee Ann Secondary School
Orchid Park Secondary School
Siglap Secondary School
St Andrew’s Secondary School
Jurong West Secondary School (from 2017)
New Town Secondary School (from 2017)

Secondary schools offering EMP68
Ahmad Ibrahim Secondary School
Chung Cheng High School (Main)
St Margaret’s Secondary School
Yuhua Secondary School (from 2017)

Cheryl Sim