Sunday, June 14, 2020

Brutal truths about the Arts and Humanities.

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In a recent poll, 71% of Singaporeans rated Artists as non-essential services. This triggered a large majority of folks on social media and there was much gnashing of teeth. Interestingly, we are not seeing the same amount of unhappiness from telemarketers, social media specialists and business consultants.

For a start, let me just say that my job as an investment trainer is also a non-essential one.

I can sense where the unhappiness comes from, and it is not targetted at artists per se, I think we have been discounting social scientists, humanities scholars and performance artists for the past 50 years. Folks who identify with the Arts go through the process in Sec 3 where the so-called "smarter kids" get shunted into the science stream, leaving the rest for the horrifically named Sub-Science and Arts streams. Then on Chinese New Year, they have to keep defending their career and academic decisions from nosy relatives.

This is the kind of pain that they have been feeling for a long time.

( NB: FASS employment numbers are fine before the COVID-19 crisis, but I am eagerly looking forward to ranking degrees again in 2020 )

Another problem is that our artists and liberals have waged a cultural war against the conservative majority for a very long time. I do not know why our artists and performer are unable to scale and seem to be stuck with performances that involve mostly cross-dressing and wordplay. In this sense, our friends in the performance arts can learn from Hokkien singer Wang Lei - To attract a 60,000 crowd and sell loads of fish, all Wang Lei has to do is to swear a lot in Hokkien, making his career pivot the most inspiring one this COVID season. 

( Go watch Wang Lei! You'll thank me for this! )

Making matters worse is something I predicted 4 years ago.

The last bastion of high-paying jobs for folks who self identify as artistic or humanities types is legal-work and lawyers are facing disruption from AI. My prediction is that when lawyer salaries begin to drop, there will be no safe harbour for humanities-leaning scholars, and this will trigger a lot more micro-aggressions against folks who identify with a passion for humanities, arts or culture. To be fair lawyers, due to their arrogance from years of having high financial, social and cultural capital, have themselves to blame.

The crux of the matter is not that the Arts is non-essential, but the problem is that too much of humanity enjoys the humanities. When given a career choice where the money is not an issue, it is very human to want to flex your creativity and make stuff that brings us joy. But the rest of society does not work that way and, right now, we prefer software programmers - a job that even top computer science graduates do not like to do because it require thinking in a non-human and autistic way. On the other hand, every middle-class parent wants to produce a lawyer, and don't mind sending their precious ejaculate to study for some overseas Law degree when there is no legal practice training stints left in this country. So over time, every modern society has an excess of humanities scholars and people in the creative arts and we don't know what to do with them.

I think we will value the arts and humanities more if we control the number of academics and limit it to the small elite circles that can fit into areas where there is industrial demand. While we are at it, it's also time to demolish the academic tenure system.

At the end of the day, it's still better if policy-maker know a bit more about human beings when enacting new policies.

Finally, while I personally will not make a decision to join the Arts, we will all be better off if we can add a little bit of artistic flair in our work. Investment training is a form of performance and some rhetorical flair will make it easier to follow some investment concepts. A lot of successful speakers like Simon Sinek who can command ridiculous fees when speaking to Silicon Valley have a humanities background. I'm sure every programmer will find a little bit of knowledge in UI helpful in their career.

Maybe it's because of my exposure to D&D, I see a need for a balanced party when going out on adventures.  So despite my very tech and numbers approach to major areas in my life, I work very well with my humanities-leaning friends because they have a lot to teach me and I can complement them using the skills I have.

If you are an engineer and tend to lean on the practical side of things, spend some time listening to what humanities and artistic folks have to say. It may not gel with your world-view, but if you grapple with these alien ideas, I would say that you can potentially build a world-class product or launch a unique service that can a make a huge dent in this world.


  1. Yep, arts is something you do as a hobby, and you have a chance to make a living from it later if you are good and lucky.

    Maybe a bit like investment....though the chance is a lot higher.

  2. Famous example of blending IT, engineering, arts & marketing would be Steve Jobs & his chief designer Jony Ive. Ive has gone from designing iphones & iOS UI to becoming chancellor of the London royal college of arts!?!

  3. Hi Chris, your post is extremely timely. Do check out the below article that was also published yesterday (the same day as your article) by TODAY online featuring a fresh humanities graduate who took up a job as a prime mover driver:

  4. >I do not know why our artists and performer are unable to scale and seem to be stuck with performances that involve mostly cross-dressing and wordplay.

    rant ahead:

    I don't partake in what passes for local cultural performances, but I am forced to watch local Chinese language channel TV during dinner. Unfortunately, local TV shows also get aired during that time. I'm not going to name names but the cultural level of the show hosts / comedians is clear audible. Call me a snob, but it seems like it targets the lowest denominator of society and that's it. Sure, you get that in virtually all societies out there, but where the "atas" part to balance it out? Look at the popular TV shows and movies in other parts of the world. You get a mix of pop culture, but you also get some interesting ones and even some gems.
    Compare that to local produce that is popular here. *cough* Jack Neo *cough*

    Being "high SES" in the cultural sense (monetary sense wise is difficult for me) is like mortal sin in Singapore. Middle class (defined by wages) with high cultural capital have to "hide it" to prevent being seen as snobbish. Being able to speak proper English (and Mandarin!) is a sign of someone being "high SES" and thus seen as culturally distinct. Instead, being a "heartlander" is a badge of pride. If people do not aspire to higher levels of culture, it won't happen.

  5. I don't totally agree with your position. In sociological studies in the snobbiest US schools like St Pauls, cultural capital of the highest order come from ease. Ease is the ability to code-switch between high SES culture like opera to low brow entertainment like Facebook product sales conducted in Hokkien.

    The good news is that you are already quite comfortable with high-culture, so you may need to cherry-pick on what heart-landers enjoy. ( Tried Wang Lei yet ? )

    When you see ACS boys working so hard in refining their Singlish, they are actually following the script of their high SES programming. The ACS guys who get caricatured are never the fun dudes that spout hokkien vulgarities to fit in, but the culture-vultures who seem overly Bohemian and Bourgeois and never fit into mainstream society.