NMP Audrey Wong calls for Arts Groups to dialogue with her

Letter reposted from Arts Community Yahoo Group, sent to list on July 19, 2009:

Dear all,

Tomorrow I will be taking my oath of allegiance in Parliament alongside the 8 other NMPs recently appointed. We received our instruments of appointment from the President on Thursday. As I start this new journey, I feel duty-bound to write this email to all of you, to share with you my thoughts on the NMP appointment, my aspirations, and most importantly perhaps, my ‘position’ as a citizen on various issues and my values. 

I apologise that I haven’t written to you earlier – I was away and in the past 10 days, I’ve been busy with media calls, filling in the forms for Parliament, attending the NMPs’ briefing, responding to friends, colleagues, artists, familiy members who sent me good wishes, and catching up with work at The Substation.

Firstly I would like to note that what we have done in the past couple of months – proposing an NMP from the arts community – is unprecedented. Because I was ‘voted’ by you, I am also in the unprecedented and unofficial position of an NMP who has something of a ‘constituency’ , that is, the arts and creative communities. (I would include the creative communities such as designers and filmmakers in this group, as some of you identify yourselves with these groups more than with visual artists or theatre artists). The journey ahead is somewhat unknown, for me as well as the arts community. How we act as a group, and we act in tandem (and whether there may be times when we might disagree) is something that will emerge as the months pass. 

So, to prepare ourselves for the new journey, I would like to share with you my particular interests, the causes and areas that I may bring up in Parliament. It is clear that I cannot only be speaking on arts issues, but have to contribute for the benefit of Singaporeans as a whole. The areas that I feel strongly about include: education – for instance, language standards among students and the situation of young foreign students who are in Singapore without their families; issues facing the elderly such as rising health care costs and the provision of homecare and trained professionals in elderly care; the injustices and abuses faced by foreign workers; problems and challenges in the charity sector; the media (particularly the quality and standard of local TV and the newspapers); the environment; the preservation of our natural and built heritage. Also, from a broader perspective, I am concerned about the rising income gap in Singapore, the rising costs of living, and the importance of maintaining social and cultural diversity as well as managing the diversity of cultural norms, customs, religions, and political views. 

Fundamentally, my socio-political views have their root in a desire for social justice and equality for all. I was brought up a Catholic, and my core belief has been to live as meaningful a life as possible, and to try to improve the world where I can. Those of you who’ve worked with me for years may not even know my religion, and I haven’t pushed it – I’ve always joked that The Substation is ‘non-denominational ‘ and there is equal place for all religions there.

In the arts, there are a slew of issues that I’m sure we all want to tackle, ranging from more funding for the arts and more transparency in the funding bodies’ (NAC) grant-making decisions, more space for the expression of ‘alternative’ views in the arts, censorship, more co-ordination between MICA’s different agencies in the implementation of cultural policy, and so on. What can I do as an NMP? Most concretely, I think, is the raising of Questions during Question Time in Parliament. The first hour-and-a-half of each Parliament sitting is devoted to Ministers answering the various MPs’ questions. These questions have to be tabled beforehand and submitted well in advance of the sitting. Not all questions can be answered during the sitting, due to time constraints, and some are converted into written questions. (To see samples, please check Hansard). 

Members of Parliament and NMPs can also put forward Motions and propose Bills, but it is rare for NMPs to do so: to date, the only NMP to have proposed a Bill was Prof Walter Woon, while NMPs Prof Thio Li-Ann and Dr Loo Choon Yong proposed a Motion to amend the law on by-elections last year. 

Obviously, I cannot be submitting questions on everything under the sun or every grouse that each of us might have. I will have to exercise my own judgement on the most urgent matters to be raised, and how these can be phrased into suitable Questions – and these are likely to be questions which would have a wide impact on the arts or society. Other issues or questions which might surface from the arts community which I can’t table in Parliament, I will seek to address in other ways, eg. through asking or directing the question to the relevant government ministries. And in some areas that perhaps more discussion and work is needed, I might ask for a Town Hall meeting of the arts community in order to further the work.

Which brings me to the mechanisms of how the arts community supports the NMP’s work. I am still in the very early stages of learning the ropes, the rules and regulations, and am still not sure of the amount of work that the role entails. I am likely to hire a researcher (or two). Members of the arts community have also offered help and support, for which I am extremely grateful and appreciative! Of course, we all know that Robin Loon has offered his two days of service. I’m planning to consult former NMPs on the workload and research required, and will get back to this group about how the offers of help will be ‘activated’. However, one mechanism that I’m planning to have, is a group of Resource Persons with different specialisations, who will be the people I shoot emails to when issues crop up, asking for feedback and advice. I have already started to approach resource persons, so some of you will definitely be contacted very soon! 

The second mechanism I would like to have, are regular (perhaps monthly) meetings with specific arts interest groups, eg. visual artists, designers, independent arts practitioners, established arts groups, gallery owners, filmmakers, etc. On top of these are the Town Hall meetings which will bring larger groups together on discussions of bigger issues. And perhaps out of these meetings, other working groups could be formed by interested practitioners, eg. a group might decide they want to further investigate issues around NAC’s arts housing scheme, for instance.

And in the coming week, I will be starting my research on the ‘ground’ and on current policy. I plan to ask NAC and certain departments of MICA for meetings; and I also hope to meet the arts colleges to better understand their situation. I also see some immediate questions coming up … such as the status of an ‘unclassifiable’ film, which a filmmaker has recently experienced, and will do some research into it.

Finally, there is likely to be some change in my role at The Substation too, as my existing job at The Substation entails a rather heavy workload and it would be impractical for me to continue with this and still pay attention to the NMP job. I am currently in discussion with the board of The Substation and my colleagues on a different role, and of course everyone will be kept updated on our eventual decision. However, I will remain at The Substation. 

I’ll soon start meeting with the different communities in the arts, and so – expect the emails! In the meantime, if you have views, policy suggestions, concerns, etc, please email me. 

I hope that the entire Arts NMP process signals the start of the building of a new community – or communities- and a new stage of maturity in the arts and cultural sector.

Thank you all for your support in the process, and – it’s only just starting! 

I would also like to thank the former NMPs, the ‘core group’ who initiated the ArtsNMP move, and friends in the arts who have been so generous with their time, advice, and support.

My best,

Audrey Wong

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