Education, Life, Music

WOW! The Arts Are Essentially Non-Essential?!

WOW! Hear hear! The Arts Are Essentially Non-Essential?!

Intellectually, I understand the survey simply brought to the fore, typical Singaporean culture and psyche. After all, we’ve come so far together (economically) because of a heady mix of ingredients – big doses of pragmatism, utilitarianism, legalism with a pinch of elitism. Nothing wrong there and I’m really not anti-establishment. I’ve travelled extensively for artistic work overseas and with each new city and culture I encounter, I’m ever more grateful to be born in Singapore. My observation is that in general, local Artists do lead a far more comfortable and stable life as compared to some of our counterparts overseas. Thank you very much.

Emotionally however, it did hurt to have my calling and my profession (one I take great pride in), be labeled as ‘non-essential’. It is an uncomfortable proposition, however seemingly logical the non-essential label may be. Artist colleagues from across disciplines, were similarly and understandably outraged and/or upset.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (Source:

A pragmatist can hardly dispute Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs as a (rough) guide to the determination of one’s well-being and happiness. Indeed, in the face of a global pandemic, the Arts and Artists can be seen as non-essential for one’s physical survival. But it is the Arts and the Artists i.e. the thinkers, the philosophers, the poets, the dancers, the actors, the musicians etc. i.e. the creatives who define who we are, what we are as a species… Artists who are often the conscience of society and perhaps best illustrate whether we are sentient beings who are truly living and are hopefully beyond just base instincts.

I shall not dispute the veracity of the survey since that’s not the main point of this piece. But the article and infographic really does come across as being a tad offensive and certainly in poor taste. Perhaps the writers, editors and powers-that-be who are involved in this little Sunday Times article might’ve done better if they had been a little more involved in the Arts – e.g. read Shakespeare, participated in drama, and learnt to empathise, step into another person’s skin before committing to these graphics and words on a national newspaper. Was the “Top 5 Non-essential jobs” really, absolutely essential to conveying your intended message?


For those of you who agreed with the article and/or contributed to the statistics, you may perhaps want a rethink of what and who helped you get through the pandemic – the animators of cartoons that helped babysit the kids for you to provide some peace whilst working from home; the composer and musicians who made the music that brought you comfort in times of grief and/or energy whilst working out; the writers, actors, directors and other creatives that power Netflix. Send a prayer and a thought of gratitude to Artists because it is this bunch of people who provides the intangible, spiritual nourishment and comfort in times of crisis.

Perhaps the Arts are non-essential for survival, but they are certainly essential in defining who we are, what we are as a nation, hopefully teach us how to be kinder and to move forward together as a species, homo sapiens made up of the same cosmic star dust…

Albert Tay, Composer-Conductor Educator.

P.S. “The arts are essen­tial to any com­plete national life. The State owes it to itself to sus­tain and encour­age them…Ill fares the race which fails to salute the arts with the rev­er­ence and delight which are their due.” – Winston Churchill, April 30, 1953 Royal Academy Banquet.