On 14 June, the Sunday Times published a set of three articles and an infographic about “essential workers” in Singapore. The headline read - 8 in 10 Singaporeans willing to pay more for essential services, however, there was more to the article. Milieu, a market research company, provided the data for the survey and helped in its execution. The survey became contentious because it placed artists as top non-essential jobs currently. It hurt some artists’ sentiments as they claimed that consumption of art is one of the only things keeping people entertained during the lockdown. It also opened up the debate of how society has always undermined the Arts.
Artists on the ‘non-essential’ tag
Many artists have expressed their disappointment with the survey on social media. Singapore comedian Rishi Budhrani posted a picture on Instagram. The picture asked people to delete Netflix, Cancel Spotify, Sell all your TVs and the list went on. The main purpose of it was that art has been essential in living through a lockdown. And without it, we’d be bored out of our minds.
Another artist posted a picture of the data infographic but with shabby stick-figures instead of cartoonist representations. The point that Wong Yong En was trying to make was the infographic itself couldn’t exist without digital artists. However, this was a humorous response and not an actual outrage. As he mentioned in his post, “hello I did not expect my little joke to blow up like this.”He also urged his fans to donate to support essential workers, “Please donate to The Courage Fund at Comm Chest, or any other organisation that moves you.”
The Survey was actually about underpaid essential workers!
A UK-based Singaporean playwright Joel Tan called the reactions to the survey as “a very disturbing and un-self-aware fever pitch.” He writes, “If a case was being made, it was for raising the income of historically exploited and underpaid workers. I know for many of you it's no longer about the article, but as Cui has pointed out, it's very disturbing that the article and by extension, these underpaid exploited workers, have since been eclipsed by this bourgeois outrage.” He isn’t wrong. Today online’s report shows that employers still underpay essential workers in Singapore. He also talks about the alienation that essential workers feel from their work. Whereas, artists can enjoy indulging their ego through their work.
The company that conducted survey clears out controversy
In response to the controversy, Milieu released insights on how they conducted the research. They did this to clarify the meaning of the results. Mainly, the ones regarding artists as non-essential workers during a crisis. They wrote on their website, “Most of the questions in the survey addressed current perceptions and attitudes toward low-wage essential workers in Singapore, such as cleaners or security guards, and whether there is support for paying them more.”
But clearly the focus has shifted to the data on essential and non-essential workers. Also, before asking the questions, the researchers provided them a definition of ‘essential workers’. Milieu explained, “By ‘essential workers’ we mean someone who is engaged in work deemed necessary to meet basic needs of human survival and well-being, such as food, health, safety, and cleaning.” The company states that this definition may have caused the respondents do not consider art as a basic need. Hence, the people thought of it as non-essential. This does not imply that creative arts are unimportant to Singaporeans, as Prime Minister of Singapore said, “Man does not live by bread alone.” This was during the 30th anniversary of Lasalle College of the Arts where he emphasised the role of art and culture in Singapore.