By Professor Tommy Koh: The disabled and the arts in Singapore

May 27, 2021

My interest in connecting the disabled and the arts was inspired by three artists I admire: a musician, a painter and a poet. They convinced me that disability does not mean no ability. They showed me that a disabled person could still be a world-class artist. The human spirit is indomitable.

Ludwig van Beethoven is one of the world's greatest composers. Born in Germany in 1770, he died in 1827, at the age of 56. When Beethoven was 45, he began to lose his hearing. He was completely deaf when he composed his magnum opus, the Ninth Symphony. At its premiere in Vienna in 1824, Beethoven stood next to the conductor Michael Umlauf. When the symphony ended, Beethoven couldn't hear the applause until he turned around to face the audience.

Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh is one of the world's most admired artists. He was born in 1853 and died in 1890, at the age of 37. He produced about 900 paintings in his lifetime but sold only a few of them. He painted his most famous work, Starry Night, when he was staying in a mental hospital. Van Gogh suffered from mental illness all his life. After a quarrel with his friend and fellow painter Paul Gauguin, he cut off a lobe of his ear. In 1890, he committed suicide.

The English poet, John Milton, was born in 1608 and died in 1674, at the age of 65. In 1652, he became blind. The precise cause of his blindness was unknown. However, his blindness didn't stop him from writing. In 1667, Milton published his magnum opus, Paradise Lost. The epic poem, in blank verse, consists of 10 books, with more than 10,000 lines of verse. The poem is about the biblical story of the Fall of Man, and is considered one of the great poems of the English language.


Talented home-grown disabled artists

Singapore, too, has produced several very talented artists with disabilities living extraordinary lives. I shall refer briefly to pianist Azariah Tan, writer Tan Guan Heng, visual artists Chng Seok Tin, Victor Tan and Raymond Lau, and actor Timothy Lee.

Azariah Tan
I have often called Dr Azariah Tan, 30, Singapore's Beethoven. He has lost about 85 per cent of his hearing and will gradually become deaf. But his disability has not prevented him from becoming an exceptionally accomplished pianist, and he has inspired audiences around the world. He graduated from the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music at the National University of Singapore, and has a doctoral degree in music from the University of Michigan. He has won the first prize at several national and international competitions, and he was one of the four winners of the Goh Chok Tong Enable Award last year.

Tan Guan Heng
Tan Guan Heng, 84, is a gifted writer. He became blind at 29 because of an accident while playing hockey. He has written four books - two novels and two non-fiction books. His novel, My Love Is Blind, has been made into a musical. His third book is entitled 100 Inspiring Rafflesians, and his fourth, Pioneering Disabled And The Able, was launched in 2015. He was one of the winners of the inaugural Goh Chok Tong Enable Award in 2019.

Chng Seok Tin
Chng Seok Tin became blind at 33 after surgery to remove a brain abscess. She was a multi-talented artist: painter, sculptor, print maker, mixed-media artist, writer and songwriter. She was awarded the Cultural Medallion in 2005, and named Her World Woman of the Year 2001. She was a champion of Singapore's Very Special Arts (VSA) non-governmental organisation (NGO). She died of cancer in 2019 when she was 72. Her works are currently on display at the National Gallery Singapore, in a group show of six post-independence artists.

Victor Tan
Victor Tan, 52, is one of Singapore's finest sculptors. He creates works of imagination and beauty with steel wires. When I first saw his works at an exhibition, I could not believe that the sculptor was blind. One of my favourite sculptures by Victor is that of a father and son, on display near the Sun Garden of the Singapore Botanic Gardens.

Raymond Lau Poo Seng
Raymond Lau, 53, was affiicted with Tourette syndrome at the age of seven. He has learnt to live with the neurological disorder which results in sudden, involuntary movements and utterances. Born into a humble family, Raymond was talent-spotted by Brother Joseph McNally, who invited him to study at the LaSalle College of the Arts. In 2001, he won the Young Artist Award conferred by the National Arts Council. He is a successful painter with a following of collectors. He also teaches other disabled artists at VSA Singapore.

Timothy Lee
Timothy Lee, 21, is an actor with Down syndrome. He is currently acting as "Handsome" in the long-running television show Kin. His good performance is an inspiration to others born with the same condition. I hope our doctors will reconsider the advice they used to give to pregnant mothers to abort such foetuses. Timothy also won the Goh Chok Tong Enable Award in 2019.


Connecting the disabled community and the arts

In 1991, the Singapore Government asked me to set up the National Arts Council (NAC) and serve as its first chairman. I was a happy and active chairman. However, there was one area that I felt it overlooked - bringing arts to our disabled community.

In 1993, I decided to plug that gap by setting up an NGO to connect the disabled community and the arts. My American friends came to know about my intention, and persuaded me to set up the NGO as an affiliate of America's VSA organisation, established by former president John F. Kennedy's sister Jean Kennedy Smith in 1974.

The mission of the VSA was "to provide people of all ages, living with disabilities, the opportunity to learn through participation in and enjoy the arts". The American NGO has affiliates in 52 countries, which pay it an annual fee. 

In 2011, VSA became a department of the Kennedy Centre for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC. Since then, VSA has become more domestically focused and less interested in its global affiliates. In view of this development, we have decided to cut our link to the Americans and rebrand ourselves. We will take the lead to form an Asean network of similar organisations.

I had five objectives in founding our own VSA. First, to provide an education in the arts to the disabled, especially the children. Second, to use the arts as a form of therapy for the disabled. Third, to enable our disabled citizens to find joy and self­ fulfilment through the arts. Fourth, to showcase the talents of our disabled citizens to the public. Fifth, to help the exceptionally talented to make a living as artists.


Arts education and showcasing young talents

VSA provides classes in art, music, dance and theatre. It conducts art classes for children and adults in painting and pottery, and offers classes in music, with a focus on the cajon, ukulele, piano, violin and singing, as well as different genres of dance. The NGO has benefited from collaboration with the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts in visual art, dance company Raw Moves in dance, The Jazz Association (Singapore) in jazz and various partners in theatre.

To encourage our students and to showcase their talents to the public, VSA has organised exhibitions and concerts. Every year, it organises an art competition for children and youth with disabilities. The winning entries are exhibited in one of our shopping malls. VSA also organises an annual art exhibition at which the artworks are for sale. It also holds an annual concert by people with disabilities, called Welcome to My World. The concerts are inspiring events, featuring dancers who are deaf, musicians and singers who are blind, and actors and dancers with Down syndrome. Anyone who has attended one of the concerts would have been moved by the  talents on display and discarded whatever prejudice he might have had against the disabled.


VSA's significant milestones

VSA was founded in 1993. In 1995, it was incorporated as a company limited by guarantee. It has  been conferred  the status of an  institution of public character. In 2001, VSA moved to its current premises - a Housing Board void deck - in Bedok. With the financial help of the Lee Foundation, the renovated premises house our administrative office and classrooms for art. In 2011, with the help of the NAC, it opened a second venue at the Changi City Point shopping mall, which was made available to us for free by Frasers Centrepoint. The space includes an art gallery, a dance studio and rooms for music classes.

In 2018, VSA celebrated its 25th anniversary by organising a four-day festival of arts for persons of disabilities, called True Colours. The festival had the support of Unesco and the Nippon Foundation. The concert at the Indoor Stadium was graced by President Halimah Yacob, and featured super-talented artistes from around the world. The festival also included an international  conference on the  arts and disability. In 2019, VSA contributed to Singapore's celebration of the bicentennial, through the making of four murals in different locations in Singapore. Last year, VSA, with the financial support of Maybank, opened a gallery to display and sell the  works of disabled artists at Changi City Point. 

VSA Singapore turns 28 in September this year. Has it lived up to my expectations when I founded it in 1993? I think it has brought joy, dignity and empowerment to many persons with disabilities.

In the field of the arts, I am impressed by the formation of the Purple Symphony, an orchestra of over 100 disabled and able musicians. The orchestra was founded by MP Denise Phua, a champion of the disabled in Singapore. There are other ground-up initiatives, such as the Inclusive Arts Movement, started by Ron Tan, 29, a deaf pianist.


Public opinion towards the disabled still sub-optimal

The situation in Singapore for the disabled has improved a great deal in the last 30 years. The Singapore Government acceded to the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2013. From 2019, compulsory education has been extended to children with moderate to severe special needs. 

Two disabled persons, lawyer Chia Yong Yong, 59, who has peroneal muscular atrophy, an inherited neurological disorder, and Yip Pin Xiu, 29, a gold medalist Paralympian swimmer, have been appointed as Nominated Members of Parliament.

However, the employment of the  disabled is still challenging despite the many incentives offered by the Government. I was Chng Seok Tin's referee when she applied for a teaching position with one of our tertiary institutions. When the employer  found out that she was blind, she was not granted an interview.

Public opinion towards the disabled has improved but is still sub-optimal. This is another area in which Singaporeans do not behave like the citizens of other First World countries. Recently, two of my good friends asked me to help their talented son, an architect based abroad, to find a job in Singapore. He uses a wheelchair to get around. I wrote to several government  agencies and five of our top architectural  firms to ask if they would like to interview him. I received only one reply from an architectural firm, which hired him and renovated its office to accommodate his wheelchair.

I can empathise with why many of our disabled citizens feel like second-class citizens. My ambition is to help level the playing field for them. My dream is that, one day, all our disabled citizens will feel like first-class citizens.

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