Story by Justin Ong, Opinion Editor | Illustration by Roger Ko

I walk into a relative’s house, two mandarin oranges in hand. I pass them to an old uncle, twice removed. We smile at each other, and I utter a non-committal Chinese idiom bestowing longevity and good fortune. My Chinese was never that good.

“You just started university right? Where are you studying now?” The conversation begins.

“I’m studying at Yale-NUS College,” I announce. I know what’s coming up.

“What school is that? Is it medicine? Or wait… law?” Bingo.

“I think you’re referring to Duke-NUS. In Yale-NUS we study liberal arts.” He gives me a nonplussed look. Oh man. Now I’m in trouble.

“What’s… liberal arts?” Exactly the question you’d expect.

In Singapore, the prospect of pursuing an Arts degree alone is daunting enough to raise a few eyebrows over friendly conversation. Add in the term liberal and some tough questions begin to surface.

To my left and right were my other cousins, in other university courses such as business, science, and even law. They had no problems explaining to their relatives what these courses were all about. There were pats on their shoulders, familiar stock phrases like “all the best” and smiles tapered onto their faces. They were smiles ready to face the world and conquer it.

My relative turns to me again. “Well, at least you enjoy what you do.” At least? What did you mean by “at least”? And why didn’t you tell my cousin that “at least he enjoyed doing law”? What is this, some consolation prize? I strained to smile.

One year has passed since then. I have travelled the world, matriculated at this awesome institution, made a bunch of friends and learnt about things beyond my wildest imagination. I think I know now, what to say during this Chinese New Year.

I’ve learnt firstly, that a liberal arts education doesn’t close you off to career options. It’s very easy to look at an arts course and think that the skillsets acquired will have graduates drawing dead, but that is far from the truth. Through my time what I have learnt has ranged from the critical analysis of social behavior to the tabulation of statistics, from the evolution of species to the rhyme scheme of a poem. It has challenged me in various ways and pushed me beyond my comfort zone. And that’s just the start.

One of the most important things I’ve learnt is to never be afraid of change. The learning curve here is steep, with the curriculum constantly evolving, and the textbooks and readings switching hands at least once a week. Sure, this may seem daunting to some, but to me it means wider exposure. It was amidst this mess that brilliance happened, almost by accident. I had to negotiate, invent and improvise. Like it or not, the world is going to be like this, changing in ways we would hardly expect. I want to be able to see these changes, question them, and make my own impact as well. Besides, life doesn’t give you a syllabus sheet.

But most of all, being in this college has bolstered my confidence in the arts scene in Singapore. Art, and the desire to pursue it, is alive and well. The students here don’t just write essays; they are aspiring filmmakers, painters, cartoonists, actors, playwrights, dancers and everything else in between. They pursue art not for the sake of it, but with a fierce passion and resounding vision. It may not be easy to imagine this ambitious crew of critical thinkers and aspiring artists to be a keen prospect for the future, but I have watched them perform, flourish and even collaborated with them. I have faith that this will amount to something great in the future, although I don’t expect my relatives to think that way.

All I ask is for them to respect the choices that I’ve made, the conviction to expand my horizons and take a leap towards something less certain but potentially groundbreaking. I’ve pledged to be active in changing negative mindsets and challenging age old systems, and I will continue doing so no matter how small my voice may be. After all, it is precisely the reticence and cynicism towards the arts in Singapore that keeps us from being heard, rather than the abilities of the artists themselves. But no matter. I have faith that one day, this will change.

Yes, that is what I will say.

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