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Letter from Singapore: Shades of Orange

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 7 February: Authorities raised the nation’s Disease Outbreak Response System Condition (DORSCON) level from Yellow to Orange after more cases of unclear origins surfaced.

Our community place-making project in Lengkok Bahru, Seeing the Obvious, was supposed to launch on 15 February. This project is part of 3Pumpkins‘ research on arts and social development, which involves a 3-year arts residency in the neighbourhood. Our adventure in Lengkok Bahru began in March 2019, and Seeing the Obvious would have marked a milestone of spending one year with the community.

Throwback to March 2019, a time before social distancing: The Rubbish Prince performance in Lengkok Bahru, where residents were involved in the making of the props and setting up of the performance. Image credit: Ron Loh Photography.

After DORSCON Orange came into effect, our working partners, which included South Central Community Family Service Centre and Nanyang Polytechnic, had to pull out of any official engagement with the public. Despite this, we decided to push forward by tweaking the programme. Instead of a Bingo game format that was supposed to send people running all over the neighbourhood, we settled for small guided tours instead.

Engagement with neighbourhood children in Lengkok Bahru under the project Let’s GO PLay OutSIde!, in collaboration with South Central Family Service Centre, in July 2019. Image credit: 3Pumpkins.

14 February: The Ministry of Health (MOH) has confirmed and verified nine additional cases of COVID-19 infection in Singapore. Of these, six are linked to the cluster at Grace Assembly of God. This brings a total of thirteen confirmed cases linked to the Grace Assembly of God.

This was a day before the opening of Seeing the Obvious. In the afternoon, I was informed by a community worker that the pastor of Grace Assembly of God had visited the Senior Activity Centre in Lengkok Bahru for a birthday party a week ago. A total of 40 seniors were present. My heart sank when I heard the news. Immediately, we decided to cancel the weekend’s activities to prevent any potential community spread. On the day of the event, a few of us went around the neighbourhood to inform the children to stay vigilant. We caught a girl running around with a fever, and with the help of the community, we managed to inform her mother.

I did not cancel the events for the subsequent weekend, in the hopes that none of the seniors had been infected. During the week, I visited the local coffee shop to understand what was happening on the ground. 200 seniors from SilverAce Senior Activity Centre were all quarantined at home, and the staff from Family Service Centre were no longer allowed to go on house visits anymore, but ground-up organisations like Beyond Social Service were still trying their best to do the groundwork to reach out to families. I heard of the suicide of a senior who used to go to SilverAce daily for activities. This was about a week after the closure of the centre.

All this made me wonder: at such times, what can the artist do for the community?

Nanyang Polytechnic students visiting residents in Lengkok Bahru in preparation for community place-making project Seeing the Obvious, back in November 2019. Image credit: Shawn Yeo.

22 February

The week went by without any sharp spike in positive COVID-19 cases. We went ahead with the guided tours, producer’s sharing and artist talk by Isabelle Desjeux. The community was visibly disturbed by the suicide case, and there was a rumour going around that a spider spirit was roaming in the neighbourhood taking lives.

Collaboration with a neighbourhood business to co-share an exhibition / community / fruit store space, February 2020. Image credit: 3Pumpkins.

3 March

I continued conducting small guided tours in Lengkok Bahru to show visitors the works and to share the process of our social practice. This morning, the community told me that another suicide had taken place in the same block. It seemed obvious to me that social isolation was the cause of the consecutive suicides. I made an appeal on Facebook to ask if any friends in the arts would consider making work to engage seniors who are displaced with the closure of Recreational Centres. The post garnered overwhelming responses from artists.

At this time, I was already conceptualising with artist Jimmy Ong about how we could expand his ongoing Poverty Quilt project to engage the seniors in the neighbourhood meaningfully. Touched by the call for artists to be more socially engaged, Singapore International Foundation (SIF) stepped in subsequently with funding to support the project. For many years, SIF has been advocating social practice by organising the Arts for Good Fellowship. I have personally benefited from this fellowship, and learnt from many artists from around the world who are using their art and facilitation skills to journey with their communities.

Visitors on a guided tour for Seeing the Obvious in February 2020. Image credit: 3Pumpkins.

20 March: Ministry of Health announced the implementation of stricter safe distancing measures to reduce the risk of further local transmission of COVID-19. All events and gatherings with 250 or more participants must be suspended, and for those with fewer participants, event organisers must i) ensure separation of at least a metre between participants; ii) put in place temperature and health screening measures, and turning away persons who are unwell; and iii) put in place measures to facilitate contact tracing, such as obtaining contact details of participants.

We started another project in Lengkok Bahru called Let’s Go Read OutSide!, organised as part of #buysinglit. The project was to create a mobile library in the neighbourhood and to introduce the act of reading together to the children whom we have been engaging. There was some dilemma over whether we should continue, postpone, or cancel the event. Postponing the event was never a consideration for me as the situation seemed volatile, and indefinite postponement was not good for anyone. If we continued, we could still help watch over and talk to some kids who continued roaming around in the neighbourhood.

Sure enough, we discovered that the children knew very little about the situation with the virus. They had comments like, “I hate corona.” “What is a virus?” “I am so scared.” “Who is Wuhan?” We had some conversations about it, mainly to answer their questions – me guessing their fears and concerns from their body language, and voicing it out for them so that we could have a conversation. Interacting with them made me wonder how such conversations could possibly take place online. I felt that as much as we can, we should persist in very small scale or person-to-person engagement. Not everything can be done online.

Farez Najid reads to neighbourhood children at Let’s Go Read OutSide! Lengkok Bahru in February 2020.

24 March: Advisory from Ministry of Health: All events and mass gatherings (e.g. conferences, exhibitions, festivals, concerts, sporting events, trade fairs) must be deferred or cancelled, regardless of size. This is a tightening of the previous requirement where all events and gatherings were to be limited to fewer than 250 participants. Singaporeans are advised to avoid holding and participating in social events and gatherings involving more than 10 persons at any one time.

With the new advisory, we decided to cancel Let’s Go Read OutSide!, which had initially been planned to travel to Boon Lay, another neighbourhood where we are conducting similar research on arts and social development. Although we were disappointed, I knew other arts groups who faced even greater disappointment, as they were about to open shows on the very next day.

I felt that increasing lockdown was imminent with the second wave of infections hitting us much more severely than the first. We would have to forgo even one-to-one interactions and move our engagement online or by post. Poverty Quilt thus developed a new phase, Stay Home Quilt – Solidarity in Solitude, where we sent out DIY quilt packs by post and have people post their works online. We were still harbouring some hope of one-to-one engagement in Lengkok Bahru, especially to look out for people who were lost during such troubled times.

A few artists had come together to discuss what we could create online, for seniors and children. However, our hearts were heavily burdened by the fact that communities who do not have access to digital technology would be completely cut off from these engagements. How could we provide access to them at such times? Nevertheless, we had to focus on what we could do within our means.

The names of doctors who passed away in the fight against COVID-19, sewn by Jimmy Ong on quilt pieces originally from the work Poverty Quilt.

3 April: The Multi-Ministry Taskforce implements an elevated set of safe distancing measures, as a circuit breaker to pre-empt the trend of increasing local transmission of COVID-19. These heightened safe distancing measures will be in place for four weeks (i.e. two incubation cycles) from 7 April 2020 until 4 May 2020 (inclusive).

With the new measures in place, it was decided that 3Pumpkins had to stop all engagement involving physical interaction. I used the time that I had to organise and send out 300 art packs for children to bring home. These resources were distributed through the help of other ground-up organisations who were focusing on making sure that essential needs were met for lower-income families. At such times, I had to choose to focus on what I could do best while handling my own child at home too. I did not have the resources to continue with community engagement, but I could create content that could be useful to the community workers whom I had gotten to know, and the communities that they continued to engage.

In the meantime, a few of my theatre practitioner friends who had come together a week ago to think about creating content for the communities began uploading their work. We had to work individually at home now, so our initial ideas of putting a small film team together would not be possible in the coming one month or more. Li Xie recorded a list of essential services in Chinese, which was subsequently translated into Hokkien and Teochew. Jalyn Han began nightly Facebook Live segments meant to close the information gap in Chinese dialects. Farez Najid started a video for young children, which inspired Suhaili Safari to do the same.

It seems that as an arts producer and community organiser, the work that I can do now is to keep encouraging artists to create work and to build new communities online. My engagements with the community before the lockdown have now become memories that would keep informing the work that we create: the old ladies who felt bad that they did not help someone who fell down in the market, the coffee shop assistants who spent half the day figuring out how to tape the tables and chairs to create safe distancing measures, the children who ran around playing catching and shouting “I am the coronavirus, come and catch me!”

This is all very new to us, and we are learning every day.

Looking forward to the day that we can gather once again. Image credit: Ron Loh Photography.

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3Pumpkins is a non-profit arts company which believes in creating inclusive arts-based platforms that connect and build positive relationships, working towards the goal of community development and social sustainability for the benefit of children and youth. Since the onset of COVID-19, they have been working to adapt and devise new means of engagement to meet the needs of the communities that they work with.

We are one of only a handful of independent art publications covering Southeast Asian modern and contemporary art. If you like what we do, please support us on Patreon, or get in touch about other ways to contribute towards keeping us going.