Ex-NMP still champions arts

Janice Koh had to give up major roles to sit in Parliament during her term.

Actress Janice Koh may have taken her curtain call in Parliament earlier this month, but the former Nominated MP for the arts is far from leaving the stage.

The 40-year-old, who has cemented her reputation as a tireless advocate of the arts and creative industries, spoke to Life! last week in an exclusive interview taking stock of her 2 1/2 years in Parliament and what lies ahead.

She hopes to continue to be a champion of the arts, saying: "A lot of people say, 'Now that the work has ended, you're a lot more free, right?' I have a little more free time now, but the work hasn't ended. The advocacy has to continue, in fact, all the more."

She succeeded arts administrator Audrey Wong as the second Arts Nominated MP in February 2012.

During her term in Parliament, Koh fuelled hearty public debate on several issues. For instance, English Literature in schools took the spotlight when one of her questions revealed that there are about 3,000 students taking Literature as an O-level subject today, down from 16,970 in 1992.

She was especially vocal on the issues of censorship and regulation and this seems to have borne fruit by way of the Media Development Authority's decision to drop Arts Term Licensing - a controversial arts self-classification scheme she helped lead the charge against - from its proposed amendments to the Public Entertainments and Meetings Act.

All the same, Koh was careful not to favour her own field of theatre over the needs of other arts sectors and instead took a diverse and current approach in her speeches as well as the questions she fielded in Parliament.

Members of the arts community that Life! spoke to gave her a glowing report card.

Arts educator and Cultural Medallion recipient T. Sasitharan, 57, dubbed her an "exemplary" MP and a "wonderful representative" of the community.

"She put in place a system that was open and allowed people to approach her," he said. "Given the time, not every cause could be represented, but I think the causes that she chose were her own, and she had every right to do that."

Danny Loong, 42, co-founder of the Timbre Group and a council member for the non-profit Singapore Music Society, feels that she helped to inspire unity among practitioners so that the industry could push for improvement collectively.

He says: "She will be sorely missed. I found her very involved. She actively met us and asked us what she could do for us."

Theatre director Nelson Chia, 42, co-founder of Nine Years Theatre, says that while Koh was prominent in the theatre industry, he appreciated the time she invested in understanding the challenges in the other sectors: "She brought us into conversation with other artists, and through her work in Parliament, I got a chance to look at the arts community from a larger perspective."

Koh's thinking seems to have been in tandem with those of policymakers. She brought up the maintenance of public art shortly before the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth (MCCY) announced its $10-million Public Art Trust and spoke up on the need for diverse fund-raising and grant models just prior to the announcement of the $200-million Cultural Matching Fund, which will see the Government matching donations to non-profit arts groups dollar for dollar.

Koh also voiced her concerns over other issues, such as the Public Order Bill after the riot in Little India last December, and did not endorse the Population White Paper when it was debated in February last year. Her parliamentary question on the effect of tuition and "shadow education" on social mobility also spurred debate on Singapore's education system.

In addition to her role as NMP, she also spearheaded an Our Singapore Conversation on the arts and culture, sat on the review committee that made suggestions to revamp the Singapore Arts Festival (now the Singapore International Festival of the Arts), and was also an ambassador for the annual gay rights rally Pink Dot.

She tells Life! that all these did not come without sacrifices - she had to give up roles in major television series and an international production because it clashed with the Budget debate.

But while her list of achievements stacks up impressively, Koh wishes that she had made at least one speech in Mandarin. "Not for its own sake, but because I think it's important to reach out to another audience," she says.

It is one of the reasons she felt that Kok Heng Leun, artistic director of bilingual theatre company Drama Box, who failed in his bid for Arts NMP, would have been an ideal candidate - his ability to connect with the Chinese-speaking public. While the recent revelation that the arts sector would not have an NMP to succeed her sent waves of disappointment through the industry, Koh remains cautiously optimistic.

She says: "I like to think that, eventually, we won't need an Arts NMP in the House and that every MP will think it important enough to raise cultural issues related to arts, media and heritage.

"When cultural progress, and not just economic progress, becomes important to all Singaporeans, that's when we will see it reflected in the debates we have in the House. Culture and the arts should not be a specialist, niche area that affects only a small group of people."

Some members of the arts community have suggested coming together to form an advocacy group for arts and culture. Koh feels that this is crucial: "The creative community... can't just come together in a crisis, which is what tends to happen in the arts. How can we advocate for long-term change and engage with the Government and the public, in a sustainable manner?"

The mother of two, who is married to Singapore Tourism Board chief Lionel Yeo, will continue to serve on several arts boards, including theatre company Wild Rice and the Singapore International Film Festival.

For now, before her next show with Pangdemonium - a dark psychological drama titled Frozen - opens in October, she is happy to spend more time with her sons, who are in primary school.

She says with a laugh: "I think my kids have seen a lot less of me, but maybe it's a good thing. In the last two years, they've had to be a lot more independent because they haven't had someone there supervising their homework. I think they are now afraid that they'll be experiencing the complete opposite."


This article was first published on August 26, 2014.
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