A letter from a student of SOTA, “School Of The Resigned”

Submitted by a student of SOTA

There has been much discussion surrounding School of The Arts, Singapore (SOTA) ever since the controversial news of a student’s “memorial” artwork hit the papers. It has been evident from the responses of students within the school on the social media platform, Reddit, that the removal of the artwork has stirred up previously underlying dissatisfaction within both students and teachers within the community.

The school has come under much fire this year after articles documenting a victim-shaming incident (January 21st) within the school and low artist turnout rates – even with pioneer batches entering the workforce this year – having been published in the Straits Times.

“Well, for starters it’s a total shitstorm. The principal just today sent out a half-assed apology to the entire school but nobody is buying their bullshit. Its also important to note that the school isn’t very transparent with their excuses to take down the artwork. This particular artwork was particularly aggravating because teachers leaving the school due to their dissatisfaction with the new management is a recent-ish phenomenon in our school. Many teachers have publicly expressed their distaste for the way the school has been recently operating, a lot of them use social media as a medium to call out on the management’s inefficiencies. Most if not the entire student body is angry with the school because some of our best teachers, especially those who are equipped to teach the International Baccalaureate Programme (IB) have had no choice but to leave because of how insanely bureaucratic the school has become, leading to students feeling clueless in their coursework, emotionally distraught and hence our collectively felt anger towards the school.” a reddit user who is also a student in the school says using a throwaway account – a means for additional anonymity for the less tech-savvy. After all, the school has not taken well to students who have publicly aired the school’s dirty laundry.

As a student within the school myself, at the very least it has been evident that such a situation has been a long time coming. As we have been told, art is a manifestation and a form of expression of individual feelings and a society’s problems, originating deep from within the root of human ingenuity; creativity.

The artist of the controversial paper plane, Calleen Koh, an IBCP (IB Career-Related Programme) Visual Arts Student and former head of the Leadership Academy, SOTA’s version of a student council from this year’s graduating batch said “from what I see, it created a platform of discourse for many of the parties involved, and opened up emotions I have never seen before in some.” in a Straits Times article published on 19 May (Friday).

Her airplane artwork was created during a masterclass hosted by the school. The masterclass called for students to create site-specific artworks. The official reason for the school for the removal of the artwork was “the installation was put up without the school’s knowledge” (excerpt from the Principal’s email to students and their parents).

“And to add on to this: not fun, especially for the seniors in IB, it seems to be really stressing them out… but i feel like this kind of situations have been long time coming and the only reason this was so blown up within the school is because of the amount of publicity it has received and the school is generally quite concerned with the image portrayed. Also people and teachers have been quite unhappy ): from the grapevine apparently the teacher happiness survey for the past two years have been one of the lowest, if not the absolute bottom”, another user said on Reddit.

Amidst this blow out, the school released statistics stating that the turnover rate has remained the same within SOTA since the current Principal, Ms Lim Geok Cheng (12%) has been instated. It can be noted that Principal Ms Lim and the Vice-Principal Ms Pauline Ann Tan both came from Cedar Girls Secondary School, a school not known for any outstanding arts programmes. Whereas previous and founding Principal Ms Rebecca Chew (2008-2012) had a strong background in the arts and continues to be a strong name in the arts community.

However, this seems directly controversial to first-hand accounts from students within the school, such as myself. The school’s education has been greatly impacted. This much is to be expected with the teaching staff fluctuating wildly and the amount of instability within the still-young school that is reaching its 10th anniversary in 2018. There has been speculation among students that “majority of the staff on the 6th floor staff room are looking for new jobs”. In fact, many staff members have shown their unhappiness with the direction SOTA has taken on social media.The school managing body has also seen a loss in members with its former Vice-Principal, Mr. Joseph Tan having left the school the previous year.

It is an open secret within the school that many deeply valued, qualified teachers are leaving the school seeking better opportunities, many of whom are SIM International Academy (UniSIM), a newly set-up IB school, under the guidance of Dr Yap Meen Sheng, previous Vice-Principal of SOTA, who worked closely with Ms Rebecca Chew.

Mark Rozells, a former literature teacher and the new head of literature and language in UniSIM who posted Koh’s artwork on the social media platform, Facebook, shared “I thought it was very heartwarming… I am a bit surprised at the reach of the post but I think it does suggest how art has a role beyond just aesthetics”, a sentiment many share. Within the school, this jokingly been termed a “memorial”, to commemorate the loss of valued members of the school and the home that the school once represented. It is a poignant piece that has touched the hearts of members of the SOTA community both present and past. To students, it embodies the sentiments of loss and happiness, in hopes that members of the community who have left “are in better places now”.

A poem published on Rozell’s instagram on the 19th goes;

“You spoke truth to power/by folding you did not fold/you did not run and cower,/but showed what needed to be told,

By filling gaps in cold concrete/you showed the cracks beneath our feet/Now may all your dreams take flight/as we move towards the light.

There is none so blind/as those who while not see/But behind one of you/is all of we”.

The SOTA community stand together behind Koh. There has been an influx in support for students and teachers who remain within the school. What comes next remains a question that is shrouded in mystery for the SOTA community and the public. The students hope that their cry for a change will be heard and that SOTA will once again become a home for the artistically passionate and inclined where artists and patrons of the arts may continued to be nurtured. A path that is vastly different from the increasingly academic-focus the school has taken, with many students losing or having diminished interests in their artforms.

SOTA has always been known for scoring well in the IB (a programme that Anglo Chinese School Independent (ACSI) also offers to students), however, in the starting days, student scored well because of their passion, where SOTA was a close-knitted community with strong bonds between students and staff. Now, it is a forced culture, where academic take a priority in an art school, with constant tension and high-pressure exerted on the students.

If SOTA remains the same, prospects of a future for the school with happy students and staff remain low. I quote the beginning of SOTA’s 2017 Promotional Video for recruiting students, “SOTA? DONT!”

Foreshadowing, a precursor? Maybe.

SOTA is my home. SOTA is my school. SOTA is where all my friends are. SOTA is my prison. SOTA is the graveyard for my passion. I, and many others can only hope for it to once again return to being an oasis, in the desert that it has now become.

To all those that have supported SOTA since its founding, this is a rallying call.

Where feet touched fertile earth, Soil has turned barren.
Where hopes soared, Anchors downwards, we’re driven.

Our loves, our hopes and dreams, We wish you would remain.
This simply isn’t possible. Not without a change.

Thank you.