koh siew huey

1. Outfit promotes arts-based community development.
2. Aims to harness the power of the arts to bring people together, strengthen relationships and build a community.
3. Was behind Both Sides, Now, which addressed end-of-life issues.
4. Organiser of the M1 Peer Pleasure Youth Theatre Festival.
5. Spent four years doing development work in China with Worldvision.

[dropcap size=small]W[/dropcap]hile the arts is generally viewed as a highfalutin, indulgent activity, it is actually a perfect catalyst to invoke social change, according to Ko Siew Huey.

“For change to happen, you have to imagine the world as otherwise,” says the co-founder of Artswok Collaborative, an arts-based community development organisation . “The arts helps people release that imagination. It also provides that safe space and platform for people to experiment and encounter disruption and difference.”

Over the last four years, Ko and co-founder Ngiam Su-Lin, who has been in the arts scene for over a decade, have been working to harness the power of the arts to create dialogue, invite social participation and build bridges across difference. This has resulted in high profile projects such as Both Sides, Now (BSN) in 2013.

Through art installations, short films – including Camera d’or 2013 winner Anthony Chen’s Ah Ma – soundscapes, verbatim theatre and community singing, BSN (which was co-produced by local theatre group Drama Box) confronted the taboo topic of end-of-life issues.

“It was a very intimate topic and very relevant to a lot of people (across different demographics) because it touches so many aspects of people’s lives: finance, health, spirituality. Such topics can be challenging to discuss. That’s why the primacy of relationships must be emphasised, as deep engagement with end-of-life conversations can happen only in an environment of trust. For us, it’s about harnessing the power of the arts to bring people together, strengthen relationships and build community. As intermediaries, we connect socially engaged artists with community groups to create positive social change.”

Then there is the M1 Peer Pleasure Youth Theatre Festival, a platform for young theatre practitioners between 13 and 25 years old to stage productions with a strong social consciousness under the mentorship of theatre professionals.

Artswok also organises The Greenhouse Series, where practitioners working in the intersection of arts and community come together to teach/share best practices and resources, and network.

It was her days as a documentary producer that first stirred in her the desire to make a difference. Says the 41-year-old: “This was around 2000, just after the Asian Financial Crisis. I visited people in their homes. Some of them owned their homes but struggled to put food on the table.

“`It was the first time I got to see a world outside of my own in Singapore. It created in me a desire to do something more, to go down in the trenches.”

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Two years later, Ko found herself quite literally in the trenches when she was posted by Worldvision to western China for four years. “Our mission was to improve the quality of life for the people in the community – this included interventions in health, education and income generation. Because of my youth and inexperience, (I was) totally out of my depth. I woke up every morning wondering if there would be a barrage of problems that I wouldn’t be able to solve. At my lowest point, I’d wake up every morning and my prayer was literally, ‘God, help me get through this day!’”

Moving forward, Artswok is preparing to introduce BSN into neighbourhoods .“We realise that we’ve created awareness and interest in the topic but the follow-up is an issue. A longer term engagement needs to happen in spaces where people live. A more sustainable solution would be to strengthen community capacity to facilitate these ongoing conversations and to support individuals and families in making informed decisions about end-of-life plans.”

“As a society, we value consensus and agreement. But we forget that diversity helps us have a richer understanding of the world.”

For next year’s edition of the Peer Pleasure, Artswok is collaborating with the Down Syndrome Association to stage a play. The team will also curate programmes such as dialogue sessions, interactive plays and workshops.

But the most pressing issue that remains to be addressed, Ko feels, is the fear of the Other. “As a society, we value consensus and agreement. But we forget that diversity helps us have a richer understanding of the world. The sooner we get comfortable with differences, the better we will be as a people to face our challenges.”


In 60 Seconds

One advice that I hold dear is: To grow deep roots in my own garden and yet extend a branch into my neighbourʼs yard. It is a reminder to be self-reflexive – always question my assumptions, be aware of my prejudices, be clear about intentions and carry out the work with integrity. On this solid foundation, extend a spirit of compassion to my neighbour, knowing that we are all interconnected in some way.

My greatest weakness is: I can definitely do more to appreciate the good that is present in my life at any given moment. I am constantly thinking about how things ought to be, so I can be overcritical at times. These days, I am learning to be more intentional about practising gratitude.

The period that interests me the most is: The present age, because I have the power to make a difference every day. Thatʼs a real adventure.

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