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NGIAM SU-LIN (b. 1974)

FACILITATORS OF CONNECTED AND HOPEFUL COMMUNITIES

There is a cynical way to think about “community development” in Singapore – that communities can fit into easy categories, and that developmental models can be homogeneously applied, scaled-up or replicated. Su-Lin Ngiam, co-founder and executive director of ArtsWok Collaborative, doesn’t believe in that. Her work at ArtsWok Collaborative is rooted in her conviction that every community is unique.

“There’s not enough recognition that communities themselves have a lot of agency and wisdom,” she says. “It is about celebrating what is unique – celebrating, respecting and understanding difference. That’s when communities really start to thrive.”

She co-founded ArtsWok Collaborative in 2012, an arts-based charity organisation which works with communities. One of its flagship programmes is Both Sides, Now (co-presented with Drama Box), a multidisciplinary arts engagement project aimed at normalising conversations around end of life issues. The multi-year project has reached out to communities in Khatib, Toa Payoh, Chong Pang and Telok Blangah, involving various artforms from puppetry to participatory theatre, animations and installations.

ArtsWok also trains practitioners, both artists and non-artists, in community engagement and development. In particular, Su-Lin hopes that artists can play a bigger role in the community, but she acknowledges that artists are often bound up in the capitalistic system that can be hard to extricate themselves from. Such projects also tend to come with poor remuneration because of how community development is framed from a “voluntary” or social service standpoint.

ArtsWok is currently looking to move to a new space sited within a community. Ultimately, it is about building trust. For changes to happen in society, Su-Lin believes that its people should be trusted to effect change too.

She says: “There’s a lot more that residents in Singapore can do to contribute, come up with ideas, co-create. It’s not just about numbers, skills and competencies, but this thing called trust. If there is enough trust built, and understanding, then you really can be equal partners in shaping society.”

To know more about ArtsWok Collaborative, visit www.artswok.org.