On state bureaucracy forgetting care work
Tan Biyun, 16 January 2021

—What was work like for you in 2020?
—Many plans were scrapped. And at the same time, I was very unsuccessful applying for SIRS. Actually, I think I applied three times. They don’t tell you why they reject you. At some point I figured out maybe it could be an issue with one of the criterias but I can't do much about a criteria that's very much fixed. It’s like putting a square peg into a round hole. So the editing for my film continued on, and it was quite a painful process. But I couldn't start on anything else.

—Do you think you had enough support then?
—If you're talking about financial security, it really boils down to institutional support, like state support, right? With the lockdown, the economy just came to a grind, and if the state doesn't spread the money, it is really hard. I mean, of course, everyone got their $600. But when it comes to SIRS, which is supposed to serve those who are self employed, which technically means us, I find that the criteria were written or written in such a way that they do not actually consider the art sector. One of the big criteria of getting SIRS is that you have filed your taxes. If you're talking about non-commercial artists, how much taxes could you have filed right? Some of us do not even file taxes. When I saw the criteria for SIRS, it was quite clear that it was just really routing money back to those that pay taxes. It's back to exactly what the state has always stood for, which is to be self reliant. You got to pay for your own way.
—I was talking to a fellow colleague and her case was clearly a self employed situation. But still she went through many rounds, not just resubmitting, but she had to follow up through emails, she had to file extra papers, which were not clearly stated as documents that had to be filed. I realized that with this whole SIRS, they were really creating the rules as it went. Of course, every new scheme developed is often inadequate to capture those the scheme is supposed to target. This is something that we can all understand. That's why public feedback is important and the state has to respond to this feedback. I mean, we've seen the state respond to some feedback, such as those who were petitioning with regards to the salary ceiling. The state did adjust the ceiling to be slightly higher. But again, this is good for those who were already filing taxes. For most in the arts, you don't get regular income from any one particular art group, or art company unless you are directly employed, but then at the same time, your income may not exceed $20,000. You may not need to file taxes.
—You need to live, but all these are not recognized. It's just clear that the state does not benefit those who do not benefit the state in return. Even though culture has been brought up as an important sector, it can only be a sector if we're giving them returns. I think this SIRS scheme really captured the awkwardness of being an artist, being a non-productive, non-essential worker, in the eyes of the state with a neoliberal agenda.
—Do you think there’s a contradiction between the state’s rhetoric of the importance of the culture sector, but actually seen as non-productive in the eyes of the state, or even the wider public?
—There is no contradiction at all. They have always stuck with guns. It is quite clear that when we are talking about the culture sector, we are really talking about those art forms that are generating income. The bulk of NAC funding really goes through companies at the end, the rationale is the same rationale that they've been dishing out forever, which is that if you support groups and companies, they support employment, but then what's the whole point of us being self-employed?
—I wanted to apply for this one training fund that sponsored training by up to $1000. But when I looked through the criteria, I realized that you have to get a receipt from workshop organizers first before you can apply for the fund, but if you do so and if they don't support you, you end up having to pay yourself. I wrote NAC directly and asked them about how to qualify for this scheme? I also wanted some clarity on the criteria. I received this email, which really made me very angry, which says that I have to prove your relevance to the local art scene. Then I asked her, how do you prove your relevance? What is “relevance”? And it turns out, it's just simply that you should have put up at least one show in the previous one year. To say that you have to put up one show in the previous year and to say that you have proven your relevance are totally completely different ends of the spectrum.
—NAC, in organizing the funds, does it have to create this added stress? Proof one's relevance? That's huge leh. I don't even think NAC can prove its relevance to Singapore's economy. It’s all very high handed. Here you're talking about let's support artists and arts groups, but then I'm not seeing it in your language. Neither am I seeing in your attitude because the whole attitude is you have to, you have to meet my criteria, I've set my bar, you have to reach up. But this is COVID right?
This is not just about us and about the entire gig economy. Yeah. And if the gig economy is going to be the economy of the future, then the government's current attitude is going to be harmful.
—I wanted to add this whole gender dimension as well, I also do caregiving for my parents, so I choose not to do a full time job. It seems like this is also taken against me or like, because SIRS does their calculations by taking the total annual salary divided by the number of months that you work. Yeah. Let’s say if you're not working every other month, you may not achieve the number that meets their criteria. So if you say if you tell them that, that's because you know, you have caregiving considerations, but they haven't factored it in at all. They know it exists. But they don't know what it looks like. And what it means in economic terms.
—It's not legible to them.
—Yes, it's not something they want to really make it legible since they have always been able to exploit this.