Reflecting on Singapore International Foundation’s Arts for Good Fellowship

Over the autumn and winter, Communities Programme Director, Noëlle Cobden had the privilege of being part of Singapore International Foundation’s (SIF) Arts for Good (A4G) Fellowship. The fellowship aims to foster an international community of practice that harnesses the power of the arts and culture to create positive change. The focus of the 2023 fellowship was creative ageing – that is to say: how do we support positive ageing through engagement with arts and culture? 

When my alarm went off at 5.30am on a cold, dark Wednesday in October, I cursed myself for not considering the time difference between Singapore and the UK. But when I joined the 6am Zoom call, my bleary eyes were quickly wiped away as I was faced with creative energy of the 35 other fellows from 11 different countries around the world. Expertly facilitated by former A4G fellows Michael Cheng and Karen Koh, we worked together to build our community. At points the distance of Zoom made this tricky, with awkward silences and glitchy tech, but Michael’s exuberance and Karen’s calming presence kept us on track.  

Over the next three months, we met regularly online as a whole group to share our practice, learn from each other, and debate pertinent challenges. We also formed smaller teams to design interactive workshops that we would later deliver to the wider group. I was lucky to link up with Jasmine (Singapore), Joanne (Singapore), Ayushi (India), and Nini (Georgia) to put together two workshops that explored how we sensitively gather and share stories from community groups through creative activity. Joanne and Ayushi went on to deliver one of these sessions, while Jasmine, Nini, and I co-facilitated the second workshop. 

In January, 34 fellows gathered in Singapore for a five-day programme. The SIF team had everything expertly organised – from three different airport shuttle buses, to accommodation, meals, and a fantastic programme of visits, talks, and workshops. Approaching the SIF offices, I was pretty nervous to finally meet everyone in person, but I needn’t have worried – the warmth, joy, and animated conversation in the room was fantastic. All the fellows came into the space open, friendly, and willing to share – even in the first few minutes of day one, it felt like a very special room to be in. Throughout the week we had talks from organisations, including the Agency for Integrated Care and Singapore Arts Council, giving us an overview of the context of creative aging in Singapore. We visited Care Corner, the National Museum of Singapore, National Gallery Singapore, and The Artground to find out how they work creatively with older people and meaningfully support people living with dementia.

My favourite experiences of the week were led by former A4G fellows. Keng Hao Chew (2022 fellow) facilitated a practical session on using virtual reality with older people and their caregivers to foster intergenerational interactions. Keng had brought along VR headsets for us all to try out which was so much fun – particularly watching each other with the headsets on! I’d never considered using this kind of tech with older people before – the session really made me think about what is possible. Towards the end of the week, we joined Neil Chan (2019 fellow) at a Memories Café singing session for adults living with dementia and their carers. The session was so special – singing a variety of songs with the seniors and their family members – it was utterly joyful! One of the songs Neil had chosen was Auld Lang Syne and unbeknownst to him the session was taking place on Burns Day. After travelling nearly 7,000 miles from Edinburgh to Singapore, and as the only Scot in the room, it felt particularly poignant to sit with new-found friends and sing Auld Lang Syne together. 

As I settled into my seat on the flight home, I started to think about everything I’d learned, all the conversations I’d had, and how the fellowship might feed into my ongoing work at the Book Festival. One thing that struck me about the experience was everyone’s generosity – from the SIF team who looked after us with so much care to the Singapore fellows who planned a special evening to show us ‘their’ Singapore; from all the speakers taking time out of their busy work lives to the other fellows who shared their cultures and expertise. As the plane took off, I realised how grateful I am for the time and space the fellowship gave me to learn, think, share and connect with like-minded arts professionals from around the world. I don’t know what future collaborations will come from the fellowship just yet, but it was an enriching experience that left my heart and mind full.  


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