A Day in the Life of Dr Margaret Tan

This interview series seeks to introduce fellows and students of Tembusu College to the wider community on a more personal level, and to create dialogue between these groups of people. This week, Dr Margaret Tan shares with us her experiences on a day-to-day basis both of work and leisure, from what motivates her to what she most cherishes in her time spent with her family.

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Dr Margaret Tan is currently a Fellow and Director of Programmes at Tembusu College, NUS, and the Co-director of the NUS Art/Science Residency Programme. She was a President’s Graduate Scholar and holds a PhD from the Department of Communications and New Media, NUS. Her dissertation involves a critical analysis of the visions and discourses surrounding pervasive computing and Singapore’s national IT Masterplan called “Intelligent Nation 2015” (iN2015). It investigates how both sets of vision and discourse intersect through globalisation and its technologies, underpinned by neo-liberal values and post-Cold War techniques, and consider these implications on creative and feminist endeavours.

Dr Margaret also has a degree in Fines Arts from Lasalle College of the Arts and a Masters in Interactive Media and Critical Theory from Goldsmiths College, University of London. Working from a feminist perspective, her works have been showcased both locally and internationally. She engages art now as a teacher and administrator but hopes to return to her art practice in the future.

To you, what is a typical day in your life?

My weekdays are pretty regular because my son attends school; he’s in primary five this year. I wake up maybe about 5.30, 5.45am, get him ready for school, send him to school, and I will be in Tembusu by 7.30am. That is when I start work, really. I quickly check my emails, usually there are a lot to go through, so I will prioritise how urgent the email is – whether it needs a response from me. Sometimes people get late responses from me, but that is also because I have a lot of other urgent ones to tend to.

A lot of my time in the college is spent on administrative duties and meetings. Of course, I do teach. I teach a Junior Seminar, “Murals: Expressions on/from the Walls”, where students get to design and paint a mural. I also coordinated and co-taught the International Alliance of Research Universities (IARU) summer programme, hosted by Tembusu College, called “Asia Now! The Archaeology of the Future City”. Currently, I am coordinating and co-teaching the Senior Seminar, “Singapore as ‘Model’ City?”. For the latter, students get to do an intervention project in an urban public space.

For the fellows, we want students to think about space and the issues and problems we see. It could be about design, architectural design, or it could be social, cultural, or political issues like who owns public space. But we also want them to be creative in that space, that, if they do see an issue in that space, they want to highlight it, exaggerate it, to bring a sense of humour to it. This means creating an environment or situation where the users of that space encounter something that would make them rethink that space, or change their day somehow. It could be performative or an installation, we leave it up to the students to come up with a project. The gist is just to intervene in that space and somehow make the users of that space think differently about it.

What is interesting about Singapore is that the governing party, the Town Councils and the People’s Association actually play a big deal in how the space is used. And sometimes, the objective of the space or the vision for the space and how it is used actually differ from those of the people who live there.

Apart from the teaching, and administrative duties, following up with the programming portfolio for events, and student consultations that I prefer to schedule for the morning, I usually try to leave at about 4.30 or 5.00pm from work. Some days can be quite long day for me, when I stay back for the Tembusu Forums, if we have guests visiting, or there is Rector’s Dinner.

I want to get home to my family (we usually have dinner at 6pm) and I want to avoid the traffic home. I stay in the East and I drive, but it can become a long drive if you are caught in traffic and I do not want to waste time on the road. I want to have time for family and we have dinner together as far as possible.

My son has this routine – he is still young, so there is a certain time we have dinner, relax, talk to each other, and watch television together. In the initial years it was quite tough for me because I had to help him with his homework, but as he grew older, I want him to be more independent. I do not even check his homework now, but I think it is good so the teachers know what he knows and does not. I do not want to correct him and then have the teachers think he knows his work very well. I do not want that, I want to teach him to be an independent learner. Both my husband and I work, and in the daytime there is only the domestic helper around, so he is left to his own devices. At the end of the day, so long as he is a happy kid, not failing, I think we’re fine.

How is it like balancing motherhood and full-time work?

I started my PhD in Communication and New Media at NUS when my son was two months old, so it has always been a balancing act. And of course something has to give, and one thing that I had to give up, at least temporarily, is my art practice. I do not have time to think of work, do exhibitions, travel for artist-in-residence programmes, and that is something – if you talk about what hobbies I like to do, or something I am passionate about and want to pick up– that I am just trying to find the right moment for. Because I’ve been out of it for so long, a decade, it’s kind of difficult to get back in because art making is very different from, say, writing. Although it is not very obvious, some of us do research as well, so there is a lot of reading involved, thinking and writing, but the processes are very different, and I do not have the mental space now to pursue art making. So, I am kind of torn at the moment where I should focus, on research or practice, and that has something also to do with career path as well;  it depends on which track you are on, whether you are on the research track, teaching track or practice track, and this is something I am undecided on: which direction I should go.

And now, I just do not want to sacrifice my nights for anything except my family, because in 24 hours, I only have 2-4 hours for my son and about 6 hours for my husband during the weekdays. Bedtime routines, like reading to my son before he goes to bed, I like those moments where it is very intimate, and it is just me and him, that moment you get with your son.

For me this is still precious, and I have gotten advice from other mothers that this would not last, because there comes a time when the kid grows up and does not need you anymore. So I only have a few more years before he reaches 15 years and then that is it.

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So now do you think you’re in the transitional phase, to going back into the art practice? – Because your son is going to be in his teens quite soon.

I foresee myself in this job for as long as Tembusu and NUS will have me, and I enjoy my job.

Although it is a lot of administrative work and paper work, what I like about my job is that it is always interesting, I do not get bored. We have Master’s Teas, Tembusu Forums, and Rector’s Dinner, where I meet different people all the time. I learn a lot of things along the way just by coordinating these events, and there are projects that allow me to be creative. So, even though I cannot do my own practice, I can channel that creativity in other ways: of course, the modules are one, where you give feedback on students’ ideas and these kind of bounce off each other, but also we have ad hoc projects that I oversee, like the Elephant Parade project where we painted two elephant sculptures to raise funds to save the Asian elephants. Recently students participated in the VSA Easter Egg Auction, where they painted five sculptural eggs for auction and the proceeds went towards Very Special Arts, a charity that looks at using art as a platform for those with disabilities. These projects are not just creative but also meaningful work which I enjoy. Other aspects like crafting the syllabus I like that too – it might seem dry but it is a learning process at the same time and you think about how to make the class interesting and engaging for the students, and not just have them write essays.

Some students have come to me thinking about careers, and my advice is, I know it is very clichéd, I think it is very important to pursue something you are passionate about. When you encounter hard times, it’s the passion that will carry you forward. So whatever path and area you go into, if you have the interest, passion would be ideal but if not passion at least curiosity and interest in that field, it will help to push you along during difficult times. And if you keep at it, eventually you will find success because you are passionate about it and will try to perfect it, then you may become maybe not the best, but one of the best.

It is very competitive now. It is a global city, you are getting competition not just from Singaporeans but all over the world, you need to have that drive, to weather the hard times, to think that you can keep improving and better your craft.

You mentioned that the creative process for what you are doing is very different from other forms like writing and others. Could you give a brief overview of what that may be like?

One thing is that it has to do with skills. For me, writing is a skill that I need to learn and practice, and improve on, to find my voice somewhere, so to me that is a different skill to pick up when I did my PhD, which is research-based, because before that I was practice-based. So, I had to think about and research issues more deeply, think where I would want to position myself with regards to the research. For me, before, in my practice, I was very interested in the notion of space in relation to gender and politics, whether spaces are gendered, how to negotiate our political environment and of course as an art practitioner it is also about the freedom to express yourself. These were some of the things that I was dealing with and then you think about your position in that environment.

After that,  how do you translate that message or reflection and share it in a way that is not too obvious, not too literal, but at the same time get the audience thinking, whether they can read different layers of meaning in  the work.

Because I am trained as a painter, I have painting skills, but towards the end of my Bachelor of Fine Arts, I was already experimenting with performance and installation art., I tried to bring painting into three-dimensional space and I did performances as well. So how do you use all that different media to express your thoughts? It could be complex in the sense that you have first that political or personal position which, at the same time, could be a position that could be critiquing the media and art world too and that’s what I like to do in my work – creating different layers of meaning.

Do you have any painting at home, any of that genius being passed down to your son?

I would not call it genius! To me, that is, and I taught this in the mural class, social-cultural construct, this idea of an artist as a genius. Even when I was in art school, my lecturers would come and say “yes, you may have some initial talent, but if you do not work on it, you can forget about that talent”. So there is that element of hard work too, which I always like to stress to students. Those who do not feel that they naturally have the gift can still make it. If you work hard, if you strive to keep on improving, I think you can make it. That is why it is quite interesting to see, from the art school, even within my batch, I was top of my class, but now I am totally inactive. For some of my other classmates, they are okay, good at this or that, you do not think they will make it, but they are stars now in the art world.

So it is a combination of drive, that passion to do well, hard work, and if you have a bit of talent you have edge but if you have talent and then you take it easy, you will just remain at the same level if you do not strive even harder.

I am always curious when a mother is a teacher – or in this case, you have gone to a point where you have a “Dr” to your name – how does that influence your teachings to your son?

Actually, my husband and I are quite hands-off, quite relaxed, I think. We both had childhoods where we were left to our own devices. My husband because his family had a business and his own mother was heading the business. Both of my parents worked, we were extremely poor, and so we were left to ourselves too. But I lived in a kampong, and we had neighbours who kept an eye on us when we were playing with other kids. To us, we felt we had had a fantastic childhood, where we could do whatever we wanted, we came up with our own games, it was great, and we want that for our son as well. Having said that, I have to admit that my son does have tuition for Chinese, because both my husband and I are hopeless in that subject and we do not use it at home. We do not have an environment where it cultivates that everyday learning of the language. Dylan has Math tuition as well as he nearly failed the subject and because of the new way of doing Math, quite different from what we learnt, so we could not teach him. And my husband and I work, we come home in time for dinner and there is no time to coach. There is not a lot of pressure for Dylan that he must do very well, for us if you can pass great, if you can do well even better. The negotiation between my son and I is that if he can do well in Math, say, get 80 marks, he does not need tuition at all.

For me, I think I feel more reassured if there is a teacher guiding him. I think at the moment my husband and I are quite hands-off and he has a lot of playtime, he is left to his own devices after school hours. We do remind him that he can watch television but not for too long, it is bad for the eyes; he can play, he loves his Lego. But for the computer, I am quite strict, so it is all password-protected and he gets half an hour of games a day. He reads quite a bit, about Lego and all that, but it is his interest.

Actually he is doing well, he does have some art works that were exhibited but I do not coach him. And I do not send him for art classes, or any sort of enrichment. I think as long as he is interested, he will be creative, making his own Lego figurines, he draws on them, paint them, so now it is just natural exploration.

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What do you do when you have time for leisure over the weekends?

As far as I can, I try not to bring work back on the weekends but sometimes it’s unavoidable. It is about balancing family, time for yourself and work. So on the weekends, I do have my Saturday morning yoga session, which I look forward to, an hour and a half, but sometimes I have to sacrifice that for work or family duties.

I also love to read if I can, if I am not busy researching, looking at a paper, or working on the syllabus, or marking students’ works. I was not a literature major, I did Literature only up to ”A” Levels, but I enjoyed Literature when I was in school.  Pride and Prejudice is one of my all-time favourites, I do love Jane Austen. I recently finished D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, and the book I am currently reading is Gao Xingjian’s Soul Mountain. But because I have quite little time for leisure and my time is sort of interrupted, in a week I may have read only a few chapters. It takes me a very long time to complete a book, but still it is a little pleasure. On weekdays, at the end of the day, I do watch quite a fair bit of television after I tuck my son to bed. My husband and I do love The Walking Dead, but I also love shows that are creative as well: I watch Project Runway, Masterchef and Fixer Upper. For the latter, I love the before and after scenes, how styling can turn the space around completely. We also watch movies on the weekends.

In Tembusu, I have styled the Reading Room, the Atlas and all the different spaces such as the Master’s Common Lounge. They come with furniture and fixtures, but I think about how we can make it look better, look cosier. These are different spaces we need to present to guests as well so it is important to me that they look presentable.

So my guilty pleasures are a bit of television, creative programmes, watching movies at home, and my reading.

There is a rather grungy feel to the new mural at the basement level – did you come up with the theme?

We had science, technology and society as the theme. Students cannot work with just any theme, but, within this theme there is so much they can look at. Depending on the batch of students, the take on the theme will differ.

Honestly, the mural module is the first, and so far the only Fine Arts module in NUS. We have Theatre Studies under the English Language and Literature Department, but I do not think there is any other Fine Arts module, so it is quite different for students. It is exciting in that it is not just a module you actually get modular credits for,and it is not just the practical part, but also you learn the history of murals, and the issues with wall painting and the public. Pushing students to think of a focus in the theme is interesting because leaving everything open-ended is one of the misconceptions of creative work; for creativity, you need some boundaries, and how you work within those boundaries and confines is the challenge. So, how you work within the limited space and still be different, be creative.

When we do this series for students, what would you like to ask them?

I do not know if it is too general, but I want to know the students’ background, how their childhood was like. To me the past is also important in shaping the person so for me it is finding out the little things about where they come from.

This interview was conducted by Ong Kah Jing and Steven Gunawan, with photography by Ong Kah Jing. Other images are from Dr Margaret’s personal collection.