Platform for “open and candid discussion”

Published in The Straits Times, Dec 5, 2015
Council's power to silence artists may diminish with time

I refer to the article NAC Chairman On Funding As Censorship (Life, Nov 27).

Arrogating the opening of Singapore International Film Festival to allege the right of the Government to use arts funding as an instrument of censorship is, to say the least, distasteful.

Particularly so as the festival built its international reputation on an assiduous anti-censorship stance, as films with cuts are not included in the line-up.

Council chairman Chan Heng Chee cited a United States Supreme Court majority finding for the National Endowment for the Arts when it withheld funding for a group of artists, to make the point that governments have to play arbiter and set standards.

However, in the ruling, the Supreme Court also directed the National Endowment for the Arts to ensure that "artistic excellence and artistic merit are the criteria by which (grant) applications are judged, taking into consideration general standards of decency and respect for the diverse beliefs and values of the American public".

The Supreme Court found that the above does not violate the US Constitution and The First Amendment right to free speech.

It is important to understand this because in the US, the National Endowment for the Arts withholding grants would not necessarily amount to an act of censorship.

The economy of cultural production in the US is totally different from that in Singapore. In America, art is principally funded by private enterprise, philanthropy and individuals.

Even if the Endowment withholds funding, the probability of the artwork being made and presented to the public would remain high. Not so in Singapore, where the state is the main funder of the arts. If the National Arts Council withholds funding for an artwork, it is dead in the water and will probably never see the light of day.

Historically, the clearest example of the council's power to silence was evident in 1993, after Josef Ng's controversial performance of Brother Cane, when it ceased funding performance art.

For a decade after that decision, Singapore had the dubious distinction of being the only country on the planet to censor an entire artform, not just an artwork.

In June, when the council revoked the book grant for Sonny Liew's The Art Of Charlie Chan Hock Chye, there was a different effect because council's funding for the work was surplus to its needs. The council's grant withdrawal served only to make it more desirable and popular.

Over the next few years, with the maturing economy and the diversity of interests coming to the fore in cultural production, the council's power to silence artists and art through funding may diminish. This process has already begun in the case of the literary arts where the costs of production are relatively low.

It will be a long while yet before artists working in theatre and film can taste such freedom.

- Thirunalan Sasitharan

Published in The Straits Times, Nov 14, 2015
Is NAC reverting to its past censorious role?

The commentary “The tough balancing act of arts funding” by National Arts Council Chief Executive Officer, Ms Kathy Lai, (The Straits Times, Nov 7, 2015) is to be welcomed.

Socially and politically engaged artists who care deeply for both their work and society, such as my fellow artists in the Arts Engage network, agree that “open and candid discussion is good”.  In civilised societies such as Singapore the result of debate and controversy is accommodation, perhaps understanding, and even change.

However, there are also fundamental disagreements with much of what Ms Lai wrote.

She implies wrongly that artists ‘begrudge” the State’s decisions to fund art that has “beauty” or brings “a smile or a moment of empathy”.

However, Arts Engage believes the state must also fund or at least not censor art that might not be so pretty and feel-good, that cares for values like freedom, justice and equality. Much of this kind of art is also beautiful, and inspires smiles and empathy.

As visual artist Jason Wee wrote on Facebook in response to Ms Lai, “Sometimes empathy comes from sitting close to the suffering of others, or from the difficult, complicated knowledge that there may be no good way out of a tough situation”.

Ms Lai also sees a dichotomy where there is none between the censored and those who aim to do good to society. Many works censored for their treatment of, say, race, religion or politics, are made by artists who hope to use art to bring about a better society through “open and candid discussion”. 

Many of the artists censored by the Government can by no stretch of the imagination be labeled irresponsible or practitioners of “arts for arts’ sake". Many are socially, politically engaged. Some have been lauded by the state itself, including cultural medallion artists Ong Keng Sen and Haresh Sharma, whom Ms Lai mentions.

Ms Lai also takes as given that only the state, civil servants and politicians can decide what is “good for society”, and that it and they would do so disinterestedly and correctly. But people, too, can decide what is good for society, and can be aided by art in doing so. And they can only do so if they have the chance to see artistic, or any kind of, work in the first place. Censorship prevents the people from seeing such works. It presumes that the ordinary person is too naive, irrational, or selfish to decide themselves.

Our website also documents cases of works censored to protect the Government from embarrassment rather than for society’s good. Perhaps it is fitting to remember here that arts funding is not the government’s but the people’s money.

Ms Lai’s article is the clearest articulation to date that the State uses funding as a blunt instrument of censorship. The clarity is important for more discussion on how problematic this is.

We have other concerns with the arguments put forward by Ms Lai to justify censorship in Singapore. But one of the most worrying aspects of her article is that she writes in support of our censorship regime as the most senior executive of the government agency for the development of the arts.

Up till 2002, the NAC was both a development and a censorship agency until the latter function fell to the Media Development Authority. That left the NAC with its sole and proper role of championing and growing the arts.  In that role, NAC’s tough balance is not that of what to censor. Rather, it is how best to foster artistic excellence against many competing and valid claims to funding based on artistic merit not political considerations.

Singapore has yet to achieve the ideal of “arm's length funding”, where public money is given out by an independent, non-government body. Nevertheless taking away NAC’s censorship function was at least a right step forward.

We will continue to argue against censorship regardless of which state agencies do it. But we had hoped that NAC would argue for and not against creative freedom of artists and freedom of choice for the people, for the illumination of art not the darkness of censorship.

Unfortunately, recent events indicate that NAC is reassuming its earlier censorious role. We worry that Ms Lai’s article forebodes future steps that, in fact, will move us backwards into the past.

- Tan Tarn How and T. Sasitharan

Signed and supported by:

The Theatre Practice
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Dark Matter Theatrics
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The Screenwriters Association
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In Source Theatre
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Teater Ekamatra
Agni Kootthu (Theatre of Fire)
Toy Factory Productions Ltd
T.H.E Dance Company
Just Theatre
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Keelat Theatre Ensemble
Tan Tarn How, playwright
Anthony Chen, filmmaker
Kirsten Tan, filmmaker
Jason Wee, visual artist and writer
Tan Pin Pin, filmmaker
Ng Joon Kiat, visual artist
Michael Cheng, drama practitioner
Jason Soo, filmmaker
June Yap, curator
Bani Haykal, artist
Ila, artist
Olivia Kwok, photographer
Marcia Vanderstraaten, playwright
Alvin Tan, director
Boo Junfeng, filmmaker
Royston Tan, filmmaker
Sun Koh, filmmaker
Charles Lim, filmmaker
Zizi Azah Binte Abdul Majid, playwright and director
Joleen Loh, curator
Fanny Kee, actor
James J. Tay, arts manager
Terry Ong, writer and artist
Kalaiselvi Grace, actor
Amanda Heng, art practitioner
Neo Hai Bin, theatre practitioner
Gek Li San
Zelda Tatiana Ng, arts practitioner
Adeline Kueh, artist
Noorlinah Mohamed, actor and arts educator
Catherine Wong, The Theatre Practice
Benny, A Craft Initiative
Zee Wong, actor
Charmaine Poh, writer and photographer
Daniel Kok
Elaine Ng
Ngin Chiang Meng, writer
Victoria Mintey, actress
Mario Sismondo
Leonard Lee, HR
Mil Tan, MushStudio
Dean Lundquist, artistic director, Asylum Theatre
Tyson Ng
Kevin WY Lee, photographer
Elangovan, poet-playwright-director
Chew Ying Ying, MSO
Timothy Nga, Singaporean
Daphne Lim, producer-presenter
Harris Jahim, director/teacher
Li Xie
Faizah Jamal, educator
Choo Zheng Xi, lawyer
Kah Seng Loh, historian
Godwin Koay, art worker
Siauw Chong, artist
Adelina Ong, PhD candidate (Royal Central School of Speech and Drama) and applied theatre practitioner
Heman Chong, artist
Lucy Clements, theatre maker
Mathilde Bagein, theatre student
Vanessa Wu Pei Pei, student
Cole Lu, artist, assistant director at fort gondo compound for the arts
Goh Ming Siu, writer and director
Teo Dawn, student at ITI
William Phuan, The Select Centre
Welton Seah, events manager
Jeremy Tiang, writer
Isaac Lim, playwright and actor
Tania De Rozario, visual artist and writer
Dori Sabapathy
T.K. Sabapathy, writer
Michael Lee, artist
Mark Wong De Yi
Wee Hong Ling, visual artist and artistic director
Nasyitah Tan Wah Ling, The LOOMs Workshops
Alex Yang, media arts researcher
Haresh Sharma, playwright
Kim Dy-Liacco
Nicole Lim
Sharon Frese
Crispian Chan, actor
Shirley Soh, artist/teacher
Kian Peng, Ong, media artist
Tay Yu Xian
Cherry Chan
Brendon Fernandez, actor
Alvin Chiam
Yee Kai, Poo, student
Hang Qian Chou, actor
Su Ching Teh, writer
Sim Yan Ying, theatre student at NYU Tisch
Isaac Tan, NUS theatre student
Tung Ka Wai
Terence Chong, sociologist
Wong Chee Meng
Lee Wen, artist
Loo Zihan, visual artist
Chia QiLong Andy, musician
Tse Zhuoying Natalie Alexandra, musician, arts education researcher
Casey Lim, director
Robin Loon, playwright and dramaturg
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Mervyn Quek, arts manager
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Janice Koh, actor
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Dan Koh, writer-editor
Sabrina Lee
Corrie Tan, arts writer
Simon Ng, painter
Qinyi Lim, curator
Edward Choy, actor
David Lee, controller
Isa Kamari, writer
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Xie Zhizhong, musician
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Kenneth Chia, actor and writer
Mayo Martin, writer
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Marc Lim, graphic remixer
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Tang Mun Kit, artist
Ferran Martin, artist
Kin Chui
Deborah Lee Proano, Composer
Alecia Neo, artist
Max Le Blond
Rizman Putra, artist
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Charlene Shepherdson, writer / interactive artist
Bhavan Jaipragas, journalist
Ang Zhi Hui, singer-songwriter and music educator
Tan Liting, theatre practitioner
Kray Chen, artist
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Anthony Koh Waugh, Booktique Where Writers Shop
Juan Foo, film producer
Renee Yeong, theatre student at NYU Tisch
Ong Johsen Johnson, author lyricist and producer
Hazwany Razali
Edmund Wee, book publisher
Josephine Tan
Helmi Yusof, writer
Joshua Ip, writer
Teo Swee Leng, arts administrator
Edward Eng, artist
Fong Hoe Fang, book publisher
Jereh Leong, artist
Joshua Lim, actor
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Eng Kai Er, performance-maker
Sonia Kwek, theatre practitioner
Elizabeth Gan, cultural worker
Neo Swee Lin, actor
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Norhaizad Adam, dancer