Statement: Shrinking Space for Artistic and Civic Expression in Singapore

Statement on the arrest of artist, Seelan Palay

    On 1 Oct 2017, Sunday, Artist Seelan Palay was arrested outside Parliament House, halfway through his performance about how a free mind cannot be constrained by space. The piece had begun at Hong Lim Park in the rain, and then had continued at City Hall (now the National Gallery of Singapore) and thereafter Parliament House. At Parliament House, he was first approached and questioned by a number of police officers, and then was subsequently arrested. As such, he was unable to continue the rest of the performance. He has since been released on police bail, but is subjected to severe restrictions, including restrictions on travels.

    In response to his arrest, Function 8 and Community Action Network (CAN) released a statement on 4 Oct 2017, Wednesday. In their statement, they highlighted concerns about Seelan’s arrest, as well as called for the release of Seelan from all restrictions as well as the ceasing of harassment and intimidation of activists, and Arts Engage would like to echo these sentiments.

    Seelan’s arrest is troubling as an extreme example of police action, yet not entirely surprising given Singapore’s long and enduring history of warnings and censorship of artists and artworks by the government. For example, just earlier this year, two works under the M1 Fringe Festival were denied ratings by the Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA) – effectively preventing them from being watched as they were originally conceived by the artists.

    However, when these actions against artists are viewed in context of society as a whole, there appears a dangerous trend of shrinking space for artistic and civil expression in Singapore:
  • Earlier this year, on 3 June 2017, Saturday, there was a brief silent demonstration on the MRT along the North-South line. Specifically, a number of activists held up the book ‘1987 Singapore's Marxist Conspiracy, 30 Years On’ while wearing blindfolds. Media reported the demonstration as a protest against the 1987 detentions under the Internal Security Act, and shortly after, it was also reported that a police investigation was launched. However, no clear details were released to the public.
  • In yet another instance, licensed busker Roy Payamal was handcuffed and arrested in front of Takashimaya on 11 March 2017, Saturday, for apparently speaking to the police in a loud voice while they were checking his busking license. Roy later clarified there was a misunderstanding, but to date he is still on bail as opposed to being a free citizen.
    Clearly, there seems to be a signal to society at large that there is no space for any challenge to authority, regardless of an openness to engage or being of a peaceable nature. Arts Engage is thus concerned that this will result in greater reluctance amongst Singaporeans to speak out in the face of injustice or even just to stand up for their own rights. In the long term, this will negatively impact the growth and maturity of civic discourse in Singapore.

    As such, we would like to urge the police and the government to keep an open attitude towards artists and citizens. As Cesar A. Cruz famously said, “Art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable”. The actions of activists and artists may cause discomfort for some in the society, but equally, there will be others who are comforted by it. In order for society to grow and mature, we all need to learn to be able to engage with issues and people we disagree with, not merely have authorities step in to ‘solve’ the problem by way of criminal persecution or censorship. As a move towards building a society that is respectful of diversity and dissent, Arts Engage would like to call on the government to lead by example, to take time and effort at the very least to engage with artists, activists, and public alike. 

    In an increasingly divided world, it is important to commit to having authentic conversations at both ground level and at policy level, so as to practice the inclusion of pluralistic points of view and ways of living. In doing so, the terms and platforms of engagement should not always be determined by the government. We must welcome the diverse and creative actions initiated by citizens as well, and honour their fundamental right to the freedom of expression. Not everyone has access to the same platforms to air their concerns, opinions and aspirations, and a healthy society should encourage the various ways that people choose to make their voice heard. Ultimately, embracing different articulations - whether artistic or not, whether political or not - of citizen’s sentiments is crucial to a functional democracy.