“A voice for the arts and artists”

Khairulanwar Zaini

“A voice for the arts and artists” – and two names emerged as potential Nominated Members of Parliament (NMP) to represent the Arts community. Audrey Wong, the artistic co-director of Substation, and Loretta Chen, the artistic director of Zebra Crossing.

The unprecedented experiment in social democracy held at Theatreworks’ premises, saw three candidates vying for the votes of their peers from the arts community – the third candidate standing was Robert Liew, the Managing Director of Arts Management Associates.

Conceptualized by a group of theatre heavyweights interested in providing greater representation and a “voice in Parliament” to “speak for arts and artists”, the idea culminated in this grassroots approach to recommend two names to Edmund Cheng, the NAC chairman and NMP selection coordinator for the arts, sports and media functional group. Two other individuals, Beatrice Chia and Tony Chew, however opted out of the process and will be submitting their applications independently.

“A brochure is a brochure”

Loretta emphasized the need of an Arts NMP to be a good listener and be attentive of the needs of the various sub-groups. The NMP would also need to be open and able “to mobilize people and harness different talent”. Also concerned with transparency, Loretta called for more clarity and accountability from the various panels deciding on matters of censorship – where decisions are almost always made by an amorphous “they”, she said.

She was also motivated to engage in politics from her stint as a Young PAP member, which gave her an insight to the fervent “political passion” of the older generation, whose concerns about bread and butter issues go largely unheard since they are unable to articulate their views.

Addressing concerns of her YPAP affiliations, she said she joined the organization after returning from the United States for “morbid curiousity and intellectual discovery” after reading a brochure about the YPAP’s inclusive and dynamic nature. However, her membership has since lapsed after she realized that “a brochure is a brochure” and that she was a “solo dissenting voice” in a YPAP that was more inclined to “reinforce the status quo.”

Against “economics-based, functional pragmatism” in the arts

Audrey explained that while an Arts NMP is unable to comprehensively represent the diverse group, she could listen and represent the interests of the community nonetheless.

She took issue with the “economics-based, functional pragmatism” approach that has been the cornerstone of policy-making in the arts sector in Singapore.

Another perennial concern for Audrey is to preserve the art as “a space for diversity”, which have been hampered by the recent amendments to the Films Act and the Public Order Act. Parliament is a good platform to rectify the unfounded impression that artists are “troublemakers” and are only interested in “disrupt(ing) public order”. 

Undertaking the “necessary evil”

For Robert, his vast experience and his PhD in inter-disciplinary arts allowed him to appreciate and grasp the diverse scope of the arts.

Hailing from the arts industry as opposed to the content-creation “community”, Robert provided a different dimension to the contest as an arts manager who  “performs all the necessary evils… to put the artist on centerstage.”

Being the only candidate from the “non-creative” sector, his experience in helming the Singapore Arts Festival as Artistic Director and holding the chair of the Association of Concert and Events Managers (Singapore) contributed to his understanding of how “policies are enacted”. He posited that this experience and knowledge of the bureaucratic workings and language would allow him to advance the interests of the community effectively.

Speaking in a personal interview, he also celebrated this “creative and determined response” by the arts community to carve out their own voice in a position with a tenuous function.

Hopes, expectations, sucesses

T. Sasitharan, the Director of Theatre Planning & Research Programme and one of the organizers, said that the measure of an Arts NMP is his/her ability “to increase the profile of artists … and the level of the discourse of the arts” in Parliament, while elucidating about “cultural production, art-making and the problems of art-making” and pushing for accountability from the authorities particularly on censorship issues.

Many individuals TOC spoken to were heartened by this pioneering grassroots process in selecting one of their peers to stand as NMP. Felicia, a visual artist, was gratified to see “artists getting together” while Gerald Chew, an actor, celebrated the “meeting of intents.” Gerald also expressed his hope for the Arts NMP to act as a “bridge” between Singaporeans and artists to induce a “mature reception of arts”.

Upon being elected, Audrey and Loretta both expressed the “humbling” and “amazing experience”. Addressing the need for inclusion of artists in public discourse, Audrey pointed out that the concept of content creation as espoused by the Renaissance City report was “not new” with local artists who are already involved, calling on the government to “empower and enable” them. Loretta was also concerned with barriers to content creation, particularly the limits imposed upon visual violence and gore, which would prevent a movie like Infernal Affairs from being produced in Singapore.

“Principled Compromise”

While Sasi is “not personally convinced of the legitimacy of the NMP” scheme, he believes that this is a “principled compromise” in choosing the “best representative” of the community “who knows what they’re doing, whom we can trust”.  Noting that the process is a “honest (and) sincere attempt to get responsible people who are qualified to speak for a community that feels underrepresented right now”, this community election is a shift away from the principle of NMPship from being an alternative independent non-partisan voice in Parliament to one of representation for functional groups.

Audrey was cognizant of this dilemma, saying that representing a diverse community will be hard and that it will be necessary to maintain “her own position” to be able to speak freely like other NMPs. Commented in similar vein, Sasi remarked that the Arts NMP was not a lobby about “the price of paint, the price of brushes” but “ultimately what the candidate wants to represent.”

This fledging process, which will be accompanied by robust discourse and vigorous conversations that goes beyond the arts community, is another step in developing the nation’s political maturity. Furthermore, this trailblazing effort may encourage other functional constituencies – including those not currently recognized – to legitimately seek for representation of their own and also review the current political framework of minority representation. 

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