The conservative renaissance – part 1

“And I think censorship takes many, many forms. It may not be as blatant as cutting your words but they certainly give you a rating, which severely limits your audience. And ratings prevent you from reaching out to a younger audience who may also need to hear these things. But this is the whole idea of nanny-ing, isn’t it? You are not old enough. You are not capable of making these decisions cause you may make the wrong decisions and then where will we be?”

These words which come from theatre director Ivan Heng just weeks ago become uncannily prophetic given the recent turn of events. As reported by The Strait Times on 6 May 2010, the National Arts Council (NAC) has cut the annual grant given to W!LD RICE, the theatre company which Heng helms as Artistic Director.

It will get $170,000 this year, down from the previous $190,000, effectively the smallest annual grant it has received since 2006. TheatreWorks, a company led by artistic director Ong Keng Seng, also experienced a similar decrease, receiving $280,000 this year, as compared to last year’s $310,000. A group of artists from the theatre community, which includes Heng, Ong and The Necessary Stage artistic director, Alvin Tan has since issued a statement and has requested for a meeting with the NAC.

While the issue of funding cuts is not new, it deviates from the council’s usual practice of cutting funds for specific productions. In a reply to The Online Citizen (TOC), Heng has described the measure as “punitive and vindictive”.

“This cut did not occur for a specific production, but is a signal to express NAC’s displeasure, and also a warning against transgressing the arbitrary boundaries that it has laid down. In effect, it is an action that is both punitive and vindictive.”

The veteran theatre director was told that funding was cut because the company’s productions promoted alternative lifestyles, were critical of government policies and satirised political leaders. In the words of NAC’s arts development director, Elaine Ng, “funding guidelines clearly state that we will not fund projects which are incompatible with the core values promoted by the Government and society or disparage the Government”.

The blatancy of the statement is a cause for alarm. It abandons the usual euphemisms and excuses to disseminate a self-righteous, unabashed and undisguised call for conformity, or in other words, for self-censorship. (Or are we supposed to feel relieved that at least it has not given the economic downturn as a convenient excuse?) As it seems, this is the state that our censorial society has degenerated into: protracted arguments are no longer necessary for censorship has become the de rigueur. Is this what all the talk about reviewing censorship has amounted to? In fact, in a separate article in The Strait Times a week later, Ng even called NAC’s issued statement a move towards “greater transparency”. How is it that an official articulation of a problematic policy can be construed as progressive change? If anything, it serves only to reinforce that council’s self-imposed blindness towards its own systemic failures.

Perhaps what is most pitiable is really the folly and self-deceit at the heart of the issue. The council appears indifferent to the sheer gravity and moral deplorability of its proclamations. Does it not realise that such a statement is tantamount to an official disapproval of political critique, which happens to be the very raison d’être of contemporary art? Are they not even remotely aware of its Orwellian overtones?

It is indeed incredulous that an organisation consisting of educated individuals, some of whom have worked in the arts and culture industry, would be oblivious to the connotations of their official statements. One is reminded of Alex Au’s critical piece, Sucking Demigod’s Toes ( which speaks of the “sycophantic prose” civil servants and the like have been conditioned to produce. This is a systemic flaw that permeates all levels of society.

A flawed method based on a flawed philosophy

However, the more specific problem at hand here is the relationship between the artist and the state, which has been historically fraught with anxieties. The artist needs the financial support from the state as much as it needs to maintain its integrity. Meanwhile, the state needs the creative culture generated by the arts as much as it fears that it will eventually undermine its powers. It is a delicate balancing act that Singapore has yet to master – an impossibility, perhaps, in a country where the state is only determined to engage the arts in its own, mono-logic terms. The only strategy it has adopted thus far is that of willing, authoring and managing creativity as opposed to truly engaging it. Such a contractual relationship has negated the chance to negotiate and reconcile the inherent tensions and has only served to escalate them.

In this particular instance of funding the theatrical arts, it is really a case of a flawed method based on a flawed philosophy.


By: Ho Rui An