The conservative renaissance – part 2

Ambiguous clauses and the problem of interpretation

Far from providing clarity, the latest statement issued by the National Arts Council (NAC) has farther mystified the supposed guidelines that are adhered to in awarding grants, by throwing out a set of ambiguous clauses that masquerade as objective markers. What on earth are "alternative lifestyles", this perpetual staple of conservative discourse? What are these "core values" that appear to possess us? These supposed guidelines are based on definitions that are susceptible to arbitrary readings and political manipulation. The council speaks of "core values" as if they could be identified with a litmus test.

Then of course, there is the even bigger conundrum of interpreting a work to determine its compatibility to these ambiguous guidelines. How do we ascertain the target and extent of a play's political critique? Is it something we can judge from the programme booklet? Do we judge by referring to explicit, visible signals? Would The Necessary Stage's production Can Change, staged in January, be considered a defender of government policy or its parody? Clearly such a system puts the works of W!LD RICE, with its broad mainstream appeal and its more demonstrative methods of satire at a clear disadvantage.

The fact is that the nuances of art will always present a challenge towards ascertaining its intentions with definite certitude. But the futility of attaining objectivity does not mean that it is impossible to create a set of guidelines that is at least functional. The key to this is communal dialogue. Any proclamation on objectivity is at best specious if the plurality of opinions coming from the various stakeholders of the art world (which includes the audience) is not even engaged. To carry out such deliberations within an exclusive group behind closed doors is to claim absolute authority over thematic and artistic interpretation.

A fundamentally problematic philosophy

But of course, the bigger question is, why bother even clarifying the definitions when the very nature of the guidelines is deeply problematic? Wouldn't it be a mere refinement of the tools of oppression and a farther elaboration of a misguided philosophy? Before we even go about reestablishing the rules of governance, it is paramount to correct the fundamental misconceptions that inform the NAC's approach towards the arts.

First, the notion of "alternative lifestyles" needs to be relooked. The authorities invoke the term as a preacher would speak of an absolute sin. But is there anything inherent wrong with the term "alternative"? The term has been rhetorically conflated with malicious abnormality through its appropriation in the anti-gay speeches of religious fundamentalists. Even if we were to consider the alternative as a deviation from a specified norm, why should difference be condemned? Why is the term, "alternative lifestyle" used to denigrate homosexuality but not vegetarianism or alternative spirituality?

In this light, hasn't theatre always been about the alternative? Isn't it the necessary responsibility of art to think, to question and to challenge the normative? The very nature of theatre has been built upon the alternative. It isolates the particular and personal and accentuates its individuated identity upon the stage. It functions within a fundamentally decentered space where a displacement of the universal enables new possibilities to be negotiated and expressed. Its ultimate utilitarian value towards society is thus its capacity to imagine and stimulate progressive change.

In the report by The Strait Times on 13 May 2010, a statement by Nancy Lim, the NAC's assistant finance manager reveals the authorities' critical misconception of theatre and the arts, claiming that "there is a wide range of topics" in the arts and that "we don't have to go into the grey areas".

But aren't these "grey areas" precisely the province of the arts? What is the critical value of an arts scene which only performs staged readings of government rhetoric? The authorities appear to envision theatre only as a form of recital, determined only to fund productions that serve as pretty vignettes of creativity to populate our aspiring Renaissance City.

Next, the concomitant problem that comes with the problem of "alternative lifestyles" is that of "core values". In an email to the arts community, poet-playwright Alfian Sa'at has expressed that "there has been no articulation of what Singapore's 'core values are'" and associated the term with "glittering generality". Indeed, how can we even speak of an "alternative" with such confidence if the centre is not even defined? (Not that there is really a necessity for it.) The "core values" are a mythical and rhetorical construct that needs to be radically deconstructed.

In the combined statement by the arts community, it is expressed that there seems to be some confusion between "core values" and "mainstream values". Effectively, the word "core" suggests a certain fixity that needs to be governed aggressively at all costs. Its very nature is steeped in the political. On the other hand, mainstream values can shift over time. In fact, why do we even need to designate such "core values"? And even if they do serve a functional purpose, why should it be the obligation of the arts to articulate such constructed values that don't even serve as an accurate mirror of society?

Lastly, the flagrant demand that the arts abstain from works that criticise government policy is both impossible and dangerous. This brand of apolitical theatre that the authorities valorise simply does not exist. Particularly in a city-state where the government attains an omnipresence, is it remotely possible to examine the issues of society, culture or that of everyday life without any form of critique of government policy? The council curiously appears to be undermining the very influence of the state upon its people. Theatre does not reside in its own ivory tower and cannot exist without a context. There is no detour to social or cultural critique without the implication of government policy.

More importantly, this act of depoliticising theatre is inimical to the values of democracy that our society upholds. What is to happen if we were to lose this final bastion of criticality within a society that is already unapologetically censorial? This is a point that Alfian Sa'at has reinforced in the aforementioned email:

“Government is not beyond criticism. The mandate to govern is not equivalent to immunity from critique. If the citizenry has a right to vote, then it also has the right to express its opinions on the performance of the elected during their term. Reputation is built from one's ability to counter (or even ignore) criticism, rather than one's ability to silence it.”

Transparency and Accountability

In Heng's response to TOC, he revealed that the company has met with NAC on several occasions over the years. Several of these "negotiations" resulted in the NAC's logo being removed from all publicity materials, signalling the council's desire not to be associated with the productions. In these instances, the funding remained intact.

More recently in March, the NAC warned the company that should it persist in doing plays "which promoted an alternative lifestyle, and which were contrary to the core values of society, or were critical of the Government, [its] funds would be cut". The company subsequently requested for a meeting with the board but was told that it would not make a difference. There was essentially no right of appeal or recourse.

The company later received assurance that the funding would not be cut for the 2010 season, given that the company was staging revivals that had received funding previously. The contrary happened within a month.

Such accounts undeniably cast doubts upon the integrity of the NAC as an institution of public character. In the first instance, while what happened is clearly a lesser evil as opposed to cutting the funding outright, it is still a form of public deceit. Is this how the NAC ensures its accountability to the public? More crucially, it also reveals that the NAC possesses a clear awareness of the contradictions inherent in its approach towards arts funding, which it evidently attempts to keep out of public view.

Furthermore, why is there so much furtiveness in the council's management of arts funding? Why are the funds, which in effect come from the tax-paying audience, disbursed in such an arbitrary fashion? How did the council come to decide upon these elusive funding guidelines in the first place?

The Conservative Renaissance

Perhaps the most befuddling aspect of this debacle is the awkward timing of the move. Companies like W!LD RICE have engaged in various forms of political theatre since its inception and rarely have any of these works provoked any form of public backlash. There appears to be no particular production in recent memory that could serve as a plausible trigger for such a reactionary move. The oft-mentioned The Important of Being Earnest can hardly compare with the company's earlier works in terms of raising the hairs of fundamentalist crazies and The Campaign To Confer The Public Service Star On JBJ was staged way back in 2007. Particularly, why is funding being cut for the company's tenth anniversary season which features revivals of old works that had previously received funding during their original runs?

Can it thus be inferred that it is the NAC and the government that have become more conservative? There are telling signs that they have. Last August, we saw the appointment of Benson Puah as the council's CEO when he was already holding on to the same appointment in The Esplanade. On 12 May 2010, it was announced in TODAY that the NAC and The Esplanade, both led by the same man, will "explore a strategic partnership" to manage both the Victoria Theatre and the Drama Centre when The Esplanade takes over the management of both venues. Poet-playwright Ng Yi-Sheng has also posted a series of commentaries on the official Singapore Arts Festival blog (http://singartsfestival.wordpress.com/) on the recent developments concerning the festival which opens this weekend. Are we moving towards an arts scene that is gradually moulded to become more centralised and controlled?

The only Renaissance that appears to be happening is that of conservatism. The tools of oppression have been quietly reinvented to operate insidiously beneath a liberalising social and cultural scene. But the blatancy of the NAC's recent statement signals the alarming ambitions of this conservative rebirth: it no longer seeks to function beneath the veil of euphemism and disguise, but aspires legitimisation as the righteous crusader, valiantly safeguarding a mythical set of "core values" that is made to possess us from within.


By Ho Rui An