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MDA disallows performance about death penalty

by Joshua Chiang

A performance on the death penalty by artist/activist Seelan Palay was disallowed just a day before it was to be staged at the Substation.

Titled ‘Choices, Chances’, it was meant to be the closing piece in a series of short performances presented by contemporary artists to be staged on the 15th of January.  The other performances were unaffected.

According to Palay, the proposal for the performance was submitted to MDA (Media Development Authority ) two weeks before the performance. (Under the Public Entertainment and Meetings Act, most public performances require an Arts Entertainment License)

A few days before the scheduled performance the MDA informed the organizers of R.I.T.E.S by phone of ‘problems’ with his proposal. Palay’s proposal had stated that his performance would include the use of photographs of people who had been hanged in Singapore, such as Vignes Mourthi and Amara Tochi. He would also be giving out photocopied photographs of Malaysian drug trafficker Yong Vui Kong to the audience as part of the performance.

Yong had been sentenced to death in January 2009. He has been granted a stay of execution pending decision on appeal.

“They (MDA) said they had problems with the photographs and it would take longer to process the license,” Palay said.

Concerned that the license would not be approved in time for the performance, Palay decided to replace the photographs with flowers.

But on the day before the performance, Palay was told that MDA would not grant the license for his performance. The reason was because of the use of a set of dice in his performance.

“They claimed that I’m trying to suggest that the judicial process is unfair,” Palay said. It was a claim he denied.

“First of all, who are they (MDA) to interpret what it means?” he said. “The dice was about the choices they have made in their lives and the chances they have of getting hanged.”

This is the second time Palay’s works have been banned. His film, One Nation Under Lee was ‘unofficially’ banned in 2008 because it contained footage of ‘Zahari's 17 Years’, a film about ex-ISA detainee Said Zahari that was banned in 2007. Another one of his films about Francis Seow was still in the process of being rated one year after Palay’s submission.

Palay felt that MDA’s rejection of the license could be due to the fact that Yong Vui Kong's hearing regarding the clemency process was to take place on 17th Jan, two days after the his scheduled performance. However, he asserted that he didn't plan his performance to coincide with the hearing.

Calling MDA's move ‘high-handed’, Palay asked, “Does that mean no artist will be able to make a work on the death penalty unless it’s really abstract and nobody knows what it’s about?"

“They have invisible OB markers which they expect local artists to somehow know,” Palay continued. “And because of that it leads to a lot of self-censorship.”

In the end, Palay had to verbally describe his performance to the audience.

He then concluded cryptically, “Unfortunately, this performance, like fundamental freedoms in this country, will remain a figment of your imagination.”

Death Penalty in arts – green light or red light?

Even though Justice Quentin Loh had stated in the verdict to the Alan Shadrake case that individuals can, and have the right to air views on the death penalty in public , it appears that MDA still remains unsure of its position in allowing the issue to be featured in the arts.

In the same series of performances that saw Palay’s piece banned, artist Lee Wen was given the green light to perform ‘Highway 69’. a song that touched on death penalty.

Last Meals exhibition along Esplanade Tunnel last January (source: Todayonline)

In 2005, the MDA withheld the licence for the play  "Human Lefts" unless some scenes were edited and all references to the death penalty removed.

In January last year, an exhibition on American death row convicts and their last meals was displayed along the Esplanade Tunnel for two weeks.

When contacted, MDA replied that Palay's performance  was disallowed as it was "improper in the depiction of the legal system." It also directed TOC to the full set of guidelines online.