Only four political parties have mentioned arts and culture in their General Election (GE) manifestos, which mostly consist of “motherhood statements”, said the Singaporean playwright Alfian Sa’at in the Ethos Books’ Facebook livestream video on Sunday (26 July).
Mr Alfian was among the panellists in the Ethos Books’ gathering of civil society that has brought together activists from different areas. The gathering, which titled The Ground Speaks: Civil Society After GE2020, was livestreamed on Facebook on Sunday.
Representing the arts community, the poet revealed that the Wild Rice – which is a theatre practitioner – had organized a panel to evaluate the political parties’ manifestos following the GE that was held on 10 July.
“Only four of them, the People’s Action Party (PAP), the Workers’ Party (WP), the Progress Singapore Party (PSP) and Red Dot United (RDU) had mentioned about the arts and culture in their manifestos,” he stated.
They then compared the four parties’ manifestos with the manifestos in Indonesia and Malaysia, where arts are perceived as the national identity, cultural heritage and the creative industries.
“In Singapore’s manifestos, they were mostly motherhood statements,” Mr Alfian remarked.
He added that both the WP and PSP have scored a “C” in the evaluation as the parties brought up about the liberalisation and depoliticization of the arts policy, while the PAP and RDU were given a “D”.
“There was still a long way to go. The question of how artists managed to shape the discourse in the recent elections is a very tricky one because much of what we consider are invisible,” said Mr Alfian.
He recalled a survey commissioned by The Sunday Times which asked 1,000 respondents on the jobs that they think the most crucial in Singapore. The survey result was published on 14 June, in which 71 per cent of the respondents had chosen artists as the least essential job.
“This led to much anxiety over whether this could be taken as some empirical justification to reduce the city-state’s funding for the arts in the future,” said Mr Alfian, while referring to the survey results.
He pointed out that both the National Arts Council (NAC) and the Ministry of Culture Community and Youth (MCCY) made no statements to “reaffirm the value of the arts” nor to “restate their commitment” to support the arts industry.
The only prominent person who defended the arts industry was veteran diplomat Professor Tommy Koh, who wrote an opinion piece to The Straits Times on 18 June in response to the survey results, said Mr Alfian.
“I cannot say with certainty how essential artists were to the 2020 elections, but I certainly would not risk ignoring artists. Not just as voters, but also campaigners for future rounds of the elections,” he noted.
Mr Alfian also described how he felt “politically vulnerable” when he was embroiled in “the PAP’s propaganda to discredit the WP’s secretary-general Pritam Singh” prior to the GE. The PAP’s Tan Wu Meng had criticized Mr Singh for his supports towards the playwright, as he finds Mr Alfian is not a “loving critic” of Singapore.
“When Pritam spoke in Parliament, urging the Government not to selectively read my poems, the PAP did exactly that by selectively going through my Facebook posts to paint me as a pro- Malaysia activist.
“But that’s how unbridled power operates. It often does the opposite of what it is asked to do because there is little to hold it accountable. Which is why I often question whether it is enough for artists and writers to speak truth to power because very often power simply refuses to listen,” he noted.
Commenting on the PAP’s Edwin Tong’s appointment as the Minister of MCCY, Mr Alfian said it is “slightly alarming” as Mr Tong is also holding the Second Minister for Law position.
“But we will have to wait and see,” he asserted.
Mr Alfian also highlighted that the arts community are “still in crisis” as the theatres are being closed down amid the current pandemic. He emphasized on civic education as people need to be more aware of the secrecy of their votes, parliamentary processes and how to separate the Government from the Party.
“The artists can play a part in this through projects such as forum theatre, legislative theatre, community development and other rehearsals for democracy,” he said.
“The arts I believe remains essential in providing safe spaces for difficult conversations and where political and ideological diversity is not only tolerated but celebrated,” the poet added.