Art As Res Publicae

Eugene Tan

July 18, 2017

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We were reminded that the event was unprecedented in Singapore. Those of us who paid attention to the news would have noted that the event was previously titled OPEN Parliament, but now, much like the naming of IRs, or Integrated Resorts (actually casinos), it now had a name that was quite meaningless in passing (Art as Res Publicae…means what?), censorship by obfuscation, would suggest that someone somewhere got hella uncomfortable.

Why did I take part, mostly those two reasons, I always want to be the first to have any experience, but can’t be bothered to queue at McDonald’s for Hello Kitty anything, plus, I LOVE placing myself in places that might make other people uncomfortable.

So there I was, a discussant in OPEN Parliament.

So what happened?

Because this is art (but not according to the IMDA, for them, this was a private talk), we should probably talk about process.

There was an open call for discussants, I responded and was interviewed by Noorlinah Mohamed, director of the O.P.E.N., and once, my speech and drama teacher. We talked about various things, where she discovered that I apparently can say quite inflammatory things, that my world view probably leans more liberal than not, and also I talk. A lot. We also talked about how we all hoped more people who lean more conservatively would participate, but alas, they weren’t available. I guess showing your face is scarier than posting on We Are Against Pink Dot in Singapore, and I suppose a roomful of reasonable people probably don’t care that you are a magician and a pastor and the husband of raging lunatic. As we once used to say, “whatevs”.

After this round of interviews, we attended two workshops, where I met some of my fellow discussants. One workshop helped us understand the structure of the discussion. I’ll admit, I didn’t really pay attention, but it was fun. And the second workshop, led by Tan Tarn How gave a kind of overview of censorship in Singapore. In both workshops there was some discussion, and already, although most people seemed quite liberal (ie reasonable), there was enough variance to have meaningful conversation. Yay!

We then went away, and on the day of the first event, the opener of the OPEN, we convened to consider some of the complexities of pluralism in Singapore. About fifty of us discussants sat in a bank of seats, and we watched a reading of a scene from Wills and Secession by Eleanor Wong. The lesbianism was real. Actually it was kinda imagined, Tan Kheng Hua playing the lesbian character is currently married to a man. And then we heard view points from 6 people, some formally trained, some educated by life, all experts in their particular take on plurality in Singapore.

Then the discussants were to ask the panel questions. And the gathered audience of 200 were to ask questions. Then the audience took a break, while the discussants got bento boxes and had to deliberate about two questions: Which of 6 statements (some from real life, some from art) did we find most contentious? And which would we allow to be performed on stage.

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This is where I was surprised — it just wasn’t that heated. At least in my group of discussants, we came to consensus quite quickly. Interestingly, our conclusions were quite the opposite from how things played out in real life, we had bigger issue with a statement threatening to kill a park full of gay people and their allies (made on Facebook by Bryan Lim after Pink Dot 2016) than we did with a statement calling Christians hypocrites (made on YouTube by Amos Yee). In real life, Mr Lim was fined, and Mr Yee went to jail, In our deliberation, we found them incomparable, one threatened mass murder, the other hurt some feelings.

At this point, the audience was ushered back in, we reported the results of our deliberations and then the evening was drawn to a close by T Sasitharan, (in a theme for the evening, he is the brother of my Secondary school drama teacher), who offered a “closing coda”, that, again, I was a bit tired and didn’t get to pay full attention, except for #FUD, I’m not sure what that stood for, but hey man! #FUD #FTW.

The next day, we gathered and followed a similar event structure, but with a screening of excerpts from Dementia, a play performed at SIFA in 2015, comments about dementia and elder care from the panel of experts, and a MUCH livelier discussion from the discussants. We were asked to consider a story, of a woman who ends up blindfolding and masturbating her father, to fulfill his last wish. And again we were asked if we thought the scene as written could be staged.

This time round, we talked a lot more, something about aging and dying and sex get much more at your values, there’s much more to unpack. This time too, after the groups were done deliberating, and reporting their deliberations, there was another round of lively discussion about the issues that these deliberations brought up. And interestingly, a thread of “we should allow this scene to be staged, but tastefully/elegantly/artistically” which I have to admit, made me want to scream, coz really, there is nothing inherently elegant or tasteful about a woman whacking off her father, also, isn’t that the point, why can we still not trust that artists will do what they need?

Again the evening closed with a “Closing Coda” from Sasi, again, I wasn’t paying attention, but everybody around me was nodding in agreement, so I guess it was smart. No hashtags on night 2 though.

And thus ended this historic event. And I was a part of it. And the sky didn’t fall. And the IMDA wasn’t disparaged.

There were many people I wish were there. People who were conservative who could tell some of us to shut the hell up and give us a bigger fight. It emerged later that they were in fact reached out to, institutionally and personally and all declined. I wish Gaurav Kripalani, the incoming director of SIFA was there, if for no other reason, so he could see what he was inheriting before he shot his mouth off about mainstream taste, but there was no cheese to be had at the reception, so I understand.

All in, what does it say that people gathering to deliberate the possibilities of the living together is so deeply contentious that it is groundbreaking and historic?

Can I haz a million dollar salary now?

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  • 2017