On Being Critical

Ng Yi-Sheng

May 30, 2015

There's a number of things I'd like to talk about as the month ends. But first of all, I feel I've gotta address a couple of Facebook posts I discovered yesterday, composed by former Nominated Member of Parliament Calvin Cheng.

The post everyone's been talking about is this one, wherein Cheng says the Internal Security Act might be used against playwright Alfian Sa'at (whose play Hotel will be featured in SIFA) for fomenting discontent by talking about racism.

But what's more relevant to the topic of this blog is the follow-up:


In case graphics aren't showing up on your computer, this reads:

"For too long, some members of the local arts community, especially those who produce English language content, have taken grants from the government to subvert the very people who feed them.

This needs to stop.

If you have your own money, go ahead and produce whatever content you want, subject to regulations agreed on by the moral majority. But it is doubly hateful to be taking taxpayers [sic] money to produce socially subversive content in the name of 'art'.

The arts community needs to wake up or be made to wake up. And the best way to wake them up is to starve them of the oxygen of government grants."

There's a lot to unpack here, but here's the main point I want to make:

The art that Cheng is calling "subversive" is, in essence, critical. 

It dares to comment on society, government and other institutions, pointing out their failures, demanding that they better themselves.

Art is, by its very nature, critical. Even a beautifully wrought landscape painting or sacred dance may serve as a comment on how the mundane world is not as wondrous as it could be. It provokes discussion and stimulates imaginations.

Singapore began funding its arts in earnest around the year 2000 with the vision of becoming a Renaissance City. This was one of their goals:

"To establish Singapore as a global arts city. We want to position Singapore as a key city in the Asian renaissance of the 21st century and a cultural centre in the globalised world. The idea is to be one of the top cities in the world to live, work and play in, where there is an environment conducive to creative and knowledge-based industries and talent."

- The Renaissance City Report

So we fund the arts here not simply to entertain folks, but also to create an atmosphere of creativity and freedom. And I believe we have already succeeded quite a bit in this respect - we now have loads of success stories about smart young people who've opted to become artists and musicians and YouTube creators and scientists and inventors and entrepreneurs, instead of going for stable old civil service jobs.

Plus, our arts scene has become the envy of our neighbours, because our artists can make a full-time living from the bustling calendar of events, the opportunities for art education, and of course, government funding.

The danger is, every now and then we get reactionary, and we take measures to suffocate creativity. We restrict films. We cancel grants. We stall on permits. And such measures are often enacted on works that are quietly or humorously critical rather than polemic; works that do not seek to foment revolution; works that do not yell "Fire!" in a crowded theatre; works that would not be considered provocative in other developed nations at all.

In fact, such measures are enacted upon the works that seek to engage with Singaporean issues the most - the works that express the most love for Singapore, because we have failed and continue to fail to live up to our ideals. (It's not personal: every country fails to live up to its ideals, which is why every nation's artists become politically engaged.)

Government funding for the arts is a privilege that we're lucky to have here. But withdrawing government funding because art criticises the government is really cutting off one's nose to spite one's face. Straits Times reporter Corrie Tan has already written about how problematic it is with regards to Singapore's public image.

Anyhow, I'm proud to say that this year's SIFA does include a work that engages with a political issue: DramaBox's It Won't Be Long, which grapples with our policies of demolition for the sake of development.

And by the way, Mr Cheng, it's by a Chinese language theatre group. It's not just the English language folks who're speaking up. It's all of us. Because it's what artists do.

  • 2015