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December 10, 2011

Fear of Speaking

Written by June Yap


It has been called a ‘watershed’ year for local citizenry in Singapore, with the double elections — parliamentary elections in April and presidential elections in August — inducing even the most politically apathetic to consider having a political opinion to call their own, in a country that has been ruled by a single party, the People’s Action Party (PAP) since its establishment. The parliamentary election in 2011 saw an unprecedented number of opposition parties contesting, and the presidential election was a four-cornered fight, where before it was usually left uncontested, or else a somewhat pallid affair. A description that became common in the news media with the increase in political coverage in press and online, is of how there is a ‘new normal’ in Singapore’s political landscape. The term ‘new normal’ is itself not quite so new. It is used to indicate the establishment of a new standard in economics, finance and other fields. However, when uttered in early July, by then-presidential candidate, President Tony Tan — previously Deputy Prime Minister, Minister of Defence and the Chairman of the Singapore Press Holdings (the country’s main news publisher) — to describe the changes in parliamentary composition after the election, it is harder to overlook. But what does this ‘new normal’ actually mean?


Where in politics, fashionable terms are tenaciously latched upon as emotions get whipped up, a bit of perspective, it is felt, is needed. In 1994, writer Catherine Lim authored an article published in The Straits Times titled ‘The PAP and the people — A Great Affective Divide. The story of Singapore as a nation is often described in terms of its economic success, rapidly transforming from ‘fishing village’ to city-state, its development generally attributed to its hard-headed, economically-driven, policies. In her article, Lim suggests that the effectiveness of an unrelenting pursuit of material gain at a national level could regrettably result in a ‘volatile, mobile loyalty’, referring to political and national loyalty. Lim’s article resulted in severe castigation by the government then, and the suggestion that if Lim wished to speak of politics, she should then enter the political arena. In our ‘new normal’ political landscape today, the question that needs asking is whether things are any different?


The Aristotelian claim that human beings are innately political, is based on the human capacity for speech, the ability to think and articulate our thoughts. Such an inherent characteristic, in Aristotle’s theory of politics, sets the foundation for the city-state. While Aristotle’s argument, moving from speech to political rule and its implications, may be a subject of academic disagreement, the necessary conjunction of expression and politics, is important in the arts.


The Films Act in Singapore criminalises the production of films that are deemed ‘party-political’. That is, films that may possess an opinion on politics, rather than portraying ‘actual events’ as determined by the state. A fairly recent employment of the Act is the prohibition of a film, ‘Zahari’s 17 Years’, produced by film-maker Martyn See, in April 2007. The film is a documentary of Zahari Said, a former editor of the Malay-language newspaper Utusan Melayu and president of Parti Rakyat Singapura, who was detained by the government from 1963 to 1979. Fast forward to the present, the question that needs to be asked in this ‘new normal’ political terrain, if there is truth in this new level of political engagement, is whether this Act past its prime? The answer perhaps lies in action rather than words. While it may be claimed that political debate is most effective in its place in parliament, as Catherine Lim was so advised in 1994, the leap to a proscription of any political debate outside of parliament is questionable, and it is suggested that the arts is a suitable arena for such a debate.


In September 2011, the theatre company Theatreworks presented a production written by local playwright Tan Tarn How and directed by Ong Keng Sen, titled ‘Fear of Writing.’ The theatrical production dramatises the plight of a playwright trying to write a political play about Dr Chee Soon Juan. Chee, a member of the opposition Singapore Democratic Party, has over the years been repeatedly sued by the incumbent party and is regularly portrayed detrimentally in main press coverage, making him a controversial subject of opinion even for the arts. Like film, all theatre productions in Singapore are required to submit their scripts to the government agency, the Media Development Authority, for permission to be publicly staged. And as with film, theatre productions have been censored over the years. The play begins with an announcement by the actors, that the play’s official permission has been revoked, however given that the audiences have arrived, the performance will continue, albeit as a private party event, rather than a public one. Slightly rattled, the audience continue to watch the performance. The censorship depicted in the play is both private — the play’s playwright’s moments of angst, and public — the play’s producer character dismissing the marketability of such a play. Haunted by a need to write, yet plagued by fears of censure, the playwright in the play struggles and appears to just fall short of writing the play that calls from deep inside him. At the end of the play, a public official character within the play attempts to shut down the performance, and comes close to presenting to an audience the experience that artists and art professionals go through in navigating censorship. As the public official character brings the performance to a halt, audiences are told they are to provide their personal information to the officials who have arrived, and for a moment the playwright’s dilemma is posed to the audience: should we speak up, or do we quietly accede to censorship?


Through the years, theatrical productions, artworks, performances and films by artists have been banned, cut, prevented through denial of venue, have had funding withheld, content and titles changed, and have been restricted and closed. All this in the name of the protection of faceless individuals, who if identified, incidentally are not forced to view these works. Many of these occurrences are quietly forgotten, and often artists fail to speak up for fear of being stigmatised and blacklisted by organisations, venues and funding agencies. But in allowing for the normalisation of censorship of the arts to pervade society, have we failed to understand art’s capacity for promoting social cohesion and understanding, by providing a space where we can civilly disagree? And as a multi-cultural society, such as Singapore is, surely we must be ready to disagree.


One of the questions raised in Tan’s play, is whether artists should ‘engage in politics,’ if art can or should present political opinion? The question appears straightforward, but is arguably disingenuous, for what does it mean for artists to ‘engage in politics’? One might as well ask, should bankers have values, should teachers have prejudices, should cleaners have dignity? The other question raised by the play, is whether art itself has any political efficacy. While the play persuasively presents itself as ‘failing’, its true success is in portraying the anxiety and problems of what happens when art expression is deemed ‘political’ and prevented. In non-art spheres of life, the ability to respond to an unfolding situation is key to success. Yet with censorship, our ability to dialogue with one another through the arts is obstructed, and our ability to feel for another anaesthetised. Art has political efficacy, but its political power is in its capacity for dialogue. Art creates the opportunity to engage with our community, see another’s point of view, and to have some consideration for someone else’s experience.


The play ends and the audience applauds, one exits a gallery, the screening room lights come on, and we may understand life and our community a little better. Should art engage in politics? Yes, for it does so in the most polite of ways — in conversation. With the elections over and the exuberance of political speeches a faint memory, we go back to our daily lives. So what is this ‘new normal’ we have arrived at? Would it be one where we allow for each other to speak, where we listen to each other, and in so doing we perhaps relate to one another a little better? We shall have to find out.

JUNE YAP is an independent curator