Poet asks artists to reconsider state arts funding

Singapore poet Jee Leong Koh (above).
Singapore poet Jee Leong Koh (above).PHOTO: ST FILE

A call by Singapore poet Jee Leong Koh asking artists here to "reconsider engagement with the state and its arts funding" has generated discussion in the arts community.

In a strongly worded Facebook posting uploaded yesterday morning, the New York-based Koh took issue with recent comments made by National Arts Council chairman Professor Chan Heng Chee, who addressed the issue of censorship and arts funding at the Singapore International Film Festival.

Koh said he would no longer work with the arts council, citing examples such as how he withdrew his submission to a poetry anthology that would likely require arts council funding.

Speaking on Nov 26, Prof Chan cited a case in the United States where the Supreme Court upheld advice that the National Endowment of the Arts consider decency and respect for diverse American values when awarding grants.

This example, she said, demonstrated how the state is often the arbiter of standards, along with society and its subsets.

"Standards and values will evolve. Until then, there will be negotiation and compromise," she said.

She noted that while it has been argued that state money is taxpayers' money, "if taxpayers were to have their say, many may argue for money to be spent on welfare subsidies or education and less on the arts".

Writing on Facebook as well as his Singapore Poetry website, Koh said that Prof Chan's speech "makes it all too clear that the state after Lee Kuan Yew is bent on controlling the arts through its funding. It will support the arts as a way of promoting the Singapore brand, and neuter the arts as a means of political and social expression".

"(The state) knows that it is the main funder of the arts in Singapore, and that Singapore artists have come to rely on its funding," he wrote.

The only way out of this, he added, is to "develop and present our works by using private, overseas or minimal funding".

The comments by Koh, whose book Steep Tea was recently recognised by international daily The Financial Times as one of its Best Poetry works of the year, are the latest salvo fired in several weeks of debate.

Practitioners and administrators alike have aired their views on how state funding is allocated to the arts.

Koh's post has in total drawn over350 likes and more than 100 shares so far. It has met with mixed views from those in the arts.

Some, such as novelist- playwright Ovidia Yu and musician Ko Sherman, expressed their support.

Others, such as former Singapore Art Museum director Kwok Kian Chow and film-maker Jasmine Ng, said that while state funding may have its limitations, it does play a role in developing the arts here.

Speaking to The Straits Times, playwright Tan Tarn How said: "It is fallacious to argue that if you don't want to get censored, you should not get government funding.

"Art is a public good that, like education and health, the Government must fund, as part of its role to further the public good and as custodian of the people's money."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 08, 2015, with the headline 'Poet asks artists to reconsider state arts funding'. Print Edition | Subscribe