Culture Vulture

The fear of funding cuts

The Spirits Play, a production by The Finger Players, one of Singapore's leading theatre companies.
The Spirits Play, a production by The Finger Players, one of Singapore's leading theatre companies.The Spirits Play, a production by The Finger Players, one of Singapore's leading theatre companies.

When the state is the biggest sponsor of the arts scene, artists rightfully fear being shut out for not toeing the official line

From times historical to the present day, it has been the generosity of patrons that helps artists consistently produce new work.

This relationship can be a double-edged sword especially when, as in Singapore, the state is the biggest sponsor of the arts scene.

Funding from corporate and individual sponsors is merely a fraction of the support that comes from the state, as outlined in last week's Singapore Cultural Statistics report from the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth.

If $61 million was donated privately to arts and culture in cash and kind last year, state funding for arts and heritage was $490 million, eight times that amount.

This contrast has held true for at least the past seven years. It is state funding that is behind the visual arts showcase, the Singapore Biennale; performing arts celebration the Singapore International Festival of Arts; and the Singapore Writers Festival.

State sponsorship is a double-edged sword and artists here dance on the edge, never knowing when they will be skewered by it.

State funding supports the production of new theatre here, has revitalised the literary scene by offering publishing and translation grants to Singapore publishing houses and also allows the Singapore Symphony Orchestra and Singapore Chinese Orchestra to put on full musical seasons.

We are spoilt for choice when it comes to theatre or visual art or books that reflect Singaporean tastes. But what about creative work that challenges the palate?

Many artists feel that state coffers close instantly for such work. Earlier this year, the National Arts Council withdrew an $8,000 grant for The Art Of Charlie Chan Hock Chye, a graphic novel by Sonny Liew that parodies historical events such as Operation Spectrum in 1987, in which 16 people were detained allegedly over a Marxist conspiracy to overthrow the Government.

Liew has previously received the council's Young Artist Award for his comic books but, in this case, the council stated: "The retelling of Singapore's history in the work potentially undermines the authority or legitimacy of the Government and its public institutions, and thus breaches our funding guidelines."

Interestingly, Operation Spectrum is currently being parodied on stage in the Wild Rice pantomime, The Emperor's New Clothes. Playwright Joel Tan has it as "Operation Plectrum", an autocratic ruler's plot to silence all musicians who compete for attention.

Wild Rice productions regularly incorporate political parody, yet from 2013 until April next year, the troupe is partly funded by a $280,000 major grant from the council.

In an earlier twist to the tale, Wild Rice had its arts council funding cut in 2009 for projects that supported alternative lifestyles and were critical of Government policies.

No wonder then at the end of the performance I saw last Saturday, artistic director Ivan Heng thanked the council for its sponsorship and urged the audience to write to the authorities to say that Singaporeans do not need to be sheltered from creative work.

Veteran artist Ong Keng Sen put it this way in a radio interview last month: "I think Singapore is a country that is always 'two steps forward, three steps back'. We're actually dancing on the spot."

Ong, artistic director of the Singapore International Festival of Arts and the first non-civil servant to hold this position, said in that interview that sponsorship is essential to an artist since the arts are not self-sustaining and may never be, given the small market here.

Artists are then under pressure to self-censor, in order to propitiate the major patron, the state. His point is that arts council money is  taxpayer money and should not be withheld from dissenting voices.

The arts council's chief executive officer Kathy Lai responded in a letter published in The Straits Times on Nov 7, saying that the council does its best to support a diversity of artistic expression, but "we will have difficulty funding art with public funds if such works merely feed a desire for self-expression, without any consideration of their impact on the public and whether they truly enrich their lives".

A week later, artists' network Arts Engage responded to Ms Lai's letter querying the assumption that "only the state... can decide 'what is good for society'" and pointing out the problems when funding is used by the state "as a blunt instrument of censorship".

For a lover of the arts like me, artists are the challengers of the status quo, the conscience of a society and the creators of work that reminds us mortals that we are eternal spirit as well as flesh and bone. The most important question is whether the need for funding from official sources is causing artists to rein themselves in and, by extension, rob consumers like me of their best work.

In 2011, I wrote a news story about a book titled Singapore Shifting Boundaries, published by the non-profit group Asian Urban Lab. It had writings on the topics of sexuality, foreign workers' rights, student activism, ethnic identity and the treatment of all these themes was innocuous rather than firebrand revolutionary writing.

Yet I had to persuade one editor of the book to let me write about it. He feared a backlash should popular attention come to the work, since lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues and racial ones are hot-button topics.

In contrast, four years later, the creator and publisher of The Art Of Charlie Chan Hock Chye had no hesitation discussing in print those themes of the book that later invited official censure.

Perhaps there is less fear of creation these days but artists are aware that a state sword hangs over their heads and may come down arbitrarily.

Theatre practitioner Tan Kheng Hua has just received a $63,000 grant from the council to help produce a two-weekend theatre festival next June. The Twenty- Something Theatre Festival is inviting submissions from new playwrights - the only caveat being that they must still be 20somethings by the last day of the festival next year, on June 19 - and six shortlisted writers will be given $5,000 each to stage their works. (Details and submission guidelines are on www.goodmanarts centre.sg/events/the20somethingtheatrefestival)

The rest of the money goes to new productions from two invited, more established 20something playwrights - Irfan Kasban and Joel Tan, of the pointedly political The Emperor's New Clothes - with $20,000 each. The Arts House is supporting the festival by providing the performance venue and rehearsal space for these productions at The Goodman Arts Centre.

I asked Tan Kheng Hua what might happen if one or more of the submissions breaches official funding guidelines. The plays will also be submitted for ratings to the Media Development Authority, which grants performance licences - another official barrier to surmount.

She does not want to borrow trouble, but as she goes around tertiary institutions inviting submissions, she stresses that the students should write without fear and write what is true to them. All the judges are known for cutting-edge work: Cultural Medallion recipient Haresh Sharma, resident playwright of The Necessary Stage; Cake Theatrical Productions' Natalie Hennedige; and Lee Mun Wai, formerly a choreographer/principal dancer with T.H.E. Dance Company.

State sponsorship is a double- edged sword and artists here dance on the edge, never knowing when they will be skewered by it.

One bright spot is that both Ms Lai and the Arts Engage representatives in their letters welcomed open and candid discussion between officialdom and artists, in the hope of achieving understanding and maybe even change. Might the sword be laid flat one day, if not entirely sheathed?

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 24, 2015, with the headline 'The fear of funding cuts'. Print Edition | Subscribe