A satirical revue by the popular cabaret trio Dim Sum Dollies, which takes sly digs at Singapore life, has come under the spotlight after it was given an Advisory 16 rating and granted a licence to perform just three days before the show was due to open on Dec 11.
Culture Medallion recipient and founding artistic director of Wild Rice Ivan Heng had taken the Media Development Authority (MDA) to task in a Facebook post on Dec 9 and criticised the authority for keeping Dim Sum Dollies waiting for the performance licence and giving the show the "Advisory 16: some mature content" rating.
He wrote: "Since when did it become dangerous for young people to be socially and politically aware? This has everything to do with being conscious and mindful about what goes on in our nation-city-state - how our country is run, the relationship between the ruler and the ruled, and ultimately, how we all get on with one another. Young people should care about such things because they are the future."
The post has attracted more than 1,300 likes.
Dream Academy, which produces the show, said the group had submitted the first version of the script to the authority on Sept 16. It made a few changes to the script subsequently "as the piece is a new work, but the bulk of the work was there from the start", said Dream Academy founder Selena Tan. The final script was submitted on Dec 1.
An MDA spokesman said that the authority had "proceeded to classify the content and issue the licence expeditiously" after the final script was submitted.
The spokesman added that the performance was rated "Advisory 16" "for its satirical socio-political references, which would be more suited for a mature audience".
The authority cited "works of a similar nature" that have also been given Advisory 16 ratings, such as Orh Hor! A Sketch Comedy Revue (2013) and The Hossan Leong Show (2010), adding that "the Advisory 16 rating is not age-restrictive and serves to allow consumers to make an informed viewing choice".
This is the first time that any of the popular Dim Sum Dollies revues - which typically contain tongue-in-cheek humour, satirical song-and-dance routines, and wry digs at Singapore life - have been issued a classification or rating of any sort since the trio's debut in 2002.
Those under the age of 16 will not be refused entry into the show, which runs at the Esplanade Theatre till Dec 23.
Tan, who is part of the trio and the show's playwright, said in an e-mail to The Straits Times that "minor changes" were made to the script. She added: "MDA has always been very prompt with its responses. Usually, it takes a month. That is the only reason we were worried because this was an unusually long response time. We could only assume that they were swamped with work."
This year's edition of the Dim Sum Dollies is a sequel of sorts to The History Of Singapore, which was staged in 2007 to rave reviews and dealt with events in pre-independence Singapore. The upcoming show contains politically themed sketches such as The Mas Selamat Mess-up and The ISA Wave Of Detentions, which reference the escape of former Jemaah Islamiah leader Mas Selamat Kastari from detention in 2008 and the 1987 Marxist conspiracy arrests.
Several theatre groups interviewed said that the MDA sometimes takes longer than usual to grant a licence and rating in instances where plays are perceived as tackling sensitive material.
Chong Tze Chien, company director of The Finger Players, said that his award-winning play Charged (2010), an intense army drama looking at racial tensions, got a licence a week before the show's opening. It was rated R18.
A decade earlier, Sex.Violence.Blood.Gore (1999), a play he co-wrote with playwright Alfian Sa'at, was given a licence the day before the opening and three scenes containing certain sexual and racial references were cut from the script.
Chong noted that if a play is not given a licence about a month before its opening, "you know you're going to run into some problems and issues". He also says that the company must comply with the conditions attached to the licence or risk not being able to stage the play.
He added: "We are one of the very few countries in the world where arts groups have to apply for a licence before we can put on a performance... that in itself is already a form of censorship, and a more insidious one, actually."
Alvin Tan, artistic director of The Necessary Stage, found it "worrying" that Dream Academy, a mainstream company not usually subject to regulation or censorship, has experienced this treatment.
The Necessary Stage received the licence for Mardi Gras (2003), a comedy that imagines what might happen when a group of friends decide to stage the country's first gay pride parade, on the day the show was scheduled to open. The group is known for its socially conscious and incisive work.
Heng told The Straits Times that the company's acclaimed election docu-drama Cooling Off Day received its licence on the day it opened, Aug 10, 2011. The licence was dated Aug 8. The political play, written by Alfian, was given an advisory for mature content and recommended for audiences aged 16 and above, similar to that of the Dim Sum Dollies.
Heng felt that the authority's actions reflect a "persistent ignorance and distrust of the arts". He added that "all of the arts, to be of any worth, must be a reflection of society - and it will have to contain sociopolitical references".
Dim Sum Dollies' Tan is just relieved that the show can go on. "Dim Sum Dollies are all about satirical comedy - lots of sociopolitical stuff plus other things. It's about life... just funnier. We are just really happy that we are able to proceed."
Follow Corrie Tan on Twitter @CorrieTan