Arts NMP Kok Heng Leun talks targets for his term in office

As NMP, theatre veteran Kok Heng Leun wants to highlight the role of the arts in everyday life and act as a mediator between artists and the authorities

During his NMP term, Kok Heng Leun, artistic director of Mandarin theatre troupe Drama Box, seeks a deeper engagement between the arts and the community.
During his NMP term, Kok Heng Leun, artistic director of Mandarin theatre troupe Drama Box, seeks a deeper engagement between the arts and the community.PHOTO: ALICIA CHAN FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

During his term as a Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP), theatre-maker Kok Heng Leun would like to make the importance of the arts and culture in daily life more visible, including in urban and economic planning.

On top of his agenda is also acting as a mediator between artists and the authorities.

He thinks the relationship between both sides has become more problematic in the 11/2 years since the last Arts NMP, Janice Koh, completed her term in August 2014.

Kok, 50, is the artistic director of Mandarin theatre troupe Drama Box and began his term in Parliament last month. He is the third representative of the arts community to be an NMP, after arts administrator and educator Audrey Wong (2009 to 2011) was succeeded by Koh.

He threw his hat in the ring after Koh's term ended, but was not appointed then.

"After that, for the following 1½ years, as an arts community, we could feel the impact," he says over coffee at Gallery & Co in the National Gallery Singapore.

"Having an arts NMP in Parliament is not just about raising parliamentary questions. You're trying to become that channel, that intermediary that allows conversations to happen, sometimes between ministries."

He brings up examples of the problems that have occurred in the absence of an artist in Parliament: Public outcry over the National Arts Council withdrawing funds last year from comic artist Sonny Liew's graphic novel on Singapore history, The Art Of Charlie Chan Hock Chye; and the Media Development Authority's 2014 ban on public screenings of Tan Pin Pin's documentary on Singapore exiles, To Singapore With Love.

In contrast, during Koh's term in Parliament, she spoke in 2012 against a ban on Singapore film Sex.Violence.FamilyValues. It was later given an R21 rating and screened here.

He says: "When there's no communication, there can be problems."

As an NMP, he has access to information and the ability to create a platform for discussion between artists and the arts council, for example.

During his term, the married father of two plans to do fewer creative projects, while continuing research on theatre-making for an eventual book.

Drama Box's programme for the next two years will continue under associate artistic director Koh Hui Ling.

Kok is holding a townhall for the arts community at The Substation tomorrow to allow arts practitioners to raise any specific concerns.

He is determined to go beyond lobbying for more funding for the arts.

Last week, during the debate over the budget for the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth, he asked for more arts centres such as Centre 42 to develop and hone artistic talent.

He also brought up his pet topic of deepening engagement between the arts and the community.

He believes community arts projects can go beyond encouraging amateurs to paint or create and display artwork.

Since 2007, his community theatre project, IgnorLand, has looked at the cultural and social impact of disappearing landmarks.

Last year, he helmed It Won't Be Too Long, a trilogy based on the furore over a road proposed to cut through Bukit Brown Cemetery. It has received multiple nods at this year's M1-The Straits Times Life Theatre Awards.

"In Paris, there's a cultural policy. If you're going to dig up something, you have to consider how it affects the culture.

"If I'm going to build a building in Singapore, what is the relevant policy that the authorities have to abide by?"

He brings up the Cross Island Line, a proposed 50km underground MRT line cutting across the Central Catchment Nature Reserve.

"It's not just a nature issue. There's a heritage impact that we need to assess. There's also the cultural impact of how Singaporeans will be affected by the new line."

Besides urban planning, he will be active in parliamentary discussions of migration and human geography issues, healthcare and education, all of which affect the development and interaction of the Singapore community. "I feel that maybe by doing that, people will see that art, besides being a product, is a way of thinking. It's a philosophy for me," he says.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 19, 2016, with the headline 'Arts NMP outlines his role'. Subscribe