Arts funding and censorship

'Council's power to silence artists may diminish with time'

I refer to the article NAC Chairman On Funding As Censorship (Life, Nov 27).

Arrogating the opening of Singapore International Film Festival to allege the right of the Government to use arts funding as an instrument of censorship is, to say the least, distasteful.

Particularly so as the festival built its international reputation on an assiduous anti-censorship stance, as films with cuts are not included in the line-up.

Council chairman Chan Heng Chee cited a United States Supreme Court majority finding for the National Endowment for the Arts when it withheld funding for a group of artists, to make the point that governments have to play arbiter and set standards.

However, in the ruling, the Supreme Court also directed the National Endowment for the Arts to ensure that "artistic excellence and artistic merit are the criteria by which (grant) applications are judged, taking into consideration general standards of decency and respect for the diverse beliefs and values of the American public".


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The Supreme Court found that the above does not violate the US Constitution and The First Amendment right to free speech.

It is important to understand this because in the US, the National Endowment for the Arts withholding grants would not necessarily amount to an act of censorship.

The economy of cultural production in the US is totally different from that in Singapore. In America, art is principally funded by private enterprise, philanthropy and individuals.

Even if the Endowment withholds funding, the probability of the artwork being made and presented to the public would remain high. Not so in Singapore, where the state is the main funder of the arts. If the National Arts Council withholds funding for an artwork, it is dead in the water and will probably never see the light of day.

Historically, the clearest example of the council's power to silence was evident in 1993, after Josef Ng's controversial performance of Brother Cane, when it ceased funding performance art.

For a decade after that decision, Singapore had the dubious distinction of being the only country on the planet to censor an entire artform, not just an artwork.

In June, when the council revoked the book grant for Sonny Liew's The Art Of Charlie Chan Hock Chye, there was a different effect because council's funding for the work was surplus to its needs. The council's grant withdrawal served only to make it more desirable and popular.

Over the next few years, with the maturing economy and the diversity of interests coming to the fore in cultural production, the council's power to silence artists and art through funding may diminish. This process has already begun in the case of the literary arts where the costs of production are relatively low.

It will be a long while yet before artists working in theatre and film can taste such freedom.

Thirunalan Sasitharan

On behalf of Arts Engage

I refer to Akshita Nanda's article Arts Circle Disappointed By Arts Council Chairman's Remarks (Life, Nov 28).

I agree with National Arts Council chairman Chan Heng Chee when she said: "If taxpayers were to have their say, many may argue for more money to be spent on welfare subsidies or education and less on the arts."

I am quite sure many other artists who are made of sterner stuff would deplore government handouts and do their own thing.

Ho Fook Cheong

I could not agree more with last Saturday's letter writer (Artists Always Produce Their Best, Life, Nov 28).

There is no intrinsic link between creativity and budget or the lack of it. Funding never obstructs anyone's ability to push boundaries, be it in stage or film productions.

Fans of Hollywood classics generally agree the best films ever made were during its Golden Age (1940s and 1950s) when the Motion Picture Production Code was in force and a big movie budget was a luxury.

The Code prohibited the depiction of explicit scenes and values that were deemed immoral.

Decades later, in spite of the leaps and bounds made in movie-making technology, the relaxation of censorship guidelines and the availability of big budgets, I cannot name a modern remake that bettered an original movie from that era.

The arts community should stop whining about funding and censorship. Let artists exercise their creativity under constraints.

Ooi Mun Kong

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 05, 2015, with the headline ''Council's power to silence artists may diminish with time''. Subscribe