A listening ear for the arts community

Arts groups would be buoyed by the Media Development Authority's (MDA) decision not to proceed with a scheme that would have permitted the groups to give age-appropriate ratings to their own productions in line with the authority's classification code. What the MDA saw as co-regulation - one interpretation of which is that it would have entailed liberalisation of the existing licensing regime - the arts community viewed as self-censorship and not empowerment. This difference had the classic makings of a dispute in which the State could have used its legislative powers to override the interests and concerns of a particular group. That would have been commonplace in an earlier era of Singapore's political and artistic development.

Instead, the authority chose to engage the arts community through further extensive rounds of consultation. When these revealed irreconcilable differences, the MDA proceeded to drop the controversial Arts Term Licensing Scheme. In doing so, it showed its capacity to agree to disagree instead of viewing the State-arts relationship as a zero- sum game. This is a healthy development for society at large as it matures. Indeed, depending on the nature of the issue, more could be done to have in-depth discussions with affected groups when drawing up schemes that are likely to attract deep and spirited opposition. That way, the groups' initial reservations could be reflected in a proposed scheme before it is made public and thrown open for a further and wider round of consultations.

Meanwhile, the engagement between the MDA and artists' network Arts Engage over the scheme reiterates some of the fundamental tensions in the relationship between the State and the arts. Governments do not indulge in special pleading when they seek to regulate the arts on the basis that they are mandated to provide security, order and continuity to citizens: This is why governments exist at all. However, arts practitioners, too, are honest when they argue that their works flourish in portraying the realms of conflict and change, two aspects of the human condition that find their finest expression in the artistic imagination.

There is no state from which the imagination has been banished, but there also is no state where the arts rule. The challenge lies in finding a balance between the competing agencies of art and order, each with legitimate interests in its own sphere. Each country will seek a balance on its own terms, and the balance itself will shift with the times. This is what is happening in Singapore. This process will benefit from the finesse displayed by the MDA in its handling of the scheme. There were no losers in this controversy.