Is NAC reverting to its past censorious role?

The commentary "The tough balancing act of arts funding" by National Arts Council (NAC) chief executive officer Kathy Lai (The Straits Times, Nov 7, 2015) is to be welcomed.

Socially and politically engaged artists who care deeply for both their work and society, such as my fellow artists in the Arts Engage network, agree that "open and candid discussion is good". In civilised societies such as Singapore the result of debate and controversy is accommodation, perhaps understanding, and even change.

However, there are also fundamental disagreements with much of what Ms Lai wrote.

She implies wrongly that artists "begrudge" the State's decisions to fund art that has "beauty" or brings "a smile or a moment of empathy".

However, Arts Engage believes the State must also fund or at least not censor art that might not be so pretty and feel-good, that cares for values such as freedom, justice and equality. Much of this kind of art is also beautiful, and inspires smiles and empathy.

Arts Engage believes the State must also fund or at least not censor art that might not be so pretty and feel-good, that cares for values such as freedom, justice and equality.
Much of this kind of art is also beautiful, and inspires smiles and empathy.

As visual artist Jason Wee wrote on Facebook in response to Ms Lai: "Sometimes empathy comes from sitting close to the suffering of others, or from the difficult, complicated knowledge that there may be no good way out of a tough situation."

Ms Lai also sees a dichotomy where there is none between the censored and those who aim to do good to society. Many works censored for their treatment of, say, race, religion or politics, are made by artists who hope to use art to bring about a better society through "open and candid discussion".

Many of the artists censored by the Government can by no stretch of the imagination be labelled irresponsible or practitioners of "art for art's sake". Many are socially, politically engaged. Some have been lauded by the State itself, including cultural medallion artists Ong Keng Sen and Haresh Sharma, whom Ms Lai mentions.

Ms Lai also takes as given that only the state, civil servants and politicians can decide what is "good for society", and that they would do so disinterestedly and correctly. But people, too, can decide what is good for society, and can be aided by art in doing so. And they can do so only if they have the chance to see artistic, or any kind of, work in the first place. Censorship prevents the people from seeing such works. It presumes that the ordinary person is too naive, irrational or selfish to decide for himself.

Our website also documents cases of works censored to protect the Government from embarrassment rather than for society's good. Perhaps it is fitting to remember here that arts funding is not the Government's, but the people's, money.

An Arts Engage session. The network of artists, while welcoming the commentary on arts funding by the CEO of the National Arts Council, takes exception to many of her points, particularly those on censorship. - ST FILE PHOTO

Ms Lai's article is the clearest articulation to date that the State uses funding as a blunt instrument of censorship. The clarity is important for more discussion on how problematic this is.

We have other concerns with the arguments put forward by Ms Lai to justify censorship in Singapore. But one of the most worrying aspects of her article is that she writes in support of our censorship regime as the most senior executive of the government agency for the development of the arts.

Up till 2002, the NAC was both a development and a censorship agency until the latter function fell to the Media Development Authority. That left the NAC with its sole and proper role of championing and growing the arts. In that role, NAC's tough balance is not that of what to censor. Rather, it is how best to foster artistic excellence against many competing and valid claims to funding based on artistic merit, not political considerations.

Singapore has yet to achieve the ideal of "arm's length funding", where public money is given out by an independent, non-government body. Nevertheless taking away NAC's censorship function was at least a right step forward.

We will continue to argue against censorship regardless of which state agencies do it. But we had hoped that NAC would argue for and not against creative freedom of artists and freedom of choice for the people, for the illumination of art and not the darkness of censorship.

Unfortunately, recent events indicate that NAC is reassuming its earlier censorious role. We worry that Ms Lai's article forebodes future steps that, in fact, will move us backwards into the past.

•The writers are respectively a playwright and director of Intercultural Theatre Institute.

They wrote this article on behalf of Arts Engage, a network of artists (

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 14, 2015, with the headline 'Is NAC reverting to its past censorious role?'. Print Edition | Subscribe