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Opening the door to diverse views in the arts

The festival director of S'pore's flagship arts fest recently said he was hemmed in by restrictions but others say the room for controversial curation has grown significantly

Residents of 30 homes flung open their doors to strangers as part of Open Homes, a programme of this year's Singapore International Festival of Arts (Sifa). They included teacher Laura Schuster, 62, who found herself serving lemonade and sharing stories of her family and her experiences in Asia with close to 30 strangers in her Housing Board flat in Woodlands.

But this experiment in openness came up against the state's arts regulations designed to close the door on undesirable content. As a result, director Jeffrey Tan, who curated Open Homes, had to submit all 30 scripts for his show in advance and deal with queries from the authorities which ranged from what artworks the residents would be introducing to what magic trick one of them would be performing.

"Any creative process is stressful. At an early stage, having to produce a script forces us to have a better idea of what we want to talk about, but it also prevents the organic development of the pieces," said Mr Tan. He added that the hosts, while mentored by theatre-makers, were ordinary people and knowing there were licensing restrictions meant "there was a lot of self-censorship".

Then there was festival opener Art As Res Publicae, conceived by artistic director Ong Keng Sen as a way to give the power of censorship to ordinary people, by training them to debate new scripts and decide whether the controversial content within should be shown.

However, his plan met with "a lot of anxiety about the fact that these are issues which are potentially dangerous. Then there were questions about who we were inviting to the discussion". Mr Ong was upset that the authorities did not maintain the "arm's length" he had been led to expect they would when he put his doctorate on hold in New York to helm four editions of Sifa from 2014 to 2017.

Thanks to his programming, audience figures shot up from 20,000 in 2014, his first year as festival director, to 155,000 in 2016. This year, attendance figures reached 218,000 with the inclusion of those who tuned in online. Ms Schuster's session, for example, attracted 2,646 viewers on Facebook Live.

While this is not quite the level of 2004, when audience figures hit a record of more than 900,000 - due partly to outreach programmes such as Kidsfest that involved partners such as the People's Association - the trend for Sifa is definitely on the up.

However, Mr Ong's tenure as artistic director ended on a sour note as he revealed in media interviews his behind-the-scenes struggle for autonomy. "The festival is giving value to art, to bottom-up conversations. We give value to different views, different thinkers, not just people who think like me. I wanted to commission quality artists even if they are not aligned with the Government," he told The Straits Times. But "Singapore kept evolving in the opposite direction. It became starker and starker that what I was doing was against the grain".


Given that Sifa is the country's flagship arts festival, Mr Ong's revelations raise questions about the compatibility of current restrictions with hopes to develop Singapore into a leading city of the arts, an aspiration backed by sizeable government investments in arts infrastructure in recent years.

Further clouding the issue was last month's statement by the National Arts Council (NAC) that it might consider an arts entertainment licensing exemption for Arts House Limited (Arts House) from next year. Arts House is an independent company set up to manage Sifa. A licensing exemption for it would mean Sifa would not be subject to censorship. The arts council said it was open to this change as Arts House now has a "cohesive leadership team in place".


When Sifa replaced the old Singapore Arts Festival in 2014, a review, conducted from mid-2012 to 2013 by a 17-member committee, recommended that an independent company take over the running of the festival from the NAC, in the hope that the festival would gain more autonomy.

Lasalle College of the Arts provost Venka Purushothaman, a member of the review committee, said the "intention for the arts festival to be run more independently was to facilitate it to be adventurous, develop artistic and financial partnerships and set up a thriving hub for its artists and audiences".

Arts House was eventually set up for this purpose.

In the first year of Sifa in 2014, NAC said it still "took responsibility for the content", and thus there was no need for arts licensing as NAC is a statutory board and is exempted. Ironically, after Arts House was set up in 2014, it was not granted exemption from licensing. The NAC explained that it was a "newly formed company", but The Straits Times understands that even new companies can be granted an arts entertainment licensing exemption, as long as the parent ministry is agreeable.

However, the parent ministry, in this case the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth, would have to take responsibility for the content - something it was apparently unwilling to do for the last three editions of Sifa. When asked why, NAC said in an e-mail statement: "When considering the readiness for exemption from arts entertainment licensing, the Government takes into account factors such as organisation and leadership of the companies limited by guarantee. Exemptions may be given after consultation with the relevant parent ministry."

Drama Box artistic director Kok Heng Leun, who is a Nominated MP representing the arts sector, said he did not have insight into why Arts House was not exempted, but felt that it had to do with "Keng Sen's direction" which was "much more progressive".

"He created and commissioned works which were more interesting and out of the box. I have a feeling the regulatory bodies were just unable to deal with that," he said.

Despite Mr Ong's stated unhappiness with licensing requirements, Mr Purushothaman is of the view that Sifa is doing "reasonably well", as evidenced by the "steady growth in audiences".

Still, many artists, including Mr Tan of Open Homes, believe more independence could make for a better festival. "If it is regulated, the festival would be limited in the variety of diverse experiences it can offer," Mr Tan said. "To a non-arts-going audience, maybe it won't be able to tell the difference, but an arts-going audience would feel the difference in the kind of work that's presented."

Mr Purushothaman urged patience as "transforming a 40-year-old national event into something independent is a complex task", and setting up Arts House was just the beginning of the process. "It is not merely about hiving off an entity, but working through structural systems, processes and resources. Inevitably, issues such as licensing and funding have to be worked through and this takes time, especially for such a complex event," he added.

Given that Sifa is the country's flagship arts festival, Mr Ong's revelations raise questions about the compatibility of current restrictions with hopes to develop Singapore into a leading city of the arts, an aspiration backed by sizeable government investments in arts infrastructure in recent years. 

On its part, the NAC has in the last month said that "with a strong Arts House team in place, NAC will work with the company to apply for the exemption". Ms Sarah Martin, chief executive officer of Arts House, said it is "in talks with NAC and working towards exemption from licensing for all programming under Arts House Limited, including Sifa".

Some might, however, question the timing of this effort, as it follows the appointment of a new artistic director for Sifa, Mr Gaurav Kripalani, who is widely known to favour mainstream and commercial productions - quite the opposite of Mr Ong's avant-garde and experimental programming.


Even if the festival gains more independence, most in the community are not blind to the fact that Sifa is a national festival funded by the Government. It is unrealistic to expect no government oversight and the tussle between the authorities and the creative team will continue.

Impresario Robert Liew, who was artistic director of the Singapore Arts Festival in 1986 and 1988, believes a greater degree of autonomy has already been achieved over the years. But "public-funding conditions that are imposed will still need to be complied with", he said.

"Vexing as this may seem at times, I think this is not the demise of innovative and controversial curation," he added.

While many in the arts community believe greater autonomy is important for Sifa, Mr Kok also pointed out that with that comes greater responsibility. If Sifa were exempted from arts licensing, it should not programme just to "create impact", he said - meaning put up controversial shows just for the sake of it.

Ms Schuster in her performance said she served lemonade to her guests because of the old adage: "When life gives you lemons, make lemonade." Mr Ong did just that with his time as founding festival director and served up some pretty good lemonade. The next festival team may well face fewer restrictions, and with that, the scope to concoct an even more inspired libation for its guests. Will they take up the challenge?

Correction note:  An earlier version of the story referred to  Arts House Limited (Arts House) as The Arts House. We are sorry for the error.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 12, 2017, with the headline 'Opening the door to diverse views in the arts'. Print Edition | Subscribe