It's an anomaly that no licences are required for certain arts events, like those organised by the Esplanade and several others, while a national festival to celebrate the arts is subject to licensing rules. These could involve submitting finalised scripts of performances, rehearsal videos, layout plans of the event location, names of artists and such - all sent at least two months before an event to the Infocomm Media Development Authority.
The Singapore International Festival of Arts, funded by the National Arts Council (NAC), was exempted from licensing in 2014. But when a new company, the Arts House, was formed to run the yearly festival, an arts entertainment licence was required. Oddly, the very purpose of establishing the Arts House was to grant the organiser independence. But that had to be earned, despite the aspirations to put the city-state on the cultural map. The NAC has since indicated that "with a cohesive leadership team now in place", the festival organiser could be granted exemption.
This followed withering criticism from outgoing festival director Ong Keng Sen, who had questioned the future of the festival if creative independence and funding at arm's length were not truly possible. Citing his own experience, he said he had "wanted to commission quality artists even if they are not aligned with the Government", but had to adjust his vision for some events to address official concerns.
While a laissez-faire approach towards the arts might yield interesting and thought-provoking results, the other side of the coin is that it could also spark public controversy because taxpayers' money is involved. Periodic contestation - perhaps over moral issues, inflammatory content, social divisiveness or misuse of public spaces - would put a lid on spending to promote the arts.
From the artist's perspective, creativity would be stunted when subject to a heavy hand. But the authorities would argue that the appropriate extent of regulation is a subjective matter and that the flowering of the arts remains an official goal.
The arts scene has indeed grown over the years but there are still some who find the climate limiting. Notably, artist Sonny Liew was perturbed when NAC withdrew an $8,000 grant for his graphic novel, The Art Of Charlie Chan Hock Chye, after its publication because of its "sensitive content". The book has since won three awards at the prestigious Eisner Awards. Lately, the artist said he is declining a $19,000 grant for a new book as he did not wish to get "too tangled up in the compromises involved".
It is the prerogative of donors and state funding authorities to set conditions. But overdoing this will run counter to the ambition of becoming an innovation city. A culture of seeking approval from above would hardly produce a breed of people who are given to thinking out of the box.
Correction note: In an earlier version of this story, we said the NAC withdrew an $8,000 grant for Sonny Liew's The Art Of Charlie Chan Hock Chye ahead of its publication. This is incorrect. The grant was withdrawn after the publication of the novel. We are sorry for the error.