PARLIAMENT:Committee of Supply debate: Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth

Different views on space for artists to express themselves

A debate on the space and limits of artistic discourse arose in Parliament yesterday with members invoking comments on the balance between freedom and order by former United States leaders Henry Kissinger and John F. Kennedy to make their points.

Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Grace Fu said that "compared to a generation ago, there is more space for expression and experimentation" in the arts even as "peaceful social relations" are preserved, because the Government has "made changes and adjustments along the way" in view of evolving norms of what is considered acceptable by the public.

She was responding to a point raised by Nominated MP Kok Heng Leun on Wednesday about the lack of space for discourse and for art to ask difficult questions.

Ms Fu said that for there to be a "safe space for citizens to pursue their aspirations and for art to do its work", there needs to be "rules of engagement". She cited former US secretary of state Kissinger who, in his 2014 book World Order, wrote: "Order and freedom, sometimes described as opposite poles on the spectrum of experience, should instead be understood as interdependent."

Mr Kok responded with a quote by former US president Kennedy, who said in a 1963 speech urging the then-Soviet Union to work with the US towards a nuclear test ban treaty: "And if we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity." He asked Ms Fu for her thoughts on providing a "safe space" for a diversity of views to be presented through the arts.

Ms Fu clarified that "discourse, dissent, disagreements can take place and has its place in Singapore" and it is provided for in the arts through the classification and advisory rating system, allowing certain segments of the public, "perhaps more mature", to engage in such discourse.

She added that the authorities have allowed more diversity in the arts over time, including works critical of the political system and those that touch on issues which arouse dissent. She also hoped "the arts community will give the regulator the acknowledgement that it has happened".

Non-Constituency MP Leon Perera asked Ms Fu if the ministry would consider removing the National Arts Council's restriction on funding to artists and for art projects that are critical of national leaders and institutions.

Ms Fu said: "We have gone quite far already about allowing dissenting voices and also different voices to be voiced out in the art sector. There will be tension always, but as an art promoter, we will work as much as we can to facilitate respectful discussions between the artist, the art industry, as well as the regulator."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 15, 2016, with the headline 'Different views on space for artists to express themselves'. Subscribe