Sunday, 8 November 2015

The tough balancing act of arts funding

By Kathy Lai, Published The Straits Times, 7 Nov 2015

The recent spotlight on the arts, with the Cultural Medallion and Young Artist Award ceremony, and an extensive radio interview with artist and festival director Ong Keng Sen, has generated much buzz within the community on the role of the arts in society and how it is funded in Singapore.

Open and candid discussion is good, especially as Singaporeans warm up to the arts.

What has been thrown up in the current exchange of views has focused on funding guidelines, censorship and the need to support artists unconditionally, as echoed by playwright Haresh Sharma.

The call for more space in the arts and less regulation is not new. To some artists, the situation is far from ideal, and perhaps their standards of artistic freedom are too absolute for our society. Nonetheless, we appreciate that some artists are compelled to test the boundaries and challenge our ways of looking at the world. It is part of their DNA and, indeed, some might argue that pushing the envelope is necessary for civilisation's progress.

However, are things so egregious that artists are routinely denied their right to make art? I think most Singaporeans would say no. A look at our lively theatre scene - from satirical comedies to challenging experimental plays - suggests these protests are overstated.

Similarly, the marketplace has never seen a more diverse range of Singaporean-authored and published books than today - from the reverential and celebratory to all manner of contrarian narratives.

Indeed, Singapore has come a long way in embracing the arts, and societal norms have evolved.

What was unacceptable a generation ago may, given the benefit of time, reconsideration and dialogue, become accepted, even lauded, today. Conversely, what was deemed harmless a generation ago might become problematic in today's context. Some regulations remain, and these have a role to play in maintaining and signalling the importance of our country's social harmony.

On the National Arts Council's (NAC's) part, we try our best not to administer our grants and projects in a bureaucratic and cumbersome way that causes undue stress to artists. We hope artists understand that public servants have due processes to follow, and there is a distinction between what is permissible by regulatory agencies and what NAC can champion or fund.

Arts funding does come with guidelines - this is no different from many other countries which also stipulate priority areas and eligibility criteria. Guidelines are publicly communicated and we do our judicious best to support a diversity of art forms and aesthetic expressions. These are taxpayers' monies and we, as custodians, need to balance rigorous processes with aesthetic sensibility to determine how they are to be utilised. We will have difficulty funding art with public funds if such works merely feed a desire for self-expression, without any consideration of their impact on the public and whether they truly enrich their lives.

Those who advocate "art for art's sake" and lament the arts are being "instrumentalised" could reflect on whether it is such an ill if the arts are "used" for the greater good of society.

If the arts make people see the potential of beauty in their lives; if they bring a smile or a moment of empathy, why should we begrudge it, and why should state coffers not be used to make that happen?

Throughout history, patrons have always had their own perspectives of the art they commissioned. But from Shakespeare to Ming dynasty porcelain artisans, the tension between artistic licence and the constraints of patronage has not stymied the creation of amazing and timeless artworks. Is a National Day song of lesser artistic merit because it is commissioned for a special occasion?

It also bears reminding that the arts are not always about sharp critique, provocative ideas and visceral images. Many art forms - equally valid and no less deserving of support - are less about polemical possibilities but more about aesthetic expression, whether in form or rhythm, in symmetry or repeated patterns. And indeed the Government amply supports these rich artistic expressions - through grants awarded to companies and individuals, or in the creation of meaningful infrastructure like the soon-to-be-opened National Gallery.

Another important consideration is the recognition of the heterogeneity of our populace. We appreciate that some of our arts lovers are well-travelled, deeply engaged and want art that stimulate, provoke and disturb. But we also know there are others who want the arts to uplift them, to be simple expressions of joy and beauty. The one thing we won't - and must not - do is to be patronising or even insulting to audiences and potential audiences on their choices.

Hence the large-scale festivals that the NAC supports - for example, Singapore Biennale, the Singapore Writers Festival and the Singapore International Festival of Arts - typically have programming that appeals to all arts audiences, as well as to families and newcomers that may prefer friendly, accessible art.

There remains the dissonant rumble that art for art's sake is not supported. Frankly, we disagree and we already do that to a fair extent - from subsidised arts housing spaces for contemporary artists who make challenging video art, to grants for theatrical works which focus more on process than an actual staged end-product.

Perhaps we can do more. We continue to invite ideas from our artists, many of whom are in regular conversation with my colleagues at NAC. We may not always agree but we are prepared to listen and even allow ourselves a smidgen of doubt, as no one is always right.

What I think we can all agree on is that we must cherish our Singapore artists more. They indeed hold a mirror to our lives, help us think about what it means to be a Singaporean, a citizen of the world in the 21st century, a human being. A few artists may want to see changes overnight, and want to push the envelope further. That is their choice, as long as they remain within the law of the land, and we respect that.

Perhaps in a more mature arts landscape, private patrons and paying audiences can step up where the state cannot support with funding. But even today, it is undeniable that Singaporean arts already play a role to help us "grow in humanity's rich soil" with the "careful tending of the human heart". (Lee Tzu Pheng, My Country And My People).

The writer is the chief executive officer of the National Arts Council.

Is NAC reverting to its past censorious role?
By Tan Tarn How and T. Sasitharan, Published The Straits Times, 14 Nov 2015

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.

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.

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 (

The fear of funding cuts

When the state is the biggest sponsor of the arts scene, artists rightfully fear being shut out for not toeing the official line
By Akshita Nanda, Arts Correspondent, The Straits Times, 24 Nov 2015

From times historical to the present day, it has been the generosity of patrons that helps artists consistently produce new work.

This relationship can be a double-edged sword especially when, as in Singapore, the state is the biggest sponsor of the arts scene.

Funding from corporate and individual sponsors is merely a fraction of the support that comes from the state, as outlined in last week's Singapore Cultural Statistics report from the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth.

If $61 million was donated privately to arts and culture in cash and kind last year, state funding for arts and heritage was $490 million, eight times that amount.

This contrast has held true for at least the past seven years. It is state funding that is behind the visual arts showcase, the Singapore Biennale; performing arts celebration the Singapore International Festival of Arts; and the Singapore Writers Festival.

State funding supports the production of new theatre here, has revitalised the literary scene by offering publishing and translation grants to Singapore publishing houses and also allows the Singapore Symphony Orchestra and Singapore Chinese Orchestra to put on full musical seasons.

We are spoilt for choice when it comes to theatre or visual art or books that reflect Singaporean tastes. But what about creative work that challenges the palate?

Many artists feel that state coffers close instantly for such work. Earlier this year, the National Arts Council withdrew an $8,000 grant for The Art Of Charlie Chan Hock Chye, a graphic novel by Sonny Liew that parodies historical events such as Operation Spectrum in 1987, in which 16 people were detained allegedly over a Marxist conspiracy to overthrow the Government.

Liew has previously received the council's Young Artist Award for his comic books but, in this case, the council stated: "The retelling of Singapore's history in the work potentially undermines the authority or legitimacy of the Government and its public institutions, and thus breaches our funding guidelines."

Interestingly, Operation Spectrum is currently being parodied on stage in the Wild Rice pantomime, The Emperor's New Clothes. Playwright Joel Tan has it as "Operation Plectrum", an autocratic ruler's plot to silence all musicians who compete for attention.

Wild Rice productions regularly incorporate political parody, yet from 2013 until April next year, the troupe is partly funded by a $280,000 major grant from the council.

In an earlier twist to the tale, Wild Rice had its arts council funding cut in 2009 for projects that supported alternative lifestyles and were critical of Government policies.

No wonder then at the end of the performance I saw last Saturday, artistic director Ivan Heng thanked the council for its sponsorship and urged the audience to write to the authorities to say that Singaporeans do not need to be sheltered from creative work.

Veteran artist Ong Keng Sen put it this way in a radio interview last month: "I think Singapore is a country that is always 'two steps forward, three steps back'. We're actually dancing on the spot."

Ong, artistic director of the Singapore International Festival of Arts and the first non-civil servant to hold this position, said in that interview that sponsorship is essential to an artist since the arts are not self-sustaining and may never be, given the small market here.

Artists are then under pressure to self-censor, in order to propitiate the major patron, the state. His point is that arts council money is taxpayer money and should not be withheld from dissenting voices.

The arts council's chief executive officer Kathy Lai responded in a letter published in The Straits Times on Nov 7, saying that the council does its best to support a diversity of artistic expression, but "we will have difficulty funding art with public funds if such works merely feed a desire for self-expression, without any consideration of their impact on the public and whether they truly enrich their lives".

A week later, artists' network Arts Engage responded to Ms Lai's letter querying the assumption that "only the state... can decide 'what is good for society'" and pointing out the problems when funding is used by the state "as a blunt instrument of censorship".

For a lover of the arts like me, artists are the challengers of the status quo, the conscience of a society and the creators of work that reminds us mortals that we are eternal spirit as well as flesh and bone. The most important question is whether the need for funding from official sources is causing artists to rein themselves in and, by extension, rob consumers like me of their best work.

In 2011, I wrote a news story about a book titled Singapore Shifting Boundaries, published by the non-profit group Asian Urban Lab. It had writings on the topics of sexuality, foreign workers' rights, student activism, ethnic identity and the treatment of all these themes was innocuous rather than firebrand revolutionary writing.

Yet I had to persuade one editor of the book to let me write about it. He feared a backlash should popular attention come to the work, since lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues and racial ones are hot-button topics.

In contrast, four years later, the creator and publisher of The Art Of Charlie Chan Hock Chye had no hesitation discussing in print those themes of the book that later invited official censure.

Perhaps there is less fear of creation these days but artists are aware that a state sword hangs over their heads and may come down arbitrarily.

Theatre practitioner Tan Kheng Hua has just received a $63,000 grant from the council to help produce a two-weekend theatre festival next June. The Twenty- Something Theatre Festival is inviting submissions from new playwrights - the only caveat being that they must still be 20somethings by the last day of the festival next year, on June 19 - and six shortlisted writers will be given $5,000 each to stage their works. (Details and submission guidelines are on

The rest of the money goes to new productions from two invited, more established 20something playwrights - Irfan Kasban and Joel Tan, of the pointedly political The Emperor's New Clothes - with $20,000 each. The Arts House is supporting the festival by providing the performance venue and rehearsal space for these productions at The Goodman Arts Centre.

I asked Tan Kheng Hua what might happen if one or more of the submissions breaches official funding guidelines. The plays will also be submitted for ratings to the Media Development Authority, which grants performance licences - another official barrier to surmount.

She does not want to borrow trouble, but as she goes around tertiary institutions inviting submissions, she stresses that the students should write without fear and write what is true to them. All the judges are known for cutting-edge work: Cultural Medallion recipient Haresh Sharma, resident playwright of The Necessary Stage; Cake Theatrical Productions' Natalie Hennedige; and Lee Mun Wai, formerly a choreographer/principal dancer with T.H.E. Dance Company.

State sponsorship is a double- edged sword and artists here dance on the edge, never knowing when they will be skewered by it.

One bright spot is that both Ms Lai and the Arts Engage representatives in their letters welcomed open and candid discussion between officialdom and artists, in the hope of achieving understanding and maybe even change. Might the sword be laid flat one day, if not entirely sheathed?


Arts circle disappointed by arts council chairman's remarks
NAC chairman on funding as censorship: State has to balance diverse values when giving grants
By Akshita Nanda, Arts Correspondent, The Straits Times, 28 Nov 2015

The chairman of the National Arts Council (NAC) on Thursday weighed in on an ongoing debate here over whether state funding for the arts should be used to enforce censorship.

In her speech at the opening of the Singapore International Film Festival, Professor Chan Heng Chee brought up a 1998 ruling by the United States Supreme Court which upheld the withdrawal of state funding for "offensive art", and advised institutions to "consider decency and respect" for diverse values when awarding grants.

She was referring to a case involving performance artist Karen Finley and other artists who took The National Endowment for the Arts in the US, which gives money to encourage the development of the arts, to court after they were denied funding for their work.

Prof Chan said: "I relate this to show governments have to deal with this conflict, this difference in points of view. Governments or states end up, like it or not, the arbiter. It is not just the state that sets standards. Society and subsets of society set standards too.

"But standards and values will evolve. Until then, there will be negotiation and compromise."

Her remarks came after several weeks of debate on how state funding is allocated to the arts. In a radio interview last month, Ong Keng Sen, artistic director of the Singapore International Festival of Arts, was asked why the state should fund artistic works that go against perceived national values. He responded that state funding is taxpayer money and should not be withheld from dissenting voices.

The council's chief executive officer Kathy Lai, in a commentary published in The Straits Times on Nov 7, argued that the council does its best to support a diversity of artistic expression, but "we will have difficulty funding art with public funds if such works merely feed a desire for self-expression, without any consideration of their impact on the public and whether they truly enrich their lives".

A week later, artists' network Arts Engage responded to Ms Lai's commentary, querying the assumption that "only the state... can decide 'what is good for society'". It called the commentary "the clearest articulation to date that the State uses funding as a blunt instrument of censorship".

The text of Prof Chan's speech also read: "It is not surprising at all that artists will speak out against censorship or conditional funding of any kind. We should not look at the exchange of views on this matter as a case of the state against artists, or the artists against the state. After all, we are one community, a diverse community, but one community and one country."

She agreed that state funding was taxpayers' money and said: "If taxpayers were to have their say, many may argue for more money to be spent on welfare subsidies or education and less on the arts."

She added that government support for the arts and creative industries has increased over the years. The arts council has a budget of $90 million a year to support the development of the arts, artists and arts housing.

Among the audience on Thursday was theatre practitioner Alvin Tan of The Necessary Stage. He said he was disappointed that the speech, coming from a representative of the body that is meant to champion and develop the arts in Singapore, did not articulate the point of view of artists. "There should have been more balance. "

Photographer Valence Sim, 33, who was also in the audience, said of the speech: "It was quite inappropriate. Her topic was censorship. This is an international film festival where Singapore is trying to bring in international film-makers, many of whom are trying to test boundaries in their films. What Prof Chan said just contradicts the entire film-making process."

Film-maker Jasmine Ng, 43, said: "I think it was great that Mike Wiluan, the chairman of the Singapore International Film Festival, had on the same stage made a speech about the festival being the longest- running film festival in South-east Asia and that it is well-regarded internationally because of diverse and bold programming and the no- censorship stand upheld all the years."

The festival does not screen movies which the authorities asked to be cut.

Arts Engage representatives could not be reached for their response to Prof Chan's speech by press time.

'Council's power to silence artists may diminish with time'

I refer to the article NAC Chairman On Funding As Censorship (Life, Nov 27).

Arrogating the opening of Singapore International Film Festival to allege the right of the Government to use arts funding as an instrument of censorship is, to say the least, distasteful.

Particularly so as the festival built its international reputation on an assiduous anti-censorship stance, as films with cuts are not included in the line-up.

Council chairman Chan Heng Chee cited a United States Supreme Court majority finding for the National Endowment for the Arts when it withheld funding for a group of artists, to make the point that governments have to play arbiter and set standards.

However, in the ruling, the Supreme Court also directed the National Endowment for the Arts to ensure that "artistic excellence and artistic merit are the criteria by which (grant) applications are judged, taking into consideration general standards of decency and respect for the diverse beliefs and values of the American public".

The Supreme Court found that the above does not violate the US Constitution and The First Amendment right to free speech.

It is important to understand this because in the US, the National Endowment for the Arts withholding grants would not necessarily amount to an act of censorship.

The economy of cultural production in the US is totally different from that in Singapore. In America, art is principally funded by private enterprise, philanthropy and individuals.

Even if the Endowment withholds funding, the probability of the artwork being made and presented to the public would remain high. Not so in Singapore, where the state is the main funder of the arts. If the National Arts Council withholds funding for an artwork, it is dead in the water and will probably never see the light of day.

Historically, the clearest example of the council's power to silence was evident in 1993, after Josef Ng's controversial performance of Brother Cane, when it ceased funding performance art.

For a decade after that decision, Singapore had the dubious distinction of being the only country on the planet to censor an entire artform, not just an artwork.

In June, when the council revoked the book grant for Sonny Liew's The Art Of Charlie Chan Hock Chye, there was a different effect because council's funding for the work was surplus to its needs. The council's grant withdrawal served only to make it more desirable and popular.

Over the next few years, with the maturing economy and the diversity of interests coming to the fore in cultural production, the council's power to silence artists and art through funding may diminish. This process has already begun in the case of the literary arts where the costs of production are relatively low.

It will be a long while yet before artists working in theatre and film can taste such freedom.

Thirunalan Sasitharan
On behalf of Arts Engage
The Straits Times, 5 Dec 2015

I refer to Akshita Nanda's article Arts Circle Disappointed By Arts Council Chairman's Remarks (Life, Nov 28).

I agree with National Arts Council chairman Chan Heng Chee when she said: "If taxpayers were to have their say, many may argue for more money to be spent on welfare subsidies or education and less on the arts."

I am quite sure many other artists who are made of sterner stuff would deplore government handouts and do their own thing.

Ho Fook Cheong
The Straits Times, 5 Dec 2015

I could not agree more with last Saturday's letter writer (Artists Always Produce Their Best, Life, Nov 28).

There is no intrinsic link between creativity and budget or the lack of it. Funding never obstructs anyone's ability to push boundaries, be it in stage or film productions.

Fans of Hollywood classics generally agree the best films ever made were during its Golden Age (1940s and 1950s) when the Motion Picture Production Code was in force and a big movie budget was a luxury.

The Code prohibited the depiction of explicit scenes and values that were deemed immoral.

Decades later, in spite of the leaps and bounds made in movie-making technology, the relaxation of censorship guidelines and the availability of big budgets, I cannot name a modern remake that bettered an original movie from that era.

The arts community should stop whining about funding and censorship. Let artists exercise their creativity under constraints.

Ooi Mun Kong
The Straits Times, 5 Dec 2015

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