Cops in the theatre: Pushback by artists

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Just one day before Roy Ngerng and his team spoke at Hong Lim Park to a large crowd of sympathisers, a smaller group met at a smaller venue to tell Singaporeans why it was pushing back against the government’s new censorship proposals for arts groups here.

This meeting at BooksActually was in addition to the 12-page position paper written and endorsed by 46 arts groups in Singapore expressing their collective rejection of MDA’s latest proposals.

Two heavyweights from the arts fraternity, Ivan Heng, Founding Artistic Director of W!LD RICE and Resident Playwright  Alfian Sa’at  spoke to about 50 regarding the licensing scheme, which they felt would stifle artistic creativity and create tension within the arts community, all under the pretext of “empowerment” and “cooperation”.

The scheme was justified by the authorities as a move to “forge a co-regulatory partnership” with the arts sector, and to “empower” arts groups by granting artists the freedom to classify their works.

Heng and Alfian did not agree.

Not only would the scheme encourage mutual surveillance in the rehearsal halls, but also inevitably result in self-censorship, as the responsibility of appropriate classification now rests in the hands of artists. The artist is now fully liable for charges of misclassification if the public disputes the artists’ self-classification.

“It seems like they are giving us autonomy on how to rate our own production, but what is happening is that they are importing policemen into your theatre,” said Heng.

Representatives from the arts groups are to be trained by MDA to become registered “content assessors”, meaning that while the burden of classification is delegated to the artists, definitions of propriety adhere tightly to MDA guidelines.

“We are not against classification. We want to have a say in co-regulation, a say in how we classify our own work,” said Heng.

“They are just outsourcing censorship to the artists,” he added, garnering spontaneous laughter from the audience.

Alfian then spoke about how classification is problematic because of its subjective nature. Classification appears to be “rational” at first glance, but in reality what separates the NC16 from the M18 classification is entirely arbitrary.

That the MDA shows no sign of relenting in its censorship regime clearly indicates some trust issues between the state and its citizens. The state does not trust its artists’ ability to deliver quality commentary on society through their works. Neither does it trust that its citizens are mature enough to debate and decide for themselves the boundaries of propriety.

Today this lack of trust may very well be mutual.

Perhaps it is this mutual lack of trust between the citizens and the government that emboldens artists to stage a unified opposition against new regulations. Perhaps it is this mutual lack of trust that drives people like Heng and Alfian to speak up in public about censorship regulations and how it is inimical to the formation of an open society.

Perhaps it is this same lack of trust that pushes people into Hong Lim Park on a weekend afternoon to demand for their voices to be heard, despite the culture of fear instilled by the horrifying fates of dissidents detained by the ISD.

Once, at a dialogue session at the Singapore Chinese Girls’ School, a student asked Heng:  “Aren’t you afraid that after you perform these plays, they will come and catch you?”

“My heart broke, you know?” he told the crowd at BooksActually.

“The fear—the programming, it starts that early,” he added.

Another student raised her hand, adamant in her opinion that plays which “make our political figures look bad” should not be performed.

Heng asked her why not.

“Because I love my country!” she said with pride.

“So do we,” replied Heng.

It is precisely that we love our country that we should stop suppressing our opinions and instead, engage the government in a level-headed conversation about issues that matter most to you and I.

Perhaps, in the near future, our desire to be heard, and our love for our country, would eventually drown our fear of standing up for what we believe in.