It appears that after NAC CEO Kathy Lai wrote to the Straits Times to defend state censorship of the arts, NAC Chairman Chan Heng Chee defended the same in her speech as guest of honor at the Singapore International Film Festival. Her speech is an insult to the festival, which has prided itself on its support for freedom of expression by taking a principled stance against showing any film censored by the state. Chan’s speech also raises in an acute form the question of artists applying for and accepting state funding. In short, she claimed that the state has the right and the obligation to decide on what to fund, based on other considerations besides the artistic merit of the application. In response to the argument that the public purse belongs to the public and not the government, she countered that the public would prefer to spend more money on welfare subsidies and education, and less on the arts. This last point is meretricious: it is not a question of either-or. One may as well claim that the public would rather spend more money on welfare than on ministers’ pay, and thereby make a stronger claim than Chan’s.
Still, Chan’s speech makes it all too clear that the state after Lee Kuan Yew is bent on controlling the arts through its funding schemes. It will support the arts as a way of promoting the Singapore brand, and neuter the arts as a means of political and social expression. As its strategy clarifies, artists must decide how best to engage the state and retain their freedom and autonomy. I have a great deal of sympathy with the view that sees NAC funds as public monies and insists that they be dispensed on the sole consideration of artistic merit, and not the government’s political agenda. Such a view has right on its side, and idealism as its motive force. But the current one-party state has no trouble ignoring what is right and trashing what is ideal. It knows that it is the main funder of the arts in Singapore, and that Singapore artists have come to rely on its funding. By its cynical calculations, the state is certain that no matter how much of a stink artists may raise after each instance of censorship, they will return to suck its teats in the next round of grant applications.
The only way out of this bind is to wean us from state funding. We must learn to develop and present our works by using private, overseas, or minimal funding. This is possible not only for the literary arts, which are relatively inexpensive, but also for film and theater. We can pare down to the essentials, we can invent new forms for the new material situation, we can become resourceful. Groundbreaking works in film and on stage have been produced without state help, and, in many countries, against state sanction. They gain respect with their own people and with audiences abroad for their artistic integrity and innovation. In fact, pioneering Singaporean artists had been doing just this before the state decided to flush the arts with money. (Name the idol of your own artistic field here.) Perhaps, seeing our renewed determination, many more arts-loving private individuals will step forward to help, people big and small, like Eng Kai Er and her No Star Arts Grant. We can dispense with the nanny state.
After reading NAC CEO Kathy Lai’s letter, I decided not to work with the NAC any longer. Acting on that decision, I withdrew my submission to the poetry anthology A Luxury We Must Afford, since the editors intend, not unusually, to apply to NAC for funding. I also told my Russian translator about my no-NAC rule and very resourcefully he is applying for an American arts grant that will pay not only for the translation, but also his travel to the USA to present his translation. A Singapore publisher has just accepted my book of essays for publication, knowing my stance against NAC funding. Win some, lose some, but all’s based on some principle that I can live with.
Next year, I’m bringing back the biennial Singapore Literature Festival in New York. The first edition last year did not accept any NAC funding, but we did ask the authors to apply to NAC for airfare (for which they received partial funding). Next year, we will do without NAC funding completely, and raise funds from private donors. It’s a good way to invite personal investment in a community arts project. Without NAC funding, the festival can only invite a very small number of authors, but we will be able to focus on giving those authors maximum exposure. The tentative theme of the festival is “Singapore Unbound.” The festival will feature terrific writers who are also outspoken critics of the status quo.
I hope you will join me in re-considering your engagement with the state and its arts funding. To return to the topic of the state’s obligation to the arts, I will say that the state is obliged to cherish the country’s artists and art works, even when they are met with public indifference and hostility; the state should do so for the sake of future generations of Singapore, who need a free and authentic culture. I appreciate fully the fact that it is easier for me not to work with the state since I’m abroad. By the same token, I cannot have the same effect as someone working in Singapore can have. I can only do what I can where I am.
Jee Leong Koh
New York City
December 06, 2015