Eric Valles, the director of Singapore's National Poetry Festival, invited me to contribute a poem to the festival's ekphrastic-poetry exhibit. Since the festival is partly funded by the National Arts Council, I had to turn down the kind invitation because I have decided not to work with the NAC since its withdrawal of funding from Sonny Liew's political novel "The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye," followed by public statements from NAC CEO Kathy Lai and NAC Chairman Chan Heng Chee supporting the continued censorship of the arts. (For the thinking behind my decision, you could see https://singaporepoetry.com/2015/12/06/to-my-fellow-singaporean-artists-and-arts-lovers/.) I have also had to turn down a request to include my poems in a major formal poetry anthology, UnFree Verse, because the editors are, not unusually, seeking an NAC grant for publication. These decisions are taken not against the festival organizers or the anthology editors, but in protest of NAC's politicization of arts funding. Until the NAC returns its funding to Sonny's book and gives an unequivocal statement of support for the freedom of artistic expression, I will continue not to work with it.
Kok Heng Leun, Nominated Member of Parliament for the Arts, has organized two focus-group discussions and will hold a Town Hall session on June 30 on arts funding. This initiative is necessary and praiseworthy. But, judging from the Facebook page, the agenda for these discussions is limited to the NAC Funding Framework. . There is no discussion about how the state can be prodded to diversify and decentralize arts funding in the country. Such diversification and decentralization is crucial to the health and success of American arts, as economist Tyler Cowen argues in his excellent book "Good and Plenty," an approach very different from the Europeans' state sponsorship of the arts. Diverse funders will have diverse ideas about art, and together they create a competitive and entrepreneurial art-making environment, which has a greater chance of throwing up true innovations. Why do we want to subject funding applications to NAC panels comprising established artists, who may very well not recognize artistic innovations because these new ideas are, by definition, different from what the arts establishment expects? Why does the state, through NAC, want to play arts arbiter? The really arts-friendly role that the state should play is to develop a diversified and decentralized arts funding environment, and not to crowd out other funders by massively giving out direct grants in pursuit of a policy that inevitably instrumentalizes the arts. For the state has an obligation to explain to taxpayers why it is investing so heavily in the arts: this explanation will always revolve around costs and benefits. But true art has no use beyond itself.