This is a continuation of What Happened at the Arts Engage Town Hall – Formal Presentations.
After the two speakers were done with their presentation, Tarn How asked all participants to form a circle. After much shuffling, the 50 or so attendants sat facing each other. Most remained silent throughout the discussion, which was informally moderated by Tarn How.
In the course of the evening, several cases involving the arts community, recent and ongoing, were raised. In March this year, licensed busker Roy Payamal was arrested mid-performance. He is currently out on bail but it remains unclear even today what was his crime was. In June this year, Function 8, a group of like-minded individuals who are looking to start difficult but important conversations, was arrested for a peaceful act, or “art installation,” on a train on the North East line. The blindfolded actors held on to a copy of 1987 Singapore’s Marxist Conspiracy 30 Years On at eye level as they travelled down the line. In July also this year, 17 people, including arts practitioners like journalist and filmmaker Kirsten Han, were arrested while holding a peaceful candlelit vigil for a man on death row, S Prabagaran, at Changi Prison, a vigil that was initially verbally approved by a member of the police.
Opinions toward such incidents are mixed. For Lee Wen, artist, an artist’s actions are understandably sometimes prickly and confusing. No one can be perfectly clear all the time and “it is our stupidity that makes us human.” He calls on the policing body to be more understanding and less dismissive of artistic expressions. Alvin Tan, artistic director of The Necessary Stage, opines that it is about natural justice. To him, the strict word of the law is blind to specific situations, which makes the law ineffective in situations like art, which deliberately wants to inhabit a subjective space. He also shares that while watching 32 Years, he overheard a policewoman describe Seelan’s performance as a “silent protest.” William, NAFA, considers it a matter of dexterity. We should learn to know where the boundaries lie and not to go too close to the edge, to learn to “siam” and accept losing the battle in order to win the war. Woon Tien Wei, Post-Museum, questions this position and asks how we could know where the boundaries lie and how much space we have to speak, and practice art, when it feels like the boundaries are not consistent. A verbally given approval could be retracted in the next moment in the Singapore context. Lee Wen agrees with this but also calls upon the community to continue speaking out and addressing these areas that we, as art practitioners, human beings and citizens of society, still feel are uncertain grounds and a source of fear. This is a reality echoed by situations Zheng Xi has encountered in his practice. Some of his clients tell him that when investigated by the police, the police do not tell them what law has been broken. Rather, they push the onus on his client to be “more forthcoming” with their information. This conundrum places such people under extended investigation, with the restrictions that come with an open investigation, creating an environment of fear and uncertainty. Kai Lam, artist, proposes that the community’s brushes with the law is a matter of regulation and censorship. “Moderation” is being imposed on all forms of expression. Moderation in this situation is viewed negatively, for the way it has been applied does not allow for textured landscape of voices and opinions.
Everyone have different experiences and relationships with the law but the point of the town hall, as the moderator Tarn How says, is to discuss “what can we do.” Citing the arrest of Josef Ng in 1994, Tarn How declared that our problems with the law are not new and that it may seem like our relationship with the law has gotten any better. He described the artistic community as “fed up” but also called on us to continue working to make things better.
To this end the attendants also voiced several options. In relation to the formal presentations, Heng Leun asked if legal clinics were something that we needed. Alvin felt that we should educate those policing on the ground to get them to understand performances like Seelan’s as more than just a “silent protest.” Kokila Annamalai, Function 8, pushed the community to ask the administration to grant more permits to perform, so that different types of performances and voices can be seen and begin to be understood by the public. She further acknowledged that needing a permit is itself an issue but that increasing the amount of permits is a step in the right direction. William asked if we could reframe our artistic statements so that they are more understandable to the public. In the case of 32 Years, he wondered if prefacing Seelan’s performance with one of his own in order to get the audience in the right mindset might be a possible way to avoid police persecution. Kai reasoned that if there are 50 or so different voices conducting “radical practice,” the community would be making a stand that “moderation” is problematic, forcing the administration to take the time to understand us rather than dismissing us all. Tarn How proposes that we lay out the “basic positions” within the artistic community so that Arts Engage can speak more clearly with Heng Leun to the parliament and civil society. Eugene Tan, drag queen, questioned how we could speak of a standard response when there is a possibility that being arrested and the processes of the state might be a part of the work. He further points out that many artists take the position of openness for their work, having no singular intent, narrative or meaning but instead asking for a multiplicity of responses from their audience. Kokila adds that while we might think that we are powerless in face of the administration, we are actually really powerful because the administration also need to the arts community to be alive and sustainable, especially if we were to remember that there is an expressed intent for Singapore to be a centre for the arts.
There were also calls for thinking about our problems more broadly to integrate with the concerns civil society. Thirunalan Sasitharan, theatre practice, points out that the issues raised during the town hall are not unique to the arts community. Rather, these are issues that impinge upon human rights and our citizenship and can be felt across civil society. He asks for us to express issues in art and as well as other means, as we are more than just artists or art practitioners. On this topic, Arts Engage pointed at community engagement initiatives, for instance the Manifesto for the Arts and The Artists Call to All to Reject MDA’s Self-Censorship Scheme, which have been successful in garnering support outside of the arts community and in making change happen.
Finally, Kai and Sasha Lim called for the community to be counted in support of Seelan’s freedom of expression, either through a reaction performance or attending to the on-going investigations.
The above serves as an independent record of the proceedings as experienced and understood by a single attendant. Arts Engage will also be releasing a video record of the Town Hall.