The town hall meeting at The Theatre Practice on 54 Waterloo Street was convened by Arts Engage to discuss the relationship of art and law in Singapore. Arts Engage is a group of arts practitioners who have been organizing several public statements for the local artistic community, most significantly against censorship for the arts. They act as a face for arts practitioners to Singapore at large and its administration.
The night started off slowly, possibly because of the rain. A volunteer came around while everyone was settling in and requested for us to write down our names, email addresses and the organisations that we are representing. Once that was done, a video camera began to record the proceedings and Tan Tarn How (Institute of Policy Studies, NUS) sketched out the night: Jennifer Teo (Post-Museum) will give a short introduction to Seelan Palay’s performance, 32 Years: The Interrogation of a Mirror, executed on 1 October 2017 from Hong Lim Park to Parliament House. Remy Choo Zheng Xi (Peter Low & Choo LLC) would then give us a short presentation on Singapore law and how it might relate to the art community before we open the floor to a discussion.
As Seelan’s work was the cited reason for this town hall, a brief description of 32 Years is required. 32 Years was a one-man performance by Seelan executed on the occasion of his 32nd birthday. He applied for and was granted a license to perform 32 Years in Hong Lim Park. This performance was a tribute to Chia Thye-Poh, whose life was effectively put on hold for 32 years of his life by the Singapore administration.Thye-Poh was incarcerated under the Internal Security Act for 23 years and lived with another nine years of restrictions on his travel, residency, employment and political rights until he was granted his rightful freedom in 1998. Seelan’s performance questions how a man could have been imprisoned for as long as he had lived. 45 minutes before the end of his performance, Seelan was handcuffed in front of Parliament House and had his belongings confiscated by the police.
Before we are allowed to proceed with the discussions of evening, someone calls out for a round of self-introductions. Tarn How begins this by identifying himself as playwright. We learn that there are ‘artists’, ‘playwrights’, ‘theatre practioners’, ‘visual arts’, ‘observers’, ‘students from NAFA’ and others in the crowd.
Jennifer started her presentation by inviting us to watch a 7-minute edited video clip of Seelan’s performance. This video was produced and published by The Online Citizen. The Online Citizen was also the first to report his arrest during the performance that day. After the video, Jennifer raised several points that she had felt and experienced as someone who was part of the live audience of this performance: The audience had attempted to persuade Seelan to do his performance elsewhere, because of inclement weather, and he refused. (During the town hall, Seelan explained that the three locations were chosen for what they mean for him and should not be changed.) It did not feel like he was performing for an audience, for he did not catch anyone’s eye and his movements seemed directed at the mirror he was holding. In fact, he clearly told the crowd that no one else was part of his performance that day and refused an audience member’s attempt to participate. When he walked out of Hong Lim Park, toward the National Gallery of Singapore, many people in his audience believed that the performance was over and did not follow him further. He was carrying three books: Art as Experience by John Dewey, Foundation by Isaac Asimov and Stories of Lao-Tzu. He also had a white banner with the words Passion Made Probable, a nod toward the newest tagline by Singapore Tourism Board, Passion Made Possible. In the course of his performance, he questioned, “Can the liberated human mind be contained by the state sanctioned space,” and “can the liberated work of art be contained by the state sanctioned space?”
Zheng Xi began his presentation with a look at some cases of art and vandalism. He sets the stage with Priyageetha Dia’s golden staircase, which did not result in anyone in handcuffs. Taking on quotes from a report with Channel Newsasia as well as social media, Zheng Xi explains that the kinds of discussion we have about artistic freedom or concept would have no weight in court. This has nothing to do with the general understanding of art but the word of the law. When art actually did clash with the law, in the cases of SKL0, the sticker lady, and Oliver Fricker, the Swiss national who was the first graffiti artist who spray painted an MRT train, the artistic or aesthetic merit of their actions were irrelevant to the disruption to public order.
In court, there is no special provision to art or any practice, a point Zheng Xi drove home with the example of a Falun Gong monk he had represented. This monk placed printed pamphlets and other paper material at fixed places in Singapore’s public landscape and removed them throughout the day. It was ruled that this monk had vandalized public space despite its religious intent and the temporary nature of the pamphlets. Zheng Xi also gave a short exposition on Article 14 of the Singapore Constitution, which both allows and restricts free speech by Singapore Citizens. Through “Calibrated Coercion”, a term coined by the journalist Cherian George, he explained how policing itself, without any formal charges, is a effective tool used by the state to breed uncertainty among the people. He went on to contextualize the art community’s brush with the law with examples in civil society, including Teo Soh Lung, who had her belongings seized for uncertain ‘investigations’ for months. Finally, in the context of the ongoing investigation into Seelan’s performance, Zheng Xi cautioned his audience against stating a position that is for or against Seelan having broken the law.
The above serves as an independent record of the proceedings as experienced and understood by a single attendant. In the next instalment, we will report on some of the opinions and comments that were shared by the attendants of the Arts Engage Town Hall.