Open Letter in Response to National Arts Council CEO Kathy Lai’s Letter to the Straits Times (November 7, 2015)

I am greatly saddened by the NAC CEO’s defense of censorship in response to Ong Keng Sen’s radio interview and Haresh Sharma’s Cultural Medallion speech. In his hard-hitting interview, Ong Keng Sen criticized state censorship of the arts for infantilizing the populace. Haresh Sharma, in his moving speech, called for unconditional support of our artists. In response, NAC CEO Kathy Lai wrote a reply that managed to be obfuscating, ingratiating, and high-handed all at once, with the sole aim of defending the status quo. Jason Wee has rebutted the letter soundly in a Facebook post, so I will not repeat the objections here. What’s worth remembering is the recent actions taken against the arts. If we remember them, we will know to take the letter for what it is: a whitewashed tomb.

There were high hopes in the last days of Lee Kuan Yew that Singapore society would breathe more easily and freely. This was not to be. First, the government restricted the screening of Tan Pin Pin’s documentary film “To Singapore, With Love” about Singapore’s political dissidents and exiles. Then, NAC, under Kathy Lai, withdrew the publication grant from Sonny Liew’s The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye, because the graphic novel was deemed politically sensitive. These actions may seem to show the lightening of the censoring hand, since neither film nor book was banned outright, but they do not. They are, instead, carefully calculated to mute any protest from the artistic community and to prevent the dissemination of film and book to the populace. The state is not bothered by film screenings to small groups of like-minded individuals. It knows that they are a lost cause and, anyway, their opinion leaders depend on it for arts funding. By restricting screenings, the state has achieved its purpose of restricting the exposure of the populace to what it considers to be undesirable ideas. The same goes for the graphic novel. Withdrawing funding is a sufficient warning to schools and other institutions to stay away from the disapproved publication. The strategy is clear: let the tiny liberal fringe protest while watching their film and reading their book, but cordon off the populace from any liberating ideas. As playwright Tan Tarn How observed on Facebook, “things are changing, but backwards.”

That the NAC is one of the state instruments for carrying out this policy is clear from Kathy Lai’s letter. After dividing the “well-traveled, deeply engaged” arts lovers from “others who want the arts to uplift them, to be simple expressions of joy and beauty” (meaning the heartlanders), she warned that “The one thing we won’t – and must not – do is to be patronising or even insulting to audiences and potential audiences on their choices.” By her twisted logic, to encourage Singaporeans to eschew the ersatz and the simplistic, to appreciate the profound and the complex, is to patronize (even insult!) them. This statement alone disqualifies her to be the chief of the National Arts Council. But we must not overlook the political hackwork done by the statement. In political terms, the statement says to artists and art lovers, do what you like but leave the electorate alone.

Just as insidious, and even more upsetting, is her argument that artists’ complaints about censorship are exaggerated. Look at “our lively theatre scene,” she wrote. “Similarly, the marketplace has never seen a more diverse range of Singaporean-authored and published books than today – from the reverential and celebratory to all manner of contrarian narratives.” In arguing thus, she is using works produced under a restrictive regime to prove a lack of restrictions, conveniently ignoring the fact that many of the most vibrant works were produced despite of these restrictions. What she argues is tantamount to saying that queer writers cannot be oppressed in Singapore since they can publish their books in the country. This kind of logic is what stops LGBT writers such Cyril Wong and Ovidia Yu from representing their country. To display the vitality of Singapore writing is to contribute to their own oppression. You can write and publish, right? So you cannot be so badly off. In the meantime, 377A, the law against sodomy, remains on the books, and prevents any progress towards achieving equality. Kathy Lai seems oblivious to the irony in her phrase “all manner of contrarian narratives.” What did she do to The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye on her watch? Whitewashed tomb.

Because of the reasons above, I have decided to embark on a policy of non-cooperation with the NAC until it changes its approach, until it champions freedom of expression. I have managed thus far to be an independent writer, having self-published my books of poems, or having them published by US and UK publishers. I have also been running the arts website Singapore Poetry without any funding from the NAC. Only recently have I received monies from it: funding for the Steep Tea tour in the UK and payment for participation in this year’s Singapore Writers Festival. I’ve written to the NAC to return all the monies received. From now onwards, I will not participate in any NAC events nor have my work included in any NAC-funded publication. I do not wish to contribute to my political oppression.

I wish, instead, to heed Haresh Sharma’s clarion call, given in his speech on receiving the Cultural Medallion: “The most fundamental frontier of change is the mind. If our mindsets can’t change then there is very little hope for our attitudes to change. Our attitude towards censorship and regulation, our attitude towards openness and dialogue, our attitude towards risk-taking, and ultimately, our attitude towards the value of the artist in society.” I wish to decolonize my mind.

Koh Jee Leong
New York City
November 12, 2015

About Jee Leong Koh

My book of poems Steep Tea (Carcanet) was named a Best Book of 2015 by UK's Financial Times, and a Finalist by Lambda Literary. I also wrote three other books of poems and a book of zuihitsu. My work has been shortlisted for the Singapore Literature Prize, and translated into Japanese, Chinese, Vietnamese, Russian and Latvian. Originally from Singapore, I live in New York City, where I edit the arts blog Singapore Poetry, and run the Second Saturdays Reading Series and the Singapore Literature Festival in NYC.

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