Singapore Writers Say No to Governmental Funding of the Arts

Singaporean author Jee Leong Koh and poet Alvin Pang refused to accept funding from the government-linked National Arts Council (NAC) after NAC CEO Kathy Lai and Chairman Professor Chan Heng Chee made comments the writers claim justify and defend governmental censorship.

In an editorial piece entitled “The Tough Balancing Act of Arts Funding,” published in the Strait Times last month, Lai defended the guidelines used by the NAC when making decisions about what projects receive funding noting, “arts funding does come with guidelines.” She wrote:

This is no different from many other countries which also stipulate priority areas and eligibility criteria. Guidelines are publicly communicated and we do our judicious best to support a diversity of art forms and aesthetic expressions. These are taxpayers’ monies and we, as custodians, need to balance rigorous processes with aesthetic sensibility to determine how they are to be utilised. We will have difficulty funding art with public funds if such works merely feed a desire for self-expression, without any consideration of their impact on the public and whether they truly enrich their lives.

Lai noted that “public servants have due processes to follow, and there is a distinction between what is permissible by regulatory agencies and what NAC can champion or fund.”

Similar rhetoric was used in speech by Chan, which discussed how funding is allocated out to different projects. “I relate this to show governments have to deal with this conflict, this difference in points of view,” said Chan. “Governments or states end up, like it or not, the arbiter. It is not just the state that sets standards. Society and subsets of society set standards too. But standards and values will evolve. Until then, there will be negotiation and compromise.”

All this talk about public servants, tax payers’ monies, and judicious selection methods is what has incited Koh and Pang to take action. “Learning is more important than being right, and too important to be held hostage by ego, bureaucracy, pettiness, prejudice, fear, sloth or habit,” Pang wrote on his Facebook page. “In short, she [Chan] 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,” noted Koh in his own post.

In response to comments made by the NAC leadership, Koh is asking all writers to follow in his and Pang’s footsteps to refuse public funding. Whereas Koh sees mandated censorship being imposed by NAC, though, other writers point out that NAC is not the real enemy. “The problem is higher than these agencies,” said local poet Cyril Wong to Yahoo Singapore. “Artists are always struggling everyday to be authentic, to be their authentic self, to write about authentic things, without having to face the penalty of censorship, of exclusion from talks, from festivals.”

“I think the most pressing challenge now is to find alternatives to institutional funding and support as soon as possible,” notes Pang. “Any form of dependence is unhealthy in the long run.”

Comics creator Sonny Liew faced this problem when NAC abruptly withdrew their grant funding from his book The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye earlier this year, when NAC deemed that specific portions of the graphic novel “sensitive” and “did not meet [the NAC’s] funding conditions.” But Liew got lucky: “What had initially seemed like a financial problem for the publisher when the grant was withdrawn has turned into the best possible marketing for the book we could have hoped for,” said Liew in an exclusive interview with the CBLDF. “The media attention has raised awareness and sales of the book, and they’re starting a 3rd print run now.”

The censorship debate in Singapore is a complicated matter and artists and writers are constantly finding different ways to approach the issue. Whether finding strategic ways to fit into NAC guidelines to receive funding or pursuing outside methods of funding all-together, Liew noted in his interview with CBLDF that “there’ll always be an argument for allowing the authorities the moral and political leeway to do things their way for the sake of more efficient governance, to treat them like Platonic philosopher kings. But there’s also the need to push back, because any government will be filled with inefficiencies and injustices.”

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Contributing Editor Caitlin McCabe is an independent comics scholar who loves a good pre-code horror comic and the opportunity to spread her knowledge of the industry to those looking for a great story!