Poet rejects arts funding in Singapore amid censorship debate

Teo Kai Xiang
Many writers are still dependent on NAC funding to support their works.
Many writers are still dependent on NAC funding to support their works.

Editor's Note: The original version of the story contained Facebook comments by poet Alvin Pang. They have been removed as they have no relation to the discussion about arts funding and censorship. 

Singaporean poet Jee Leong Koh said on a Facebook post on Monday (7 December) that he would no longer work with the National Arts Council (NAC).

In an open call to other local writers, Koh, whose work recently made it to the Financial Times’ Best Poetry of 2015 list, encouraged other artists to join him in “reconsidering engagement with the state and its arts funding”.

The poet's announcement comes as the latest reaction to a debate over censorship and how state funding is allocated to the arts following a speech from NAC Chairman Professor Chan Heng Hee late last month.

"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,” Koh noted in his post.

NAC not the enemy?

Not all writers, however, are willing to forego the opportunity for funding.

When Yahoo Singapore asked Cyril Wong, a local poet, whether he would accept a grant from the NAC, he said, “Yes, because I know NAC is not the enemy; the problem is higher than these agencies.”

He acknowledged, though, that “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.”

In 2015 alone, the NAC set aside $14.7 million dollars for its major and seed grants to support the development of professional and new artists alike.

The NAC also awards up to 20 Creation Grants to support the creation of artistic content every year. Up to $35,000 is given per grant to support works of literary art.

“I think the most pressing challenge now is to find alternatives to institutional funding and support as soon as possible. Any form of dependence is unhealthy in the long run,” poet Alvin Pang told Yahoo Singapore last month.

The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye

How the government linked funding to content was illustrated earlier this year in the case of Sonny Liew, who wrote the graphic novel “The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye. The grant for the novel was withdrawn in May by the NAC as it potentially “undermines the authority or legitimacy” of the government.

Pages from the graphic novel by Sonny Liew. Picture courtesy of Epigram Books.
Pages from the graphic novel by Sonny Liew. Picture courtesy of Epigram Books.

Liew’s own stance on regulation is an unconventional one. Making reference to banned Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahl, he described the filmmaker’s astounding feat in crafting a film from footage captured in his taxi, despite a twenty-year ban from making films.

Panahl’s film has since gone on to win the Golden Bear prize at the 2015 Berlin International Film Festival.

Liew said, “He’s produced a very interesting movie based on the limits that he has. In a way you could say that whatever the limits you have, you can do good art.”

When asked on Tuesday (8 December) whether he would accept another grant from the NAC, Liew was uncertain. “My own take is that a lot depends on your view of the state, of Singapore.”

“… But that many or most of us see enough good in Singapore's governance that the tension between accepting and fighting against the status quo remains one in constant flux,” he noted.

Liew added, “I'd also agree that the restrictive practices of the NAC can and does make it feel overly instrumental, and that recent statements by the CEO have been disappointing to hear. To have someone in charge of the NAC who champions the ruling party's line rather than the arts won't do the arts any favours.”

On the other hand, Eleanor Wong, a local playwright, advocates for writers to take a step back and view the issue of censorship not just as artists or conservatives, but as citizens as well.

She wants Singaporeans to “ask ourselves if you were sitting there as the government, what kind of government would you want? Or perhaps we can appreciate the choices the government has made.”

“Then, I would say our government isn’t as much in favor of freedom and liberty as I would like, but it is still within the realms of what are ‘acceptable choices’,” she said.