Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the current hoo-hah about the term licensing or self-censorship scheme for arts groups proposed by MDA is that there are Singaporeans siding with the censors.
Right up with his foghorn in the front screaming is former NMP Calvin Cheng. “Radicals! Marginalise them! Ostracise them! These people are radicals. I hope they do not represent mainstream arts practitioners.
“The MDA proposes self-classification and they demand no classification since they argue, this amounts to self-censorship,” he wrote in his Facebook. He does make a good point, though: “In every society, throughout history, there are taboo subjects. If an artist is asked to create around these limitations, and he says he can’t as it stifles his innovative abilities, what does it say about those abilities in the first place?”
Joining in the discussion on Cheng’s Facebook page is former Foreign Affairs Ministry’s permanent secretary, Bilahari Kausikan: “… in Shakespeare’s time imagine what would have happened to him if he had overtly written against the Queen or for that matter against Christianity? Yet he produced great plays and sublime poetry.”
Bilahari argues: “For most of history artists have always relied on patronage and worked within limits defined by their patrons whether this was the state, the church or private individuals. Yet, great art was produced. The notion that the artist needs absolute freedom to be creative is and always has been utter nonsense which is perhaps so much nonsense is now passed off as ‘Art’. “The notion of the artist as a unique individual not subject to normal societal restraints is a relatively recent one dating from the Romantics and even the great romantic artists accepted some discipline. The truly creative individual will always find a way to express his/her unique vision within the inevitable constraints of the time.”
This may well be true and the miles of entries from members of the arts community — who are waiting to send a petition to MDA, being drawn up by Theatre Practice and the Necessary Stage, clamouring that the self-censorship scheme be spiked — ignores the well-intentioned but bureaucratic handling of the issue by MDA.
As stated by Minister for Communications and Information Yaacob Ibrahim in Parliament last February: “At the end of the day, we want to allow the (arts) industry to move forward rather than to hold it back.” What is missing in this polarising debate is that fact the arts groups are given a choice of volunteering with this scheme or continuing to use the present system of sending their work to be seen by MDA. Even more important is the suspicion Singaporeans, in this case the arts groups, have of officialdom.