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Ong Keng Sen: “We’re no longer dealing with censorship, because what’s more powerful is control.”

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By Phyllis Lee

Founding festival director of the Singapore International Festival of Arts (SIFA) Ong Keng Sen is calling for transparency within the arts community.

According to Ong, censorship happens in sophisticated ways today.

“Censorship is not just about a film, a book or a performance being banned. It is about the interruptions, obstructions and disruptions to how the public can receive an individual’s expression,” Ong said, citing the example of funding for artists in Singapore.

In countries like the United States or the United Kingdom where private funding is common, it is not necessarily a blockage of expression when the government chooses not to fund an artist.

“In the context of Singapore, there’s almost a kind of cornering of the funding market by the government, government aligned agencies and corporate citizens who don’t want to be on the wrong side of the government. Hence, making art becomes blocked, hindered or obstructed once funding is declined to an artist. This becomes worse when the funding is withdrawn halfway,” he explained.

Their funding – or lack of funding – is now an effective means of blockage.

“One of the strengths of the arts community is openness. If we’re challenging the lack of transparency, we have to first and foremost be transparent to ourselves. We need to have more dialogue and not to be afraid to be self-critical,” he said.

This is also what SIFA stands for – as not just a festival, but also an intervention and an alternative space for discussion in Singapore.

However, Ong feels that old mechanisms like permits and regulations will soon take the backstage in Singapore.

“We’re no longer dealing with censorship, because what’s more powerful is control. Control as ‘you’re beholden to me because I fund you’.”

Ong fears that if everyone continues to stay silent because they don’t want their funding to be affected, this control will then become much more effective.

He said: “Looking back at the first four editions of SIFA, you’ll realise that the festival did and achieved the most it can in the present context. The larger issue that’s endemic in Singapore is the way in which Singapore has been constructed politically and socially.”

“Singapore is struggling with its insecurities. There is so much concern to pre-arrange something to control the end result in so many different ways. Now we have to go deeper to transform our society, and not just our art audiences,” he continued.

If this situation goes on, Ong believes that there will be a brain drain within the nation. He noted that although there are financial investments in Singaporeans, those providing the funds still do not trust the artists.

“We have been accused that the arts is an echo chamber, but I think the biggest echo chamber is that surrounding the government with the civil service and all those who are saying ‘yes’ because they don’t want to rock the boat.”

He suggested: “The first thing to do is to believe in the people you’re working with, and not start by thinking about the worst possible scenario. We have to trust that the foundation of our society is well-constructed and strong.”

“That’s the challenge which lies ahead for all of us. Do we have a morally and ethically strong society? If we don’t, we need to do something about it right now.”

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