The list lengthens to 18

Three more names have been added to the list of 15 people (see https://tantarnhow.wordpress.com/2017/10/30/the-mystery-are-activists-and-artists-being-locked-out-of-academia/ ) who believe that they might be locked out of academia for their art practice or activism. A fourth case is unclear but useful to discuss functionaries doing what they think the bosses (earthly or the ones up there in the sky) want. All are Singaporeans. All asked not to be named, at least for now.

Two of the three contacted me, and one discovered through another person. Two are acclaimed artists, one a low-profile activist. They are in the list because despite being told by the department heads that they had cleared the academic bar for teaching, they still failed to get the job because of objections by the Ministry of Education or some other government agency. Like the other 15, they have no documentary proof that the problem is their art or their activism. Hence they cannot be sure of the exact non-academic reasons.


Photo from https://www.flasco. org/

Two of them are distressed by not being able to get a job, which they said they really need. One said, only half-jokingly, “Shall I leave Singapore?” In the previous post, I wrote that a few of the Singaporeans were forced to find work overseas.

What sickens some people make others happy (since the punishment is working.)

The three intend to apply again to other academic institutions in the hope that they are not really   blacklisted.

The fourth case does not make the list (at least not yet until more is known). This is because he is not sure if his application to teach part-time at a polytechnic went up as far as the Ministry of Education (which would put him on the list) or he was jammed at the polytechnic level. He only knows that the department head wanted to hire him, but the Human Resource Department objected. He is also very low-profile, so behind the scenes that, unlike the other three, I did not know him until now.

Was he blocked by someone in HR, and if so, why? It could be there is an in-house policy against his area of activism. Or it could be some manager or higher-up taking his own initiative to assure himself of being in the superior’s or a god’s good books. Or it could be that the person did some Googling –  as one of the four revealed the department head who wanted him speculated had happened – and decided to be “safe”. Being safe would bring no rewards, while taking risks could lead to a reprimand or even losing his job.

Again the evidence is all circumstantial. Talking about circumstantial evidence often reminds me of the amazing case of Sunny Ang Soo Suan and Jenny Cheok Cheng Kid.


The mystery: Are activists and artists being locked out of academia?

I have a list: a black list, a grey list, a list of ­– if you will – Cherian Georges.

It is a list of 15 artists and activists who say they have been denied jobs in academia or asked to leave their full-time or part-time jobs in our universities, polytechnics and sometimes schools.

  1. WHO

In the list are clear naysayers and critics of the Government. But in it are those who have not been particularly out-spoken or very critical.

Most in this list can guess what they did that could have offended the authorities. But because they were never officially told why, are never absolutely sure. Some have been actively involved at one time or other in advocacy in areas such as human rights, foreign workers issues, animal welfare, homosexuality and the arts. Others were only incidentally involved in advocacy, for instance, being outspoken during certain events, even those as long ago as the 2009 Aware saga. Others have given public talks at alternative events as such the Living with Myths series in 2015. A few cannot even point to anything specific that had done that might have offended the authorities. Others wonder if they can be sure that they are being punished.

The list includes people who were teaching part-time and then suddenly told they were no longer needed. It also includes people who could not – and still cannot – get jobs in academia here. These jobs range from tenure-track positions to temporary research assistantships and writing residencies offered by or affiliated to universities.

Most in the list are Singaporeans. Some of the non-Singaporeans have lived in Singapore for nearly thirty years, and a few have married Singaporeans and have children.

  1. WHEN

Most of the cases happened in the last three to four years. They roughly coincide with the tightening on freedom of expression (see here) that began in 2013 after the brief false spring following General Election 2011.

  1. HOW

Here is normally what happens to the people on the list:

  1. A few of them would be given a flat no for jobs in every academic institution they applied to, jobs that were clearly qualified for.
  2. Some would be told by the educational institutions that they have gotten a job, only to be informed later that the offer had been withdrawn because of a veto by Ministry of Education.
  3. Those who were already teaching would suddenly be told that their services were no longer needed.
  4. The non-Singaporeans would be denied employment passes so they could no longer work here. Others had their formerly unproblematic applications for employment passes suddenly delayed without explanation, and then reduced in the length of validity when approval came.

Incontrovertible evidence of the crackdown is lacking. This is because no reason is ever given officially for being dropped or blocked. None is ever forthcoming on asking. There is no paper or email record of why they have been rejected. The evidence is purely inferred, circumstantial.

As for the real truth of what happened to these people on the list, there is only their word to go by. In a very few cases they were told unofficially by their contacts that it was because of their art or activism. Even then there is no guarantee that these contacts were not telling them what they wanted to hear as a way to console them. The people on this list exist in the often unsettling, sometimes limbo of ignorance and uncertainty. Is what they imagine is happening real, or are they  paranoid? Hence a few even wonder if they are really being punished.


About half on the list do not want to have their names publicised, either because they could not provided incontestable evidence or because they were afraid of the consequences. The rest are willing to go public or their cases are already public.


Artists and activists without independent means often depend on teaching or research work to earn enough money so they can continue doing what does not pay or pays very little. One person in the list expressed despair and desperation because he needed the money to support his family. After two years of applying and reapplying, he was recently given a part-time job in one of the educational institutions, to his great relief. During that time his art suffered because he had to concentrate of earning a living and because he had to be careful about the kind of work he does. Others on the list have had to find work overseas.

For foreigners, it means having to uproot their families and abandon the lives they have built over many years. One nearly had a breakdown from the stress; fortunately, he is now doing well in another country. Another is a rare expert in his field who has been permanently barred from entering Singapore even though the institutions here want to hire him.


The list does not mean that every critic of the government is barred or ousted from academia. Opposition politicians in academia seem to be spared; the days of cases like Chee Soon Juan appear to be over. There are also some dissenting public intellectuals who ­­– still – have their jobs in academia. None on the list are academics who publish critical work exclusively in academic journals; this is probably because few read their work.

  1. SO WHAT

To be sure, some would say that those on the list deserve what they got and that they should not expect to find employment if they want to criticise. That is true, but such as system than cannot claim to be democratic or meritocratic. Others would say 15 is a small number. That may be true, but their stories are a symptom of the wider ills of an intolerant, punitive political system.

There are implications for academic freedom, for civil society and art, and for our public sphere.

First, less diversity of opinion results in poorer decision making. This has implications for governance. Could we say that the failures faced by SMRT, the ding-dong in policy on medical specialists and the struggle the government faces with the economy (see here) are a result of the poverty of public discourse? And what other problems are also not even on public agenda because no one raises them?

Second, although the vast majority of the cases are not widely known, the very public instances such as Cherian George (and some contend Tey Hsun Hang) are enough to have clear chilling effects. There are one or two other less well-known though now public cases, including Lucy Davis (recounted here.) The stories of the others on the list who cases have not been made public would also be known to people in their circle, creating its own ripple of fear.

There are a few reasons why academics mindful of tenure and advancement are not interested in research on Singapore. One is the difficulty of getting Singapore-focused work published in top tier journals and of getting data. However, a few have said privately that they avoided researching on Singapore because they feared reprisal, and because it was better to be safe than honest.


Thumbs up to National Library Board

Just tried the new National Library Board e-book service!

Getting signed in and coordinating it with the external reader app wasn’t intuitive. So I went to the Clementi Mall and a kind librarian helped me sort it out. I find NLB staff always helpful and knowledgeable.

It’s wonderful!

Now I can borrow my Lonely Planets and Rough Guides for while on the road. Of course, it has lots of other titles I want to read too!

Wonder if one can read Tamil and Chinese on the app (Malay no problem, I figure) and if books in them are available?

Note that the app wrongly says the travel and a few other books I checked are only in e-book format, but I saw the print versions on the shelves (and borrowed them too: still find the physical book easier and more fun). Just don’t trust it yet 🙂

Penguingate remains a huge black mark against the NLB, indeed an infringement of the free access rules that it signed up for internationally. This chapter is not over.

But this app is why in terms of service delivery we have one of the best public library systems in the world. Kudos to the NLB for this e-initiative!




Oh change, how will it come?

Yesterday, a meeting of four of us. Another discussion, another depressing conclusion: Singapore had become even less liberal in the last three, four years. The question is whether there is hope for the future and where that will come from.

First, the tightening of space in politics, the media, the arts, and academia since about 2013. After the 2011 general election shock, there was a brief desperate experiment by the government to free up. That only led to more dissent as naysayers with becoming emboldened. Government, either as a whole or individual ministers, saw that this was not helping them politically (never mind the question of whether more diversity is better for the country).  How tiresome and tiring all that accountability and explaining and answering!

A crackdown followed about two years later.



No, not a meeting of the Cabinet but of  activists/artists. (Source: https://blog.vanillaforums.com/community/dos-donts-making-changes-community/)

The early casualties include Alex Au and Roy Ngerng. Even people ostensibly on their side who dared to voice different opinions were publicly censured in ways that have not been used since the mid 1990s. Understandably and as intended, a chilling effect ensued. The proverbial monkeys have been frightened.

In academia, there is the case of Cherian George. Donald Low is a recent case.

In the arts, groups and individuals have been censored and some punished with withdrawal of funds or worse: publisher Epigram (for the Sonny Liew comic) , Amos Yee (in my books anyone who claims to be an artist, as Yee does, should be considered an artist), Tan Pin Pin, The Necessary Stage’s annual Fringe Festival, the Singapore International Festival of the Arts.  The very public statements last year by the National Arts Council chairperson and CEO that funding will be used as a weapon of control is unequivocal testament of the new modus operandi.

In media, conservative forces have taken over the big two conglomerates, and the little room that had been won over the years were readily, willingly given back. The independent online-only media have had new regulations slapped on them.

The above are only the public manifestations of a wider set of actions. Activists and artists have been denied work in academia. Arts groups who do “difficult” work are closely monitored, artists censored behind the scenes. Dissenters in the mainstream media newsrooms have been purged. Atomised, the actors struggle on on their own.

As one of us said yesterday, “They don’t even bother with the wayang anymore.”

The regression to a stricter past is made possible by the big majority of the population who don’t care for more than their own livelihood and having a good time, people who are happy that non-political individual freedom has increased (you have choice on how you live, whether hippy, homosexual or any other “alternative”) and who don’t see the roll-back elsewhere. People have been so depoliticised that when those at short of end of the capitalist stick don’t know how to make their lives better by collective action. Handouts (welcomed in their economic effect of mitigating out horrible inequality) also have the political effect of assuaging dissatisfaction.

Where is the hope for the liberals, the progressives?

Dare we hope for the rise of a Big Man who will herald in sudden and sweeping transformation? Well, we hoped for George Yeo for a long time until he sailed into the political sunset and was no more (how innocent we were!) And now some of us are hoping (futilely, of course) that He Who Should Be PM would be PM. And among the new men in waiting (sorry, no women there)? So far, different flavours of the same old cookies.

Some of us at yesterday’s meeting thought hope must be with the young people. They saw the new generation as more interested in activism and politics. Another one among us begged to defer.  The children who are from their teens to the early thirties he knows – nieces, nephews, kids of friends – are all uninterested in politics and society. These will be the future majority that will keep the status quo going.

Some of us saw hope in another direction: all the civil society things that are happening despite the pall. What Function 8, Future of Singapore, Living with Myths, and individuals such as Jason Soo and Braema Mathi have started or continue to do.

Another said these activities are important (gestures in the dark may not change things but have meaning in themselves), they had little political consequence. This was because these activists and artists are speaking to the converted. The general elections are the ultimate end game for the government. Hence what it is afraid of is numbers. Change would only come if enough people say ‘No, this is no good.” (This is where the liberals have to learn from the much more effective Christian right).

The fundamental, most important task for the moment is for progressives is to change the values of the unknowing, uninterested, unpolitical.  Giving knowledge to this people is important, but changing their values must be the first step. If your values are such that you don’t care about the truth, about justice, about freedom, about the wider society beyond yourself, about more than fun and food and a full wallet, then knowledge is useless.

How to change the values of people? This is of course the hard part. By the time our kids come out of the schools the vast majority have been so socialised to be apolitical and atomised that re-socialising them is a gargantuan task. None of us there had any idea how it could be done.

On that note, the meeting broke up.


How to build an audience… and how not to

One of the worst shows I have ever attended was a play put up in a gigantic school hall at a primary school somewhere in Jurong. It was bad not for its aesthetics, but for the total unsuitability of a school hall as a performance venue for a play, with its open doors, horrible acoustics and the impossibility of seeing and hearing anything clearly for those students sitting further back. That performance alone probably turned off a few hundred young children off from theatre. Imagine that repeated in one school hall after another. But under the numbers game played by the government, it would have been recorded as so many students being ‘exposed’ to the arts.

Contrast this with a puppetry play I saw recently at the Esplanade. Called “Samsui Women: One Brick at a Time” and put up by The Finger Players (Singapore). The restaging of a 2015 show is a simple yet  engaging tale of two girls growing up in China and then making the long and dangerous journey to Singapore to become construction workers. And it is performed in a proper theatre by the talented Myra Loke, Jasmine Xie, Zee Wong and Darren Guo. I particularly like the feminist take and how the story neatly intertwines with the Bukit Ho Swee fire.

I don’t think I had as much fun as the full house of young ones in the audience from Opera Estate Primary School. I guess the feedback they gave (left column for what they felt before and right column for after the show) speaks for itself. I bet some of them will be part of our future theatre audience.

Look out for hints of a future MDA employee and the one about the happy cardboard collectors doing it as a form of exercise.


samsui a 1samsui a 2samsui a 4samsui a 3samsui a 5samsui a 7samsui a 8samsui a 9samsui a 91samsui a 92


Absorbing play on difficult issues

main main

Part of the talented cast (from left) Munah, Farhana and Suhali (Source: Teater Ekamatra)

Main2 is an absorbing, excellently acted and deftly directed play on till this Sunday offering an intriguing and controversial take on why people do bad things to themselves and others. Director-playwright and Young Artist Award winner Aidli Mosbit writes that her 2002 work –  which intertwines heartbreaking stories about physical abuse, incest, drug abuse, divorce, extramarital affairs –  is:

“my personal observation and meditation about the lives of certain groups of individuals who are not ‘serious’. They live ‘playfully. Playing with luck and playing with destiny… In Main2, we see tragedy in fun, and fun in tragedy.”

The understated message is, of course, “Jangan main main” or “Don’t play, play” in the words of Phua Chu Kang.

The first question that arises is whether her thesis is indeed true, that the psychological motor driving the characters’ dysfunctionality is their weakness for irresponsible “fun”. The second is that, if this reckless-escape theory is true, whether there are other possible perhaps deeper explanations which the play but only hints at and which is debated outside of the theatre: class, prejudice, disadvantage, or as posited by some, culture. Consider, for instance, that the characters are all Malay. Would the play be different if they were Chinese, Indian, black Americans or Russians?

It is the purpose of art to raise these important issues and that Main2 has done. But art can’t replace and can’t be a sociological study. However it can provide glimpses into the ­–  indeed reveal more fundamental –  truths about the human condition than any sociology tome.

Mounted by the well-known company Teater Ekamatra as part of the Esplanade’s Pesta Raya season, the versatile and outstanding ensemble cast played a dozen or so characters, called often to to sing and dance. YouTube sensation Munah Bagharib and Intercultural Theatre Institute graduate Al-Matin Yatim share the limelight with Farez Najib, Farhana M Noor, Hatta bin Said and Suhaili Safari. Their guitar playing and singing provided a spare but magical soundscape under James Lye’s sound design. Certainly it had me and it would seem last night’s full-house last night ­–  a third of whom was a bevy of excited students in multi-coloured tudung – absolutely rapt.


Pink Dot is boring

I went to the inaugural Pink Dot in 2009. I even bought my first pink shirt just for it. But to be honest, I found it rather boring.

Late-afternoon notwithstanding, it was still hot and humid. There was no food or drink. There were too many people (I know, what was I expecting, the usual Hong Lim crowd of a 100?). Pam Oei, Neo Swee Lin, Lim Kay Siu and other artists provided entertainment, but the acoustics and the set-up made it hard to get into it. At the end when the organisers sheparded the 2,500 give or take people into the shape of a giant pink heart for the photo taken from somewhere up the Furama Hotel across the road, it was very sweet and also orderly in our Singapore way, but it still look a long time. I had doubts about its very (intentionally) depoliticised message. Except for a few whiners like me, most people though seemed to have fun that day.

I didn’t go to next eight Pink Dots.


Source: aspirant.sg

Pink Dot is a wonderful idea though. It is uniquely Singaporean. The growing attendance each year is a simple statistic that sums up Pink Dot’s success. It shows the power of one, of at last count 26,000 ones.

But the Government, with the urging, aid and support of the intolerant religious conservatives, has made it increasingly difficult for the organisers. Yet, the brilliant Pink Dot leaders have always overcome the rising restrictions on them. This year they surmounted what I thought was an impossible obstacle: getting local sponsors.

Sometimes clicking “Like” on Facebook is not enough. Sometimes you have to show face, because by doing so you show a digit at hate and repression.  Sometimes you have to do what is not all that fun.

Time to take out that shirt from the closet again. It will be such a chore, but I will be there tomorrow at Pink Dot.


1987’s Scar Literature and Scar Art

What do these people have in common:

Alfian Sa’at, Vincent Cheng, Russell Heng, Teo Soh Lung, Tan Jing Quee, Aileen Lau, Gwee Li Sui, Lau Siew Mei, Sonny Liew, Suchen Christine Lim, Seelan Palay, Jason Soo, Joel Tan, Jolene Tan, Jason Wee, Wong Souk Yee, and Robert Yeo

They are artists whose creations have dealt directly with or referenced the 1987 alleged Marxist plot against the government. I previously wrote about the scar literature and art that deals with the detention without trail of the “Marxists” when I discussed Wong Souk Yee’s novel Death of a Perm Sec:


“Wong’s novel and especially her play add to the slowly growing body of what is probably best termed Singapore’s “scar literature” (used for works dealing with China’s Cultural Revolution.) In our own scar literature I include not just novels and short stories, but also non-fiction, films, poetry, etc, which deal directly or indirectly with the period of the “political ISA”. By this I mean the time up till the late 1980s, during which the government locked up without trial politicians, social activists, and playwrights, journalists and other intellectuals (some for unimaginable years and years.)”

The above writers, editors and other what we call “Artists for Marxists (Alleged)” (disclaimer: including myself) are part of a as complete as we know list of the scar books, plays, sculptures, installation and other art works that a few of us compiled in commemoration of the 30th anniversary of Operation Spectrum arrests on May 21 ( click on the link below for the PDF):

1987 artists final

Artists for Marxists (Alleged)

Let me know if there is something we have left out.

The anniversary has been marked by the launch of “1987: Singapore’s Marxist Conspiracy 30 Years On” (available here:). Publishers Ethos Books describe it as:

“Survivors of Operation Spectrum—the alleged Marxist conspiracy—speak up in this volume. For many of them, this is the first time that they cast their minds back to 1987 and try to make sense of the incident. What they did in that period was meaningful and totally legitimate. Their families and friends share the same view.”

Other anniversary events such as talks are on-going. Look up Function 8, the group behind them, to find out more.

Crowd at launch of 1987 book

The overwhelming response to the launch of the 1987 anniversary book (source: Function 8)


Do festivals really kick-start places like Bras Basah?


Night Festival in Singapore (Source: http://www.familystaycationsg.com)

A little debate between Mr Kennie Ting, Group Director of Museums, and myself in a magazine published by the Centre for Liveable Cities (CLC), over the effects of festivals on places and spaces.

Mr Ting, who oversees major festivals run by Singapore’s National Heritage Board, including the Singapore Night Festival, Singapore Heritage Festival and River Nights, argues that festivals bond people to places meaningfully. I contend that their effects are often transient and superficial.

Our pieces are published in ‘Public Spaces’, launched on 18 May in Suzhou, China at the World Cities Summit Mayors Forum 2017. It has also been digitally circulated to over 30,000 people in our mailing list. The full issue can be accessed here: www.clc.gov.sg/Publications/urban-solutions-issue-11-public-spaces.htm


Yo and Lucia #1: Chicken

“(Yo sits at a garden table in a balcony high above the glinting sci-fi city. Heavy clouds threatening rain hang low. They seemed closer to him than the tiny cars below. A brilliant bolt of lightning flashed nearby, its clap and the the rumble in its wake rattling the sliding doors.

Lucia comes out with a Tiger and two glasses. She sits.)

Lucia: (Pouring.) Why that face?

Yo: (Mimes typing) Fear.

Lucia: Still?

(Yo gestures “You know how it is.”)

Lucia: Another play?

Yo: (Shakes head) An article. And another I don’t know what yet.

Lucia: Exposè? (Yo nods.) Political? (Yo looks at her) Stupid question.

And the problem is..?

Yo: It’s all hearsay, circumstantial.

Lucia: Never a paper or email trail.

Yo: They’re good.

Lucia: Damn good.

Yo: So I ask myself, “Heh, why are you still so afraid? When was the last time anyone got into trouble for writing anything?”

Lucia: Exactly. When was the last time?  (The other looks at him, not answering. He searches his memory. Finally:) I see. (Pause.)  Scared for your job?

Yo: House paid for, children working, I’ve always lived simply. You know I don’t really need it anymore.

Lucia: But?

Yo: They can take the house, the CPF.

Lucia: When was the last time they did that to anyone? (He thinks as the other looks at him.) I see…

Yo: They don’t use their stick often –

Lucia: ­ – “but it’s a big, big stick.”


Yo: Thinking of getting a divorce.

Lucia: What!? But the two of you look so… permanent.

Yo: “Permanent” (He’s smiles. Pause.) It’s not because of that. (Lucia looks at him.) We divorce, I give everything to her, after that, I can do anything. They won’t be able to touch a single cent because 一无所有. There’s nothing for them to take away.

Lucia: You serious?

Yo: Thinking, thinking…

Lucia: You are serious.

Yo: We could still live together after that. In sin, as it were.

Lucia: Haha, just like when you guys started.

Yo: Haha, yes.

Lucia: A crazy idea… but not a bad one.


Yo: But…

Lucia: You would still be afraid.

Yo: Yes.

Lucia: Yeah…

Yo: Chicken.

(Lucia makes to contradict Yo, but then stops herself. She lifts her glass. Lucia waits for it to roll away.)

Lucia: Cheers.

(Yo lifts his glass and clinks Lucia’s. He takes a sip. Then as Lucia looks on he downs the whole thing at one go.)”


The Smiling T Rex

Which is the T Rex? (Source: The Straits Times)

Thank goodness for our Arts Nominated Member of Parliament Kok Heng Leun and his predecessors Janice Koh and Audrey Wong. The House is never the same when they are in it.

If you were following the Heng Leun (https://www.facebook.com/groups/ArtsNMP/) in the Budget debate recently you will see why. Ditto for Janice (2012 and 2014) and Audrey (2009 to 2011).

Their speeches and their other activities show breath, depth, honesty and integrity, originality, courage, passion, compassion, feeling. In other words: humanness.

In the first year of his appointment, Heng Leun has spoken on topics ranging from the death penalty to gender bias, marital rape, the Public Order Act. The arts is only one of the many subjects they tackle in Parliament. The Arts NMP speaks not just on the arts or for the arts community but on a host of other issues and for all Singaporeans.

Ms Don’t Mess with Moi

The Arts NMP operates within constraints, sometimes quite forbidding, which we needn’t go into here. These limits are drawn not very far out. But as true artists they see these barriers as something to test and perhaps break and change, not to siam. No flower vases, these.

Our Arts NMP don’t just make great speeches in Parliament. That’s only the most visible aspect of their work. They meet regularly with different groups from freelancers to film makers, writers and visual artists. They make representations behind the scenes to authorities and lobby sympathetic politicians and civil servants. They sit on committees. They spread the message about the centrality of the arts to a flourishing life to schools and universities.

“The Pioneer” at an Institute of Policy Studies talk on her Arts NMP work (Source: Institute of Policy Studies)

Hence, it is evident that Arts NMP is almost a full-time position (I don’t know about other NMPs). The NMP allowance is small. Their core constituency – the artist community – is often quarrelsome and demanding and unappreciative. Let’s not even talk about Singaporeans in general. Then there are some who don’t believe in the whole idea of Nominated Members of Parliament, and with good reason. But if we take what is on offer, then our representatives have taken it and done something brilliant with it.

So being an Arts NMP seems like a thankless job. BUT, HENG LEUN, JANICE AND AUDREY, THANK THANK THANK YOU!!!

(A shout-out also for those who stepped up for the contests and face the arts community. They include Loretta Chen, one of the two with Audrey whose names the community submitted as candidates to be the first Arts NMP in xxx after an open, democratic process. And of course to the interns, artists and other who provide support for them behind the scenes.)

The word is that after this term there will not be an Arts NMP. Let’s hope it is not true. Otherwise it would be a loss – a loss for Singapore.

P.S. Janice’s speeches are on her Facebook page (see https://www.facebook.com/296770460367988/photos/a.319066304805070.78971.296770460367988/501880413190324/?type=3 about her virtual NMP office and a nice shot of her and her interns). Both she and Audrey hope to eventually get their texts up on the Arts Engage website, which has a running update of Heng Leun’s speeches. Now the transcripts for all three are searchable on Hansard of Parliament.


Death of A Perm Sec – Worth a read


Former ISD detainee Wong Souk Yee’s novel is an absorbing read. The draw for me though is not so much the mystery surrounding the titular murder?/suicide? as the character studies of the four feckless children struggling to cope with their suddenly fallen circumstances. Part of the fun is trying to guess which of the main political characters ¬– from the iron-fisted prime minister (no prizes there) to the Chinese-helicopter sole Opposition leader of 1980s Singapore and even the Perm Sec (shades of Teh Cheang Wan) ¬¬– correspond to which person or amalgam of persons in real life. There are many things this novel offers, but I am particularly impressed by the lyricism of Wong’s pen, for instance, in describing the multiracial love story of one of the daughters and the epiphany of one of the sons on a visit to Hong Kong to look up his father’s mistress.

EBFP-DeathofPermSec-300_1024x1024Wong was one of the so-called Marxists of the late 1980s whose drama group Third Stage’s plays on mistreated maids and other socially-conscious themes landed them in jail. The government has made efforts recently to erase their contribution to Singapore’s theatre history.
Wong was behind bars for 15 months without trial under the Internal Security Act, an experience she mined for her 2013 play Square Moon and which forms a small part of this prose work.

The novel is a much more accomplished work. It was actually completed in 2004 as part of Wong’s PhD in creative writing and literature at the University of New South Wales in Australia. But no publisher wanted it so (the time was perhaps not right then). So it sat in Wong’s drawer until she submitted it for the $20,000 Epigram Book Prize in 201 and it made the short list of final four.

Death of a Perm Sec is now in its second printing. The original less sexy title was “Expelled”. I understand that the authorities do not at all like the new title. (See https://guanyinmiao.wordpress.com/2016/09/15/wong-souk-yees-death-of-a-perm-sec/ for a full and perceptive review of the book).

Wong’s novel and especially her play add to the slowly growing body of what is probably best termed Singapore’s “scar literature” (used for works dealing with China’s Cultural Revolution.) In our own scar literature I include not just novels and short stories, but also non-fiction, films, poetry, etc, which deal directly or indirectly with the period of the “political ISA”. By this I mean the time up till the late 1980s, during which the government locked up without trial politicians, social activists, and playwrights, journalists and other intellectuals (some for unimaginable years and years.) The government has revealed that between 1959 and 1990, 2,460 people were locked up (though not all were for political reasons) under the ISA and its predecessor law.

Another notable scar literature book of 2010 is Beyond The Blue Gate: Recollections of a Political Prisoner, Teo Soh Lung’s moving memoir of her two years and seven months over two periods from 1987 to 1990 in Whitley Detention Centre. She was another so-called Marxist conspirator. A scar book about the earlier ISA swoop, which I have yet to read, is The 1963 Operation Coldstore: Commemorating 50 Years, edited by Poh Soo Kai, Tan Kok Fang and Hong Lysa.

Scar films include the documentaries Tan Pin Pin’s To Singapore, With Love (banned from public showing) and Jason Soo’s Untracing the Conspiracy (which continues to be shown at The Projector). Older works such as Haresh Sharma’s play Gemuk Girls, Russell Heng’s play Half Century and Boo Jun Feng’s feature film Sandcastles also belong to the same genre though their treatment is tangential to actual events, like the even more tangential Death of a Perm Sec. But they are no less powerful.

Arts research in Singapore

Kudos to the National Arts Council (NAC) and its Director (Strategic Planning) Kenneth Kwok for organising the “Inaugural Sharing and Networking Session on Arts & Culture Research in Singapore” that will be held next week.  It is open to artists, academics and arts researchers “to share their research findings on arts in Singapore, as well as to address the challenges of arts research in Singapore”. One thing to look forward to is the possible headline speakerProfessor Kwok Kian Woon, one of our best brains and a person with integrity, honesty, and deep links to the arts (including being on the NAC Council).

The event is a great idea.

The first reason is that the NAC commissions quite a bit of research either through its research grant or directly through one of its operational units such as Arts Engagement. (The Institute of Policy Studies has been funded for research under both schemes.)  A check with the government procurement portal GeBiz shows that NAC commissioned six studies (mostly surveys) in the six-month period up till January 2017.  Some research is published here, but many appear not to be. I know of two recent ones that have not been made public. So I am glad some of the research will be disclosed at the upcoming event.

And this is linked to the second reason why the “sharing and networking session” is a long overdue:  It will allow for the airing some of the critical issues surrounding the conditions of doing research for the NAC.

These include:

  1. Openness and transparency. The NAC’s default position on all research it commissions (indeed undertakes) should be to put the results in the public domain. Unfortunately, this is not the case. The only reason that the government might withhold information and knowledge is because of national security. Since the domain is  cultural rather than, say, defence, security or policy, I don’t see the NAC having to apply this rule. The reality is that the default for the NAC is to not release research findings. Hence, precious little research gets shared, discussed and made use of by arts groups, arts businesses and academics.
  2. Ability to take criticism and willingness to hear what you do not want to hear. Research findings can serve to confirm your hunches, or pat yourself on the back if it shows that all is well. But research findings that tell you what is wrong (specifically what you are doing or have done wrong) and what you are not hoping to hear (for instance, that your policy is not working or that your assumptions are unfounded) – are equally if not more useful. Indeed, one should expect to find (especially in complex policy areas like that of cultural policy) some short-comings or unexpected and undesired effects in every area.  In most reports there will be some good, perhaps mostly good, and at least some bad.
  3. Access to data. Researchers need access to information that NAC has to make their work better. But at times, NAC has been head-scratchingly unforthcoming with helping the researcher that it has commissioned.

I am not sure if I have left out any issues – let me know if I have. I am also not sure how general the above three problems are (for the very reason of the lack of openness and transparency).

I have faced some of the three issues when I did cultural policy research for the ministry that the NAC is part of, then the Ministry for Information, Communications and the Arts and now the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth. Indeed, the problem is government-wide: thin-skinness and an unwillingness to hear challenges to their world view.

I hope that all researchers, especially the new ones, deal with all three issues upfront, difficult as it might be. I know that insisting on openness and access holds the danger of not being given the research project. But it should at least be raised as a possibility, if not insisted on as a necessity on the chance that they might agree.

I also know that being “difficult” and  writing the full truth in the reports might mean locking yourself out of future grants, a worry for independent researchers especially. But my fear is that the less scrupulous researchers might even “massage the message” or even hide unwelcome findings in their reports to please their paymasters. I hope not. Fortunately, I myself have not had a commissioning agency telling me to be less than completely truthful. They have been very unhappy with what I have reported, but that is a different matter.

The future of the arts depends on us researchers telling the truth (sermon alert here). Of course, we should do it in as nice a way as we can, in the same manner that a doctor who delivers bitter but necessary medicine should.

I think that things have improved somewhat in the NAC. Of late, for instance, some NAC officers have been admirably ready to face scrutiny, coming to speak at events that I have organised where artists and others have given them strong criticisms of policy. This is to be applauded.

Also, look at some of the people who are running the departments or units that make or implement policy. We can see some new thinking. Let’s hope that it is infectious. We even find some artists or arts lovers among them. It is not that artists and arts lovers are better people or sharper thinkers;not by any means for this government is run by some seriously brightest people. But at least the artistadministrators know enough about the arts. That is, they would not be spending the first part of their tenure mastering the domain (attending school, as it were).  And at least most of them really care about the arts. Unfortunately, they are inheritors of a system not of their own devising. But this does not mean change, however slow, cannot happen.We on the outside can help give things a little nudge.

PS: Here is the line-up of panelists:
Session on Academic Research on the Arts in Singapore
•         Creative Place Making  (Speaker: Dr Cho Im Sik)
•         Arts Management and Cultural Policy  (Speaker: Ms Audrey Wong)
•         Arts Education (Speaker: Dr Charlene Rajendren)

Session on Arts and Practice Based Research in Singapore
•         Theatre (Speaker: Mr Kok Heng Leun)
•         Music (Speaker: A/P Eugene Dairianathan)
•         Visual Arts (Speaker: Prof Ute Bauer)
•         Dance (Speaker: Dr Stephanie Burridge)
•         Traditional Arts (Speaker: Ms Nirmala Seshadri)