Goli tent at Toa Payoh during performance of The Lesson by Drama Box

Goli tent at Toa Payoh during performance of The Lesson by Drama Box

THIS year’s Singapore International Festival of  the Arts (SIFA) again shows that the arts is like life: No venture, no gain. That is, if we go to watch something safe, well-known, we are more likely to be rewarded, but rewarded with only a “not-bad” night or day out. On the other hand, if we try something less safe, less popular, we are less likely to be rewarded — but when the reward comes, oh my, it can change us and the way we see the world. True, if we take a risk, sometimes are we left with a “huh?”. Or leave scratching your head about what we just spent $20 to $60 or more and an hour or three of our time on. Or sometimes we just hate the show. Once in a while though the experience is transformational, and rarer even, transcendental. That’s what art is about.

Another analogy is a pyramid: at the bottom, the chances of payoffs are more often, but mediocre; at the top, the pay offs are rarer, but superior.

This has been a great Singapore Festival of the Arts. I could not see Hotel by Wild Rice, or that Bukit Brown thing by Drama Box (It Won’t Be Too Long). I hope they will come back.

I watched:

  • Returning by Goh Lay Kuan (loved the music and some of the dance)
  • Imagination of the Future (the Chilean play in the Open season of SIFA that because our government banned from baring breasts laid bare Singapore’s censorship: more below)
  • Biomashup (a dance with live Theremin music; I was more mesmerised by the musician rather than the dance)
  • Cabanons (a head scratcher: circus or theatre?)
  • Dementia (innovative but emotionally remote for me)
  • Revolutionary Model Play (uneven).
  • One part of Dance Revolution (Cambodian Chey Chankethya’s My Mothers and I was excellent)

One of highlights was Drama Box’s The Lesson under the wonderful inflatable space the Goli at Toa Payoh Central. It was truly a lesson on the possibilities of theatre, of politics, and of political theatre.

After one of the shows, I had a chat with one of my favourite critics (and playwright) Helmi Yusof of Business Times about the old but important question of whether SIFA should be popular (like the HK Arts festival: success measured by ticket sales alone) or adventurous (measured by not how many people like it, but whether some people really really love it.) This year’s slate under artistic director Ong Keng Sen is indeed adventurous. That it got the numbers is an added bonus.

My view is that Singapore has such a bustling arts scene offering all the popular, middle of the road stuff from the casinos’ crowd pullers to numerous festivals and shows that cater to more popular needs. This is great. But it is not often that a big festival offers something more esoteric (and I don’t mean esoteric for the sake of being so). SIFA has that role. Unfortunately, SIFA has suffered from schizophrenia for much of its existence: one year it wants to be popular, the next year it wants to be cutting edge. Go for one, preferably the latter. Otherwise the audience gets confused.

Oh, by the way, the other highlight happened at the sidelines of SIFA. It is Keng Sen’s interview about censorship. The highlight from that highlight:

I think first of all the context is very very important. The fact that our censors were not considering context at all means there is an impossible situation actually put forward.

So I think it’s very difficult to show Singapore is a global hub, because all these companies are laughing at us. I feel embarrassed to be going to our international guests with such absurd demands from the censors, like, “Can you please cut the blowjob?” or “Can you do less?”

And in the end this censorship is a real mockery. It’s an international embarrassment for Singapore to be shown to be so childish.

Some seven or eight years ago, I wrote in a report that one of the three main messages from speaking to practitioners, academics and policy makers in the creative industries in Seoul, Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong was this: Censorship matters. A very senior civil servant who read the report retorted: “Censorship is no longer an issue in Singapore”. From Keng Sen’s interview, I guess, it still isn’t.

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Conflict of interest disclaimer: My plays have been directed by Ong Keng Sen.

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