Alfian's letter

            I would like to thank the NAC for clarifying the many points made in Kuo Pao Kun's article, 'Give the arts free rein to bloom' (ST Nov 21), in their enlightening letter entitled 'State, artists work together to develop arts' (ST Dec 7). I had thought that Mr Kuo's article painted a rather bleak picture of the arts scene in Singapore, but NAC's response proved authoritatively and conclusively that the reality is even much grimmer. In essence, the State will not divorce itself from the arts and will continually assert itself through its various mechanisms such as censorship, funding and national recognition.

            I am writing here from a position of someone who holds a deep interest in the development of the arts in Singapore. I realise it would provide a greater degree of involvement in the issue if I were to state outright that I am an artist. However, in Singapore it seems, the term 'artist' has been corrupted through an act of dichotomy that is but one of the many symptoms of a society in which the State insists on casting its shadow over the arts community.

            Singapore must be one of those few countries in the world where the State divides artists, caste-like, into 'false' artists (the likes of Josef Ng, whom B. G. Yeo himself has labelled a 'counterfeit artist') as well as 'true' artists (the likes of which, one presumes, eventually move on to win the Cultural Medallion). Perhaps this phenomenon of sorting out the 'charlatans' from the 'authentic' is a necessary process that provides standards and is a crucial component of critical discourse. But what I find most profoundly disturbing is that this validation and legitimisation is provided not so much by the artistic community or even the public but by the Government. Artistic judgement is not exercised by the public boycotting a 'distasteful' exhibition, or artists ostracising a member of its community, but by a State that sticks warning labels on artists according to its whims. Hence, artists that are on its 'blacklist' are denied performing licences whereas those that conscientiously steer clear of challenging the status quo receive regular support.

            In short, I am hesitant of declaring myself as an artist, because in Singapore, only the State can deliver its decree on whether you are one. By extension, because your self-definition as an artist is decided by the State, then so are the art works that you produce. So, in effect, we not only have a government that decides for us what is legal, ethical or moral, but also, by and large, what is 'artistic'.

            The NAC rejects Mr Kuo's suggestion of more autonomy for the arts by stating that "Artists are but one of the players in shaping and developing the arts scene. The audience, the arts critics, the patrons and sponsors, the tax-payers, the community and the Government are all essential players as well." I believe this is true only when the arts is seen as a commodity to be exchanged and consumed. I understand that the NAC finds patrons and sponsors essential components of their arts facilitation activities, but I challenge the NAC to extract the 'artist' from the above-mentioned matrix, and still be able to boast of an 'arts scene'. The fact remains that the primary source of the artwork is the artist.

            Already the path towards translating a concept to form, a thought into image, an impulse into sustained motion, is a difficult one. The last thing an artist needs is to have bureaucrats trying to dictate the trajectory of that path by sheer neglect, hollering threats, withdrawing funds, imposing their 'conservative' values and claiming that it represents that of the electorate, and waving censorship flags. Some artists, realising that such forms of interference are an insult to one's right to self-determination and artistic destiny, have decided that the best path to take is the first flight out of Singapore. Goh Choo San, Ivan Heng and Margaret Tan are but two of many Singaporeans who managed to make a name for themselves while overseas, and I do not believe that the trend is abating, despite the Government having 'done something right along the way'.

            On a personal note, I myself have considered relocating to do my work in any place but here, be it writing for books or the stage, because at least I will not be immediately suspected as a threat, with intentions of destabilising public order. It is tedious and tiresome to be persecuted by a Government which believes your work is 'politicised', not realising that works political in nature are simply due to an overwhelming State presence in the arts.

            The NAC has rhetorically, and with a tinge of paranoia and self-aggrandisement, asked Mr Kuo, 'Would the other essential players agree to the Government surrendering its custodial and national responsibilities to artists?' I would like to reverse the question and ask, 'Would the other essential players agree to artists surrendering their artistic responsibilities to the government?' Would a Cultural Medallion mean as much to me if it, as has been pointed out, signals a kind of endorsement not from the artistic community, but from politicians, who at the same time are sentencing my fellow artists?

            The Government cannot legislate the arts, despite its best intentions, because the very nature of government is monolithic, and divisions in opinion are usually absorbed into a singular position through consensus-building. The government's stand is absolute, especially in Singapore, where signs of dissent within the ranks are viewed as a weakness. On the other hand, the arts flourishes when there is conflict, friction, disagreement, contradictions; generally the dialectics which energise intellectual pursuit. The arts begin to die when a dominant theme overtakes all discourse and starts breeding intolerance of 'deviant' forms. The Government is not the enemy of the arts; the real enemy is homogeneity. Unfortunately, the latter can be unwittingly propagated by the few in power who believe in dictating the tastes of an entire nation.

            I do understand that it will take some time before the Government realises that to provide the artistic community with more space does not necessarily mean that it is relinquishing control over a sphere which it had no right to regulate in the first place. Perhaps until that day arrives, we should revise our own aspirations towards becoming a Renaissance City. Instead we should call ourselves a Reconnaissance City, where our artists work with increasing cynicism and disillusionment under the steady, unflinching eye of the State.

Alfian Bin Sa'at