From: * * * (submitted to newsgroup and archived verbatim as retrievable from Google Groups)
Subject: Asiaweek : Pushing Back the Boundaries
Newsgroups: jaring.general, soc.culture.malaysia, soc.culture.singapore

Date: 2000-11-17 18:59:18 PST

From Asiaweek 
Issue 24th November 2000

Pushing Back the Boundaries
But can Singapore's artists ever break free to be truly creative?
By JACINTHA STEPHENS Singapore

Opening nights are usually nail-biting affairs for playwrights, but
Alfian bin Sa'at had more to worry about than most when his
sex.violence.blood.gore debuted last December. Singapore authorities
had given him permission to stage the play on condition that he cut
two-and-a-half of its seven scenes. Alfian agreed, but he signposted
the missing scenes with leitmotifs and distributed to the audience the
excised portions of the script. "I thought it was an important act of
exposing the censors' handiwork and empowering the audience to judge
for themselves," says the 23-year-old poet and playwright. He waited
anxiously after the curtain call. No backlash came. 

It's not easy being creative in Singapore. The country has hardly been
known for its free thinking. Its well-behaved citizenry have built a
gleaming first-world city through efficiency and hard work  not
thinking out of the box. But local authorities want to turn it into a
high-tech hub, which means information and ideas need to circulate
freely. Restrictions on expression are gradually loosening. The
government recently set up a Speaker's Corner to encourage free speech
 within limits  and just last month, a civil society group published
Shame, a journal discussing sensitive subjects such as political and
human rights. Will Singapore's artists, so used to limiting
themselves, ever be able to really break free? The city is caught in a
"bureaucratic paradox," says Alvin Pang, a 28-year old writer. "We
want a vibrant cultural city, but we also want it to be safe,
predictable, well-defined."

Singaporeans, trained to think of practical things such as production,
efficiency and profits, tend to view art as a marginal occupation.
Like most local artists, Pang relies on another job for his
livelihood. A former civil servant, he is now a web journalist. "Art
isn't considered a very Singaporean profession, in the way that law,
medicine, business and engineering are," says Pang. Painter Chua Aik
Boon, 24, who does oils and other visual art, often feels like an
outsider: "You sometimes get this cold treatment when you tell people
you are an artist or are studying art," he says. Chua teaches part
time to make ends meet, while playwright Alfian is studying medicine,
which he is interested in.

Some artists are skeptical about the government's more open attitude.
Alfian fears that authorities are easing up on the arts while keeping
a tight rein on everything else. "It is all right to put up a play
with gay themes, but you're not allowed to organize a gay forum," he
complains. "Art is being co-opted by the state."

But attitudes are changing. As Singaporeans travel more and react to
government exhortations to "be creative," they are becoming more
receptive to creative work. Take Alfian's first verse anthology,
published in 1998. Friends advised him to exclude a poem titled
"Singapore, You Are Not My Country" from the book; his editor tried to
blunt some of the selection's anti-establishment sentiments. But it
eventually appeared in full  and drew no reprisals. Today, the poem
is part of the English literature curriculum at the National
University. "Already, many younger artists are breaking away from
professional jobs to pursue their craft," says Pang. "They're finding
their own path, starting companies and publishing concerns if the old
institutions are unwilling or unable to move along with them."

The rapid growth of Internet use in Singapore is opening people's
minds in unforeseen ways. "The old ways of telling people what they
can and cannot think, which crippled creativity, will no longer work,"
says writer Pang. "Once we figure out how to nurture rather than
prescribe creativity, there will be positive spillovers into art."
Technology is also providing careers for some young artists. Graphics
and multi-media design are popular choices, says Chua, because of
their marketability.

For the first time, despite the frustrations, young creative people
are carving out a space in their tidy city. "Being young means you
have more leeway to fail and learn from your mistakes," says Alfian.
"More than ever, we now have a group of artists who are more vocal,
more willing to experiment, and less concerned about rice-bowl
issues." That suggests greater ferment  and more excitement  in
Singapore's arts scene.