Chronology of a controversy

The controversy over Performance Art and Forum Theatre have already made an impact on the arts scene in Singapore. Comprehensive documentation and a fuller history are essential to understanding the larger issues, but for starters Lee Weng Choy gives a chronology.


The Artists' General Assembly (AGA), a week-long arts festival, takes place at the 5th Passage Gallery in the Parkway Parade Shopping Centre. Organised by The Artists Village and 5th Passage Artists Ltd., the festival includes sculptural installations, live music, poetry readings, an international video festival, performance art and a forum on the state of alternative art.

Some of the events of the festival are covered by The New Paper (TNP). No other representatives of the media attend (as far as the organisers know). Also of note, just two days before the start of the festival, the Board of Film Censors ban three videos (out of the more than 100 in the video festival).

The Artists Village was founded in 1988 by Tang Da Wu and a group of young artists, and was originally based in a kampung studio space in Sembawang. The artists work in many mediums, including painting, sculpture, installation and performance art. In general, the works are experimental and avant garde. Some of the members (at the time of the AGA) were: Amanda Heng, Koh Nguang How, Zai Kuning, Lee Wen and Vincent Leow. 5th Passage Artists Ltd., founded in 1991, has managed the only artists collective gallery in the country. Run by Suzann Victor, Henry Tang, Susie Lingham and Iris Tan, the group has focussed on issues of gender and identity, and on the work of women artists. It has strongly supported alternative art and music as well as performance art.

The 12-hour AGA New Year's Eve show is part of a series of New Year events that began with The Artists Village 24-hour "Time Show" (89/90). The Substation held "Round the Clock" for New Year's 90/91, and 5th Passage organised a 12-hour New Year's show, "Body Fields" (91/92). A minor controversy ensued over Vincent Leow's performance at "Body Fields" he drank his urine during the performance but the police and government took no action against either artist or organisers.



Tongues Untied by Marlon Riggs (USA) and Game of the Year by Ellen Pau (HK) are shown in their erased state they had been banned by the Board of Film Censors, the former for its homosexual content, the latter for political sensitivity. The spokesman for the Board said: "It's the gallery's decision. As long as the segment shown is erased, we're satisfied" (TNP 24.12.93). During the showing some artists present performances.



TNP runs its cover story on the video showing and the performances.



Josef Ng Sing Chor and Shannon Tham Kuok Leong perform during the 12-hour New Year's Eve event, which includes numerous other performances, literary readings and live music. Ng's performance focusses on the arrest of 12 men for allegedly committing homosexual solicitations and the press's exposure of the incident. Tham's performance concerns the "sensationalised" coverage of the AGA by TNP. (See review of Ng's performance.)



TNP runs its cover story on the performances of Ng and Tham. The cover is a close-up shot of Ng standing face to a wall, with his black swimming trunks lowered, apparently cutting his pubic hair. The headline reads: Pub(l)ic Protest. Inside photos include one of Tham burning a page from TNP. The Shin Min and Lianhe Wanbao also run stories on the performances.



The National Arts Council releases the following statement:

The National Arts Council (NAC) noted with consternation the report in The New Paper, Shin Min and Lianhe Wanbao yesterday (3.1.94) of two artists putting on so-called performance art: One snipped off his pubic hair while the other vomited, both publicly in protest against allegedly unfair reports by the press.

NAC finds the acts vulgar and completely distasteful, which deserve public condemnation. By no stretch of the imagination can such acts be construed and condoned as art. Such acts, in fact, debase art and lower the public's esteem for art and artists in general.

If an artist has any grievances there are many other proper ways to give vent to their feelings. Artists with talent do not have to resort to antics in order to draw attention to themselves or to communicate their feelings or ideas. By staging such tasteless performances, 5th Passage or any other arts organisation for that matter cannot expect any form of support or assistance from NAC.



The Straits Times (ST) reports that the National Arts Council has condemned the two performance art pieces. The management of Parkway Parade Shopping Centre tells 5th Passage to quit their premises. TNP runs another cover story on Josef Ng. ST and TNP quote two opinions each on the acts in question. Notable among them: ST quotes the late Confucian scholar Wu Teh Yao, and TNP quotes Dr K. K. Seet of the National University of Singapore's Theatre Studies Programme, both of whom say the performances are not art and both of whom saw neither.


ST starts publishing a handful of letters in their forum page regarding the performance art pieces. The majority reproach the acts of cutting pubic hair and vomiting. Conspicuous among the letters is the fact that no one states that they saw either performance.



Police charge Josef Ng with committing an obscene act in public. Ng is released on $3,000 bail. If convicted he faces a fine of up to $2,000 or three months jail, or both.



Organisers of 5th Passage and Lee Wen, president of The Artists Village, each send letters to Professor Tommy Koh, the chairman of the NAC, asking for an opportunity for the two arts groups and the NAC to meet and discuss the situation.



The Ministries of Home Affairs and of Information and the Arts issue jointly a statement making clear the Government's disapproval of the two performance art pieces. The next day ST reports (22.1.94):

[The Government] is concerned that new art forms such as "performance art" and "forum theatre" which have no script and encourage spontaneous audience participation pose dangers to public order, security and decency, and much greater difficulty to the licensing authority.

"The performances may be exploited to agitate the audience on volatile social issues, or to propagate the beliefs and messages of deviant social or religious groups, or as a means of subversion," the [Ministries'] statement said.

The following action will be taken:

·Police will reject all future applications by the group 5th Passage for a public entertainment licence to stage any such performance without fixed scripts.

·The two men involved in the acts will be barred from future public performances. The police will reject applications for public entertainment licences for any performance or exhibition by 5th Passage or any other group involving artist Josef Ng Sing Chor, 22, and art student Shannon Tham Kuok Leong, 20.

·The NAC will bar 5th Passage from getting any grant or assistance. It will also not support "performance art" or "forum theatre" staged by other groups, but their other projects will be considered.

·Iris Tan Khee Wan, a founder-member of the group and organiser of the event held at Parkway Parade from Dec 31 to Jan 1, will be prosecuted for providing public entertainment without a licence, as the performances continued past the approved time.

·Organisers of scriptless public performances will have to provide a synopsis when they apply to the Public Entertainment Licensing Unit for a licence. If approved , they will have to put down a security deposit.

The charge against Tan was later amended to that of allowing a "vulgar act" to occur, in breach of the conditions of a public entertainment licence.

[Note: Forum Theatre and performance art are distinct art forms; readers may wish to refer to Langenbach on performance art (Commentary December 1993 and in this volume) and to Moorthy and to Krishnan on Forum Theatre (in this volume).]



National Arts Council Chairman Tommy Koh says he is prepared to meet members of the arts community to talk about the new curbs on art. ST reports (23.1.94):

[Koh] added that he was scheduled to meet about

80 members of the arts community, including his advisors on the arts scene, tomorrow.

The meeting had been arranged some time ago, but he would be happy to discuss the impact of the move against 5th Passage at the meeting, he said.

No members of 5th Passage or The Artists Village attend the meeting since in the earlier arrangements they had not been invited.



ST publishes the article "Two pioneers of forum theatre trained at Marxist workshops" by Felix Soh. The Necessary Stage (TNS) staged Forum Theatre in July 1993 after its artistic director, Alvin Tan, and its resident playwright, Haresh Sharma, had returned from attending workshops in New York. Soh reports:

[The workshops] were conducted by the Brecht Forum, a Marxist cultural and public education organisation whose founder Augusto Boal has declared that all theatre is necessarily political and that it is a "very efficient weapon for liberation."...

The company's publications, like its programmes and newsletters, explain the forum theatre concept but do not say that Mr Sharma and Mr Tan were trained in the art forum at the Marxist Brecht Forum....

So is The Necessary Stage, which went professional only in 1992, using theatre for a political end?

ST publishes alongside Soh's article TNS's brief replies to the questions that Soh had faxed to them earlier. The questions ask if TNS has a political agenda and if they are using theatre as a political tool to effect social change. Kok Heng Leun, TNS's business manager, states that TNS does not have a political agenda and is not using Forum Theatre as a political tool.

Commentary (The NUS Society Journal) holds an informal gathering of various members of the arts community to talk about the controversy over performance art and Forum Theatre.


Tommy Koh, Chairman, NAC, writes to ST's forum page responding to Felix Soh's article:

I would like to point out respectfully that your report has a slant which tends to put TNS in a bad light.

TNS has a good track record and is one of the most promising theatre groups in Singapore ...

The NAC will continue to support TNS as long as it keeps up its good work.

The only exception is that the NAC will not provide assistance to TNS to stage forum theatre.



ST runs an article giving Alvin Tan and Haresh Sharma's explanation on why they attended the Brecht Forum workshops; they state:

"The workshops we attended in New York were two of numerous other workshops we have attended in order to improve our professional skills as theatre practitioners" ...

"We have absolutely no political motivation. Thus, we are greatly saddened and disheartened" by Mr Soh's article and the slant he has taken.

ST also runs two articles which address the ban on performance art: "Liberalising the arts takes time" by Koh Buck Song (see "Liberalising the Arts" in this volume) and "Do not proscribe political art" by T. Sasitharan. Koh writes:

What justifies the stern action [by Government] is that the two [Ng and Tham] appear to be using the umbrella of art to shield a political statement aimed at exerting pressure on the authorities on the gay issue.

Sasitharan: So how far should art be allowed to go in expressing the political? As far as the artist deems necessary. That is the only honest answer.


Representatives of 5th Passage Artists Ltd. and The Artists Village have a closed-door formal hearing with the National Arts Council.



ST runs an article reporting that eight members of The Artists Village have pulled out of the forthcoming Adelaide Arts Festival because of lack of funding. Anima Gallery, Adelaide, had invited the eight artists to the Fringe Festival and was making arrangements for the visit. The eight had hoped for a $3,000 grant from the NAC, but since its new policy on performance art, the NAC would not have given any grant.



Responding to a question filed by Nominated Member of Parliament Kanwaljit Soin, Minister for Information and the Arts, Brig-Gen (NS) George Yeo reiterated the Government's position that while art, especially theatre, could not avoid commenting on social and political conditions in society, it should not be used in Singapore to promote particular political causes, and certainly not in a covert way.

"Otherwise, the Government will be forced to treat and regulate such performances as a form of political activity, which will be quite different from the NAC's present approach towards the art, and will surely retard the development of art in Singapore," he said (ST 24.2.94).



BG George Yeo says in Parliament that "the recent controversial performance by the arts group Fifth Passage was a good opportunity to define which areas are off-limits to the arts in Singapore" (ST16.3.94).



"Surrogate Desires 94" opens, an exhibition of five installations in the Pacific Plaza Shopping Centre. It is 5th Passage's first show after losing their gallery space at Parkway Parade. Before issuing the licence, the Public Entertainment Licensing Unit (PELU) requests written assurance from the organisers that there will be no nudity in the art works. After communications between PELU and the organisers, no specific assurances are deemed necessary since the artists' proposals already indicated that there would not be any nudity. The exhibition gets its licence and goes on without incident.



The case of Iris Tan comes to Court. District Judge Hamidah Ibrahim discharges Tan after hearing the Prosecution's case but before hearing the defence. The Court says that the Prosecution has not established the basic ingredients of the charge. Tan was charged with allowing the breach of the public entertainment licence condition that entertainers should not make vulgar actions during their performance. The Court rules that the licence was granted only up to midnight Dec 31, 1993. Josef Ng's act was made around 12:30am on Jan 1, 1994, thus it was not covered by the licence. 5th Passage had applied for the licence to extend to the early hours of Jan 1, but the licensing unit officer admitted in court to making the error of granting it only to midnight. The Prosecution appeals against the judgment.

(Of note: The witness from the NAC states that as far as she knows no one from the NAC witnessed the performance. And the police officer states that apart from interviewing the entertainment licensing official, The New Paper reporter who filed the story, Iris Tan, Suzann Victor and Josef Ng, no members of the audience were interviewed in their investigation.)



Teater Ekamatra presents "Kebyar" at the Drama Centre. The dance performance is directed by Zai Kuning, and features Kuning, other Artists Village members and music by NunSex. PELU attaches clauses to the licence, notably: dancers should not wear revealing attire or touch each other.



Raw Theatre opens at the Substation arts centre with "Artists' Project", a scriptless multi-media performance featuring Amanda Heng, Susie Lingham, Lee Weng Choy and others. The Substation puts down a $1,000 deposit to get the entertainment licence; the performance goes on without incident.



The Art-2 gallery at the Substation presents Vincent Leow's exhibition of paintings, "Chop Suey".



Kuo Pao Kun, Substation art director and prominent leader in the arts community, in an interview with ST (regarding his forthcoming fund-raising lecture for the Substation) comments on the AGA and Forum Theatre controversy (ST 11.5.94):

The Government bypassed all the institutional structures set up over the last three years: the NAC, the arts advisors, the review committee and the resource panel ...

They were all there to be consulted, but the Govern-ment chose to deny the very institutions it created itself. In one stroke, all these were arbitrarily brushed aside at a time when the "consultative spirit" and "due process" were being underlined as fundamental traits of this nation.

What the authorities failed to consider was that, by doing so, they had inflicted serious damage to their own moral credibility.


MONDAY 16 MAY 1994

The case of Josef Ng Sing Chor comes to Court. District Judge Ch'ng Lye Beng presides. Ng, after last-minute deliberations with his counsel, pleads guilty to committing an obscene act in public. The offence is punishable with a jail term of up to three months, a $2,000 fine, or both. Defence counsel S. Magintharan asks for the case to be adjourned till the next day to tender a written mitigation plea.



The Court fines Josef Ng $1,000 for cutting his pubic hair and exposing his buttocks during his performance on Jan 1. ST reports (18.5.94):

Based on information from reports in The New Paper, police took action against Ng for performing the obscene act in public.

Defence counsel S. Magintharan said in mitigation that ... [Ng] had taken part in stage performances since 1987, and had received several letters of appreciation.

Counsel, who said Ng did not perform for money, added: "He did it for the love of art and in the interest of expand ing the general outlook of art in Singapore."



TNS presents the double-bill "Talk" and "Logos" during the Raw Theatre programme at the Substation.



TNS presents "Three Years in the Life and Death of Land" at the Drama Centre as part of the Singapore Arts Festival 1994. ST gives the performance a favourable review.



The Substation presents "Departures", an exhibition by Koh Nguang How, Zai Kuning and Lee Wen.



The Prosecution's appeal against Iris Tan's acquittal (18 April) is heard in High Court. The Prosecution argues that the district judge should have amended the charge against Tan from one of violating certain conditions of the licence to that of providing entertainment without a licence. (Recall that the licence was valid only till midnight 31 December; Josef Ng's performance took place in the early hours of 1 January; the licensing unit officer admitted in court to mistakenly granting it only to midnight.) Chief Justice Yong Pung How allows the prosecution's appeal. The case is remitted to District Judge Hamidah Ibrahim, with an order to amend the charge against Tan.


August/September 1994

The case of Iris Tan comes to Court. District Judge Hamidah Ibrahim convicts Tan on the grounds that the offence is one of strict liability. Tan is fined $700. The Defence appeals against the judgment.


Thursday 30 March 1995

The Defence's appeal against Iris Tan's conviction is heard in High Court. The Defence argues that Tan acted under a mistake of fact and that she believed in good faith that she had a valid licence. Chief Justice Yong Pung How dismisses the appeal on the grounds that Tan had the burden to check, with due care and attention, that the licence was correct.



Until this day (March 1996), Josef Ng and Shannon Tham continue to be "banned" from performing or exhibiting art in public.


Related piece:

A review of Joseph Ng's performance

Lee Weng Choy was a co-editor of Commentary . He participated in TNS's Forum Theatre, and was a speaker at the AGA forum on alternative art. He witnessed both Josef Ng's and Shannon Tham's performances, and was present in Court during both Iris Tan's and Ng's cases.


Portions of this chronology derive from Ray Langenbach's article "Annotated Singapore Art Diary 26 December 1994 20 April 1994", Art and Asia Pacific Vol. 1 No. 4.


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