Yawning Bread. August 2006

Clown show from our state censors




Another play has been banned in Singapore. I hope the playwright finds a way through the internet to show Singapore audiences what it is that has been banned. Perhaps it can be staged privately and videographed, and then have the video placed on the internet for downloading.


The article in 'Today' newspaper (see box on the right) gives a glimpse into what the script of 'Smegma', written by Elangovan [1], contains. It sounds interesting. Certainly calling our members of parliament "pigs" is something not a few Singaporeans would love to do.

The government's message though was that the play was banned because the 35-member Arts Consultative Panel were said to be "concerned that the play could create unhappiness and disaffection amongst Muslims". These words came from the Media Development Authority (MDA), our state censors.

Readers should take note that the members of the Panel are all appointed by the state. However, I have not been able to find a public listing of their names from the MDA's website. Furthermore -- and this was said to me by someone who privately owned up to me as a member of the Panel -- they are sworn to keep their deliberations secret. This sounds awfully like some secret committee that the Communist Party of the Soviet Union would have been proud of. 

Secondly, as we learnt from what happened to the Jason and deMarco concert [2], we should not imagine the 35 members even voted on it. All it would take is for one member to express some reservations and if it suited the minister, it would have been enough to use as a reason for banning it. It's only a consultative panel, you see.

As much as the panel is a device for sounding public opinion (of people who, through the selection process, may not be representative of Singaporeans) -- not that majority opinion is an acceptable basis for circumscribing free speech, in any case --  it is also a device for giving the government a figleaf when they want to suppress something. 

One can discern overlapping instructions from different layers of the Ministry of Information, Communication and the Arts (MICA) from the detailed press statement by Agni Koothu, the theatre company that was planning to stage the play:

Press release, 4 August 2006.

Truth is the greatest enemy of the state

The Media Development Authority of Singapore's (MDA) censorship of the arts has become an unbearable joke today. We applied for a public entertainment licence for the play SMEGMA, written and directed by Elangovan (bilingual poet-playwright-director) a month ago to the MDA for censorship vetting. I called the MDA on Tue 1 Aug afternoon at about after 2pm to find out about the licence.

I was told that MDA has approved the licence and it was ready for collection.

About half an hour later, I received a call from an MDA officer saying that the licence was not ready and they were still processing. When I asked her whether it was a joke and also added that I would go the media, she immediately did a full roundabout and said that the licence was ready and we could collect it.

We collected the black & white approved licence document from MDA at 4.55 pm on Tue 1 Aug 06 after paying them S$20 by NETS at the counter. The conditions in the licence were as expected - RA18 with advisory 'The play is Rated RA18. The play contains strong language and adult themes that may be objectionable to some members of the public. The advisory must be reflected in all publicity materials.'

Today, at about 2.30 pm, I received a call from an MDA official who did not reveal her name. She informed me that the licence which MDA issued to our group Agni Kootthu (Theatre of Fire) for the play SMEGMA has been cancelled. She did not give any reasons and I demanded for a written letter. She said that MDA would follow up. Meanwhile, MDA had a press conference for the local media at 3pm at its premises to inform that they had cancelled the licence issued for the play SMEGMA The script of SMEGMA was given to the press members for private reading and collected back.

I finally received a letter by fax today from Ms Amy Tsang,confirming the cancellation of our licence with the following reasons:

para1.  Further to our teleconversation today, we would like to inform you that the Media Development Authority (MDA) is cancelling the arts entertainment licence No 005/08/2006 issued on 1 Aug 2006 for the play 'SMEGMA'.

para 2.  After careful consideration, we find that the play undermines the values underpinning Singapore's multi-racial, multi-religious society, and may negatively impact upon our bilateral relations with our neighbours.

para3. The play portrays Muslims in a negative light. Two playlets featuring Muslim terrorists are also provocative in view of the increased tension in the Middle east. 

para 4.  In view of this, MDA has decided not to let the play be staged.

After the above fax, I received a pall from MDA saying that they would be faxing another letter soon and it would supercede the fax sent earlier. I received the final fax at 5.29 pm with a cover letter saying - "Please ignore the earlier letter on the above subject which we had faxed to you before 5 pm today. The attached supercedes the previous letter." Now, this fax had only one para (para 2) to give a reason for the cancellation:

para 2  After careful consideration, we find that the play undermines the values underpinning Singapore's multi-racial, multi-religious society, and portrays Muslims in a negative light. 

Paragraph 2 from the earlier letter disappeared and paragraph 2 has been amended.

Elangovan's TALAQ faced a different sort of problem in OCT 2000 from the then PELU of the Police. The licence was not issued and the whole situation ended in a fiasco, that led to a relook at the censorship laws for plays in Singapore.

But now, six years later, the esteemed MDA has created a mess for a small minority theatre group, by issuing the licence and then cancelling the licence, and also changing their reasons for the cancellation, the same day.

MDA had a month to vet the play. They claim on their website that they would usually vet a play and respond after two weeks. MDA had sufficient time to vet the play and inform us. We would have made the necessary amendments if MDA had informed us earlier.

What's wrong with the Censorship panel of MDA and its super-efficient officers?

Why are MDA officers behaving like this? Why cancel the licence on the eve of our production, which is tomorrow and Sunday?

If MDA had cancelled the licence much earlier, we would not have proceeded with our production.

We would have saved our finances but now we have lost so much.

It only confirms that liberalisation of the arts in Singapore is just lip-service of the 66.6% powers that be. What happened to us ( worse than the TALAQ incident in 2000) may happen to fellow artistes in this country. With the National Day celebrations to glorify nation-building next week, and the IMF meeting in September, what Freedom of Expression are we talking about in Singapore?

It is a painful joke. Grateful if you would globalise this Singapore Joke. 

Thank you.

S Thenmoli (Ms)
Agni Kootthu (Theatre of Fire)

I read on some blog -- alas, I can't remember which one and can't find it now -- a pithy comment that the MDA is not only censoring furiously, but, seeing the flip-flop reasoning, doesn't even know why it is censoring.

They're a bunch of clowns trying to run a government.

In the last (but maybe not final) excuse issued by the MDA, they said "that the play undermines the values underpinning Singapore's multi-racial, multi-religious society, and portrays Muslims in a negative light."

So what? Why must those "underpinning values" be sacrosanct and beyond discussion?  Why can't people be portrayed in a negative light? We do that all the time in Singapore, whether we're talking about Zionist Jews, jihadist Muslims, loud-mouthed Mahathir, crazy Chee Soon Juan, drug-addicted sex-obsessed gays or "troublemaker" civil society organisations [3], the last four with official sanction, to boot.

As 'Ray' wrote in the first comment to the essay The fear and lunacy that is arts censorship, one of the purposes of art is to provoke. Its contribution to society comes from its questioning, even subverting, habitual ways of seeing and thinking. Art keeps a society from becoming inbred and robotic. Naturally, in the process of questioning and subverting, someone somewhere will feel offended; they are the ones who are comfortable with or have vested interests in the prevailing habits of the mind. But why should we bias the existing over the possible?

If never causing offence is the rule by which we wish to regulate art in Singapore, then we're a joke of a country.

Yawning Bread 


5 August 2006
'Today' newspaper

Early curtains for provocative play

A day before its opening, MDA says it portrayed Muslims negatively

by Loh Chee Kong and Ashraf Safdar

Less than 30 hours before it was to open on Saturday evening, the Media Development Authority (MDA) pulled the plug on controversial playwright P Elangovan's latest work.

The MDA announced that it was withdrawing the arts entertainment licence for Mr Elangovan's provocative offering which, it said, portrayed Muslims negatively.

It is the first time the MDA has disallowed the staging of a play since it was formed in 2003 and took over the licensing of arts entertainment from the Public Entertainment Licensing Unit (Pelu). The agency issued some 1,200 arts entertainment licenses last year with about a fifth of those requiring a rating.

Mr Elangovan, too, was initially granted a licence on Aug 1 to stage his full-length play over two nights during the weekend at The Substation.

But in its press statement on Friday, the MDA said that it was banning the production Smegma, which was scheduled to be performed by theatre group Agni Kootthu, as it was "insensitive and inappropriate for staging".

The MDA added that it had consulted the Arts Consultative Panel - a committee formed in 2004 and made up of 35 members including arts and media professionals, educators and grassroots representatives - and its members were "concerned that the play could create unhappiness and disaffection amongst Muslims".

The synopsis for the play, which was to be staged at The Substation's 100-seater Guinness Theatre, read "The bizarre experiences and incidents in the play interrogate the moral, cultural, religious, political, economical legitimacy world from many perspectives of the underdogs and their masters. When the comfort zone is shattered, ugliness rears its head like smelly smegma."

With its script filled with Hokkien and English expletives, the play consists of 10 vignettes. These included one which depicted Singaporeans' sexual escapades with underaged girls overseas and a class of kindergarten children calling their Member of Parliament a "pig".

Another scene scripted also has three men in a prison cell making fun of the Singapore flag.

Mr Elangovan, 48, told Today that he had submitted the script last month and was granted a licence for it under an RA (18) rating for "strong language and adult themes" on Tuesday.

That very same day, however, he was also informed of the National Arts Council's decision to cut its funding for the play due to "sensitive content".

Beneath the coarse language and disturbing scenes, Mr Elangovan said that Smegma "analyses the five stars on the Singapore flag".

After hearing of MDA's decision through a phone call on Friday afternoon - he was informed in writing about three hours later - he told Today that he was "unsurprised".

"This is always happening to me," said the playwright, who, in his 33-year career, has been labelled a maverick by his milder critics and a "rabble-rouser" by his harsher ones.

In 2000, another of his plays, Talaq - about an Indian-Muslim woman's brush with marital violence - was banned by Pelu in the face of protests from Muslim and Indian authorities.

In 1975, he was investigated by the Internal Security Department because of his reinterpretation of a classical Indian story where a Muslim and Hindu King have a conversation.

When Today spoke to the playwright-cum-director about Smegma earlier, Mr Elangovan said that he doesn't intentionally write incendiary material.

But in this case, the MDA indicated that he had crossed the line.

It said "Smegma undermines the values underpinning Singapore's multi-racial, multi-religious society. The play portrays Muslims in a negative light."



  1. The MDA even got Elangovan's name wrong. I am told by the theatre company Agni Koothu -- who must surely know the facts -- that Elangovan has just one name: Elangovan. Yet the MDA in their press statement referred to him as P Elangovan. Where did the "P" come from? It's not even the initial of Elangovan's natural father's name.
    Return to where you left off 

  2. See the article Sirenes who will turn you gay. The concert didn't meet with objections by the Panel, as recorded in the paragraph,
    "Meanwhile, the application was circulated within MDA's panel of advisors. People Like Us would later learn from sources whom we wouldn't be wise to name, that the majority didn't have any objections."
    Yet the concert was banned.
    Return to where you left off

  3. In a recent statement to the media, the police said they would not be permitting civil society organisations to hold protests or demonstrations during the World Bank/IMF summit meeting in Singapore in September 2006. It was interesting that in the press release, the police used the word "troublemakers" to refer to all persons involved with NGOs. The Straits Times, in its story of 29 July 2006, 'No outdoor demos for World Bank, IMF meets, say police', quoted the Senior Assistant Commissioner saying,
    Said SAC Soh: 'We work with agencies all over the world and we will be ready to handle any troublemakers who come to Singapore.' 
    Return to where you left off