The article in 'Today' newspaper (see box on
the right) gives a glimpse into what the script of 'Smegma', written by Elangovan
, 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 , 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
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
I finally received a letter by fax today from Ms
Amy Tsang,confirming the cancellation of our licence with the following
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
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.
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
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 , 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,
process of questioning and subverting, someone somewhere will
feel offended; they are the ones who are comfortable with or have vested interests in the
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
© Yawning Bread
|5 August 2006
Early curtains for provocative
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
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
"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
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
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."