Thursday, December 30, 2010

More ex-detainees speak out : Political violence and the abuse of the ISA in Singapore

Source: Singapore Rebel, December 29 2010

UPDATE : Ex-ISA detainee plans to sue Malaysian govt too

MHA ignores torture allegations; claims Fernandez was detained by Malaysia
Former ISA detainee Michael Fernandez rebuts MHA
LKY Distorts Singapore History, Academic Gets Fired

DAYS after initiating legal action against the Singapore Government for damages for alleged torture, ex-detainee Michael Fernandez now plans to sue the Malaysian authorities as well.

The writ will be filed with the Malaysian High Court by this week, and will name Malaysia's Attorney-General and the Malaysian government as the defendants, according to Mr Fernandez's lawyer, Mr M. Ravi.

Its claims will be similar to those in a writ filed against Singapore's Attorney-General on Thursday last week, namely that Mr Fernandez, 77, was subjected to 'severe physical and mental torture, humiliation and loss of income' during his detention from 1964 to 1973.

At the time of Mr Fernandez's arrest in September 1964, Singapore was part of Malaysia. Singapore left Malaysia in August 1965.

Mr Ravi said at a press conference yesterday that Malaysian law firm K. Selva Barathy and Associates would be filing the writ with the Malaysian High Court.

Mr Ravi added that complaints would also be lodged with the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia and with the Malaysian representative to the Asean Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights, prominent lawyer Muhammad Shafee Abdullah.

As for the Singapore writ, a spokesman for the Attorney-General's Chambers confirmed yesterday that it has been served the writ. It now has eight days to indicate whether it will contest the suit.

Mr Fernandez was a leftist activist in the 1960s.

He was detained under the Internal Security Act on grounds that he was part of the Communist United Front, an appendage of the Communist Party of Malaya.

MHA rebuts claims of ex-ISA detainee

Ex-detainee Michael Fernandez sues Government
Former ISA detainee seeks damages against Singapore government
Michael Fernandez files writ against Government
Breaking news: Former ISA detainee plans to sue Singapore Government
Former ISA detainee wants to sue Govt for damages : Straits Times

There are three things you need to know about Singapore.

1. The only political violence that has happened in the last 45 years in Singapore are the ones inflicted on political prisoners behind the walls of the Internal Security Department.

Links :
Political detention in Singapore : Prisoner case histories
The ISA as a political tool
Life in Singapore's political prisons

Surviving long-term detention without trial
Detention of journalists and lawyers under the ISA
A detainee remembers

2. The Internal Security Act has been abused (to serve political ends) more often than it has been used appropriately (to safeguard national security).

23 years after Operation Spectrum : Ex-detainees recall mental and physical abuses

I'll forgive Lee Kuan Yew if he admits to his error and apologises to me : Lim Hock Siew

3. The people and the institution responsible for the political violence and the abuse of ISA are still in power today. Open discussions on such topics remained sensitive, and even outlawed, in Singapore.

Zahari's 17 Years - rated PG by censors, banned by Minister
Ex-detainee Vincent Cheng barred from speaking in history seminar
Here we go again - Govt bans another Martyn See's film
Operation Spectrum forum cancelled
Police retracts licence request after Minister queried
Zahari's 17 Years remains banned : MICA

Ex-political prisoner speaks out in Singapore (Banned in Singapore) from sotong on Vimeo.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Whither Singapore Artists?

Missing the High Notes
Singaporeans can make a greater impact on the world music stage if
they are given more moral and monetary support.
by Wang Ya-Hui, December 2010

Today, I look at many young Singaporean musicians, and their parents
who dream of their child’s distinguished musical future. I would hate
to say to them that compared with their Western counterparts, they are
already behind. And when they finally walk the road, they will realise
that they are even further behind. Why do I think that Singaporeans
are disadvantaged in making an impact on the world music stage, and
what can Singapore do about it?

Allow me to tell you about my own experience of music, which has
shaped my views.

Let’s rewind to the ‘70s and ‘80s when I was growing up in Singapore.
Most of us had our music education privately. We learnt from teachers
individually, an hour per week. Music in Asia then was considered for
the rich and (sadly still is) an indulgence. I recall my maternal
grandfather asking my mother why she invested in a piano for her
daughters “to make noise on”. Nevertheless, we went on to take the
ABRSM (Associated Board of the Royal School of Music) exams like
everyone else who took formal music lessons.

The ABRSM system was good for those times. It made us practise our
scales and arpeggios (basic technical skills), learn theory and
provide an early training of our aural skills. These were foundations,
vital for a degree in music and a lifetime’s engagement in music.

After I obtained the LTCL (Licentiate of Trinity College of Music), my
piano teacher who had patiently taught me from scratch, advised my
mother that I should look for another teacher. We found Ong Lip Tat, a
young Singaporean pianist who had just returned from Germany and made
his debut with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra (SSO) at its opening

What I learnt from him, aside from a great advancement and maturity in
my piano playing, was showmanship, which I still use today. He was
always particular about how one plays every note and how that
should/could be communicated to the audience.

Technique and Training

One of the most important skills in music performance is technique.
Technique is not inborn. Motor skills must be honed at a young age. We
have all watched how the communist countries train their little ones
(some even injure themselves in the process). Attaining excellent
technique is almost impossible when spending a mere one-hour per week
lesson, practising through the cracks of school, homework and play.

I struggled much with this balance when I was young. Fortunately, I
had an understanding mother who preferred me to fail my mathematics
than to miss an hour of piano practice.

People in the Western world grow up as inheritors of Western art.
Their techniques, knowledge, experience, and connections are largely
due to their constant exposure to Western Art. This is far more than
what an aspiring world-class musician here in the East can hope for.
Some “buy” their resumé particulars, such as paying US$100,000 to play
with a Russian Symphony Orchestra on tour, or do a recording with a
major label. But that one-off event will not buy them eternal fame.

As Yo-Yo Ma’s father said in his Chinese biography, it takes three
generations to make it to the very top -- the first generation is the
birth of a naturally talented but raw musician; the second generation
is that of the professional musician; the third generation is the one
that can achieve world-class status. Yo-Yo Ma’s Dad was a cellist and
Mom a singer. Another example is the pianist Lang Lang.

Music and Money

This brings me to the second point: exposure and environment. My
classmates at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia included
students such as Alan Gilbert, now Music Director of the New York
Philharmonic, and Ignat Solzhenitsyn (son of the Russian Literary
giant Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn). They spent their childhood with
houseguests such as the great Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovitch
and New York Philharmonic conductors or musicians.

These young musicians had the opportunity to play chamber music with
professionals, and were immersed in music that permeated every aspect
of their lives.

The Curtis Institute of Music itself is known in the music world as
one of, if not the best, music conservatories in the world, because of
its unique mission to train exceptionally gifted young musicians for
careers as performing artists, and its rare tuition-free policy
established back in 1928. Only four Singaporeans (all violinists
except myself: Siow Lee Chin; Kam Ning and Ike See who is currently
studying there) have ever studied in Curtis since its establishment in

Keys to the Top

I returned to Singapore in 2006 to be the Music Director/Conductor of
the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music at the National University of
Singapore, Singapore’s first music conservatory. While the music scene
seems to have improved, the form has widened more than deepened. More
people are attending concerts, and there are many more people that I
can have intelligent invigorating musical conversations with. This has
prompted me to found a Richard Wagner Society here in Singapore. But
from my observations of the “emerging talent pool”, aside from
violinist Kam Ning, I am still waiting to hear a young Singaporean who
can make it on the international stage.

In saying this, I do not intend to be too judgmental. To be the next
Yo-Yo Ma, you have to have all of the following (and I’m not being
facetious either): a) good looks b) right height c) enough muscles d)
excellent technique e) great financial backing and personal
connections f) the gift of being musically refreshing and

Being petite and cute can sell, but the Asian physique, generally
smaller than the Caucasian, remains a challenge for top performers.

Groom Them Very Young

The late Dr Goh Keng Swee rightfully believed that this nation should
have its own symphony orchestra, and he started the SSO and initiated
the SSO scholarships. His calculations were simple: government gives
scholarships to Singaporean musicians to study abroad for four years,
they then return to Singapore’s SSO to serve a bond for eight years.

After providing these scholarships for the past eight years,
theoretically we should by now have a full orchestra of Singaporean
musicians. The reality? Some scholarship holders returned to serve in
the SSO, but to this day, there is only a handful in the orchestra.
The rest have moved on, and some have even given up music

It is too late to start serious musical training at the age of 18. You
need to start at 10 or earlier. The Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of
Music takes in students at age 17 and above, and not surprisingly, is
made up of largely imported students. SOTA (School of the Arts)
recently created by former Minister of the Arts, Dr Lee Boon Yang,
does better, accepting local students at age 12. Let’s look at some
great musicians of our times: Lorin Maazel (former Music Director of
New York Philharmonic and Pittsburgh Symphony) started conducting
publicly at age 8; pianist/conductor Daniel Barenboim also began
performing at age 7.

In my opinion, Singapore needs to have the will to commit to a
long-term strategy of growing local talents in this nation, instead of
preferring to import foreign talent. As an aside, I do not blame
Singaporeans who raise their concerns about our national table tennis

Commitment From All

In Singapore today, the government invests heavily in infrastructure
hardware, erecting many fine buildings. Yet there is not enough
financial support for the software, the artists. Reports show that
Singapore has among the highest number of millionaires in Asia, but it
is the rare individual who would step out to fund the arts.

Compare this with the Japanese and Korean corporations, who would pay
their own (and other countries’) symphony orchestras to feature their
country’s artists. European embassies fund their artists to perform
in different countries.

I believe it is time for Singapore to redress this imbalance. Our
wonderful champion of the arts, Ambassador-at-large Professor Tommy
Koh, suggests that the Singapore government can do even more to use
culture as an instrument of diplomacy and as a way to project a more
rounded image of Singapore to the world.

Singapore now has an enormous opportunity in Asia. The economic growth
is here, to quote Joseph Horowitz in Classical Music in America - a
History: “According to a 1939 survey, the number of American
orchestras increased from 17 before World War 1, to 270.” Underscoring
this trend, the former Director of the Curtis Institute of Music and a
great pianist of his time, Gary Graffman, once said, “During my time,
people were talking about the end of classical music. Look at it
today, there are more orchestras, more concerts and more classical
musicians! Thus it has not reduced but increased!” Asia is walking the
same steps.

So, let us have more faith, and support the arts. Singaporeans are not
less talented. Success in the arts is highly dependent on the
environment, the financial and emotional support everyone in the
country is willing to give to artists.

Don’t treat the arts as merely a business. Treat it as philanthropy
that will improve the country that we live in and call home.

[Wang Ya-Hui is an internationally renowned conductor and has
conducted symphony orchestras, operas and ballets around the globe.
She is currently based in Singapore as Music Adviser, Centre for the
Arts at the National University of Singapore.]

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Arts housing! Arts centre mania?! What about the oldies?!

23 December 2010
By Mayo Martin

The former LASALLE-then-SOTA campus looks pretty much the same. Except that they’re sprucing it up (naturally).

We called some artists on our, er, speed dial, for their initial impressions on the new arts housing framework.

But unfortunately, Thom Yorke, Frank Black and Jeff Koons did not pick up. So we had to look for alternatives. (Cymbal crash!)

Anyway, some interesting points were brought up by a couple of arts folks, particularly for what’s going to happen in already existing arts spaces, especially since the general consensus about Goodman Arts Centre is two thumbs up. (We think so too).

Here are two important ones worth mulling over based on some initial impressions.


TheatreWorks’ Tay Tong, for example, highlighted the Arts Centre Scheme, which of course will directly affect them seeing as right now they’re holding fort at one of the earmarked places, 72-13 Mohd Sultan Road.

Generally speaking, he broaches the question of whether there seems to be an obsession for arts centres – citing “Esplanade, the museums, the Substation, NUS UCC, The Arts House, private galleries, your IRs, SOTA, La Salle, NAFA and others.”

The other point he raised, which I think is also a pertinent point for whatever discussions follow, is that, with the Arts Centre Scheme, are these tenants expected to produce shows (like what SRT and TW do right now in their respective places for example) and programme events like an arts centre does? Or is it going to be either/or?

It’s a rather tricky question because, unlike say, Substation which is an arts centre (and IMHO should really just get their own permanent building because well, isn’t 20 years enough?), some companies who are now residing in these earmarked places are producing companies. They may rent out their space, like SRT does for their theatre, ditto TW for their white space, but these places are still primarily for their own productions.

So does that mean they’ll have to change the way they do things when the time comes for them to reapply? Or get booted out if they insist on being primarily a producing company?

And then, while the arts housing issue is (arguably) not an arts funding issue, in these circumstances, they might be linked, actually.

While the scheme is “interesting and challenging”, TT pointed out, using TW as an example: “The annual grant for TheatreWorks is $310,000, which is a result of a consistent reduction in the last few years, which is about 20 % of what we need. What does it mean if you’re cutting, on one level, the grants and yet asking the same company whose grants are being cut, to increase our job scope by becoming an arts centre aside from being a producing company?”


Visual artist and long-time Telok Kurau Studios resident Tang Mun Kit also had some sharp observations.

The new housing approach has commendably and finally addressed the uneven playing field between the younger artists and the established ones in getting space. But, he pointed out, it seems to have overlooked the third category: the really established ones with medallions hanging around their necks.


If you look at the schemes again, the Arts Centre Scheme (which looks to deal with the “mature” groups) isn’t really looking at the individuals per se but the space and what it’s used for.

Mulling over TKS, Mun Kit did agree that for it to regain its luster, it might be a good idea to concentrate on developing and mid-career artists and well, let the oldies go. (Because, well, some of them don’t really need it right and are successful enough and earn enough to actually be able to rent their own spaces – which, ahem, some of them actually do right now.)

“If NAC want Telok Kurau Studios to be vibrant and humming, that should be a place to fill it up with young, developing and mid-career artists. I have a sense that the young artists and mid-career artists can mix and be open. But when it comes to the established, even among themselves, they do not really communicate,” he said.

I mean, you hope the oldies would actually mentor or just mingle with younger ones and impart some of their knowledge, but – and this is from what I’ve seen and heard when I did a story on TKS way back – that’s hardly the case.

But before you get all riled up, here’s his groundbreaking suggestion.

Give them permanent space. Not arts housing space, but permanent space.

Leave the arts housing spaces to the young and mid-career ones and give the oldies a different place.

Said Mun Kit: “They make up the backbone of the whole art scene. Why can’t they be given a permanent housing for as long as they exist. Then you can leave the other two groups to even out the fair distribution of housing resources. If you look upon them as “cultural assets” because they have already done their part, if you recognise their contribution, then you reward them with permanent housing, regardless of whether they are financially able.”

In an ideal world, it actually makes sense, don’t you think?

NAC had underscored the idea of housing spaces as simply finite.

One view would be to say that their hands are tied – there’s only so much space and they’re doing the best they can (they have earmarked three completely new buildings).

Another view, perhaps, would be that they should insist on pushing for more land/space as they champion the arts and those who have contributed so much to it.

Again, this new arts housing thing is in its infant stages and Goodman Arts Centre, their test baby before rolling out the changes until 2014, doesn’t even have tenants yet. Let’s hope it’ll work out for the better for everyone involved.

Hey, it’s Christmas in a couple of days.

Thoughts anyone?

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

How To Change The World Without Really Trying – Reflections On Performance Art Today

"The artist who sincerely looks at his own personal experiences and transmutes them into art will ultimately make consequences of social and political dimensions."

How To Change The World Without
Really Trying – Reflections On
Performance Art Today

By Lee Wen
December 2010, Asia Art Archive

Lee Wen is an artist and organizer of art events in Singapore. He has been exploring different strategies of time-based and performance art since 1989. A contributing factor in The Artists Village alternative in Singapore and the Black Market international performance art collective, Lee has helped to initiate and organize events such as Future of Imagination and R.I.T.E.S.- Rooted In The Ephemeral Speak, in order to platform, support and develop performance art practices, discourse, infrastructure and audiences in Singapore.

There seems to be an ongoing obsession within contemporary society, to advocate for a vision of the future. When we responded to this excessive concern for the future by calling our performance art event “Future of Imagination” in 2003 [1] we were met with varied responses. Our initial idea was to have a bright-sounding title to overcome the negative image that performance art had acquired in the past decade; however, in hindsight it was too loaded and sounded perhaps like a propaganda catchphrase in concert with the ubiquitous political slogans that often boast of providing a better tomorrow, or perhaps commercial sound bites selling real estate or investment schemes. The hope was to call for a shift of emphasis to the imagination in relation to the concerns for the future, and not to become obsessed with approaching the future with angst, anticipation and anxiety.

Recently, we put a temporary stop to the festival and turned it instead into a regular one-day or one-evening programme, so that it could become a consistent feature of the cultural landscape – and not only every year or two. At the same time, we hoped to instigate dialogue and discussion by holding talks and hosting a blog [2]. Without critical discussions and assessments, we felt that the level of appreciation would only remain at the level of the curious, casual onlookers.

We need to look back and apply observations of performances, as well as festivals, to help us learn and respond to current trends. I have already discussed the three most immediate concerns of remuneration, resistance and regulations within performance art practice in Singaporean contexts in a previous essay [3]. I would like to further investigate this and emphasize some crucial points for serious reflection and re-assessment of our present state before taking appropriate actions.

Performance Art: Shifting Perceptions of Time, Discipline and Authenticity

There have been many definitions suggested for performance art; its openness towards hybridization and the blurring of art and life dichotomy derived from a shifting of social values, aesthetic tastes and historical understanding of cultural productions and its appreciation.

Ray Langenbach once read a passage to me from Marvin Carlson’s then just-published survey of performance, describing it as an “anti-disciplinary discipline resisting conclusions.”[4] Perhaps it was because it was read to me while I was going through the physical manifestations of my own anxious questioning and musings, that this proposition for an “anti-disciplinary discipline resisting conclusions” has now become my favourite description of performance art.

At the time, I was buried up to my waist in the backyard garden of the house I shared with fellow artists Jason Lim and Vincent Leow. This was the second part of Nychthemer 1 and 2; where I first walked in a circle for 24 hours from sunset to sunset on November 8th to 9th, 1996, and the following year was buried up to my waist in the centre of that same field for 24 hours from sunset to sunset on November 8th to 9th, 1997. My question touched on how the universal acceptance of the Greco-Roman calendar, and measuring time as a 24-hour day being one of the first steps towards the globalized situation we are in today, has already sabotaged various cultural authenticities based on other traditional concepts of time and calendars.

One principal motivation for me to do this performance was the increased bureaucratic difficulties of organizing art, and especially performance art, in Singapore. I wanted to do something without having to go through all of that. So I distributed photocopies of a hand-drawn pamphlet to friends and did the performance in my backyard. I was not worried about whether I had an audience or not; people came at whatever time suited them. While I was enduring the 24-hour day with steadfast persistence to not fall asleep, it struck me that perceptions of time, discipline and authenticity are inevitably inter-connected with the human activity we called art. What we often generalize as ‘contextual’ can be broken down and analyzed under these three significant phenomena for a clearer, objective understanding and its qualitative appreciation.

The changing nature, forms and strategies of art productions from that of tangible objects such as paintings and sculptures to ephemeral performances or conceptual processes have resulted in debates and discussions on whether the new practices can actually qualify as art. The disagreements more often than not involve the various perceptions with regard to the nature (and not just the measure) of our time and the meaning of discipline, in order to achieve authenticity and relevance. An artwork produced is considered historically relevant and worthy, be it performance art or any other forms of art, when it realizes certain measures of interventions, disruptions or manifestations of radical shifts in perceptions of time, discipline and authenticity.

Realization of Radicalism

At a time when performance art has supposedly gained a level of acceptance in mainstream culture, it is necessary to re-evaluate where it stands and orientate the game at play. In spite of the celebratory mood of some when looking at the growing proliferation of performance art festivals – and the widening international networks of artists initiatives who organize them – I fear the euphoria is premature, elevated by self-deception and conceit, and blinded to the actual crisis in art and cultural production in our deeply-troubled, contemporary society. The questions we discuss in reference to performance art are neither new nor peculiar to those who profess themselves to be ‘performance artists’ or proponents of performance art. Most of the time, our questions concern art in contemporary society and the basic questions recur; as our time is one that is incessantly changing.

With rapid developments in technology bringing forth promises of progress, yet endangering our very survival, we arrogantly ignore the climate changes that have already made our planet look doomed for extinction, as we continue, unabated, to enjoy ever-more luxuries to satisfy our complacent, consumer lifestyles. Globalization is advocated as the panacea for economic development while we pay no heed to its side effects of failing, if not worsening, to bridge the north south divide, but also its destroying of indigenous cultures, the extinction of more ecologically-sound lifestyles and the forcing of communities into our sick, consumerist and destructive ways of living. We celebrate with ever-more cultural spectacle as developed economies flex their muscles with global international art exhibitions, expositions and biennales that are in danger of evolving into semblances of trade fairs and market capitalism.

Details and dynamics differ in different countries; however our common struggles are that of being artists as cultural workers and producers, who address various current issues in response to the changes tantamount to crisis in our societies, inter-connected as they are by the globalized nature of our present time.

Crises abound in our rapidly-changing world in terms of technological, ecological, psychological, spiritual, social and political relationships that all affect the artists’ area of concern: art and culture. With awareness of these various pertinent crises, we should not merely exclusively hold up the flag for ‘performance art’, giving it an unnecessary privilege and relish its outdated notoriety of being radical and cutting-edge in itself. The competitive claims of radicalism between different genres of art production is as reactionary and as superficial – almost detestable – as any propagation of trendy artistic labels, not unlike commercial branding logos and the promotion of fashionable status symbols.

Art, which includes ‘performance art’, is a manifestation of human consciousness that must seek to express itself in response to our collective crises of the present day, and which hopefully will find a certain level of clarification and reconcilement of these contradictions, for us to then face the future with hope and dignity. It is necessary that art today aspires to provide us with the artist’s dreams and visions of possible realizations or pathways of healing, if not moving us into real commitments towards peaceful co-existence and a renewal of our common humanity, or pointing towards necessary actions in our communal social structures as means of confronting the on-going crises of human evolution. Only then shall we justify any claims to cutting-edge radicalism by any artistic practice, and not only that of performance art alone.

Relevance of Performance Art Festivals

The idea of international art symposiums and festivals began after the First and Second World Wars as artists began to believe that exchanges through an international fraternity and network would help to create inter-cultural understanding and communication, that would directly contribute to global peace and harmony. The sculptor Karl Prantl (1923–2010) was said to have organized the first, post-war manifestation of such symposiums, the International Sculpture Symposium (Symposion Europaischer Bildhauer) held in an abandoned stone quarry in Sankt Margarethen in Burgenland, Austria, in 1959. Since then, they have been held in various cities and countries around the world [5].

Having survived a narrow escape during the devastation of Dresden, the traumatic experiences of the Second World War had inspired Prantl not only to initiate such international symposiums, but also to work in abstraction and avoid the human form - creating forms using nature’s own destructive processes in order to create anew. His forms, which were void of any recognizable figurative images, strived towards a language which overcame specific cultures and which must have seemed to him like a universal language of nature [6].

The international performance art festivals of today began with the same motivation of building bridges between different cultures. We should not forget the legacy that we carry. The desire for new experiences by artists in travelling and participating in the growing network of international art events in various countries around the world should not be motivated merely by romantic notions of exploring foreign and exotic places. However, intentions of building bridges may not be as immediate or coherent as anticipated. Contemporary art, not to mention performance art that explores cultural productions in response to the changes of our times as well as an evolved consciousness of the artist, may not necessarily communicate easily to an uninitiated audience. Like any new or evolving language, it takes time for discourse, debate and dissemination. Furthermore, the open-ended stances, conceptual processes or abstract, formalist strategies adopted evoke complexities and layered meanings rather than complimenting the earlier, post-war search and desire for a universal art language through abstraction.

International events organized by artists’ initiatives still hold significant relevance as they provide an alternative representation to those organized by the institutions that follow partial agendas and criteria usually submissive to the ideology of the state, if not the manipulative powers of an insular art world or commercial market concerns. However, artists’ initiatives must be careful and consciously take heed to not become equally disposed and guilty of the various corruptions that they set out to resist.

Anarchy and Dictatorship in Our Midst

As our society grows in complexity, there are gains in individual choice and freedom. This is a major development in our cultural history, whether we like it or not. Authorities enact new regulations of control to keep society in check. New practices of art productions are necessary in augmenting our evolving humanity and yet unfortunately are often mistakenly read as the severance of the traditional, time-tested social fabric that keeps the social group together. The need for self-preservation and conservative desires of maintaining the tyranny of the power structures held by the status quo that intertwined with fears of losing intrinsic unique identities, jeopardises the transition and transformations of our humanity in response to the demands of the confusing rate of changes in our contemporary society. Increasing conflicts, crimes and other disruptions to social order arise out of our different beliefs and loyalty to various possible systems of social sovereignty.

For the artist who embraces the ultimate goal of complete individual choice and freedom in the vein of advocating anarchy as the autonomous, pragmatic, peaceful alternative to that of being ruled by elitist privileges of class, power and property, one must become more conscious of individual responsibility and social accountability in one’s actions. Extremes will only lead to the perpetuation of the inherent contradictions of our flawed and restricted social systems, if not self-destruction and extinction.

As contemporary art and culture becomes liberated from traditional practices there is always the threat of losing or damaging the time-tested fabric sense of community. By suggesting and presenting radical alternative possibilities of art production, we set out to question the prevailing social systems but at the same time create new possibilities of community. However, these art events, meetings, festivals or even individual public interventions that artists’ initiatives often model their organization structure upon are inevitably based on the prevailing social systems we come from and manifest in. It is inevitable that stronger individuals will take control or be looked up to for leadership in any social group. Artists’ initiatives creating alternatives to the cultural mainstream may succeed in providing platforms and expanding networks, but without a conscious effort to also encourage management, organization structures that reflect their anarchic intentions remain trapped within the subject of its resistance.

We should also bear in mind the need to explore and experiment with different possibilities in organizational structures that allow more individual, responsible participation and shared decision making in order for it to be relevant and to grow. If not, the alternative that is being represented only replicates the dictatorial and authoritarian models that exist in our society and hence our radical resistance would be short of its own desire for anarchistic tendencies. The celebrations of committed sustenance and proliferation of various performance art events and festivals are not necessarily evidence of success but instead a perpetuation of our inherent failure and dependence on the flawed imperfections of prevailing society. Artists’ initiatives have to pro-actively attempt to re-model organizational structures to allow the growing and veering towards greater autonomy for individual participation rather than dependence on the “artist dictator or imperialist” in our midst.

Individual Visions Versus Social Consequences

One commonly-held opinion that favours performance art as the premier art genre that expands authenticity, is due to its being a direct expression that comes from the individual self of the artist: undirected, script-less, unplanned and unrehearsed. Furthermore, it is suggested that performance art is a more universal language since it is usually more visual, than being based on oral language or written texts. It is not to be argued that this is one strategy that may help artists to arrive at a higher degree of authenticity. One classic debate is that of performance art’s claim of authenticity over theatre. Performance art is often claimed as being closer to a real life situation and the independent direction of the artist as opposed to a script-based contrivance in theatrical performances. However, there can be authenticity in a well-produced Shakespearean play even today. Indeed, theatre may also retain its affinity to the radicalism and criticality of performance art if it is done with appropriate sensitivity of the time, discipline and authenticity.

Many of the artists who are known for strong political comments and socially critical content admit that their art arose from personal experiences they felt strongly about. In expressing their ‘lived’, personal experiences, the engagement with complex social issues seeps through.

Arai Shinichi is well known for his performance titled Happy Japan, where he is seen to be grotesque and cynical when making his comments about his disgust for the manga bestseller Senso-ro (War Theory) (戦争論) [7] where he lambasts its extreme claims of being the aggressor and wrong doer during well-documented atrocities in the past such as the Nanking Massacre and the sex slavery imposed by Japan during World War II. Most people notice the shocking actions of the artist and usually judge him based on their own attachment to traditional decorum, but overlook the fact that these are sincere personal experiences of disgust and wrath that Arai expresses so clearly that it is hard to not respond.

In a recent workshop with performance practitioners and students at TUCA in Sao Paulo, Brazil, Arai gave us three basic actions, which were used in slightly different manifestations in his many narrative demonstrations of his personal life. He provided us with options of: putting an egg in our mouth, doing a handstand against a wall, or walking in a straight line while balancing a bucket of water on our head, or a combination of these three actions while at the same time calling out our own name 10 or more times. Our tasks involved focusing on a bodily action and at the same time verbally repeating a phrase. These simple actions in various permutations and variations when juxtaposed with his personal anecdotes provide a tension-filled narrative that at times was humorous and grotesque, forcing a reaction from the audience.

Arai had discovered a few, succinct actions, which were also personal and based on his own body’s ability to create tension-filled images, which could deliver his narrative in a manageable, yet uniquely personal and emotionally-charged way. Arai also made it clear that the political content does not make him an activist, but that his anti-disciplinary discipline has invented a personal-yet-universal form of language. The artist who sincerely looks at his own personal experiences and transmutes them into art will ultimately make consequences of social and political dimensions.

Many artists in advocating an international and universal art for art’s sake, an objectivity akin to that of scientific research, try to distance themselves from any idealistic utopian motivations or political agendas of social activism. Tehching Hsieh in his presentations often reminds us that he is an artist and does not intend to make any social political statements or “to change the world”. Hsieh’s one-year performances are masterpieces that were conceived by a sensitive individual who plainly expresses the human condition of living in a socially-constructed world, caught within an intrinsic political web of power relations. The strength of his vision and commitment has already made an impact on our perceptions of art and society and has helped to induce changes in our perceptions of the world, art and culture – which he said he did not set out to do.


Historically, performance art overlaps with conceptual art in their both being radical strategies that attempt to affect social criticism and changes through cultural actions and interventions. After having gained acceptance in the cultural mainstream, has performance art lost its edge for resistance to mainstream culture as it has been incorporated into the status quo? [8]

The question is not for performance art alone or any dominating genre of art – but that of art in recalling Adorno’s dilemma of “poetry after Auschwitz” [9]. For what we have seen in the rapid changes that have characterized the half century, post war years may have given us a euphoria of optimistically embracing a hopeful future of progress and improvement of human comforts into luxuries via economic growth and the opening up of maturing societies into providing increasing security and chances for democratic choices. And yet there have been many more unresolved conflicts and symptoms of global climate change, leading to unforeseen natural disasters that threaten our human survival and portend an impending extinction, as well as dictatorships that exist under the guises of democracies.

Adorno’s aporia is often misunderstood as an interdiction or call to an end of all art; on the contrary it is acknowledging the many questions we continue to confront with urgency, and a constant vigilance to the ongoing crises of the human condition. The triumph of anti-art, if any, which McEvilly celebrates is only a chapter, which saw a paradigmatic shift in cultural production. However the unfinished project of art is a continuing struggle, a road without an end in temporary states of triumph.

Let us not delude ourselves of ever reaching elevated states of nirvana, nor re-occupation of the mythical Garden of Eden, nor entering the heavenly gates when admitted into the holy temples of art museums or prestigious biennales and triennials. Instead, it is the nomadic journeys and endless battles that art revolves towards, a creative way of living with an awareness of our responsibility and a decision to choose freedom instead of the fatalistic acceptance of false security under the domination of selfish masters and domineering dictators. It is not that artists want to change the world, but the world may change us in ways that we are not willing to accept. Therein lies the need for resistance, and the purpose of our work as artists: without really trying, we change the world.

Arai Shinichi (far left), performance practitioners and students at TUCA in Sao Paulo, Brazil

Arai Shinichi (left)

Lee Wen, Nychthemer 1, Performance, November 8-9 1996, 8 Oxford Street, Singapore

Lee Wen, Nychthemer 2, Performance, November 8-9 1996, 8 Oxford Street, Singapore

Poster of 'R.I.T.E.S.- Rooted In The Ephemeral Speak' in 2009

Poster of 'R.I.T.E.S.- Rooted In The Ephemeral Speak' in 2010

1. Future of Imagination, international performance art event, Singapore, organized by Kai Lam, Jason Lim and Lee Wen on 6 December 2003, The Substation; subsequently: FOI2, 8-12 Dec 2004, Sculpture Square; FOI3, 10-14 April, The Substation & Singapore Art Museum; FOI4, 27-30 September 2007, TheatreWorks, 72-13 & Post-Museum; FOI5, 12-15 November 2008, Sculpture Square; FOI6, 7-11 April, 2010, Sculpture Square & Singapore Art Museum.
2. R.I.T.E.S. – Rooted In The Ephemeral Speak, organized by Kai Lam and Lee Wen, The Artists Village to create a regular platform to support the practice, research and development of performance art.
3. Lee Wen, “Performance Art Performing”, Future of Imagination 6, 2010 catalogue pg. 4-8, also will be published in Singapore Shifting Boundaries: Social Change in the early 21st century, edited by Sharon Siddique, William Lim, and Tan Dan Feng (Singapore: Select Publishers, Forthcoming February 2011).
4. Carlson, Marvin A.: Performance: A Critical Introduction, Routledge; 1999. P. 188-189
5. Andrea Schurian, DerStandard print edition, 09./10.10.2010, Seine Steine schlagen Wurzeln, Der standard at
(Assessed on 4 November 2010)
6. Yehuda E. Safran, The Sculptures of Karl Prantl, (assessed on 4 November 2010)
7. Arai Shinichi, “Arai’s Zanzibar, Tanzania” & (assessed on 1 November 2010)
8. McEvilley, Thomas, The Triumph of Anti-Art: Conceptual and Performance Art in the Formation of Post-Modernism, McPherson & Co., 2005 p.351-352
9. ‘To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric. And this corrodes even the knowledge of why it has become impossible to write poetry today’ (Theodor W. Adorno, Robert Hullot-Kentor (editor), Aesthetic Theory (Theory & History of Literature) 1995: p.33-34).

Monday, December 20, 2010

Lee Kuan Yew's occidental illusion

17 December 2010, Malaysiakini
By Josh Hong

While Lee Kuan Yew's stunningly frank, if blunt, remarks about regional leaders and politicians may have ruffled some diplomatic feathers, they provide an immensely interesting glimpse into the mind of the octogenarian autocrat nonetheless.

In his opinion, the Thais are 'corrupt' and Laos is an 'outpost' for China that faithfully feeds Beijing with the content of Asean meetings. Meanwhile, Burma's junta leaders are 'stupid and dense', and Cambodia's political system is too personalised around Prime Minister Hun Sen.

Naturally, the loudest ruckus that these personal views have caused in Malaysia is over Lee's concerns that the country is in a 'confused and dangerous state' thanks to its incompetent leaders, and that Anwar Ibrahim had walked into a trap that rendered him being charged with sodomy.

I agree all the supposedly confidential messages that are now made available by WikiLeaks cannot be taken as gospel truth; neither do they necessarily reflect the official position of a given government.

NONEStill, we are talking about Singapore where everything that Lee (left) says goes. It is because of this widely shared perception that George Yeo, the Foreign Affairs Minister, has issued a statement in an attempt to contain potential damage to the improving bilateral ties.

Being the founding father of the modern republic who continues to serve as Minister Mentor, Lee's words can never be dissociated from those of the Singapore government, a fact that Lee himself readily acknowledges.

Granted, in just one generation, Lee built the resource-starved island into a prosperous nation with a capacious mind, strong character, iron will and absolute prudence, and does deserve credit for it. But his ruthless pragmatism and unquestioned belief in Machiavellianism will forever taint his otherwise remarkable achievements.

Question over squeaky clean reputation

Singapore's records on transparency and efficiency make it the only star pupil in South-East Asia, but it does not mean that the authorities have not in one way or another been involved with the corrupt regimes in the region.

In early 2006, mass demonstrations started to emerge in Bangkok against the then-Thaksin Shinawatra government.

thailand bangkok protest 021208 02One provocative banner read: Welcome to Thailand - The Second Branch of Singapore, while the local media mercilessly lambasted Prime Minister Thaksin for having turned the country into 'a colony of Singapore' by selling his family-owned Shin Corp to Temasek Holdings for a whopping 73.3 billion Baht without paying any taxes.

Lee described that engagement with the ruling generals in Rangoon was akin to 'talking to dead people'. However, Benedict Rogers writes in the book Than Shwe: Unmasking Burma's Tyrant of intricate economic and financial links between the junta and the PAP government, while Seelan Palay reports on the staggering similarities between the two countries in terms of political modus operandi.

It seems that Lee would not mind some 'joss papers' even though he may secretly detest the not-so-bright generals.

And a personalised political system in Cambodia? That is indisputable for sure, but isn't the same thing can be said of the dynastic politics in Singapore?

Now, let's turn to Malaysia. Lee's dim views of the leadership here are well-known, especially when it comes to the issues of race politics and meritocracy. Unfortunately, I happen to share his observations of our government leaders as being incompetent.

Just look at our substandard tertiary education, the heavily devalued ringgit against the Singapore dollar since the 1980s, the deteriorating public transport system, and the increasingly corrupt - openly corrupt I would say - public service.

Nose in air prophecy gets hit

Then again, Lee has been rather shrewd not to say a word about the independence of the judiciary for obvious reasons.

But the Minister Mentor, having done much over the years to stifle public dissent in the island, is also never known for having high regards for anti-establishment elements in neighbouring countries.

When Mahathir Mohamad sacked Anwar as deputy prime minister that precipitated the biggest street protests ever in Kuala Lumpur, Lee predicted it to die down within weeks.

reformasi 1998 270808 01He was plain wrong here as the reformasi movement persisted right into the new millennium and became a remote cause for the March 2008 political tsunami. A significant segment of Malaysian society - if not all - was awakened to the destructive nature of authoritarian and arbitrary rule in the long run, and decided to do something about it.

Prior to that, President Suharto had been toppled in a violent political upheaval, sending the region into some sort of turmoil. Watching intensive political struggles unfold from across the causeway, Lee was no doubt fearful of a domino effect that could eventually reach Singapore.

Despite the unfettered cronyism, nepotism and corruption bred under Suharto, Lee considered his continued rule a source of stability. When Suharto died in 2008, he lamented that the strongman's contributions to a stable Asean that had made Singapore's prosperity possible remained unacknowledged.

He is too elitist and aloof to have in mind the political prisoners and the poor masses in Indonesia, and conveniently forgot Suharto's conscious effort to stigmatise the Chinese community, which was instrumental in giving rise to the shocking anti-Chinese riots in May 1998.

Finally, Lee got it wrong again when he thought if PAS leaders would ditch their kopiah and traditional Islamic dress and put on a western suit - just like Mahathir and himself - they could easily win over the Chinese.

Little did he realise - until they met last year - that Nik Aziz Nik Mat is popular with the non-Malays not because of any western outlook, but his sense of fairness, humility and equanimity as opposed to profanely corrupt and racist Umno politicians, his Islamic clothing notwithstanding.

I do have profound reservations about the idea of an Islamic state, but Lee's failure to understand the enigmatic politics of Islam exposes his West-anschauung, ie. a west-centric worldview that had thrown him into a fervent pursuit of progress and modernity, looking up to the West as being intrinsically and essentially rational, developed, progressive and civilised. (To be fair, Mahathir suffers from the same Occidentalist illusion too, only to a lesser extent.)

And who did Lee share all the unpalatable comments about his neighbours with? The Americans and Australians of course.

To him, these are his real friends indeed although he may love the money and business opportunities offered by the thugs next door.

JOSH HONG studied politics at London Metropolitan University and the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. A keen watcher of domestic and international politics, he longs for a day when Malaysians will learn and master the art of self-mockery, and enjoy life to the full in spite of politicians.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Cut and thrust of arts funding

Cut and thrust of arts funding
Arts council should not use funding cuts to weed out critical works
By Adeline Chia, Straits Times Arts Correspondent
8 December 2010

THE chief executive of the National Arts Council (NAC), Mr Benson Puah, recently sent chills down the spines of some artists.

In his first full-length interview since taking over the helm of NAC last year, he addressed the controversial decision earlier this year when the council cut the funding for arts group Wild Rice by $20,000 to $170,000.

When the news broke in May, the council had said it would not fund projects 'which are incompatible with the core values promoted by the Government and society or disparage the Government'.

In the interview two weeks ago, Mr Puah elaborated on the reasons for the funding cut. The issue with Wild Rice, known for putting on cheeky plays dealing with political themes, is 'cumulative', he said.

Funding guidelines have always existed and are spelled out in the grant contracts. This time round, the council decided to be upfront about the reasons for the cut - to send, as he put it, a 'gentle reminder' to arts groups that they have to comply with funding guidelines if they want to accept government money.

While he did not spell it out, his message came through loud and clear: Other arts groups may face funding cuts if they put up performances contrary to guidelines not to 'disparage' the Government.

While Mr Puah should be commended for candour, the impact of his words is another matter. After all, he heads the NAC, a statutory board whose twin missions are to nurture artists and make the arts integral to the lives of Singaporeans.

Mr Puah himself has impeccable credentials as an arts administrator: He has been with The Esplanade since 1998 where he is credited with steering the arts centre to its premier position. He remains its chief executive.

As NAC chief, Mr Puah will have oversight of the council's grant-making decisions. He has said he prefers to support artists and new groups, rather than spend NAC funds on high-prestige events that have little impact.

These are laudable objectives consistent with NAC's first aim of nurturing artists - which should include giving artists the space and resources to express themselves. The Singapore arts scene is made up of a myriad of voices. Some are conservative, others are liberal.

Some are critical of the status quo, others are pro-establishment. Unless they are outright defamatory or explicitly fan racial hatred, they deserve to be heard, because they are artistic expressions of Singaporeans and are the product of Singaporean experiences.

The role of the arts council is to nurture a diverse and healthy arts ecosystem. Funding should not be used to weed out critical or non-conformist views.