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Sighting a square moon

September 17, 2012

Minimyna reads practically every post by yawningbread, but felt in a position to follow up in writing only on his 8 Sept 2012 piece ‘Square Moon swallowed by public tax monster’ — a reflection of her limited capability.  To recapitulate, the play ‘Square Moon’ by Wong Souk Yee, ‘originally commissioned for a festival next year’, was according to its producer, F8, unceremoniously removed from the programme; the reading of the play along with the launch of two books scheduled for 26 August had to be cancelled as the venue had become unavailable for the purpose.

Function 8, the local civil initiative comprising mostly former detainees in Operation Spectrum, issued a statement that:

Function 8 is greatly disappointed by the turn of events as we have been informed that the government-funded venues and support for these events will no longer be available to us. On this note, we register disquiet at the uncalled-for interference by the authorities.

The ‘authorities’ of course did not provide reasons, nor has any particular body or ministry cared to identify itself as being responsible for the decision. Yawningbread has pieced together the sequence of events as far as could be ascertained, and narrowed down the usual suspects.  The National Arts Council did deign to point out that its funding guidelines state that it would not fund projects that ‘disparage or demean government bodies, public institutions or national leaders, and/or subvert the nation’s security or stability.’

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Minimyna also happens to be an avid reader of s/pores, and two essays in that insightful and intrepid online journal [ahem, she has much vested interest in describing it thus] came to her mind.

Wong Souk Yee was one of the four founders of the theatre company Third Stage, who were arrested under the Internal Security Act in 1987 on charges of using the theatre company ‘to subvert the social and political system of Singapore’. She is most well known for the play Esperanza (June 1986, written with Tay Hong Seng. Published in 5 Plays from Third Stage ed. Anne Lim and Chng Suan Tze, 2004), exploring the tensions between a Filipina domestic worker and her Singaporean employers. In a 2010 essay on the Third Stage she explained that the group, formed in 1983, felt that drama in the English had reached its third stage of development, preceded by the colonial, and the 1960s where foreign plays were still dominating the scene, though local works and participants were being encouraged, and Singaporeans were getting involved in theatre in English. The third stage was characterized by attempts to define a Singapore identity, address issues relating to the modernizing society, and capture the local idiom. Third Stage members were university friends in pursuit of ‘critical leisure’ at a time when civil society as well as political parties was taking shape. Wong herself had been under the tutelage of Kuo Pao Kun at the time.

Wong published a chapter of an unpublished novel, which was partial requirement for her doctorate in literature , in Our Thoughts are Free (2009), a collection of poems by former political detainees. It depicts the interrogation tactics of the ‘CPIB’, and what went on in the mind of the person under interrogation as he was exposed to freezing temperatures in an air-conditioned room, deprived of sleep, beaten, and threatened with prolonged imprisonment. The synopsis of ‘Square Moon’ cited by yawningbread mentions a Homeland Security Department, an escape of a political detainee which the Minister wanted to cover up, an arrest of the lawyer of the detainee to cover up…

Wong noted the view that Third Stage productions had the zealousness of Crusaders, leaving little to the imagination. Their art of telling stories needed honing. The staging of ‘Square Moon’ would have given a sense whether she has moved beyond the third stage. Her peers in the theatre circles believed she did when they agreed to stage the play.

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Another s/pores article takes the story into the 1990s, where the cultural gains of the preceding decade were sustained and even exceeded. Kuo Pao Kun was the major enabling personality not only for the plays he wrote, but also for the dynamic sense of an arts community he fostered. C.J.W.-L. Wee goes on to identify the stage following that: where artists and arts groups became more self absorbed, and also competed for funding which the state, desiring for a ‘cosmo-urban globality’, has been making available. 

Wee’s 2010 article begins with a story about one of the most traumatic moments in Singapore’s arts scene: The Josef Ng incident, and the subsequent Straits Times headlines ‘Two pioneers of forum theatre trained at Marxist workshops.’ (5 Feb 1994) On that same day, at a packed meeting, members of the arts community and academics present agreed to pay for space in the Straits Times to issue a signed protest. Kuo Pao Kun then rose to say that such a move would make matters more difficult for Josef Ng. ‘The buoyant mood was immediately punctured’. No one spoke up in disagreement, a recognition of the weight of Kuo’s singular moral authority. Writing a decade and a half later, Wee reflects that if they had decided to go ahead, Kuo would have given his full support, and ‘a critical capacity in art making and thinking might have been immediately sharpened enough that it could have significant residues in the present.’

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As it happened, the Kuo Pao Kun International Conference to commemorate the tenth year of his passing was held last week (14-15 September). Theatre practitioners and academics who had worked with Kuo gathered to reaffirm his legacy. At the final session, a round-table ‘sharing’ in English, T Sasitharan repeated what he had said in a speech at the 24-hour event at Substation (10-11 Sept) about Kuo’s art enabling artists to be free, ‘to do what we want to do’. This time, he linked this to the irony he noted in ‘Square Moon’ not being able to be staged in Singapore ten years after Kuo’s death. No one picked up on the issue in the discussion that ensued, but this does not necessarily mean that it would not take place subsequently.

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An obvious observation to be made about the ‘Square Moon’ issue is that it flies in the face of post-General Election 2011 government rhetoric about working for an inclusive, open society and encouraging a thinking and creative citizenry.

But then, The National Archives of Singapore has long been telling us in its website that ‘NAS protects the rights of citizens by providing evidence and accountability of government actions.’

Hail the square moon in our sky.  

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One Comment
  1. catcrawling permalink

    Ong Keng Sen’s presentation of Goh Lay Kuan & Kuo Pao Kun last weekend was most interesting. Goh Lay Kuan revealed that she had endless problems with the Public Entertainment Licensing Unit which had the habit of censoring and disallowing performances at the last minute. That was in the 1970s. Today, the situation is just as bad, if not worse. Artistes have more than the licensing board to contend with. They have to listen to the NAC which gives them sustenance. While NAC appears to be the bad guy threatening and effecting cuts in grants and breaching rental contracts for performance space, I believe the real trouble makers are those entrusted to look after our security and who know nothing about Art. It is time these characters come out in the open to explain their their behind the scene work.

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