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In Parliament on 29 January, I had an interesting exchange with the Parliamentary Secretary for MCCY Mr Baey Yam Keng which was not, to my knowledge, reported at all in the media. I questioned him on the feedback from the Arts Engage group of local artists who had said that some local art works were censored because they embarrassed the government of the day and not because their work was against the national interest (yes, there is a difference). Their exact words were: “Our website also documents cases of works censored to protect the Government from embarrassment rather than for society’s good. Perhaps it is fitting to remember here that arts funding is not the Government’s but the people’s money.”

I thank Mr Baey for his honest response. He confirmed that NAC funding for the arts comes with the condition that the art work does not put “public institutions” in a bad and derogatory light.

The exact exchange is reproduced below and it is up on the Parliament website. Mr Baey also made the point that the number of works where funding was withheld for this reason was very small.

However I think once we withhold public funding for the arts because the art work embarrasses the government of the day and national leaders, even if it is for a handful of cases, we are on a slippery slope towards the use of public funds in a partisan political manner as opposed to Singapore’s national interest. Those few cases where funding was denied could have a disproportionate effect on other artists, encouraging them to self-censor.

To produce good art, Singaporean artists should be able to exercise their artistic gifts in relation to the totality of social life, including public institutions, and without fear or favour. In my view, public arts funding should not be given on condition that there be no critique of the powers that be. Rather, it should be used to promote nothing but the good of Singapore and Singaporean art. Having said that, I respect Mr Baey’s honest and clear response, which is a credit to the practice of Parliamentary question time.

Parliamentary Exchange on 29 Jan 2016

Mr Leon Perera (Non-Constituency Member): Thank you, Mdm Speaker. I just like to put a clarification question to the hon Parliamentary Secretary Mr Baey Yam Keng. Mr Baey referred to my speech when I quoted from an op-ed piece by some of our artists.

I would like to ask the hon Parliamentary Secretary if he agrees with the views specifically expressed because it was not entirely clear. So here, I am quoting from the op-ed piece by Mr Tan Tarn How and Mr T Sasitharan. Mr T Sasitharan, as you know, if I am not wrong, is a Cultural Medallion recipient. In any case, he is a very prominent local artist speaking on behalf of the Arts Engage network of Singapore which involves a number of local artists.
The view that he expressed was, and I quote verbatim here, “Our website also documents cases of works censored to protect the Government from embarrassment rather than for society’s good. Perhaps it is fitting to remember here that arts funding is not the Government’s but the people’s money.” So, I would like to ask the hon Member does he agree with that view; and if not, why not?

Mr Baey Yam Keng: As part of the funding principles of the NAC, there is a requirement and understanding with the arts groups and the applicants that they should not put any public institutions in a bad light or put them in a derogatory position. It is in this context that was quoted by Arts Engage that the funding was re-considered.
But also, there was a change in substance of the content of the works that were first submitted for application and the eventual product that was produced by the artist. So, there was a difference in what was submitted earlier. There was also some of this to and fro that happened. Among the many applications and support that the NAC has given to the many arts groups and artists in Singapore, these are a minute minority of cases which the group has pointed out.

As I said in my speech, in MCCY and NAC, our role is to advocate the arts. We will stand on the side of the artists in their pursuit of artistic excellence. We hope to create and develop a bigger common space so that Singaporeans and the community-at-large can enjoy the works of our very talented artists in Singapore.

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