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Singapore Tries to Loosen Up

September 15, 2002

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SINGAPORE (AP) _ Wrapped in a glittering cape and coated in silver paint, Geraldine Schubert bears the gapes of swarming mall shoppers without expression.

The performance artist is silently striking a pose and, she hopes, a blow for freedom of expression in this tightly regulated island nation.

Despite its reputation for state-inspired dullness and conformity, this city-state with its wealthy, multiracial citizenry ``has the potential to be a groovy place,″ says Schubert, a 34-year-old Singaporean of Asian-European heritage.

Such comments likely are cheering to government technocrats who have decided they need to fan creativity and an entrepreneurial spark in their island of 4 million people.

Although Singapore has become one of the world’s richest nations since independence from Malaysia in 1965, economic changes have officials looking to build up service industries and that means attracting creative people. They hint that may mean loosening the social controls long felt necessary for maintaining stability in the multiethnic city.

``A culturally vibrant city attracts global creative talent,″ Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong said in a recent nationally televised address. ``Singapore needs a few little `Bohemias‴ where artists can gather to ``soak in the ambiance, and do their creative stuff.″

The question is, how far will the government go? David Lim, acting minister for the Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts, recently announced censorship guidelines will be reviewed, but then he wondered: ``How do we offer more choices and create a livelier and more vibrant society, and still preserve social unity and harmony?″

While officialdom wrestles with those questions, a growing group of artists is testing the perceived thaw in the government’s long frosty attitude toward the arts and speech that smacks of political criticism.

Movies and plays lampooning staid Singapore life are proliferating. The film ``I Not Stupid,″ which takes a dim view of Singapore’s very successful but highly competitive and pressurized education system, has become one of the top grossing locally produced movies ever.

Ivan Heng, a director who has returned from working in London, recently put on a play based on George Orwell’s ``Animal Farm.″ Heng, 38, says his script choice was easy since the moral of the story is clear: absolute power corrupts absolutely.

``We do have an Orwellian environment here,″ he says. ``And we obviously have an interesting system of government control: It’s absolute.″

Particularly rankling to artists are the country’s censors.

Books, plays, movies and TV shows are screened and any material deemed offensive must be removed.

Performance artists like Schubert must get a government permit to work on the city’s spotless sidewalks. She hangs hers prominently above a sign reading ``The universe is a dream machine, churning out love. Receive love, give love, be love.″

Love is OK; sex isn’t. Programs on state-run television often cut to a new scene as soon as couples embrace, and references to homosexuality usually are excised.

A scene showing two fully dressed puppets rubbing provocatively together while separated by a wall was clipped from the Hollywood movie ``Being John Malkovich.″ The American sitcom ``Sex and the City″ is banned, although many people watch it on videos and DVDs they buy overseas or through the Internet.

Government controls, combined with the focus on economics, have led critics to call the island a cultural wasteland. While noting an improved climate, the U.S. State Department says Singapore’s ``authoritarian style has fostered an atmosphere inimical to free speech and a free press.″

The government has set up a $28 million fund for the arts. And a $333 million performing arts complex with two dome-shaped buildings of metal and glass officially opens in October.

But artists don’t expect a flowering anytime soon. They say censorship is unlikely to disappear completely, and they wonder what kind of arts will result if a drive to promote the arts is ultimately for economic gain rather than an end in itself.

``Things should be allowed to develop organically,″ says Schubert, the street performer. ``The engineering is stifling.″

Heng, however, finds this an intriguing challenge. Potentially troublesome ideas must be couched in allegory or approached elliptically, he says.

``It’s interesting to work in one of the most socially engineered countries in the world.″

Despite his cultural critique, Singapore is Heng’s home and he says he wants to improve it. Art’s ``job is to tickle and touch and provoke debate,″ he says. ``There’s lots of work to be done here.″

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