Drama of boxed thinking

Non-think must be one of Singaporeans’ leading characteristics. In the comment trail to The Africa in us, we saw a fine example of it: the voiced assumption that if we started to institutionalise equal rights for gay and lesbian people in Singapore, then the whole world, not just all of Singapore, will turn gay. This is despite evidence that some other countries have already institutionalised equal rights for gay and lesbian people, and not only didn’t their citizenry all turn gay, it didn’t make all the rest of the world gay either.

That example of non-think is one of the more ludicrous ones; it’s very easy to spot it. Other examples, however, are more deeply buried and insidious.

One of them is this: That freedom of any kind is a threat to us all. Few people would articulate it openly, but look for it and you will see it: there is a widespread equation between freedom and anarchy. Other negative manifestations include these other widely-held associations: freedom equals being discomfitted by difference; freedom equals being burdened by choice (and the heavy responsibilities that brings).

This is not to say that everybody agrees with the way things are in Singapore. There is an ongoing debate about society and politics, but much of that debate is about demanding clearer  instructions and more rigourous rules from the government, preferably ones that (a) suit their druthers and (b) control everybody else more tightly. This is true of the debates ranging from second language in schools to banning foreign workers at void decks to protecting children from internet porn.

It may well be true that this state of mind has largely been cultivated by the People’s Action Party government in its desire to legitimise social control, but if Singapore is ever going to move forward, we need to get out of it. We need a more mature understanding of what freedom means, both upside and downside.

This post is a plug for a forum theatre and exhibition roadshow by Drama Box this weekend, and a record of its travails. On the right is the poster (click on it for a bigger version):

Naturally, it got into trouble with the Media Development Authority (MDA), our state censors.  Here’s a news story from the Straits Times’ Life! section:

26 Aug 2010
Straits Times Life!

No go for arts event

The Media Development Authority wants forum theatre piece to be moved indoors due to sensitive nature of topics

By corrie tan

Local theatre group Drama Box has been denied an outdoor licence for its latest forum theatre piece which deals with homosexuality, sex education and religious radicalisation.

The three short plays, which were given an advisory for Mature Content (16 years and above), were to have been performed in Toa Payoh Central, Bukit Batok and Marine Parade Central between Sept 3 and 11.

In forum theatre, actors stimulate and guide audience participation and discussion in an attempt to bring the audience into the performance. The Government stopped funding forum theatre performances in 1994 after an art event at which one actor snipped off his pubic hair in public and another vomited.

At that time, the authorities were concerned that forum theatre could be used to agitate an audience on volatile social issues or to propagate the beliefs of deviant social or religious groups or as a means of subversion. Funding was restored in 2003 after proposals were made by the Censorship Review Committee.

Kok Heng Leun, 44, artistic director of Drama Box, said the Media Development Authority (MDA) informed the group in an e-mail on Aug 11, just three weeks before the show was scheduled to start, that it would not be allowed to perform the plays outdoors. The authority advised that the group move its performance indoors.


Art is one of the few activities that make us human. Without art we are ant-like robots or just another species foraging for food and fighting for survival. Art is the activity that stirs our conscience and wakens our spirit; it is that which enables us to behold the fruit on a tree as beautiful and interesting, and not merely as edible. It is that which churns a cauldron of emotions when we witness the death of our enemy, and not just notch it up as one more victory in the survival of the fittest, and through those experienced emotions, we reshape our behaviour and find ourselves with a story to tell the next generation, which is art again. Complex civilisations are built on the back of art; we would have remained a pack of animals without it.

We are poorer for it when art is confined to isolated recesses of our social space. The more art challenges our robotic food-foraging, survival-fighting behaviour, the more we need it to make ourselves whole. And yet, the MDA goes by the idea that the more challenging it is, the more it has to be locked away. Robots that Singaporeans (ought to be)/(are) must not be confronted by mirrors that reveal their roboticness.

As the above news story indicated, the MDA wanted Drama Box to move its original work indoors so that people are not confronted by it. But what was the “dangerous beast” of an idea that they felt they had to protect people from? You’ll get a better of what had originally been intended in this public statement (below) by Drama Box, dated 23 August 2010. It also explains that since the MDA refused to allow them to engage openly with the public via its original works, so the issue is now MDA itself and the censorship it represents.

Drama Box together with its Youth Wing, ARTivate, is set to present a unique Community Theatre event, shh… a date with the community, over 2 weekends from 3rd to 11th September 2010. We will be holding an exhibition celebrating 10 years of our work in Community Theatre, conducting a workshop on Forum Theatre, and putting up a Forum Theatre performance that tackles the topic of censorship.

The performance deals with the impact of censorship on Choice, Belief and Curiosity through 3 short plays:

• The Lift: Exploring how a homosexual character growing up in the 60s and 70s feared his own identity because the topic was such a taboo in the society he was in.

• Believe It Or Not: Exploring how the fear of talking and sharing about religion drove one of the characters to self-radicalization.

• Love Education: Exploring how young people in our society today turn to the internet to satisfy their curiosity about sex when information is not available through other media.

Just 3 weeks from our performance, MDA denied us of an outdoor performance license. The authorities gave an advisory for mature content due to the “sensitive nature” of the topics discussed, and claimed that we had to perform indoors in order to administer the advisory.

Drama Box believes in putting up community performances outdoor in public spaces to allow for greater involvement and participation from the community. Forum Theatre, as a form, is used to encourage the community to think critically about how to deal with issues, without imposing any belief or agenda. This particular performance was meant to be a literacy programme as it deals with important and relevant issues that affect different segments of our society. Staging the performance indoors reinforces the idea that such important issues are untouchable, when the more constructive thing to do is to have open discussions and dialogues.

We tried creating a dialogue with MDA, and proposed an alternative configuration to the space so that we could administer the advisory and continue to perform outdoors. However, MDA rejected our proposal without further elaboration, and insisted we move the performance indoors. For a more detailed account, please check back for updates.

We stand by our position that the piece should be performed outdoors to reach as diverse a crowd as possible. We believe that the issue of censorship should still be addressed and the engagement with the public through art should still be celebrated. Therefore, we have withdrawn the original piece from our programme, and replaced it with a new Forum Theatre performance. This piece will discuss the problems of imposing silence and withholding information about important issues, and how it results in diminished communication and dialogue.

We believe that the community should be allowed to, and is capable of engaging in dialogues that allow divisive opinions in an open and respectful way. So come join us in discovering the power of censorship, as we celebrate a night of theatre and our 20th Anniversary!

Kok Heng Leun
Artistic Director

This letter and the complete exchange of letters between Drama Box and the MDA can be seen at  blog.omy.sg/dramabox/.

Go this weekend (see the poster for details)  and support Drama Box. It’s free. Put your weight behind freedom over censorship.

6 Responses to “Drama of boxed thinking”

  1. 1 yuen 30 August 2010 at 22:48

    if you do a survey and ask whether people are in favour of progress, I am sure most would say yes; if you do another survey asking whether they want stability, I am sure most would also say yes; however, progress means change, stability means not changing

    people do find freedom threatening, but in a survey most would probably say yes to “do you like freedom”; one cannot make policies based on such vague and often contradictory opinions; questions and answers need to be more specific

  2. 2 Leuk 31 August 2010 at 00:22

    “freedom equals being discomfitted by difference; freedom equals being burdened by choice (and the heavy responsibilities that brings)”

    See the text in brackets specifically – freedom = responsibility. This is similar to priviledges. With more priviledges equals more responsibility. So often, we are so used to big brother above making all the arrangements that we stop thinking on how to function without boundaries. By offering more freedon and priviledge, it also means that one has to bear the consequences both negative and positive.

    Could it be this fear of self responsibility that has freaked some of us off freedom? And why big brother thinks we are all helpless sheeps that needs the shepherd to lead us to the (safe) grazing grounds? Does no one dare venture out to seek out new pastures due to fears of meeting wolves?

    Nope, life dun work this way. Staying stuck in the same old safe patch means the grass eventually gets consumed and the entire flock face a slow death. Its the sheeps that are free to range out that progress to new feeding grounds although some may encounter predators in the process. Its the price to pay but necessary for continued progress.

  3. 3 TinyRedLeaf 31 August 2010 at 09:45

    Well… you do know what would happen if the squeamish, conservative, anti-homosexuality majority caught wind of such plays being held in a public space right? ^^;

    Not that I don’t support Drama Box for trying to push the OB markers, but I don’t relish another shit storm of emotional arguments over the rights and wrongs of, gasp, promoting gayness in Singapore. The arguments are ugly, and I find they only have the effect of further hardening an already very hardline stance. Not helpful.

    But this is Singapore. Much as it saddens me, our people don’t like culture wars. That is a restraint we have to get around, carefully.

  4. 4 beast686 31 August 2010 at 10:19

    100 years ago, there were “no blacks here” in public forums all across the states. Now we have “no gays” here in our theatres as well. What a throwback to the dinosaur age. The T-rexes must be pissed.

    • 5 rojakgirl 1 September 2010 at 21:45

      Yeah, one of the uglier effects left by the British who were horrified at the prolific same-sex(male) relations in China and possibly, other parts of Asia. I can’t recall what they did but I think they enacted a series of changes to ensure that certain British territories only accepted “male + female” relationships. And if I’m not wrong, in order to impress the British/Europeans, much of China followed suit and started outlawing same-sex relations, interpreting their own history in a homophobic lens and so on.

      To be frank though, many of Asian cultures tend to blindly absorb external changes in order to adapt, so we carry part of the blame too for destroying our own people.

      Like: conformity(“harmony”), mass pressure and so on. As for “saving face” in Chinese culture, I think that might have been mainly practised by the upper classes before the middle classes started to emulate the behaviours of the rich and aristocracy because of capitalism(wearing lots of jewellery, shift of customs, eating sharks fins and other pricey dishes, etc.). Though perhaps I’m wrong and it was practised by all of Chinese society.

      And as for females in terms of same-sex relations in China and other parts of Asia, not too sure how that actually went as in: which states permitted or allowed it and so on?

  5. 6 KiWeTO 1 September 2010 at 22:07


    Seeds are NOT to be planted, whatever the seeds might become.
    Only govt approved seeds (GM-controlled non-progeny-bearing) here. Bread and circus. No thought allowed.

    What would happen if the entire arts eco-system in Singapore refuse to cooperate? eg: Nobody signs up to do NDP as part of a group civil un-obedience to the ruling powers?? Would the shadow of such collective action and expression of civil power ever be possible?

    somewhat akin to having NO non-PAP candidates stand for election where all the non-PAP parties collectively agree to NOT participate in an election that would stretch the western concepts of being ‘free and open’. Absolutely impossible to defend that we have free and open elections if all non-PAP parties decide that they cannot campaign freely and openly.

    All it takes is civil un-obedience, and the very idea that the PAP-led government here in Singapore has been propagating – leave politics to the professionals. – Fine! they are professionals, just not representatives of the people.


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