In a fictional country that still has detention without trial, one detainee, Sid Fajardo, manages to escape.
[T]he Homeland Security Department attempts to cover up their security faux pas. So when Fajardo’s lawyer, Kristina Allende, comes calling to take instruction from her client about his habeas corpus writ, the deputy director of the department threatens and coerces [another] of his detainees, Borgie Xavier, to stand in for Fajardo. To disguise Borgie as Fajardo, Assistant Superintendent of Police (ASP) Solo injects Borgie with a potent drug such that Borgie breaks out in a disfiguring rash and would therefore be unrecognisable.
— synopsis to Square Moon, a new play by Wong Souk Yee
Allende, the lawyer, at first falls for the ruse, but soon has her suspicions. This leads to her being arrested too.
Not long after, the disguise is exposed when Fajardo is recaptured in a neighbouring country. In an ever more desperate attempt to conceal their culpability, the chiefs of the department force the lawyer to confess to a part in the escape and cover-up.
Six months later, the party that Borgie belongs to wins an election and comes to power. Borgie is released. He promises Allende that he will do everything to fight for her release.
“It’s a play about power and the corrupting effect of power,” was how playwright Wong Souk Yee described her latest work.
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If that’s a gripping story, here’s another one:
In January 2012, when the script for Square Moon was still in a draft form, The Necessary Stage proposed to Souk Yee to include the play in its line-up for the M1 Fringe Festival of 2013. She accepted, very pleased about it. She then got Function 8, as social enterprise of which she is a member, to be the producer of the play. The Necessary Stage would be the presenter. In the months to follow, a star-studded cast was pulled together and much hard work, by all parties, went into finalising the script. Costs were also incurred, for example in the publicity photoshoots.
The first preference for a venue proved a problem. The National Museum rejected their application of the use of its theatre for staging the play. According to unofficial sources, while the museum curators were of the view that Square Moon was the kind of critical reflection the museum theatre should host, the oversight ministry (Ministry of Information, Communication and the Arts, MICA) had a different view of what the museum was meant for. In the eyes of MICA high-ups — and I mean very high-ups — it should be no more than a repository of official history. No space there for alternative histories, nor even an examination of official history.
Meanwhile, one of the government slogans of the day is that Singapore needs to encourage critical thinking in order to seize the opportunities of this century.
The second choice was the recital studio at the Esplanade Theatres. The draft script was sent to them. A few weeks later, around July 2012, the green light came through. Along the way, the playwright heard that “sensitive” scripts usually have to be approved by the CEO, Benson Puah, though whether this was always true or whether it applied in this case, is not verifiable. Nonetheless, it was reassuring to think so since it would give the go-ahead more certainty. Receiving the nod from the Esplanade Theatres, The Necessary Stage then sent Souk Yee a contract for the staging and inclusion of the play in the M1 Fringe Festival, scheduled for January 2013.
Then distant rumblings rolled in.
The Necessary Stage asked Souk Yee for the latest draft of the script because the Media Development Authority (MDA) — Singapore’s Orwellian-named state censors — wanted a look. This was very unusual because no application had yet been submitted to the MDA for a licence. It was reported that the MDA had “heard” about the play and wanted to know more about it. Who had they “heard” it from? As later events would suggest, the chief suspect was the Internal Security Department, the same department that detains people without trial. Arts groups have previously complained that it is maddening enough dealing with arts regulators, there are other parts of the government such as the Internal Security Department pulling strings from the shadows too.
MDA also asked for more information about Function 8 and Souk Yee.
Running on a parallel track, Function 8 was also planning a reading of the play in late August 2012, to be held at the Substation. It would be part of a by-invitation-only event that would also include launches of two books:
Escape from the Lion’s Paw, Reflections of Singapore’s political exiles — a collection of essays by five political exiles including the late Francis Khoo who fled Singapore in 1977
Smokescreens and Mirrors: Tracing the ‘Marxist Conspiracy’ — by Tan Wah Piow, another dissident and political exile, now in London.
The Substation was apparently highly supportive of the event. But in the first week of August, trouble brewed. The Substation received requests by “a contact in MHA” for more information about the event. MHA stands for Ministry of Home Affairs, which includes the Internal Security Department.
Things accelerated in the week after. The Necessary Stage told Souk Yee it was dropping the play from is festival line-up. Why the 180-degree turn? Sources seemed anxious to cloud the reasons but it is believed that NAC could have threatened to withdraw funding. The Necessary Stage, like several other arts groups in Singapore, relies in part on NAC financial support. Other arts groups have likewise reported he readiness of the NAC to use funding as the lever to obtain compliance.
The CEO of the National Arts Council is the same Benson Phua of the Esplanade Theatres.
Then Substation called. The reading and book launch had to be cancelled, it said apologetically. They had received further calls, from whom it would not disclose publicly. Again, one is left to surmise that they came from the NAC and the Internal Security Department.
Interestingly, the report in the Straits Times quotes the NAC trying to obscure its role in this, yet in a circuitous way confirms it:
When asked if the council intervened in the booking of the Substation theatre for the Function 8 event, National Arts Council deputy chief executive, Ms Yvonne Tham, said: “Festival organisers and venues make their decisions on programming or venue bookings based on their own artistic or any other considerations. Whilst NAC may offer advice when asked, it does not intervene with the decisions to be made.
“However, for festival organisers, arts groups and venues, such as the Substation, that do receive council’s funding or arts housing support, they are obliged to abide by the terms and conditions stated in our funding agreement.”
Both The Necessary Stage and the Substation are partially funded by the Government. One of the National Arts Council’s funding guidelines states 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”.
— Straits Times, 23 August 2012, Reading of new political play cancelled
Function 8 is looking for another venue for the reading. Staging the play however, is a far tougher issue.
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The Singapore government insists, in response to critics, that freedom of speech has not been attenuated in Singapore, at least not to any extent substantially greater than in Western democracies. They dismiss criticism as without foundation.
At the same time, the government has launched a National Conversation, inviting all and sundry to help by giving ideas to the government regarding the direction Singapore should take. Implicit in the invitation is that people should not feel they would be penalised when offering sincerely-held ideas, and that they themselves would be open-minded. But how credible and meaningful can that be if certain views are regularly silenced?
Even Maideen Packer, a former ruling party member of parliament noted in a letter he sent to two ministers and published on his Facebook page (6 Sept 2012) that “many more people than before” feel “no more trust left” for the government. As events recounted above indicate, this must largely be due to the stunning gap between unguent words and harsh clamp-downs. Readers more familiar with Singapore’s long history of repression will recognise the events as highly reminiscent of countless earlier actions against unflattering voices. They will no doubt agree that nothing has changed despite the increased, and increasingly sophisticated rhetoric about opening up.
The crux of the issue appears to be that Souk Yee’s play touches on the Internal Security Act, Singapore’s legal instrument for detention without trial. The chronology suggests that while artists and curators thought the play — and the issue it delves into — had merit and topicality, it was the Internal Security Department that put its boot in. The outcome sends a signal that critical discussion of detention without trial is not permitted and brings risks to participants, including the ineradicable possibility of detention itself. If this is not an infringement of free speech, I don’t know what is.
A particularly noxious aspect of the story comes from how there are several elements pointing to the NAC wanting to cover up its censorship role. Strong hints are present that it did play a key role in getting compliance from The Necessary Stage and Substation, yet no one wants to finger them, not even the bullied. Why is that?
One possibility goes like this: NAC tells arts group to cancel a project on pain of funding withdrawal. In addition, NAC tells arts group to keep quiet about NAC’s instruction, again on pain of funding withdrawal.
I am reminded of a point made by Cherian George in a recent article when he argued that Singapore does not meet press freedom standards:
First, any restrictions should be done according to written laws – laws that are precise, clear and predictable. We are certainly not as bad as dictatorships where strongmen rule by edict and impose arbitrary, whimsical punishments. However, Singapore fails this first test by having a number of restrictions that are vaguely worded, and that are effected administratively at the discretion of officials and without judicial review. The executive can, for example, revoke or deny a publishing permit at any time and is under no legal obligation to give any reasons.
— Cherian George in Journalism.sg, 4 September 2012, Press controls and the online bypass
The same methods appear to be in use here. It may strike readers that such methods are the censorship equivalent of detention without trial.
On a different level, one might argue that it was ultimately a venue decision, though to so narrow the issue is surely to deliberately tune out the wider political and historical context. The argument might run thus: Both The Necessary Stage and the Substation relied on National Arts Council grants that come with conditions, and to stage the reading and the performance would violate the terms. These stipulate that productions and events should not “disparage or demean government bodies, public institutions or national leaders, and/or subvert the nation’s security or stability”. The way to see the matter, it might be said in defence, should be as a private contract between two parties as to the application of funding support.
Yet even viewing it thus raises very troubling questions about cover-up and the abuse of power — another theme of Souk Yee’s play. To see it as private contract is misleading. This is because the money behind it is public money, coming from the taxes that you and I pay. The government, and by extension the NAC, is no more than a trustee of the public money. Surely we would intend that money to be used for public interest purposes, not for advancing the self-protection instincts of bureaucratic organisations and “national leaders”.
To be able to criticise them and reflect on inherent possibilities of abuse of power is a public interest imperative. Our money should therefore be deployed to support such initiatives, not to block them.
More nit-pickers or apologists for the government might then say that criticism is okay, but Souk Yee’s play disparaged or demeaned the august institution that is the Internal Security Department by alleging corruption in a fictional counterpart. It does not take an IQ above 50 to see that, firstly, it’s mere semantics and one cannot draw a distinction between robust criticism and so-called disparagement; and secondly, to think that fictional constructions of corruption by themselves constitute disparagement and demeaning would be to suggest that such can never happen; that bureaucrats are infallible, and any exploration of the possibility otherwise would be necessarily false and malicious. The Bo Xilai affair from Chongqing should serve to remind us that no such presumption of infallibility is safe.
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In the play, years pass after Borgie’s release. With the party that he is affiliated with now in power, he rises through the ranks and becomes a cabinet minister. But what about his promise to free Kristina Allende?
Can we entrust to people who assume power draconian laws like the Internal Security Act?