Square Moon swallowed by public tax monster

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.

* * * * *

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.

* * * * *

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.

* * * * *

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?

30 Responses to “Square Moon swallowed by public tax monster”

  1. 1 Sgcynic 9 September 2012 at 00:08

    Last night I dreamt of a spectre in white. In one hand it held an olive and in the other hand a bloody knife. “Come, take the olive”, it said. I stood, rooted in place.

    • 2 james 9 September 2012 at 17:04

      funny, I had the same dream – but in my dream I charged the spectre with a flaming sword and it melted away. its dying screams echoed momentarily, then faded.

  2. 3 Ah Chek 9 September 2012 at 00:35

    Who was it who said that were in a post LKY age era?

  3. 4 ricardo 9 September 2012 at 04:33

    Cooperation between the Min. of Truth (MICA) and the Min. of Love (ISD) is at an all time low!

    How is it even possible that Mr. Au and others can publish this travesty of the Truth? Truth can only come from the Min. of Truth and its minions (CNA)

    National Conversation is only for those who give multi-million Dignity to our Lord LKY, the HoLee Family, their Ministers & friends.

    Heads must roll .. I mean Min. of Love must award more free extended holidays to lucky winners !

    In case 1984 is no longer studied in Singapore schools, translations of the above “Doublespeak” are available at

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nineteen_Eighty-Four and its links

  4. 5 HeyHo 9 September 2012 at 07:47

    You forgot to mention the irony that MOE now wants Primary 4 kids & above to think critically. The new PSLE English exam in about 3 years’ time would demand a free flow critical thinking component. We are going to have an avalanche of “critical” thinkers being groomed from young & if the momentum is kept up, as adults they will be a force to be reckoned with with their endless criticism of government policies. Perhaps, the authorities need to set up a moderating agency just for this. What fun to see it coming!

    • 6 jimmy 9 September 2012 at 15:59

      To think critically ? What is the use if you cannot really apply it when it matters most in national issues & instituttions – which is the nub of the problem.

      Is it alright to say that MOE has only recently realised that thinking critically for Primary 4 and above was not much practised & applied in the past ? Did our past students missed out a lot in something so critically important, that is to say critical thinking.

      • 7 Lye Khuen Way 10 September 2012 at 08:33

        So it is quite correct to say that the past 20 odd years of SAP / Scholars who ended up in the Civil Service may lack Critical Thinking skills, no ?

      • 8 yuen 10 September 2012 at 11:15

        >Civil Service may lack Critical Thinking

        difficult to tell whether they cant or dont want to; it is no use being critically thinking by yourself; the “system” and other people in it need to show appreciation, discuss pros/cons, and help in carrying out new ideas; you could start off active, but receive no feedback at all good or bad; soon you stop doing it even if no one tells you to stop

        just being labelled “different” “talkative” “immature” “dont understand our system” could be damaging to career prospects; this is true in all kinds of organizations, but some more so

  5. 9 yuen 9 September 2012 at 09:02

    people need to remember the concept of “OB markers”; for those who are unclear about this, my article might help


    • 10 yawningbread 9 September 2012 at 11:40

      The problem with a reminder statement like this is that it implies that people SHOULD respect or yield to those boundaries.

    • 12 The 10 September 2012 at 11:01

      The problem is that the OB markers were borrowed from the golf game, but applied capriciously. At least in golf courses, the OB markers are placed conspicuously so that you know where not to land the golf ball.

      However, in Singapore’s political landscape, the OB markers are invisible (except for those relating to race, language and religion). How do you know you have transgressed when the OB markers are nowhere to be found. Many have been taken to tasks only after the fact and told that they have landed in the OB zones.

    • 13 E@L 11 September 2012 at 23:57

      OB? One stroke penalty.

  6. 14 Tan Tai Wei 9 September 2012 at 15:18

    Get the play performed at Speakers’ Corner.

    • 15 mirax 9 September 2012 at 18:35

      Missing the point and this kind of obliviousness is why our civil liberties have been reduced to a postagestamp sized field at Hong Lim Green.

      Hong kongers turned out in their thousands this week, thronged the streets until they got an unpopular “educational” module removed from the curriculum. That’s how you keep your kids free thinkin’ and save your civil liberties.

      So there is HK. As asian as us, as rich as us, as stable as us, but leagues ahead in terms of democracy. DESPITE being officially part of one of the most repressive communist regimes in the world. Where did we go wrong? Who cut us off at the knees?

      • 16 Gerry Goh 10 September 2012 at 04:08

        the really amazing thing here is that HK is part of China…yes China! the bastion of so called oppression and a flawed and partisan judiciary. Singapore has a long long way to go and our poltical process is stunted.

      • 17 yuen 10 September 2012 at 05:29

        the difference between HK and SG lies in concentration of economic control, hence job opportunities, for the well educated class, who are reluctant to cut themselves off from Singapore Inc; the few people willing to do this find little support

        (Once I saw JB Jeyaretnam at the Raffles City entrance of City Hall MRT station, loudly condemning persecution; no one stopped to talk to him – I didnt either – it was a couple of years before he passed away; the career directions his two sons took are interesting to observe too)

  7. 18 K Das 9 September 2012 at 18:52

    There can still be road blocks. Speaker’s Corner is for speeches not to stage plays. Round the circle you go with no means to enter the centre to act and perform.

    • 19 Tan Tai Wei 9 September 2012 at 22:24

      Calls only for some “creative” adaptation. After all, that difficult stage is still better than Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, or, coming nearer our times and home, Chinese street wayang atap and wood platforms.
      And my point was that we may beat the authorities by that loophole HongLim Green provides.

      • 20 yawningbread 9 September 2012 at 23:07

        The stage at Hong Lim Park is NOT part of speaker’s corner. It has to be separately rented from the community centre, which can throw up all manner of refusals in deference to the powers that be. The People’s Association which runs community centres, as most Singaporeans may now be aware, is a partisan organisation charged with furthering the government’s narrow objectives.

  8. 21 Tan Tai Wei 9 September 2012 at 23:39

    Thanks, Alex, for curing my ignorance. Then, would they permit construction of an erstwhile-style wayang stage within Speakers’ Corner?

    • 22 teo soh lung 10 September 2012 at 12:07

      Hong Lim is certainly a possibility.Sure can build a wayang stage but have to find people’s theatre folks who are not getting grants from NAC. If you have recommendations let me know.

  9. 23 David 10 September 2012 at 05:21

    Think different then.

    As long as the old man is alive, don’t expect to have political freedom.
    To have political freedom means to dig out dirty linen of the party. The old man and his party know the consequences and threat of political freedom very well.

    Why not consider doing online version ? Paid Hd version of the play on YouTube or whatever online service. Dont have to be always physical play. Along the way, come out more series, and continue to refine the play online.

    Just like app store concept. Buy a app or subscription, and get contant update,. Can the same be applied for play ?

    Singaporeans are more willing to support and pay for good cause.

  10. 24 N.C 10 September 2012 at 10:37

    PM Lee should be informed that his Min. of Truth (MICA) does not even know that he wanted a National Conversation,the Minister should be replaced.

  11. 25 Cricket 10 September 2012 at 16:32

    National Conversation? What National Conversation? Singapore is still very much a POLICE STATE! The PAP mush abolish the ISA first to prove its sincerity. As long as the ISA exists all talk about National Conversation is just bluff.

  12. 26 goop 12 September 2012 at 00:12

    You know what? Hold events in JB already. It isn’t that far away and you won’t have to deal with this crap.

  13. 27 drownedmuse 12 September 2012 at 05:14

    The more we change the more we stay the same. Function 8 should stage the play across the causeway. I am sure our cousins there will appreciate it.

  14. 28 teo soh lung 12 September 2012 at 10:40

    Cricket, I fully agree. The PAP knows that it has passed many laws that restrict the freedom of the people. If they are sincere about having an honest conversation, start repealing unjust laws one by one, beginning with the ISA.

  15. 29 Reddotsg 13 September 2012 at 23:56

    How abt Theater en Blanc? We all dress up n go to secret location to watch the play, cos i would really like too see.

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