Young filmmaker Boo Junfeng posed two questions to Lawrence Wong, the incoming Minister for Community, Culture and Youth during a phone-in chat last Friday evening (14 September 2010). The minister’s responses don’t inspire much confidence.
The new MCCY ministry is not yet operational till later this year. It will take over some functions from the current Ministry of Information, Communication and the Arts (MICA) and the Ministry of Community, Youth and Sports (MCYS). Junfeng’s questions were meant to elucidate some of Wong’s thinking in the areas of the arts and community, two limbs of the new ministry. The transcript of the questions and answers are given below.
Junfeng’s first question was quite plain. Pointing out that the arts reflect the conscience and conflicts in society — some of them in tension with government policies of the day — he asked if the minister would “engage with these conversations rather than silence them”. It’s a question about censorship.
Wong in his reply breezily agreed he would be engaging artists, and in the next breath (probably unknowingly) displayed how he didn’t understand what engagement meant, speaking instead about encouraging “peaks of excellence”. This gave away his adherence to the ruling party’s view of the arts as yet another economic engine. Junfeng was talking about soul but Wong couldn’t see it; he saw money.
He also seemed to see the arts as little more than feel-good productions, framing its purpose as that which “which brings fulfillment to life, which really uplifts our spirits”.
Junfeng caught it, and gently chided the minister. “The role of arts and culture … is not just for personal enrichment and entertainment,” he said. It’s supposed to challenge.
Wong then backtracked a little, saying that yes, the arts can be “provocative”, and “there is certainly that particular role in arts to cause us as a people to reflect and to think about ourselves or about our own humanity”, but seconds later, went back to speaking about “excellence” again.
Overall, Junfeng, in an email reply to me, felt disappointed: “He may not have gotten that part of my question, but as I rambled on later about the role of art sometimes needing to challenge the public, whether in form or in content, he said he agreed with me, and added that art ‘can be provocative, and we should encourage different forms of art’. So I take it that he got what I was saying in the end, though I didn’t get the assurance that the arts will be a safe space that’s free from censorship for all discourses to take place.”
In a nutshell, Junfeng “wanted assurance that the arts will be a safe space to explore pertinent issues — social or political. I don’t think I got that assurance.”
As for MICA’s recently-announced directions for the arts policy, he wrote: “It is still very unclear what this newly introduced ‘arts for community’ directive entails. I hope it means that the govt plans to raise cultural literacy through education and outreach, and not by ‘dumbing down’ the arts so that everyone is able to simply feel involved.”
Lawrence Wong’s score for Question One: Somewhat clueless.
Junfeng’s second question related to the ‘community’ limb of the new MCCY ministry, with specific reference to the government’s policy towards LGBT communities. Junfeng was disturbed by previous references to ‘consensus’ as the key driver of policy. Indeed, for minorities, whether racial, religious or social (e.g. single parents), consensus is often the soft pillow used to smother them, because ‘consensus’ is too often confused with majoritarian conventionalism. The guiding principle should instead be that of rights — rights that no majority can trample on, starting with the rights to equality, freedom of expression and freedom of association.
Wong’s reply again showed how little he knows about these things. In the video above you will hear him struggle to explain the government’s plainly uninformed and discriminatory policy by re-asserting again the centrality of consensus.
He tries to leaven it by speaking of a “sense of understanding and acceptance of individuals for who they are”, but in the end still fails to convince because nowhere does he mention rights or even use the term “gay” or “lesbian”; as if he can’t even bring himself to use those ‘toxic’ words. As Junfeng later wrote: “I wish he could have at least used the term LGBT (because I had already said it so many times during the conversation) and not skirt around it.”
Wong also spoke about what others might do to foster understanding and awareness but seems totally unaware of the reality that his government’s actions and posturing encourage prejudice and discrimination, and he should start by asking himself what his own government should be doing instead.
Junfeng wrote: “Since he was going to head the MCCY, I wanted to also address the issues LGBT youths face — how the new ministry can provide support and affirmation to gay youths who feel ostracized in schools or are neglected by their families for being who they are. Our mass media often paints a negative portrayal of LGBT people. I think LGBT youths need positive role models who will inspire them to become healthy, well-adjusted individuals.” And for that to happen, censorship has to be rolled back.
Junfeng’s question during the phone-in was actually quite pointed. He asked “And when a minority group is concerned, how would the government be protecting them?”
All it needed was a short answer from Wong: that he would push for repealing discriminatory laws and policies, e.g. Section 377A of the Penal Code and uneven censorship rules, in recognition of their fundamental rights, and that he would ensure that disparaging, demeaning speech from any quarter against any minority group would be fiercely resisted. But we don’t hear him say that, do we?
In sum, MCCY is going to be a new ministry, but if Wong’s utterly conventional replies are anything to go by, he is not going to blow any wind of change. It is bad enough that the new ministry is going to absorb the same old civil servants who had been responsible for implementing previous deadening policies with respect to the arts and community, it is now clear that the new minister is either not conscious that new directions are possible, or he really feels that old ways are still the best and sees his role as one of continuing to champion them.
The old wine is already vinegar, but they’re re-bottling it all the same.
* * * * *
Transcript (may contain a few errors)
BJF: Hi, yes, my name is Junfeng. I’m a filmmaker.
BJF: Well, my first question pertains to the role of the arts and culture in society. How will the MCCY ensure that the arts is a safe space to explore some of these pertinent issues, whether they are social or political?
LW: Hmm . . . you , OK. So, that’s the first question, right? I’ll answer the first question first.
BJF: Maybe I’m asking… because I mean the arts is, you know, since we are talking a lot about engagement and conversation, the arts is very often regarded as you know the soul of society, the voices of . . . artists are very often, you know, a group representation of the sentiments that’s happening on the ground . . .
LW: Very much so.
BJF: So, so how, how would you engage with these conversations rather than silence them and, and is there an active consciousness in doing so?
LW: Well, certainly that is one of the things that, one of my priorities as we transit into the new ministry is to really to engage all the artists who are out there, and I think MICA is already doing that, NAC, the National Arts Council, is already doing that, and as we transit to the new ministry, I personally would like to do that as well — to get to know the different groups, what interests, what areas they would like to pursue; and certainly we would like, in the new ministry, to provide more opportunity, more space, for a more vibrant and diverse arts community, to allow our artists to pursue different peaks of excellence. Because, as you said, arts is really an area which brings fulfillment to life, which really uplifts our spirit, and so it’s an important area which we would certainly want to invest in.
BJF: OK, well, I think it’s great that the government is trying to broaden this reach of the arts. We’re talking about, you know, raising cultural literacy and I think that’s very important, but I mean, I think the worry is that, you know, it’s at the expense of artistic excellence . The role of arts and culture is really, is not just for personal enrichment and entertainment, very often the role of arts is also in challenging the audience both in form and in content and I think it’s perfectly OK if different works of arts or films bring about some discomfort, because very often that is what art is meant to do. So from there, you know, when discourse takes place, it inspires ideas and debates and I believe, so long as it is done responsibly and so long, as there is an active discourse going on, it has to be healthy.
LW: Yes, I agree with you. I agree with you. And there is certainly that particular role in arts to cause us as a people to reflect and to think about ourselves or about our own humanity. And arts plays an important role in that. It can be provocative and, and we should encourage different forms of art and help our artists achieve excellence in the different areas of arts which they are pursuing.
BJF: OK, well, there is second question that I wanted to ask, which is sort of also, sort of talks about a marginalised community in Singapore which is the lesbian gay bisexual and trasngender Singaporeans. I mean, from the earlier caller I was listening in talking about single parenthood, I mean, I kind of disagree in that some of these issues need necessarily be consensus-based especially when some of these communities are a minority.
BJF: And when a minority group is concerned, how would the government be protecting them? And I’m talking about the LGBT community in Singapore.
LW: No, I understand where you are coming from. We should respect the consensus of society, but I think it’s also important that we respect every individual and treat each individual with dignity and regardless of one’s beliefs, regardless of what one, how one, what what the behaviours or the preferences of a particular community or individual all of us should treat each other with dignity and respect And so I think there is something about consensus that’s important to understand but it’s also another, it’s also important to have that sense of understanding and acceptance of individuals for who they are.
BJF: Well, but the reality is that LGBT people, while there is a growing acceptance in Singapore and growing support through events like Pink Dot for example, the reality is there’s also still a lot of discrimination and prejudice so should it not be the role of the government to help educate and alter misconceptions about some of these minority groups? Because, I mean, the truth is, there are thousands of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people living in Singapore and many of t hem are hardworking, talented individuals who contribute to society who have their families, who love their families, so how does the, I mean, should it not be the role of the government as well to be educating the public about some of these things?
LW: Well, I mean there is a role for all parts of society to play, I think. What exactly, what more can the government do or what exactly should the government do, I think let’s, we can discuss that — whether it’s public education, awareness, but in the end, as I said, it’s more important that we also look beyond what the government can do and look at society more broadly between people to people; how we help to raise understanding, raise awareness and at the end of the day I think it’s important we accept individuals for who they are and, and it’s important that we give support to people, you know, regardless of what their preferences may be. So I think there is, certainly we can talk about a role , what role government can play but let’s also think more broadly beyond the role of the government to how we as individuals behave, how we as individuals can reach out to others in a way that treats one another with dignity and respect.