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"Censorship is still going on today."

Kirsten Han photo
Kirsten HanSingapore
"Censorship is still going on today."
Lee Wen, Singapore's pioneering performance artist, was awarded the 2016 Joseph Balestier Award for Freedom of Art on Tuesday night. He talks about censorship, the struggle, and why governments should spend more on the arts than on weapons.

Winning the 2016 Joseph Balestier Award for Freedom of Art on Tuesday night meant that Singaporean performance artist Lee Wen had bagged the US$15,000 cash prize. 

His first act was to announce that he would share it with his fellow finalists, Burmese performance artist Aye Ko and Vietnamese filmmaker Nguyen Trinh Thi.

"I think all of them are doing important work in their country as well. This kind of thing needs a lot of capital... This money goes a long way in their country," he said.

Freedom of expression has been a long-standing problem in most ASEAN nations. Vietnam is still under the rule of the Communist Party, and the arrest of high-profile bloggers have attracted news headlines, while rights groups have criticised the Burmese state for jailing prisoners of conscience during the recent election period. As for Singapore, stories of lawsuits against opposition politicians and bloggers are well-known. For Lee, it is the job of the artist to be involved in the struggle for free expression.

"I see myself as a citizen artist," he said, referencing the concept of 'citizen soldiers' that can be applied to Singapore's policy of conscription. "I believe in serving my country... I want a country that I am proud of."

Governments often look to the military to deter any hostile intent, and Singapore is no different. In fact, Singapore spends a huge amount of money every year on defence, maintaining and continually upgrading the armed forces. Lee believes that this money could be put to better use supporting the arts.

"When you think about it, the more arms you buy, the more likely you are going to use it. Countries with big budgets on military tend to become belligerent," he pointed out. "If you spend on your artists, you have more to lose if you fight, and more to gain if you have understanding between cultures. If you look at what is happening in the world today, we have a very severe need for this."

Lee suffers from ill health, yet isn't anywhere near done with his work. "I believe in democracy, whether it is 100% or not. It's not working perfectly, but it doesn’t mean we can't keep asking. We're getting better and better, but not as good as we could be."

"Censorship is still going on today," he continues. "Things are being shut down without us knowing."

There are enough episodes that we do know of. In 2014 the Media Development Authority refused to rate To Singapore, With Love, a documentary film about Singaporean political exiles, which meant that the film could not be publicly distributed in the country. In 2015 the National Arts Council withdrew their publishing grant from the graphic novel The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye because of its "sensitive content". (The Streisand Effect kicked in and the book went on to sell better than anyone could have hoped for.)

Lee then raises another issue that he feels strongly about: judicial corporal punishment. "Brother Cane is still here today."

Caning continues to be a major part of the Singapore criminal justice system, seen as part of the city-state's tough stance against crime. The punishment applies not only to violent crimes like rape and robbery, but also to less serious crimes like vandalism. The US State Department reports estimate that thousands are caned each year.

"It is a deterrent that does not work at all," Lee insists. "It is a very brutal method of punishment."

Issues such as these keep him critical about his home country. "With this kind of brutality, how can we celebrate, how can we think about reaching the next 50 years? This is not the country I want to be proud of, to die for."

"Somebody once told me I should never be so negative about Singapore," he added. "This person stopped me from criticising what they did to the [now demolished] National Library in a public forum... and I was almost in tears, thinking I've done wrong, but I've realised it's bullshit. Because this is how things are today. The heavy-handed way [the government] handles this country shows how autocratic and brutal the system of democracy [here] is."

#art, #singapore, #censorship, #free speech, #freedom of expression