story David Chia, Arts Editor and Raeden Richardson, Contributing Reporter
On 6 December 2015, SGIFF concluded its 26th edition, drawing over 12,000 festival goers from Singapore and across the region. SGIFF 2015, now in its 26th year, is the longest running film festival in South East Asia—a claim made proudly on every postcard and pamphlet. Over 11 days, the festival saw an impressive lineup of internationally renowned personalities including stars such as Michelle Yeoh, Dev Patel, Sonia Sui Tang and Choi Woo-Shik. Paralleled by the recent opening of Singapore’s National Gallery, SGIFF’s 2016 vision is part of a larger vision of turning Singapore into the arts hub of Southeast Asia, and the world.
Speech by ambassador Chan Heng Chee
One of Yale-NUS’ governing board members, Ambassador Chan Heng Chee opened the festival, covering topics such as censorship and the conflict between artists and government.
“We should not look on the exchange of views on this matter as a case of the state against artists, or the artists against the state,” Ambassador Chan said in her speech. She called for a unity in Singapore’s artistic direction, even if it means compromising and negotiating conflict.
To elucidate her point, she cited the US Supreme Court 1998 ruling which upheld the withdrawal of state funding for “offensive art”. The specific case she was referring to involved a performance artist Karen Finley and other artists who took the National Endowment of the Arts in the US to court when they were denied funding for their work.
Her remarks came after a radio interview with Ong Keng Sen, artistic director of the Singapore International Festival of the Arts in October 2015. He questioned Singapore’s top-down approach to the arts, and withholding state funding to artistic works that go against perceived national value.
Ambassador Chan indirectly responded by saying that governments need to deal with this difference in point of view. Negotiations are needed to deal with the evolving standards and values of the Singaporean society.
In a commentary published by The Straits Times on Nov 7, Chief Executive Office of the National Arts Council, Kathy Lai argued that the council does its best to support a diversity of artistic expression but “will have difficulty funding art with public funds if such works feed a desire for self-expression, without any consideration of their impact on the public and whether they truly enrich their lives.”
Artists’ network Arts Engaged responded to Ms. Lai’s statement by questioning the assumption that only the state can decide what is good for society. It called the statement the “clearest articulation of funding as blunt tool of censorship.”
Certain members in the arts circle were disappointed with Ambassador Chan’s speech. Among the audience, Alvin Tan of The Necessary Stage expressed disappointment by saying that there her speech lacked balance, cherry picking on US-based evidences to fit her agenda. He added that the NAC should be set up to fight for the arts and artists, and not the other way round. Ambassador Chan’s speech seemed to suggests otherwise. Another audience member, Valence Sim, said that the speech was inappropriate at an international film festival where Singapore is trying to bring in international film-makers.
Whether the government should allow public funds be used for arts that challenge Singaporean society or not, Ambassador Chan’s speech does not provide a clear stand on this debate. Today, the role and scope of the NAC remains contested within the Singaporean artistic community.
Opening Film: Panay
The Taiwanese film Panay opened the festival. Cheng Yu-Chieh and Lekal Sumi’s uplifting film explores the tensions between a seaside aboriginal community and their profit-driven mainland counterparts who seek to turn ancestral rice fields into holiday villas. Unlike contemporary Hollywood films, Panay follows not one lead character but examines the narratives of an entire community. The most memorable scenes include Panay (played by singer-songwriter Ado’ Kaliting Pacidal) confronting the local policemen over documents that have been mysteriously “swept away by a typhoon”, and property developer (played by indigenous Taiwanese Bokeh Kosang) disbanding his commercial efforts to help build a freshwater pipeline to the rice fields.
When asked to explain the choice to screen Panay as the opening film of the SGIFF, Executive Director Yuni Hadi said, ‘The unique collaboration between Cheng and Sumi has resulted in an inspiring film that brings to light a contemporary topic with a lot of heart. We were moved by the beauty and spirit of Panay.’
The intent to screen Panay, made clear by the organisers, was no less ambitious than the aboriginal peoples’ fight to save their land from industrialization in the film. ‘Its powerful message around preserving and fighting for what we hold close to our hearts resonates with what we believe and stand for as a festival—to tell Asia’s story through film,’ Hadi added.
Similarly, the hope to tell a story that emanates beyond the SGIFF and across the world was not lost on Cheng. ‘While our film centers on a small community in Taiwan, we believe its bigger message about leaving a legacy for future generations is universal. We hope Panay will serve to bring encouragement to those who might face similar predicaments around the world.’