Sunday, October 01, 2006

Straits Times deserves the public tongue-lashing

Theatreworks delivers a much deserved public tongue-lashing against the Straits Times, Singapore's widely circulated national newspaper whose reportage is heavily controlled & influenced by the ruling Peoples Action Party government...............

In the Spirit of Free Expression ......

Theatreworks refers to The Straits Times article entitled, "Theatre director slams Life! , arts council over media invitation" dated 27 September 2006.

To clarify Theatreworks' position, we had stated in our letter to Straits Times Life! that 'we do not welcome her (Ms Hong) to the Diaspora performances". The phrase "do not welcome" does not mean 'barring'. Theatreworks believes in the spirit of free expression, and understands that any attempt at denying media presence and/or critical comment would be futile.

In this same spirit of free expression, we have chosen to post our stand on our website. We will continue to do so, as and when there is a need for diverse views from those expressed by the mainstream, for instance a major media. By harnessing the website in this manner, it is one way to ensure diversity of opinion in Singapore.

Importantly, we need to consider the larger question of what is behind the immediate conflict that has occurred; and to look at how we can achieve deeper, improved and sustained trust and communication between artists and media, as suggested by Alvin Tan of The Necessary Stage. So, once again, we invite those who are interested to be a part of this discussion, to write to Tay Tong at taytong@theatreworks.org.sg

Thank you.

Statement

Theatreworks condemns the environment generated by the attitudes of The Straits Times Life! editors and writers. It also condemns the cooperation of the National Arts Council with The Straits Times Life! at the potential expense of its constituency, the Singapore artists. In a country where the main press is dominated by The Straits Times, its reporters can have a powerful public voice and may generate a slanted perspective about Singapore theatre. Hence deep, sustained communication or dialogue with the majority of Singapore performing artists is essential. In the last years, The Straits Times Life! can be said to have built an environment where commercial entertainment has robbed the Singapore theatre scene of its vibrancy in the public’s eyes. In particular, the statements made by reporter Hong Xin Yi in the recent Singapore Theatre Festival could have generated a backlash against Singapore plays and other new performances made in Singapore.

Theatreworks views this as increasingly intolerable for a responsible public newspaper. Hong Xin Yi’s statements adds onto the bullying techniques of senior writer Ong Sor Fern as well as the “silence” of Life! editor Sumiko Tan towards negotiating these conflicts between reporters and individual arts groups.

In a series of events, Theatreworks had written to the National Arts Council that Hong Xin Yi’s presence, as opposed to any other journalist from The Straits Times, would not be welcomed at the recent production of Diaspora. In addition, before the production opened, we also declined all requests for interviews by Hong Xin Yi because of our concern that there might be inaccurate representation of the work. Hence, Theatreworks preferred not to have any presence in the Straits Times Life! as we understand that she is the only arts reporter for theatre. This was not an attempt at denying media presence nor critical comments for such an attempt would be futile. Every other media requests were accommodated by Theatreworks (Channel News Asia, Business Times, Lian He Zhao Bao, Today and IS Magazine just to name a few). This production of Diaspora was landmark, not so much in its artistic content nor form, but it was the first arts event commissioned by government institutions for an international gathering of delegates who were not meeting on arts and culture.

Subsequently, the National Arts Council quietly gave tickets to Hong Xin Yi for the 20th Sep 06 performance. This was done without informing Theatreworks who had made the artwork Diaspora. This action was kept clandestine without any indication on the public list of invitations. Theatreworks only found out much later and was shocked that such actions had been taken. No prior notice was given to Theatreworks who had already expressed reservations about Hong Xin Yi’s presence.

In the final analysis, Theatreworks understands that the National Arts Council has its obligations to the press. However it is the manner in which these obligations were carried out that has led to much misunderstanding. Implicit in this manner is perhaps a statement that the press is more important to the National Arts Council than the artists, who are the cultural capital of Singapore.

Theatreworks had also expressed very strongly its stand about Hong Xin Yi to the editors of Life! There was no attempt by the editors at initiating any negotiations with Theatreworks to understand each other’s position better before 20th Sep 06. Theatreworks had attempted through a phonecall to the editors but was simply told to reconsider its position. This can be interpreted as a “superpower” attitude where the problem lies with the “petulant” artist rather than both sides having to reconsider their positions.

As a matter of fact, it is almost impossible to ever reach Sumiko Tan through email or phone. This is a drastic turnaround after Richard Lim’s editorship where he was accessible to artists who could voice legitimate concerns to him directly.

Hong Xin Yi’s subsequent review about Diaspora on 22nd Sep 06 left a general negative impression in the minds of some readers. In particular, it commented in passing that the writing was melancholic, simplistic and sentimental. Without attributing the writing to any specific individual (the undersigned wrote the script of Diaspora), it is hoped that such an action is not taken as a reprimanding rap on the knuckles of an independent arts group. This is especially disturbing in a country where there are few public dialogues and where public opinion is often harnessed through The Straits Times.

Ong Keng Sen
Artistic Director
Theatreworks

No comments: