By Nicholas Yong and Teng Yong Ping
Uncertain if fiction was covered by “restrictive” laws on defamation and public security in Singapore, veteran playwright Tan Tarn How decided against depicting a fictitious prime minister’s wife in a recent play about self-censorship and government control of the media.
Speaking at a panel discussion entitled “Literature As Dissent” that was attended by some 90 people, the 58-year-old revealed on Tuesday (28 August) that the initial plot of his recent satirical work Press Gang revolved around how a prime minister’s wife, who heads a sovereign investment fund, was abusing her power.
The plot was eventually amended to centre on the son of the PM. “That’s because we (Tan and director Ivan Heng) were afraid…We were not very clear whether as a play, we were allowed to say things which we can’t say in a non-fiction book. We decided it was safer to not say the things we wanted to say at first, and therefore we decided to amend the storyline,” said Tan, a former senior editor with national broadsheet The Straits Times (ST).
Tan, who is also an academic, is known for his provocative and satirical works examining social issues such as The Lady of Soul and Her Ultimate ‘S’ Machine. He was speaking alongside acclaimed graphic novelist Sonny Liew, 43, who emphasised the need for professionals in creative fields to conduct “good research” in order to guard against incurring the wrath of the authorities.
“For my work, I believe that if you do enough research, you can sort of defend yourself against accusations by the government. The danger for me is, if you don’t do enough research, don’t have enough evidence to support your claims, that’s when you get into trouble,” said Liew, who is best known for his best-selling graphic novel The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye.
The book is a meditation on Singapore’s history covering socio-political issues, comic art history and censorship. It examines key incidents in the 1950s and 1960s such as the Hock Lee bus riots, and includes the late Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew and opposition leader Lim Chin Siong as key comic characters.
In 2017, Liew won three Eisner Awards, the comics industry’s equivalent of the Oscars, for Charlie Chan. Prior to becoming the first Singaporean to win an Eisner, Liew had his $8,000 publishing grant for Charlie Chan withdrawn by the National Arts Council (NAC) in 2015 due to what NAC considered as “sensitive content”. The move by NAC came just a day before Liew launched his book.
Tan quipped that the NAC deserved thanks for making Liew the “most-read” author in Singapore. Charlie Chan has sold some 24,000 copies so far.
The role of the mainstream media
In a lively discussion, the two panelists discussed issues ranging from the role of education in critical thinking and diminished arts content in the media globally. Tan also brought up Singapore mainstream media’s (MSM) reviews of politically-oriented plays, which he said did not address the main issues highlighted in such works.
He elaborated, “They might say this play is very well written because it’s interesting, the characters are very interesting, or it breaks new ground in terms of form. They seldom discuss: does it tell a political truth? And if it does, what does it mean? I think that is the failure of mainstream media as far as reviews are concerned.”
And while Tan understood why these reviewers have a “reflex action” not to analyse the political content of such works, he found it “very strange”. To laughter from the audience, he added, “The mainstream media reviews for my latest play, Press Gang, avoided the topic entirely, which is even more natural, because it’s about the control of the media.”
Liew was more sanguine on the topic, pointing out that the MSM does cover political content in other articles. He added that ST has been “surprisingly willing” to talk about the controversies surrounding Charlie Chan, even as the NAC and Infocomm and Media Development Authority were “very quiet” about it.
“I think SPH… for some reason were willing to talk about it, though it hasn’t seemed to have any influence on NAC at all, so I’m not sure what the real impact is,” said Liew.