History and arts funding remain contested areas

History and arts funding remain contested areas
National Gallery Singapore
PHOTO: The Business Times

Does the Government control and censor history? Does it hem in art that raises uncomfortable questions and seems to divide society?

Those were perhaps the two most controversial questions that arose during the debate on the budget of the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth (MCCY).

Most of the debate, it must be said, was on less divisive issues, such as building national unity, sports facilities, youth programmes, volunteerism and other topics with more direct impact on most people's lives.

Still, the issue of strengthening national identity was central to how the ministry positioned its work, and that, too, was how Mr Low Thia Khiang (Aljunied GRC) positioned his question on history.

The Workers' Party chief said it was time to move away from "standard" or "official" representations of Singapore history because national identity can only be strengthened "if history is presented to encourage students to consider multiple perspectives and engage in critical thinking".

Doing so would also reduce students' and parents' perceptions of history as "government propaganda".

Minister Grace Fu rebutted Mr Low, saying the National Heritage Board is open, consultative and "takes an objective approach in its curation of history".

It invites visitors to examine different perspectives and engage in critical thinking, she said, "rather than impose a standard or official account of history, as Mr Low says".

The second question was raised by Nominated MP Kok Heng Leun, who represents the arts community.

During the main Budget debate last week, he called for a different model of funding for arts organisations that encourage experimentation, such as The Substation.

He made the point that the arts have intrinsic worth, and should not be viewed only in terms of the political purpose they serve.

And he quoted famed Chinese writer Lu Xun, who said politics and the arts must diverge because while politics seeks to maintain the status quo, it is in the nature of art to examine change, to pursue truth.

In her response yesterday, Ms Fu said there is now more space than before for arts expression and experimentation.

But there is still a need for "rules of engagement to safeguard the social harmony that we cherish".

She quoted famed American diplomat Henry Kissinger, who said that freedom and order are interdependent.

The Government's role is to drive progress while remaining in step with the populace and maintaining societal order, she said, adding: "It is only with social harmony that we can enjoy the peace and ultimately the freedom that comes with it."

Questions about different - and at times contradictory - interpretations of Singapore's history, and over arts funding for groups whose work is critical of the status quo and may be seen as sowing discord, will not be settled in brief parliamentary exchanges.

These are two areas that look set to remain contested.

Yet it is also striking that the word diversity cropped up so frequently during yesterday's debate on the budget of a ministry focused on the softer, less tangible aspects of development.

Dr Yaacob Ibrahim, speaking in his capacity as the Minister-in-charge of Muslim Affairs, said there was a need to address "a more diverse socio-religious landscape".

Muslims in Singapore, he said, have always been guided by principles of moderation, inclusiveness and respect for differences.

"Diversity is not new. And our Malay/Muslim community has been long used to diversity. We have been traditionally open and welcoming of diversity.

"Yes, it will be increasingly difficult to try and balance the competing views and interests, but let us instead instil - especially among our young - a sense of curiosity and appreciation of diversity," he said.

Nominated MP Kuik Shiao-Yin and Senior Minister of State (MCCY) Sim Ann also spoke of creating opportunities for young people to speak openly and honestly to one another about race and religion, so as to learn respect for different points of view and lessons in embracing diversity.

When it comes to religion, there is broad consensus on the need to respect different beliefs, values and practices.

Building such a consensus has become a priority for many governments around the world, in an era of violence carried out in the name of religious extremism.

But this embrace of diversity does not always extend to contested spaces of national history and arts criticism.

And yet, there is merit to Mr Kok's plea for the arts, which he expressed by quoting John F. Kennedy, that "if we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity".

This article was first published on April 15, 2016.
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