Culture and the Arts ‘After’ Kuo Pao Kun

C. J. W.-L. Wee

The Artists’ General Assembly (AGA) – a week-long arts festival organised by both The Artists’ Village and the 5th Passage Artists Ltd. – took place from 26 December 1993 to the early hours of 1 January 1994, at the then-5th Passage Gallery at the Parkway Parade Shopping Centre in Marine Parade. Performance artists Josef Ng and Shannon Tham both participated at a 12-hour new year’s eve event. Three days later, the front page of the tabloid The New Paper‘s 3 January edition blared, ‘Pub(l)ic Protest’, and carried a picture of Ng’s back, with swimming briefs slightly lowered, apparently, cutting hair from his private area. On Saturday, 5 February, theatre company The Necessary Stage (TNS) was dragged into the expanding controversy when The Straits Times published an article by Felix Soh headlined, ‘Two pioneers of forum theatre trained at Marxist workshops’. These events precipitated an extraordinary arts crackdown.[1]

As it happened, on the same day Soh’s article appeared, Lee Weng Choy and Sharaad Kuttan, two of the then-editors of Commentary (the journal of the National University of Singapore Society), had arranged for an informal meeting of the arts community to address the AGA fracas.

Virtually everyone seemed to be there – playwrights, academics, some journalists, actors, directors. The tone of the meeting was sober, as memories of 1987’s ‘Operation Spectrum’ – the last time the Internal Security Act had been used in the city-state – lingered; no one had forgotten either that theatre group The Third Stage had been involved in that security sweep. Even though the Berlin Wall had fallen in 1989, everyone was acutely aware of how provocative the term ‘Marxist’ that Soh had used in his article still could be. Nevertheless Stella Kon, the author of Emily of Emerald Hill (1984), suggested that the community ought to be pro-active, as the negative situation also offered an unprecedented opportunity for a united artists’ stand. Take out a full-page advertisement in The Straits Times, she argued, and let everyone in the room put their name on it and protest the present situation. There was a surge of agreement, as the atmosphere became lighter, more positive.

Then, playwright and public intellectual Kuo Pao Kun (1939-2002) rose to say that such a move would makes matters harder for Josef Ng The buoyant mood was immediately punctured, and the meeting ended inconclusively. Only the enormously respected Kuo – who had been detained without trial by the Singapore government for four years for his artistic activities – would have had the moral authority to deflate the collective mood with simple, unemotional statements. There were some criticisms later of Kuo for not supporting that extraordinary moment when the Voice of the arts community could have enunciated a sharply critical stance which would have delineated the role of the arts for a society which appeared to consider literature and the arts irrelevant, barely decorative. Such charges too easily relieve those present of their responsibility to disagree with Kuo – for none demurred.

Despite the controversy, the 1990s was a decade where the cultural gains of the 1980s were sustained and, in some ways, exceeded. Nevertheless, 5 February 1994 was also a moment of lost potential.

Kuo Pao Kun was the major enabling personality in the theatre in the 1980s. After his detention between 1976-80 for alleged communist activities, he exceeded his previous prominence with plays that were unprecedented in examining the destruction of existing cultural formations, given the resolute, state-led modernisation with totalising impulses, and that asserted trans-ethnic relationships and understanding were possible in Singapore – multiculturalism, with knowledge of each other, and not merely a multi-racialism, surviving on mutual tolerance. That last statement now sounds like a cliché; but it was fresh in that decade, and still remains unrealised as a socio-cultural goal. Kuo was a natural institution builder who harnessed the energy of theatrical artists and visual artists involved with newer arts practices such as performance art. He helped pioneer an emerging multi-disciplinary contemporary arts scene. As visual and performance artist Amanda Heng, a founder of The Artists’ Village, has said to me that Kuo’s networks were extensive, and he had a good sense of cultural activities in different linguistic and social realms. His idea of an arts community was one in which linguistic, ethnic and class lines were crossed. To be sure, it was a community largely composed of those with a ‘contemporary’ orientation;[2] it had its boundaries.

Kuo continued to speak up for the arts throughout the 1990s, and The Substation – the independent arts centre that he founded in 1990 – was both an important staging space and a social-intellectual meeting place for the experimental visual, performing and even literary arts. The Substation and the nearby open-air kopitiam, S-11, outside the old National Library, became venues of social and artistic interaction. Poet and playwright Alfian Sa’at valorises this significant place from the 1990s thus:

Only in dreams. Under separate stars.
I had one last night; of sitting at S-11
With the usual bunch of affectionate liars,
Skinny artists, red-eyed dreamers, […]
– ‘Portrait of a Sentenced Library’ (2001) [3]

As for the visual arts , the late 1980s saw dynamic experiments in conceptual art, performance, installation sculpture, figurative painting that had German expressionist antecedents (but executed with personal rather than historical references), pop art and ‘happenings’.[4] The corporate ‘arrival’ in Singapore of conceptual art was confusingly plural, but enormously energising. The environment, sexuality, violence, identity and feminism became valid areas for enquiry. The overall creative release brought critical judgement into the visual aesthetic realm.

The 1990s saw artists attending each others’ performances and exhibitions, and a general dialogue was maintained between artists, arts professionals, journalists and academics to see how the profile of the arts could be raised in the city-state. The arts were linked to an emerging desire and identitarian discourse to rethink what Singapore culture itself – as opposed to the capitalist culture with petit-bourgeois social values the state had fostered. Such enquiries were influenced by the impact of postcolonial and multicultural theory and thinking, and the (so-called) ‘new’ social movements.

However, by the late 1990s there was a sense that the dialogue was a rehash of old, unresolved topics. The artists’ desire was to be autonomous and to provide beauty, provocation and insight in exchange for some tolerance, and support from state coffers. This desire drew on the Western European model of cultural support. As the artists who were in their late teens and early 20s in the 1980s became older, their attention and energy flagged. Some, such as TheatreWorks’ director Ong Keng Sen started creating works overseas. Others simply tried to get on with what they felt they had to artistically. Kuo’s untimely demise in 2002, at the height of his intellectual creative productiveness seems in retrospect to mark the winding down of a remarkable period of artistic growth.

Nevertheless, artists like director Alvin Tan of TNS, working with those sympathetic to public socio-cultural work, continued to toil tirelessly at keeping the arts connected with larger social issues and emerging civil society groups. Tan observed that:

The arts, particularly theatre, had an early start in [developing a non-state led way of building civil society] … in the late 1980s. An increasing number of arts practitioners left their mainstream jobs and accepted reduced incomes to work in this sector full-time, fuelled by the call of vocational passion. However, these opportunities were put in place for this sector because the state had set its mind to developing the arts in Singapore. [5]

As Singapore entered the new millennium, the context that framed artistic growth and the state had changed, and Tan’s comments give a sense of these changes. In November 2009, at TheatreWorks’ Expo Zéro by Museé de la Danse, I heard an actor-director active since the early 1990s comment that artists and arts groups seemed to have become more self-absorbed and therefore less likely to attend performance or arts events not directly linked to them . Competition for local and international recognition and, indeed, competition for state funding appears to be the norm.

What had transpired – and at a pace that caught arts practitioners and many Singaporeans off-guard – was the state’s desire to possess what can be called a ‘cosmo-urban globality’ that had a use for high culture and cultural institutions: the arts and museums, the culture industry and lifestyle consumption, taken in toto as a form of symbolic action in which (to quote Situationist Guy Debord’s famous aphorism) ‘the spectacle of culture is capital accumulated to the point where it becomes image’,[6] can bolster the city-state’s economic attractiveness. The 1980s had seen Singapore become a modern but uni-functional premier ‘world city’ with a puritan work ethic. The 1990s saw the state’s ambition moving on t to transform the city-state into a multi-functional and metropolitan centre like London or New York City, given increased regional and international competition from other aspiring world cities in the region such as Hong Kong and, increasingly, Shanghai and Beijing. There was significant infrastructural, institutional and educational investments put into arts development.

The challenge for the arts in Singapore is acute. The island’s small size complicates manoeuvre and negotiation. The market and government have been relatively quick to understand that the key values of the contemporary arts – cultural heterogeneity, pluralism and even resistance to capitalism – can be converted into the new, cutting-edge standardisation that fits into the glam image of the global city. Culture has become a resource to be co-opted for post-industrial economic development.[7] While the old ‘pragmatic’ petit-bourgeois values embedded within the state that drove 1970’s economic development have not truly been transformed, there are enough continuities and changes in its expanded notions and management of culture to both offer genuinely new choices in the arts and to constrain critical arts discourse and development.

The relatively larger numbers of Singaporeans involved in the arts inevitably means that the culturalist political edge of the contemporary arts that existed in the 1990s has been blunted. Younger artists who became young adults in the late 1990s obviously would not necessarily subscribe to the socio-cultural imperatives of the 1980s and 1990s – and why should they? They may also possess more professionalised attitudes towards the arts. While, despite government rhetoric from the 1990s, Singapore is hardly a ‘global city for the arts’, there is no doubt that the arts are now normalised and more accepted in the city-state. A critical arts discourse that does not fully address the way contemporary capitalism, with its East Asian dimensions, now relates to the arts and culture will not be able to sustain interest.

It is possible, though, that if the arts controversy in 1994 had been brought to a head through Stella Kon’s proposed newspaper advertisement, a critical capacity in art making and thinking might have been immediately sharpened enough that it could have significant residues in the present. Depoliticisation and the marginalisation of ‘the socially-conscious minority’ [8] – already achieved by the 1980s – were not affected by the events of 1994. Many Singaporeans beyond a point cannot or will not come to grips with the forces that shape daily life in Singapore, and given the rapid transformations in culture and capitalism since then, one wonders how effectively the arts can come to grips with these forces. Of course, The Straits Times in 1994 may have refused to accept the full-page advertisement – but the very effort might have further enlarged our collective sense of art’s possibilities. And I suspect that if we had collectively gone for public engagement, Kuo Pao Kun would have come out in full support.


[1] See Lee Weng Choy, ‘Chronology of a Controversy’, in Looking at Culture, ed. Sanjay Krishnan, Sharaad Kuttan, Lee Weng Choy, Leon Perrera and Jimmy Yap (Singapore: Artres Design and Communication, 1996), 63-72; and Alvin Tan, ‘Forum Theatre: A Limited Mirror’, in Building Social Space in Singapore: The Working Committee’s Initiative in Civil Society Activism, ed. Constance Singam, Tan Chong Kee, Tisa Ng and Leon Perrera (Singapore: Select Publishing, 2002).

[2] The exact definitions or understandings of the ‘contemporary’ and the ‘contemporary arts’ are complex and contested; see Terry Smith, Okwui Enwezor and Nancy Condee (eds.), Antinomies of Art and Culture: Modernity, Postmodernity, Contemporaneity (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008).

[3] Alfian Sa’at, A History of Amnesia (Singapore: Ethos Books, 2001), p.46.

[4] C. J. W.-L. Wee, ‘Christianity, the Work of Wong Shih Yaw and Contemporary Art’, in The Inoyama Donation: A Tale of Two Artists, ed. Low Sze Wee, exhibition booklet (Singapore: Singapore Art Museum, 2006).

[5] Alvin Tan, ‘The Working Committee Process: Building Trust’, in Building Social Space in Singapore, p.142.

[6] Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle, trans. Donald Nicholson Smith (orig. 1967; New York: Zone Books, 1994), p.24.

[7] George Yu_dice, The Expediency of Culture: Uses of Culture in the Global Era (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003).

[8] Cherian George, Singapore, the Air-Conditioned Nation: Essays on the Politics of Comfort and Control, 1990-2000 (Singapore: Landmark Books, 2000), p.15.

C. J. W.-L. Wee teaches English and cultural theory at the National Institute of Education, Nanyang Technological University. He is the author of Culture, Empire, and the Question of Being Modern (2003) and The Asian Modern: Culture, Capitalist Development, Singapore (2007), and recently co-edited Contesting Performance: Global Sites of Research (2010). His present interest is in the formation of and the relationship between contemporary arts, literature and capitalist development in Singapore and in East Asia.

5 thoughts on “Culture and the Arts ‘After’ Kuo Pao Kun”

  1. “During the discussions that followed in the media, (Kuo) Pao Kun maintained a scrupulous, conspicuous silence; ever mindful of his position on both sides of the fence – as artist and as a prominent member of the arts establishment. Finally breaking his silence on this, he said:

    It was such a good opportunity for mutual education that was sadly, arrogantly and hurriedly lost over an incident which did not pose any immediate danger to anyone.
    The Government bypassed all the institutional structures set up over the last three years: the NAC, the arts advisers, the review committee and the resource panel, not to mention two theatre studies programmes in universities with experienced and knowledgeable teachers.
    They were all there to be consulted, but the Government chose to deny the very institutions it created itself. In one stroke, all these were arbitrarily brushed aside at a time when the ‘consultative spirit’ and ‘due process’ were being underlined as fundamental traits of this nation.
    What the authorities failed to consider was that, by doing so, they had inflicted serious damage to their own moral credibility. In the long run, this is more deeply disturbing than the prosecution of Josef Ng itself.”

    Theatre doyen sells himself to raise funds by T. Sasitharan
    Straits Times 11 May 1994

  2. I think even though Kuo Pao Kun is well respected in the arts community he represents different things to different people.
    I kind of agree about the chance lost from the AGA gathering, however I think the fault lies with the Singaporean apathy overall and especially wonder where our intellectuals and academics stand and why they were not the ones around to take a leading role? This has not changed much over the years, and my own hesitation was that there weren’t enough people in the room willing to stick out their neck that far and I felt in some ways PK was actually asking for solidarity which he doubted existed at that point and who would go all the way if the battle were to go on and therefore I agree with him that it will affect Josef Ng negatively.
    As for coming to grips in the post Kuo Pao Kun and AGA, there have been developments going on which are not nearly like the arts boom then the slow down in recession like in elsewhere such as China. The problem I find is still to take our own artists more seriously. Even between artists there is need for more mutual respect and dialogue. Our schools, researchers and writers often research on or write about the usual superstars of the art world if not some artists they find on the internet but neglect our own backyard.

  3. Kuo Pao Kun was of course right to say what he said in 1994. It is easy to be carried away by emotions in a crowd, without understanding the situation, the consequences and the person or people who will suffer at the end of it all. If the discussion had continued after Kuo’s statement and a decision made to proceed with the advertisement, those who did so would have the conviction to stand up for what they did and not succumb to pressure and worse, blame others for what they did. The fact that there was no further discussion perhaps confirm the uncertainty in the minds of the artists and their unwillingness to pursue till the very end. That being the case, abandoning the project was probably the right thing to do.

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