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Pushing Back the Boundaries
But can Singapore's artists ever break free to be truly creative?

JAPAN: A Brave New World
Young webheads are battling Japan Inc. and ingrained attitudes to forge a new economy
MALAYSIA: Mod and Muslim
And fretting about Islamic conservatism
KOREA: Family and Career
Women want both — and are beginning to get them

Opening nights are usually nail-biting affairs for playwrights, but Alfian bin Sa'at had more to worry about than most when his sex.violence.blood.gore debuted last December. Singapore authorities had given him permission to stage the play on condition that he cut two-and-a-half of its seven scenes. Alfian agreed, but he signposted the missing scenes with leitmotifs and distributed to the audience the excised portions of the script. "I thought it was an important act of exposing the censors' handiwork and empowering the audience to judge for themselves," says the 23-year-old poet and playwright. He waited anxiously after the curtain call. No backlash came.

It's not easy being creative in Singapore. The country has hardly been known for its free thinking. Its well-behaved citizenry have built a gleaming first-world city through efficiency and hard work — not thinking out of the box. But local authorities want to turn it into a high-tech hub, which means information and ideas need to circulate freely. Restrictions on expression are gradually loosening. The government recently set up a Speaker's Corner to encourage free speech — within limits — and just last month, a civil society group published Shame, a journal discussing sensitive subjects such as political and human rights. Will Singapore's artists, so used to limiting themselves, ever be able to really break free? The city is caught in a "bureaucratic paradox," says Alvin Pang, a 28-year old writer. "We want a vibrant cultural city, but we also want it to be safe, predictable, well-defined."

Singaporeans, trained to think of practical things such as production, efficiency and profits, tend to view art as a marginal occupation. Like most local artists, Pang relies on another job for his livelihood. A former civil servant, he is now a web journalist. "Art isn't considered a very Singaporean profession, in the way that law, medicine, business and engineering are," says Pang. Painter Chua Aik Boon, 24, who does oils and other visual art, often feels like an outsider: "You sometimes get this cold treatment when you tell people you are an artist or are studying art," he says. Chua teaches part time to make ends meet, while playwright Alfian is studying medicine, which he is interested in.

Some artists are skeptical about the government's more open attitude. Alfian fears that authorities are easing up on the arts while keeping a tight rein on everything else. "It is all right to put up a play with gay themes, but you're not allowed to organize a gay forum," he complains. "Art is being co-opted by the state."

But attitudes are changing. As Singaporeans travel more and react to government exhortations to "be creative," they are becoming more receptive to creative work. Take Alfian's first verse anthology, published in 1998. Friends advised him to exclude a poem titled "Singapore, You Are Not My Country" from the book; his editor tried to blunt some of the selection's anti-establishment sentiments. But it eventually appeared in full — and drew no reprisals. Today, the poem is part of the English literature curriculum at the National University. "Already, many younger artists are breaking away from professional jobs to pursue their craft," says Pang. "They're finding their own path, starting companies and publishing concerns if the old institutions are unwilling or unable to move along with them."

The rapid growth of Internet use in Singapore is opening people's minds in unforeseen ways. "The old ways of telling people what they can and cannot think, which crippled creativity, will no longer work," says writer Pang. "Once we figure out how to nurture rather than prescribe creativity, there will be positive spillovers into art." Technology is also providing careers for some young artists. Graphics and multi-media design are popular choices, says Chua, because of their marketability.

For the first time, despite the frustrations, young creative people are carving out a space in their tidy city. "Being young means you have more leeway to fail and learn from your mistakes," says Alfian. "More than ever, we now have a group of artists who are more vocal, more willing to experiment, and less concerned about rice-bowl issues." That suggests greater ferment — and more excitement — in Singapore's arts scene.


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