Tan Pin Pin
Visiting Research Fellow
Institute of Policy Studies
26 February 2007
When public money is used to support the arts, it is often justified on the grounds that the arts, because it is one of the most direct expressions of a society, play an important role as it enables that society to learn about itself. Since it is a public good and the free market does not consistently encourage its practice, government funding is necessary to sustain it.
While this is plausible in theory, its practice is fraught. Although national grant giving institutions give in the name of the citizens whose taxes support the funds, there are times when the criteria used to decide who to support are not as diversified as the constituents. There are several reasons for this. The main one is that there are not enough safeguards to ensure that the selection process is immune from political partisanship or interference from special interest groups. The worst case scenario is when an artist is rejected because she does not subscribe to a government’s politics or a moral minority’s ideas about art. With this in mind, in applying for and accepting a government arts grant there is a tacit agreement by the artist not to contradict this ideology or if she does, to risk the grant being revoked.
In Singapore, the risks of the latter happening are higher. For example, in the film realm, the letter of offer from the funding body explicitly states that the film must not contain "objectionable" material or the grant will be "withdrawn or suspended". Filmmakers may end up making "safer" works so as not to jeopardise it. In the end, government arts funding perpetuates the status quo rather than questions it: that, many would argue, is the raison d’être of art making in the first place. I strongly advocate the removal of this clause. Under those terms, I accepted support from the Singapore Film Commission (SFC) for my next documentary Invisible City (which is supported by IPS, among other institutions) with some reservation. I reasoned it like this, if my work is able to maintain its essence, if the message I want to impart can remain intact, then I am not averse to modifying the work to prevent the grant from being revoked. For example, I once made a documentary against the exhumation of graves, Moving House, that was very critical of the government’s land use policy. In my application, rather than tackle that head on, I focused on how this policy affected a Singaporean family. Using a personal starting point, I advocated a reassessment of the policy. The outcome was very successful as the documentary won many awards and it was shown in film festivals and on television in Singapore and around the world.
With hindsight, might a more polemical documentary along the lines of Al Gore's work on climate change An Inconvenient Truth have been more effective? Should Moving House have questioned the exhumation issue head on with facts and figures aimed at swaying public opinion? Should it have rallied the viewers to write to their MPs instead? Did I sell myself and the Singaporean audience short with my lyrical documentary? Only time will tell. But all this is moot. Not only would such a documentary not have been funded, it would not have been seen either. It would have fallen foul of the Films Act, because it would be considered a "biased reference on any political matter" but this issue and its ambit is worthy of another debate.
As a filmmaker, I try to protect my work from such restrictions. Firstly, I ensure that my films do not cost too much to make so that my films are not beholden to too many masters. In this, the lower cost of digital technology has made a large difference. Secondly, I try to have as diverse a group of ‘funders’ as possible so that I am not held ransom by any one major backer. For example, apart from financing Invisible City from Singaporean sources, Invisible City is also supported by the Asian Documentary Fund given out by the Pusan International Film Festival, which comes with no explicit strings attached.
For all the strings that come attached with government funding, there are some advantages. Firstly, the grants provide employment for artists and it sustains the cultural industries. Government funding is the state’s endorsement of artists’ work. With this endorsement, the artists may find it easier to apply for monetary support from private organisations or individuals who may support art especially if it is state sanctioned.
The Arts (and I include films in this) is one of the few spaces left in Singapore where material too hot or too subtle for the mass media to handle can be aired and explored with any depth. It is a privileged space and this space to speak is continually being reduced and contained. Some of such containing forces are obvious and clear cut, such as when a sponsor demands that his product is placed in a film in exchange for money. Others are less obvious and more insidious, as are many of the government funding programmes. If these funds are given in the name of the common good, it is so only if certain invisible paramenters are not breached.
If we accept government money, we as artists must be fully aware of the invisible demands and expectations that shape the work as a result of accepting the money. Being aware and being able to articulate these restrictions allows us to resist it with all our art - should we choose to, or to compensate for it in some other way. Finally, I cannot stress how important public donations are to art-making. I urge the public to donate generously to artists, filmmakers, arts organizations (The Substation, Singapore International Film Festival and Focas magazine comes to mind). The less dependent we are on a single source of funding, the louder and clearer we can speak and question, especially that which needs to be said and questioned.
Read more on Tan Pin Pin and her visiting fellowship.