Web of rules stops foreign choir singers voicing gripes

Sydney Morning Herald
12 Feb 08

In Singapore there is no such thing as putting on a stage show and hoping people turn up. It’s a drawn out and often painful process.

All of the acts need permission from the government, transcripts of lyrics and plays must be submitted for approval and even the type of food on offer is subject to scrutiny.

Approvals in recent years have been easier to come by as the government attempts to build a metropolis with a diverse arts scene to entertain the growing number of expatriate workers in residence. But every now and then there is a reminder of the complicated web of rules that hangs uncomfortably over this seemingly modern city.

The Complaints Choir of Singapore was given such a reminder two weeks ago when the government banned it from performing unless six of its members – foreigners – quit the group.

The government was not happy with foreigners publicly criticising Singapore, even though some of the lyrics were as trivial as “people put on fake accents to sound posh and queue up three hours for doughnuts”.

The choir, one of a worldwide movement of singing groups set up to give voice to local gripes, was told that it was inappropriate because the lyrics touched on “domestic affairs” and “any public discourse in such matters should be reserved for Singaporeans only”.

Perhaps the government was troubled by the refrain “My, oh my, Singapore. What exactly are we voting for? What’s not expressly permitted is prohibited.”

But its objections did not stop the lyrics being heard. The choir, which refused to perform in public without all of its members, gave a private performance instead and broadcast it on YouTube. It has had over 15,000 hits.

Alex Au, a founder of the gay activist group People Like Us, describes Singapore’s government as “passive-aggressive. They tie a rope around your neck so you’ll behave yourself, but they don’t hang you”.

Many, like Au, believe the country’s approach to freedom of speech and expression is stubborn, ineffective and damaging for its reputation.

Take the government’s stance on gay rights. Sex between consenting male adults is a criminal offence under section 377A of the penal code and offenders can be sent to jail for up to two years. There was a big push to have 377A repealed last year. Advocates for the repeal said that Singapore, one of Asia’s most advanced economies, needed to show the world it was moving with the times.

But in the end, after a long and heated debate, the push for repeal was defeated in October.


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