ONUL acclaimed by local art critic

Singapore Democrats

A leading member of Singapore’s art fraternity has acclaimed the documentary One Nation Under Lee (ONUL) produced by Mr Seelan Palay who is under police investigation (see here) for the 45-minute video that highlights the republic’s rule under Lee Kuan Yew.

Writing in a portal (www.arterimalaysia.com), that caters to readers in the region and beyond, Ms June Yap who is an independent art curator in Singapore says the charge against Mr Palay “raises the spectre of a witch-hunt” (see here).

So far, the documentary that is available in Youtube has attracted close to 50,000 viewers.


Below are excerpts from Ms Yap’s critique:

As Sharon Chin (not a Singapore journalist) has mentioned in her post the purpose of the practice of censorship is one of power, and what is politics if not power? The issue however I would like to argue is perhaps not so much whether one is provoked by the naked behind, but the meanings inscribed on the body and other that are then seen as violated, transgressing and subject to policing. The bogeyman or rationale for censorship routinely marched out for the masses is that without censorship there would be “riots on the streets” with a capital “R”, proving if nothing else how useful it is to terrorise a community with nebulous terrors.

While the terror may be unclear, the policing however is real. During the group’s discussion a video experiencing such policing was mentioned: One Nation Under Lee is a work for which artist and activist Seelan Palay is currently under investigation, the DVD having been seized by censorship officers during a private screening at Excelsior Hotel on May 17, 2008. The act of screening the video is being charged under the Films Act. Section 21 of which states that:

(1) Any person who (a) has in his possession; (b) exhibits or distributes; or (c) reproduces, any film without a valid certificate, approving the exhibition of the film, shall be guilty of an offence and shall be liable on conviction.

If the Act is strictly upheld, it would also mean that your nephew’s birthday party video needs a license before his grandparents may proudly show off the delightful child he has grown up into to their golfing clique.

With formal police investigations beginning as of last week (22 June 2009), the charge raises the spectre of a witch-hunt, as the Act quite clearly (even if arbitrarily employed) implies that all video and film are suspect until proven otherwise, and by none other than a board of officially approved and predisposed censors. That the video touches on history does not enter into the police investigation, only the act of screening – who brought the film into the room, how many copies were there in the room, who was operating the system when the film was screened? Between history and logistics, logistics would appear more tangible to navigate.

But if this is not about the sheer impertinent audacity of the artist showing unclassified video to people he knows (and as a private event, surely it was but preaching to the converted), what is it of the content that transgresses? Perhaps it challenges a dominant historiography, but would that merit draconian censure? Standing at 45 minutes long, One Nation Under Lee is not for the lax, it is undoubtedly critical, but it does not pretend to be otherwise, and it raises topics of national development and management that one would be hard-pressed to find in mainstream media. The attention however that the attempt at seizing the video has aroused is far greater than the interest the video would have received had the attempt not been made.

That the private viewing of a work might turn into a convicted offence seems extreme, and while it might be taken by the media (and authorities) as a call for a spurious discussion of the line between art as critique and art as sedition, the point is that when art appears to transgress it does so within a context that frames it and which it produces meanings from – it is on the inside, even if they are meanings that some may not agree to. Art does not, and perhaps should not, acquiesce to a dominant ideology or oblige for the sake of; art is not a “product” of “creative industries”, manufactured in factory lines and quality circles, and labelling it activism is the prerogative of the artist, not his / her audience, and certainly not the state.

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