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May 23, 2013

Singaporeans Traversing Political Boundaries Through Satire, Art

by Kate Lamb

In many ways, Singapore is the ultimate modern society - uber efficient, affluent and safe - but at what expense? The recent legal trials of a young graffiti artist and a cartoonist being investigated for alleged sedition has some Singaporeans saying it’s time for politically uncomfortable art and speech to be allowed.  

Samantha Lo is the street artist responsible for a series of satirical stickers that cropped up all over Singapore last year. She also painted a message that some say was an offensive reference to the country's founding father, Lee Kuan Yew.

Some saw Lo's works as humorous and relevant, but authorities charged the 27-year-old artist with eight counts of public nuisance and vandalism.

She could have faced a three-year jail term, but Lo instead was ordered to perform 240 hours of community service. She says she had no idea what she was getting herself into, but she refuses to believe that art should be censored.

“Back then even when I first started doing the stickers I knew that it was illegal, but I didn’t let that limit my freedom in that sense. I still wanted to do it and I still did it," Lo said. "That is freedom, the freedom to express. That is what art should be, isn’t it?”
 
In a nation where rules are strictly enforced, Lo’s audacious street art has sparked debate about the parameters of free speech.

She is not the only Singaporean pushing the political boundaries.
Authorities are investigating 37-year-old Leslie Chew for alleged sedition after he published a racially provocative cartoon online.

Chew publishes a comic strip on Facebook that has more than 24,000 followers. If convicted of sedition, Chew could be fined and jailed for three years.

Human rights lawyer M. Ravi, who is defending the cartoonist, says because much of Singapore’s press is run by the state, criticism and satire are proliferating online. He says it's a trend that some politicians are attempting to suppress.

“In recent months, the last year or so, there have been threats of defamation suits when political figures are involved, and there have been threats of contempt of court suggestions and there have been sub judice being issued by the attorney general to limit public conversations in the public domain because certain cases are before the court and so on," Ravi said. "So there is a various range of reactions from the state and in particular, bloggers being taken to task on account of defamation and contempt of court, especially an increasing number of bloggers are being taken to task for civil defamation. So that is a worrying trend.”

Terence Chong is a sociologist at the Institute for South East Asian Studies in Singapore. He recently helped produce an ‘Arts Manifesto,’ a document calling for more artistic freedom that has been presented to the government.

Chong says Singapore is facing a dilemma - on the one hand it wants to market itself as a global city for the arts, but on the other there are certain issues like race, religion and homosexuality that remain off-limits.

“How do we tell the world we are culturally vibrant, creative, willing to break boundaries and yet at the same time designating certain areas as no-go areas," Terence said. "I think that is the crux of policies issues right now. I mean where do we go from here? And I think no one really has the answer. I think the government is feeling its way along, and the artists are as well.”
 
Chong believes that Singapore is at a crucial moment in its development - considering what kind of future society it intends to nurture. But he believes that significant progress has been made.

Ten years ago, he says, Samantha Lo would surely have been jailed and Leslie’s Chew’s comic strips would not have been possible.