Teh Tarik with Walid IRL - Independent Art Spaces with Fong Hoe Fang, Prashant Somosundram
Recording of Teh Tarik with Walid IRL: Independent Art Spaces with Fong Hoe Fang, Prashant Somosundram
Walid: Independent spaces - what does it mean? I am glad that we are here to talk about it in an independent space—well, independent enough, hopefully, and we will discuss exactly what that means. So welcome to episode 64 of Teh Tarik with Walid, and the second one that we are doing Teh Tarik with Walid In Real Life, so I am delighted to have two very special guests today. Two legends, you can say, in this space. And the first is Mr Fong Hoe Fang. I don’t know how many of you know this—I mean the ones here obviously know—but he was the founder of Ethos Books, and think about how much good that publication has done for Singapore, right. So without him you wouldn’t have had all of that discourses, those books, and so on. And he is also the co-founder of Dakota Dreams who’s hosting us today, and hopefully not for the last time, hopefully you’ll host Teh Tarik with Walid more. And we have Mr Prashant Somosundram, and he is also—he will introduce himself later, right, just now I asked him, “what should I say about you?”, then he rattled off a list of achievements (all laugh), okay but he should have. And we will be talking about this, about independent spaces and what exactly it means, but before we do that, I just wanted to—it’s a shoutout for two members of parliament who are currently unwell, Mr Faisal Manaf and Mr Liang Eng Hwa, so one has been diagnosed with a heart attack, was sent to the ICU; the other has recently been diagnosed with cancer, and I think whichever side of the political aisle you are on, you never want this to happen to your worst enemy. So hopefully they get well soon, both of them.
Alright, the first things is, so what exactly—I wanted to ask, both of you can answer this—what is an independent space, and is there such a thing in Singapore? In Singapore you have POFMA, you have FICA, you have police permits, you have the newspaper licensing act, you have all of these things. So what exactly does an independent space mean in Singapore?
Hoe Fang: Well to me, it is a physical space, first of all, it must be a physical space. Because if it is a psychological space, then we have lots of that. Our thoughts are free, right? So we can go anywhere with that. But it must be a physical space, in my view, and secondly it must be a space where we feel safe. It’s a safe space for us to discuss any topics under the sun, and to me that’s an independent space.
Walid: Is there such a space in Singapore? Where we feel we have the liberty to discuss anything?
Hoe Fang: Yes, we have that. The coffeeshops where people talk? Where men drink beer and rant against the government? That happens very often. I think what you may be referring to or trying to get at would be a space big enough to accommodate a fairly large audience, a place like, perhaps, Hong Lim Park, where you would, where there’s a lot more people who can come in, and not just a table of five or ten ranting away.
Prashant: Thanks. I mean for me, besides it being a physical space, there are a lot of independent physical spaces that exist, but I think the state of mind is also quite important, a lot of people don’t really exercise the independence of their spaces as much as we would like them to, because, you know, they benefit from the status quo that exists. So for me a lot of it with independent spaces is how much we want to create a space that’s conducive to counter-culture, to create spaces that’s accessible for people who may not be able to unlock these kinds of spaces in other parts of Singapore. I think that, to me, is the interesting part of creating and independent space in Singapore. I mean knowing how, you know, rents can be expensive, we know that a lot of people may not be able to have access to public or private spaces in order to experiment and push certain boundaries that they want, and for me it’s about creating that kind of space. We’re never really independent. Even for Projector, we’re licensed by the government, we’re constantly aware that we have to apply for all these kind of licenses to do whatever we need to do, but I think where we try to practice this independence is to push these boundaries and not be fearful of people who are doing these things within the legal limits. I mean one example is like anti-death penalty kind of talks, which a lot of other independent spaces may shy away from, for us as long as it’s within the legal guidelines that we have for indoor spaces and all, we’re willing to push that boundary and create that space for dialogue.
Walid: So the space must be both physical and psychological? Okay. So based on what you just said, when you said that maybe some people do not think they are as free as they should be, or they are not thinking as freely as they should be, do you think sometimes people who operate in independent spaces, they have this view of the layman, the lay-Singaporean, and it’s perhaps a condescending view where, how is that different—not that I disagree with you, I’m pushing you a little—how is that different from the government saying, “oh you don’t know what’s good for you? We know,” right? You are also saying the same thing from a different place, right?
Prashant: I wouldn’t say that I treat it differently, I mean for us we create that space, but we don’t speak for people, generally, we do find stakeholders within the community to then take up that space and speak for themselves. So the same thing with, I mean we’ve done talks on homeless issues and all that, but we don’t do the talking, we create a space, we make it accessible through some way. I mean we don’t do sponsorships, we always find a way to make it sustainable because we have overheads and all that we need to cover, but we do find people and stakeholders from that community to be there. So we are more of a platform for what you would term as a layperson, but for us they’re all community stakeholders and whatever issues that we want to platform, we find people from within the community to speak for themselves.
Walid: So why is it important, Mr Fong, you started two already, why the need for an independent space?
Hoe Fang: I think it’s important because, like Prashant says, for alternative narratives to come out, to show what the other parts of Singapore, what the other Singaporeans in Singapore are thinking. And these are people without access, easy access to a voice, to a platform, and so therefore by having a space there, an independent space where the person who allows that platform will not self-center, will not pre-judge as to what is happening. One example, for example: if somebody comes and says they want to run a workshop on how to make a bomb, will we allow it? I would allow it actually. Yes I would allow it, because it’s something that—
Walid: How to edit this part out…
Hoe Fang: Yeah, I mean you learn how to make a bomb in the army, I learned to do it when I was in NS. So what’s wrong with that? But I think the concern is, what are people who are attending that particular talk going to do with that knowledge? And that is something that we cannot control, because if the space is there, or they can learn it on the Internet or anywhere. We must learn to deal with that, rather than to just censor everything off. I don’t know, that’s my personal view.
Walid: So I get the—maybe let’s move away from that example, which is not endorsed by Teh Tarik with Walid (speakers laugh). But let’s not use that example, but I get what you’re saying. So we must give space to even the most abhorrent of ideas, right, and then we debate it and a person—and I do agree with you as well, ultimately when a person does something, it is on that person, right? Like if that person read somebody else or whatever it is, I mean if that person read 100 books and one of them happened to be Karl Marx, you cannot possibly blame Marx for that right, that’s what you’re saying? Okay yeah, and do you agree with that? Like all ideas, like even the most abhorrent of ideas should be platformed?
Prashant: I think for me, I’ll probably draw certain boundaries here. I mean for us also, we try and strike a balance. We are a commercial entity, I have about 35 mouths to feed, so it’s really quite important for me to strike that balance in figuring out what we allow within our space, and if we do find—I mean, to be frank, we’ve had instances where people whose views we don’t agree with wanted to rent our space, which we decided we didn’t want to do it because they have other avenues that they can access their space, and we’re not comfortable platforming these opinions and this community in that sense. So yeah, I mean, while we’re independent in that sense, we do have opinions and we are subjective in that sense, and so we do have a discussion within the team to see whether we’re comfortable platforming these opinions which we don’t agree with, and where do we draw the line.
Walid: So where do you draw the line?
Prashant: I mean for that particular instance we decided not to, and it’s largely by looking at who, which other communities may be impacted by these opinions, and if somebody else, particularly a marginalised community is going to be hurt or it kind of victimises vulnerable communities, then it’s not something that we’re comfortable doing. And that’s why we then said, even if it’s a private venue hire, we’re not comfortable with this taking place in our space.
Walid: Okay, thank you. I hope there’s time to explore that a little bit further, but I want to move on back to the topic. So you guys—I don’t know, the audience, maybe half might understand the next point that I’m talking about—I think the two of you have watches Yes Minister, or at least have heard of it before, maybe the younger ones have not seen it, and there is this one scene—so it’s a British comedy series about a civil servant and a minister who eventually became Prime Minister. There’s this one scene where the civil servant who represents the upper tier of society, whereas the minister actually comes from a more humble background, and the civil servant was saying that, “you must always allow the arts to flourish.” Arts and music, this is really for high society. And whereas the other person, the minister was saying, “no, this is for a very privileged group, a very elite and elitist group,” right? And this question is really for Prashant: why is art important? Do you think that art is the domain of the privileged?
Prashant: I think it’s quite hard to generalise art as—I mean there are different tiers, obviously, for arts, I mean there’s community arts programs, there’s a lot of people who are not artists but are involved in the arts, and I do find there’s a lot of value for arts as an expression that I find people—sometimes it’s also when you go to a museum and you’re like, “wah, like this also can ah?” You know? How does that become art? So, I mean it’s really a mindset in terms of, for me, art is a way of unlocking a critical engagement with certain issues, particularly with film in our case and with performance art. It allows us to then have dialogues after that or engagement with it. I really don’t think it’s the high-end contemporary art, I mean that exists, but that’s not in a space that we engage in. So that’s an art gallery, the kind you find in Gillman [Barracks] and all that, but for us it’s a lot more of community engagement kind of projects, and I do find a lot of value in that. I mean, actually a lot of my experience starting in the arts in Singapore was through migrant voices, it was—when I came back from studies in 2004, around there, I participated in a Necessary Stage Fringe Festival program working with migrant workers. I helped with the Tamil translations of migrant workers who actually formed their own bands and all, and they would jam every Sunday on their days off. And through them then a group of us started this organisation called Migrant Voices that engaged in forum theatre projects with migrant workers and we staged it in public spaces. And I mean it’s interesting then, when you bring arts into a communal space or a liminal space kind of environment, people then feel like they can engage with it better, rather than if it’s in a gallery or something like that. And people were then participating in these theatre performance pieces, so regular members of public would then step up and take up space within these performances. And there was interesting conversations that were unlocked from these forum theatre projects. So yeah, I think—sorry I went on a rant—but I do think that there’s a lot of value in arts as a form of expression and engagement for different tiers of society.
Walid: Mr Fong, you have anything to add?
Hoe Fang: Yeah. I remember reading or seeing this report in the papers about a violinist, Joshua Bell, he’s one of the most accomplished violinists in the world. He spent about half an hour, twenty minutes at the subway in America playing one of the most intricate pieces on his violin, which is worth $32 million. And during the time he played, people were just walking past him and thought he was just a—not hustler, what’s it called?—a busker, you know? He collected $32 in that period of time. So, does that mean that the average man doesn’t appreciate that kind of art, that kind of music? No, because when they dug deeper, they found that people had no time, and when you have no time, you won’t listen, you just walk past. You need to have time in order to enjoy music, right? In the same way, I think art is never a privilege, or rather it has been made so, the privilege of the elite. It has been made so. I also know another artist, a friend, who went to prison, and she spoke to women prisoners and got them to do a quilt, made a quilt that represented their feelings. And I think subsequently these quilts were exhibited, and people enjoyed them. Exhibited at a void deck I think, if I’m not wrong, and people enjoyed them. So, I mean, art is—Prashant has said it, it can be enjoyed at different levels, right, but it has been made a—what do you call it—a domain of the elite because these are the people with money, these are the people with power. So Joshua Bell when he played the—what happened was that the night before, he played to a sold-out audience of people who paid a hundred dollars just to listen to him play that same piece, and here he collected $32. So, yeah.
Walid: Thank you.
Prashant: Just to add on, it also goes to how we value art, right? I mean if you see art at a void deck, you think, “okay.” Whereas if you see it in a gallery framed within certain things, there’s a different value to it. So sometimes we also as patrons can be at fault in a way in terms of how we value and perceive art in a way.
Walid: Thank you so much. So can the two of you briefly share your own experiences in starting independent spaces?
Prashant: I mean I guess I touched on it a bit already. It started out, actually, a lot with Migrant Voices, which was an arts charity. And it was always a challenge to find spaces, whether it was to run workshops every Sunday, or whether it was to stage performances with the migrant workers. So it was then when I was like, oh in Singapore we need to find—and I had been in the States for awhile for four years doing my undergrad on a government scholarship, so I also needed—so I was a military officer for six years after my studies, but I really needed a creative outlet, and so that’s how I got involved in Migrant Voices. So the moment I left the Air Force, I felt that my calling, in a way, was to create these kinds of spaces. You know, I had a certain level of salary in my six years, I had that money, I wanted to invest into creating a space, so that’s when I started up this space called Artistry in Arab Street area. So this was a cafe by day, and at night we would carry all the tables out and create space for experimental music or performances and all that. So, going back to how rent is also expensive in Singapore, it was difficult to have a large space enough to run a cafe and a performance space, but we did a night and day kind of approach. And that’s how I started getting involved in a lot of creative communities in Singapore. So there are a lot of creative people in Singapore, they just don’t have spaces to experiment and perform and access, and a lot of it, even now like for the spaces that I run, I have to be so conscious about noise issues and all that because there are residents nearby, we get shut down, everybody suffers and all that. So it’s always trying to manage this balance and that’s something that I learnt in Artistry, where we were neighbouring undertakers but also neighbouring hotels and all that, so trying to figure out how to push boundaries without pissing off your neighbours, and also creating space without burning your bridges and such. So that happened and at that point, Projector, which was already—so Projector started out in 2014, I wasn’t part of the founding team, but I was part of the Kickstarter project. So the way Projector started was, the founders found a disused cinema space in Beach Road which was a 1970s cinema which was the largest single screen at that point, but it had since been converted into a 3-screen type of space, it’s been partitioned, but it was disused for a long time, and they had found this space and felt there was a need for an independent cinema in Singapore. So they then ran a Kickstarter project which was actually in hindsight a great thing, because it generated a lot of publicity and community investment in the project without even starting up yet. So there was a lot of buzz, people were excited about it, they donated $120 to have their names emblazoned on the seats and all that, so there was a lot of excitement. So by the time they launched in 2014, it had strong community support and people were quite excited for this to exist in Singapore. It almost was like, for the content they were showing, like Operation Spectrum—am I getting it right? There was a documentary on the Coldstore I think, now I forget—people would come and they would feel like they’re doing something that’s illegal in Singapore because it offered the kind of environment, but actually it was all full legal la, but it’s just that nobody was willing to do these things at that point in time. Yeah so at that time, then Projector approached me, having seen the kind of live performance stuff that I had done at Artistry, was interested in trying to also expand beyond film and to also—then I took over the operations in Projector two years after they started, and then long story short, we merged into a single entity and now I run the full space. So that’s brought us here.
Walid: Thank you. Mr Fong?
Hoe Fang: Yeah I mean I—Prashant has done a wonderful job. I remember using his space for our parties and talks and so on, all free, you just have to buy a drink or something, and he’s so generous. Because of that, Ethos flourished; we’ll buy more drinks. Anyway coming back to this thing, I think a space is very important, a physical space: for people to bond, to discuss, and look, even Lee Kuan Yew needed a basement in Oxley Road to start off the PAP, and that’s how the PAP started. And I remember many, many times—I mean if you, those of us who have done NS and so on, if you have been through with a group of fellow recruits and whatever it is, and you live through those three months that you were with them in the same physical space, in the same physical space, despite all the hardship, I’m pretty sure some of the recruits still come together. In my experience, I was the sixth batch of NS guys. My batch of recruits, those guys I went through recruitment with and so on, until today, we meet every year. We have watched each others’ kids grow up over the last forty-over years. Every year without fail, we meet on the second day of Chinese New Year. Of course, not everybody makes it, but there’s a big enough group, and that came about because of that physical space that we shared. Physical and mental space, you know, that we went through this hardship together, we went through this thing together, and I’m sure many of the NS guys who have done NS will share the same thing. Your good buddies are your fellow recruits, right. And so because of that, we felt like the space was necessary. But unfortunately, we could not afford to, because we were also a commercial enterprise, commercial enterprise was there to make money, to feed mouths, and unlike Prashant, I was a bit more frightened, I said I’ve got to make the money first, and then try and do this thing. So we rented, but we allowed our space to be used for talks, for discussions, whatever is necessary. So then as we, over the last, after 20-30 years, were stable enough to be able to even rent a space, there was a space called Agora some time back, where a friend who also shared these ideas, he rented the space and we tried to support it by allowing that space for civil society members, for people who might be interested to discuss things, to come together and to discuss it for free. They had to provide their own coffee, unfortunately. So we did it that way. But all this has led me to the conclusion that actually, we need a space that is owned by civil society. Think of the huay kwans, the Chinese Clan Associations, a lot of them are dead and gone now, as in we never hear of them, except for the Hokkien ones that own Ngee Ann City and so on. But there are still pockets of them. And why do they still exist? Because they own property. They bought property in the early days, they used that as a space for discussion, for helping their fellow clansmen, and that developed into an assembly that has stayed even till today. But of course, apart from the hardware, you also need the ‘heartware’, and this is where civil society has to make it work. So I would say we need to own a space.
Walid: Online communities cannot replace physical communities, right? Okay, thank you. A reminder that you can type in your questions, and anyone from the audience as well can just share your comments or thoughts. Just a shout-out to two people (Walid’s pen drops)—sorry this will always happen—two former guests of Teh Tarik with Walid: Sarah and Sudhir, who recently joined the exclusive but ever-expanding club of people who have been POFMA-ed, well his publication has been POFMA-ed. So thank you for making it.
I wanted to turn up the temperature a little.
Hoe Fang: I really need to make a bomb? (i think this is what he says LOL)
Walid: (Laughs) That one too much already! So, I would say, I think a lot of people would say and I would concur with this as well that civil society in Singapore has largely been co-opted. You Yenn is not here right, so AWARE, maybe you can say that AWARE has been co-opted, Pink Dot to some extent has been co-opted, and some activists, they enjoy the patronage of the state. They enjoy getting invited to these events and so on. And there is something about that that does something to you, the being in the circles, at the halls of power and influence. Even if you might not have actual power, right, but being around that, it does something to you spiritually, emotionally, I think. So would you guys agree with that? That civil society in Singapore has largely been co-opted? Of course, there are the Jom Medias which has not been—and will not be—co-opted, there’s the Alfians (Alfian Sa’at), and there’s the Kirstens (Kirsten Han), but those are few and far between. The fact that I can rattle them off, and it’s not even a long list, maybe is that true? Civil society has been co-opted to the point that it is toothless?
Hoe Fang: Well, it depends. The names you mentioned: Alfian, Kirsten, and so on, these are individuals—(Walid: Sudhir) and Sudhir, Sudhir yeah—these are individuals, and as individuals, the responsibilities are a little bit different from if you run an organisation. Because when you run an organisation, you have to be aware that there are 35 mouths to feed, or there are other people to take care of. And I believe in any country, things are not about always getting your own way. It cannot be that way because then you’ll be at one extreme. Things are to some extent about compromise. Some things you can come together and discuss and compromise, some things you can’t. So it’s up to that organisation to depend on.
I’ll give you an example from Ethos Books. When we first started out, we did not take state funding for some of our books. Then along the way, somebody came and convinced me that we should take state funding to promote books. And you look around and you say, yeah, why not? But you must remember, you do that—Ethos will take state funding only for books, or makes an application for state funding, only for books which we know fall within the narrative. Or at least, if not within the narrative, I mean, sometimes you can be outside the narrative but as long as it’s not too sensitive. Like bombs (laughs). But anyway, as long as you do that, yeah, that is a compromise, but it is not co-option. Because you must still remember that at the end, you still have to pursue the end objective which is about truth. Integrity in certain things, right? But you recognise that you may have to give way in other areas. It’s a tug-of-war, isn’t it? I don’t know, look at my size, I used to take part in the tug-of-war, but I wasn’t the guy pulling, I was the guy instructing people on how to pull. And you remember that there are times that you must hold rather than pull. There are times you must hold rather than pull. Only then can you win. It’s not always the strongest guy who wins, there’s strategy involved. Sometimes you must give way a little bit and hold, and then you pull. And this is the same in civil society, I feel.
Walid: So compromise is not co-option.
Prashant: Yes, and just to echo that beyond the strategy, to borrow an Ethos title, it’s the art of advocacy, which is really quite important in the way we do things here. I mean for us, especially at The Projector, it’s about being here for the long term, and that whole sustainability. You can either go hard, go fast and you get shut down and you lose that platform, or you can tread that fine balance and try and work things but become a trusted entity, which then, you know there’s this whole politics of engagement which you can have with the government entities. Maybe full disclosure, I’m also part of Pink Dot, one of the organising committee members. And from the activism point of view, we do understand that in the spectrum of activism, there’s a whole range of ways you can do things. For us, from the start it has always been about trying to engage the authorities because we know the context in Singapore is that change doesn’t come from certain ways. There are people who push those boundaries and we actually do support them in different ways, but for us it’s a lot of backdoor diplomacy and engagement and all that in order to get certain policy changes happening. The same way with Projector, I mean I’m not sure if many of you know, but till now, Chinese dialect films are banned from theatrical releases in Singapore because we had a Mandarin policy in the past and it’s a legacy. Whereas on streaming platforms like Netflix and all, there are no restrictions on this, so theatres are actually penalised. Like all the Hong Kong films that you get to see for theatrical release tend to be Mandarin-dubbed. And we’ve been trying to push that and engaging, but nobody wants to (slaughter that? 0:34:50), but for us it’s also we pick our battles. You continue pushing and they have this rule where if it’s a festival then you can do a Chinese dialect film, so what we do is we then find festivals like the Wong Kar Wai festival, or some other festival and we try and program these films under them. So we work within this but also make it very challenging for them to defend that policy which may be outdated, and hopefully by pushing these boundaries, then we do it. So I wouldn’t say we are co-opted, I think we are constantly engaging the government’s (?) and pushing those OB markers or boundaries or whatever as we go along.
Walid: I think the two of you have really identified a useful way of thinking about activism as well, it doesn’t have to be outright challenging the government all the time; there’s a time for that, but that doesn’t have to be all the time.
Hoe Fang: Yeah, I agree with you.
Walid: Okay, final question from me before we get audience participation, it’s almost a full house. Another criticism of activists or people in independent spaces is that we have our own language or we use terminologies that people do not use sometimes. Even just now, in your very first answer, Prashant, you were using words like “unsafe”, “marginalised communities”, whereas other people may find the term “unsafe” to mean something completely different. And also the way that you were using it, it comes from a very liberal, maybe “woke-ish” place—even if you don’t want to use the word, you get what I’m saying. And this can sometimes be distant from the people. So this is a question similar to the earlier one that is about activism in general or independent spaces in general: are independent spaces or people who operate in independent spaces really distant from the “ground”?
Prashant: I would say yes and no. It’s definitely, the space that we have doesn’t cater to the masses in the way you would expect, I mean people relate more to a Golden Village or something like that, and that’s fine. But the way we try and work is with intermediaries to unlock spaces for people who need it and to create that kind of dialogue. So an example for us is, there’s this whole punk community in Singapore who have no spaces to perform, largely because they don’t run their own clubs and whatnot. So where we work is with party promoters who bring in these punk gigs and all that, and we find creative ways to make it viable for both us and for the punk community to run their gigs within our spaces. So while day to day we may not be speaking to this community in that sense, or they may not be hanging out in our space and all that, if they do approach us and all that, we find ways to make it happen, rather than turning them away because they cannot afford that.
Going back to why there’s always food and drinks involved with our spaces, when I started Artistry, that was the first thing where I was like, we cannot create a space where there’s no F&B because people will spend money on food and drinks but they won’t spend money on the arts. So to me it’s always like, you find ways to let people access these spaces, whether it’s through something more familiar like Thai milk tea, as opposed to paying for a ten-dollar gig kind of thing. But we recognise that it is not a void deck space, and the people who use that space, our price points are a bit higher but it’s the reality of a commercial space, and it’s a balance that we strike and a lot of our more “atas” kind of operations actually help to fund the more accessible kind of things that we do with different communities. So yeah it’s always about striking that balance. But we also don’t speak for these people, like I mentioned, we just provide the space and we let them take over and see what happens.
Walid: Thank you.
Hoe Fang: I think when Karl Marx first came out with his thesis, nobody understood him, except the intellectual. But that thesis or those theories went on to affect probably half the world. So in the same way, I think with the people who are using independent spaces for discussion and so on, it’s the same way. What they’re proposing is something new, it’s different, it’s bringing to awareness new ideas which may be alien to most people, but at the same time, if it’s not done, then there’ll be no change. So it’s not a defense of what is happening, but it’s also a way to show that these people were informed by certain ideas, and they’re trying to translate those ideas to the ground. Some do it more effectively, some are able to relate better, some less, right? But it’s really a question of time before this happens. So you need time for the application to happen, but what’s important is the platform as Prashant said. It’s the platform because, I’ll give one example, just two-three days ago, Workers Make Possible, a group of almost 100 organisations and individuals released two statements on [the unsafe practice of transporting migrant workers in lorries]. Would the migrant workers themselves have been able to do that? No, they wouldn’t have been able to do that. Look at the guys who did the SMRT strike, the bus strike? These are the ones who don’t have a voice, so they need someone else to come out with a statement. And probably half of the migrant workers can’t even read what the statement is all about, but if they knew what it was about, they would definitely support it wholeheartedly, I’m sure. So this is the situation.
Prashant: Relating to that, I think it’s quite important to highlight, in a way, yeah we are from a privileged position running these spaces, but it’s important how we use that privilege also. So the whole migrant workers and the lorry thing is quite important in a way that all these organisation, including Projector, came to put our privilege behind this cause and hopefully affect some change because it’s been going on for way too long and they’ve always been deferring it, so I think there was a genuine interest among this interest to push for that change.
Walid: So there are multiple layers to the answer, right? One is yes, sometimes it starts off as an elitist idea but it spreads; another one is the privileged must use their voices; and the third one is what you said earlier which is that there are multiple grounds. Sometimes politicians want to dismiss your question, right, and it has happened to me a few times already, where you ask them something and they’ll say, oh, if you go to the ground, you’ll know that what you’re saying is [not true]. What are you talking about? I am part of the ground! This is one ground, there are other grounds, there are multiple grounds in Singapore! You cannot just dismiss what I’m saying because you know some other person. I am telling you these matters. Like simple things—I’m going to go on a rant now—so I said to this MP, there are no ATMs around here. [He said] oh, now everybody uses PayNow, now everybody is cashless. So I said but there are many elderly around here. He said no. I said, what are you talking about? I have an elderly mother, I know what I’m talking about and you’re just dismissing it as, oh if you go the ground—I don’t know what ground they’re going to also when they’re on their house visits.
Any questions from the floor? Or any comments? Oh there’s one, you typed it instead of saying it.
So Sudhir has a question for both: how has the concept of independent space changed since you first experienced a political awakening? Do you think it’s easier or harder today to carve out these spaces?
Okay maybe we need a timeline also. Would you say that since—okay when you guys had a political awakening is not the same as when I had a political awakening right, so, 2011 maybe, post-2011? And maybe in the past 3-4 years, do you see an expansion in the space since 2011 which was a watershed election, or do you see expand, contract, expand, shrink, shrink shrink (laughs). Which one do you see?
Sudhir: I was actually thinking that Hoe Fang would answer from a different time period and Prashant would answer from a different time period.
Walid: Ah okay, so in terms of their different time periods and political awakenings. So we might do a deep dive here.
Hoe Fang: I started back in 1979, wow (laughs). In those days it was much easier because there was less surveillance, or the surveillance was much less sophisticated, they had to be physically around to find out what was happening before they try and shut it down. So it was easier, and I had my own basement in those days, so it was much easier. Today it’s much more difficult. And you can see and recognise the importance of these independent spaces. Just think about it, in 2011 when the Workers’ Party won two GRCs, immediately, HDB passed all the open spaces to the People’s Association to manage, because otherwise it’d be managed by the town council. So you need to recognise that, and so you can see that that shrunk immediately, that space for alternative voices. So it is a question of opening, closing, opening, closing, but I think the saving grace now is that there are a lot more young people who have not been clobbered yet. So they are braver, they are more open, and they have seen more of the world, so they say, “what’s wrong with using this space?” So they are more open to it. But every now and then you get clobbered. I don’t have good examples, I think most of you know that. But if you want an example, come and see me afterwards. (Laughs)
Prashant: For me, I would go with the “open, close, open, close” in a way that it’s very hard for us to be quite clear where the boundaries are. Sometimes we think certain things will pass, and it doesn’t; and sometimes we’re like, there’s no way this will pass, and we submit it, and it gets cleared. So it’s this whole murky waters—and I’m talking in the context of censorship for the content that we show—it’s often very hard because the code is very loosely-worded, like if you’re talking about LGBT stuff, you cannot have positive portrayals of this as a lifestyle, but then a lot of stuff somehow gets allowed, which we’re always quite surprised by. So it’s always this [process of] you submit, then you wait, then you appeal and all this, so it’s this constant engagement which for a business can be quite frustrating, because there’s always a time lag by the time it gets cleared. We had a film that was quite sensitive because it featured a regional politician and talking about corruption and stuff. We thought it would have cleared easily, but because of political sensitivities within government to government, it was delayed for a long time before it got cleared, and this has commercial impact for entities like us. So it’s sometimes quite frustrating for us to figure out what our programming is, because by the time it gets delayed then we have to figure out ways to plug it, and that affects your revenue streams and your bottom-lines, which are very real bread-and-butter issues for a commercial entity like us, and the frustrating part of it is it’s all very ambiguous, and until now we don’t have clear guidelines on what’s allowed and what’s not allowed, because they’re all loosely-worded. Fair enough, it gives them the flexibility to also allow things to pass for us.
Walid: Thank you. Yes, we have a question from the floor.
Question: I was wondering what kind of boundaries this kind of censorship and asking “will it pass or not?” might produce in your heads, preventing you from having something at all, can you talk a little bit more about that?
Walid: So what’s the process of self-censorship like? How do you decide when to submit, when not to submit?
Prashant: So there are costs to submitting a film for censorship: for every 30 minutes it’s $82, so it’s a two-hour film, it’s a $320 cost in order to submit it. Then if it gets censored or edited, we won’t be able to show it, but we still have to pay for that. So there are certain costs that, as a commercial entity, we need to bear. So for us we’re also mindful, we’ve made this mistake before. It was a Ren Hang documentary which we had paid for the license for three screenings, but in the end IMDA was like “you can only do one screening,” so we couldn’t get our money back, we couldn’t make money from it, so it was a loss-making thing. As much as we would like to submit everything and see what comes back in terms of what’s allowed or not, but unfortunately we need to make commercial decisions to see what’s the risk of it being edited, and as a policy, Projector doesn’t screen films that require cuts just to honour the director’s wish, so this is the kind of balance that we tread. But sometimes when we’re not sure, we just try and push it and find out, but we absorb the cost of that censorship in that sense, if it requires any cuts. Was that the question?
Audience: I didn’t know that, this is new to me. I was a little bit more thinking that, if you know there’s censorship out there, you will just make boundaries in your head, I’m not sure and I would like to hear your take on it.
Walid: So self-censorship as opposed to actual censorship because you’re anticipating the boundaries, and what happens is you draw the boundaries nearer in.
Prashant: I think for us, when in doubt we try and submit it and let them make the decision, so for us it’s usually more of a commercial decision rather than a—because usually when we come to the point when we want to submit it, it’s very spicy kind of content that we want to screen. So we do think there’s value in it, but it’s just whether we can make it commercially viable. So in that sense, we don’t necessarily practice self-censorship, it’s only when we think it’s not going to be commercially viable, then we find ways to either negotiate license fees or figure out ways to make it happen even as a single screening. Because there are different ways of paying for licenses in Singapore.
Hoe Fang: I’m into books, not films, so I daresay that in all these years, I have never self-censored any book except one. And this one was a self-censor, it was a book of political cartoons by the late Morgan Chua. Morgan Chua was a Singaporean who did fantastic political cartoons. He had to leave Singapore because his cartoons didn’t find favour in the official eyes, and he left Singapore to work for the Far Eastern Economic Review. And then of course the Far East Economic Review collapsed, or rather closed down, and he returned to Singapore. I commissioned him to do a series of political cartoons. And at that point of time, the cartoons were all—I had no issue with them—but the particular cartoon for the cover was something that I knew would get us into trouble. And not just trouble, it would bring the weight of everything onto us. Ah this is the plug for the book, when we sell it. So this was two years ago, and that book has been kept in cold storage because I felt it would be too dangerous for us to come out with that particular book at that point in time. But two years has passed (audience laughs), and it’s still dangerous, but less so, and it will be coming out. So get ready to buy it!
Walid: And everyone here will get a free copy, right?
Hoe Fang: You do another podcast, and whoever comes will get a special discount.
Walid: Now, you can’t let us go on that, you have to tell us what exactly caused you to self-censor that. What exactly was the decision, and what changed in these last two years? Do you think the space has expanded in these two years?
Hoe Fang: I think emotions have died down.
Walid: Okay, so we know what he’s talking about, alright.
Question: Hi thank you for the sharing, it’s really interesting. I have a question more relating to the relationship between communities and space. How should spaces be like after communities use them? To what extent do you draw the line in which other communities influence a space that you still remain independent?
Walid: Sorry, I’m not sure I get it, so when communities use spaces, they become not independent?
Question: Because when communities use a space, they kind of imbue the space with their own qualities and quirks and stuff.
Walid: Ah right okay.
Prashant: Sorry I’m not sure I quite understand the question but let me try and tackle it. For us we have different communities occupying that space, but I think the general values that we imbue within Projector is like, you embrace diversity. So when you come in, you get exposed to stuff that you may not be expecting in a way, and same thing, there are literally days where—because we have three halls at the Golden Mile theatre—there could be a punk gig in Blue Room, there’ll be a queer party in Redrum and a church renting something in Green Room. We’ve had that and they all end up in the communal space in the foyer, and it’s by design, it’s something that we’ve done before because we want communities to mix, interact and be exposed to different kinds of elements in Singapore. And that piques a bit of curiosity. And also we attract a certain kind of people to our space in a way, so it’s almost self-selecting. So I think everyone ends up being richer from that experience of interacting with different communities, and it’s always been interesting. Everyone always seems to be able to find their safe space within that generic space, if that makes sense. But I think it’s also because of the staff that we have who make that space a bit more comfortable, and you can show up in whatever you’re comfortable in and not be judged and all that. So it’s a lot of that kind of—it’s a bit hard to pinpoint but it’s a vibe, I guess (laughs).
Walid: Very Gen Z of you, “it’s a vibe”.
Hoe Fang: I agree with Prashant. You just have to embrace diversity regardless of your individual stand on issues, and communities will begin to recognise that. It’s when you focus too much on one particular community that there will be that backlash. So just embrace diversity.
Walid: Next question from Sudhir, this one is for me: Do I consider Teh Tarik with Walid an independent space? Yes, I do.
Do you feel that it offers a sense of escape away from your day job? My day job is not that bad, and so far it’s pretty independent. If I could answer, being independent does not mean that there is no self-censorship, I would be lying to myself if I said I do not self-censor, I do. I think I probably self-censor less than many or most Singaporeans, but definitely there is a degree of self-censorship. And also, humanity has always functioned on the premise that nobody says everything that they think (laughs). Otherwise there would be no friendships. So some degree of self-censorship in that sense is normal, it’s expected, but what we’re talking about is of a political angle, if I say this, then something will happen. But I won’t lie, I definitely engage in that even while I think it’s independent.
From Corrie: Do you think independent spaces are always expected to be activist spaces in Singapore? So what if you have an independent space, but they’re very pro-government? Naturally, there’s no government patronage, but they only give talks about pro-government support, then nobody will consider it independent anymore, right? Is that fair?
Prashant: I think for us we are an entertainment space. I constantly need to remind staff also that we are ultimately here to provide entertainment, and then make it accessible for the soft power of advocacy and activism and all and then push boundaries that way. But if you stop having fun, then I think people get less interested in it. So I think for us, I don’t really see us as an activist organisation, we are an independent organisation, but ultimately we do things to have fun and then use that to create space for other people who need this kind of space.
Walid: So it doesn’t have to be activist?
Prashant: No, I don’t think we need to be pigeonholed like that.
Hoe Fang: I agree with Prashant (I’m always agreeing with you! (laughs)) You see, what happened is that it seems activist but it’s the other way around. The PAP or the government would never come and use your space because they have so much space elsewhere. But if they were to come and apply to use a space that we have, I would be open to it. I am not going to censor them just because I disagree with their views, I would be open to it. But they would just have to pay a bit more because they can afford it (laughs). I’m a socialist, if you can afford more, you pay more, so those who can’t afford can pay less. Simple as that.
Walid: I absolutely agree. I would be happy to have all next ten episodes with PAP members, honestly, if they agree I’ll be have them on the next ten, next twenty episodes, it’s just that I haven’t gotten many ‘Yes’s.
Okay next question, it’s a bit of a downer to be honest but it’s a necessary one: what do we do and where do we go when/if The Projector is gone (hopefully not), when all these rich people are gone or silenced by the harsh reality of censorship and real estate consumes us, where do all these voices go? I guess that’s a perennial worry also, right, of people who operate in independent spaces, that practical realities—I think Mr Fong is an outstanding example, but he’s an anomaly, right? Most people who reach his age would not be like him, they would be much safer, they wouldn’t be socialists. When they are younger they’ll be socialist, when they’re richer they’ll become political conservatives right? It’s the norm, not only in Singapore but throughout the world, surveys have borne this out. So that’s a perennial worry, right, when people become—it’s true, I’m not saying it’s not true, but the more people start picking their battles, they start telling themselves that they’re doing this for the greater good, and they compromise and compromise and compromise until that greater good doesn’t come and they are transformed by that process of thinking that I’m doing this for the greater good. So all these are perennial worries of activists in independent spaces, so what do we do?
Prashant: I think for me, well the real estate part, which I will address first, is a genuine concern. I mean Golden Mile tower where we’re at is constantly en bloc or on the market, and we never know—the moment it sells, we lose the space in about two years, and it’s not easy to move a cinema. You can move a shop quite easily to other locations, but because of the ways cinemas are scaled, it’s not so easy to move and find replacement spaces in Singapore. So that’s been constantly on our minds in terms of being sustainable in the long term. But for us we find ways to adapt. We’ve done a couple of projects recently: we took over abandoned clubs, we took over disused cinemas, even though it’s temporary but we worked out very good deals with the landlords so that it makes sense for us to occupy these spaces for eighteen months or a year. So we’ve always adapted, I’m quite lucky to have a team that’s passionate about it and they’re willing to—it’s exhausting and let’s not discount the labour of running an independent space, it’s really a struggle, but yet everyone kind of enjoys that kind of kampong spirit, and the moment people come and gather and have fun, you get re-energised also. So we also feed off this energy from our community.
So I think one thing that we’ve learned, particularly since Covid happened, is to be ready to adapt to different situations. An example would be: most recently, we were eyeing Cineleisure which is in Orchard, and just to put some context, for Projector to exist, we have to screen a lot of films that are kind of controversial and therefore get R21 ratings, and R21 can only exist in the city area because you cannot influence the heartlands. This is also not clearly in policy but it’s something that we understand to be, and I wish to be proven wrong. That’s one thing. So the only spaces that we can unlock tend to be spaces in the city, which then tend to be more expensive. Orchard Cineleisure is an example of a space that we wanted to unlock. It’s huge and it’s expensive, and there’s no way that we can occupy the whole space. So we did an unconventional approach where we approached Golden Village to see if they were willing to co-share the space, meaning we take three halls and they take three halls, and it’s never been done before. We don’t know how it’s going to happen, but it’s going to open in December this year. For us it’s about not being so stubborn in the way we think of how things need to be, and try and adapt and figure out ways because there’s also that en-bloc that’s hanging over us at Golden Mile. So to summarise, we’ll find ways to survive and it may not be exactly what you get in Golden Mile, it may be in a soulless mall, but we will adapt and create a space that everyone can feel comfortable in.
Hoe Fang: Wow, great man, Prashant. How do we carry on when the spaces are gone? We need to find a capitalist who was a socialist at heart and revive that in him. (Speakers and audience laugh). I will tell you what happened. I was in Chicago about seven to eight years ago, and I stumbled across this building for the Poetry Foundation. It was a huge, magnificent building that reached up to fourteen stories high. And the Poetry Foundation! Who buys poetry? How did this come about? So I investigated and found out that a capitalist with a socialists’ heart donated $200 million to the Poetry Foundation. And that’s why. She loved poetry, and all her poetry manuscripts had been rejected before. So if you think that she did this because she had been published by them and she wanted to support them, it’s not true. She did it because she really believed in the art. And she had the means. Do we have such people in Singapore? We do, but they’re afraid, because when they do this, and buy a cinema for you, they’re afraid of what will happen to them, that the rest of their wealth will be gone, and that is what is at stake.
Walid: Thank you. I wanted to pick up on the R21 point, you said it’s not policy, but it’s understood by people who operate in the space, and you’d like to be proven wrong. So if you’re wrong, this episode will get a POFMA, right? (Speakers laugh) And if not, that means you’re right. I’m not hoping for that, I’m just saying that’s how we falsify it. [does he mean verify?]
Hoe Fang: Maybe I can give a little bit of context to that. I think when the R21 ratings were first passed, they actually went out to the heartlands. Cinemas in the heartlands were allowed to run R21 movies as well. But I think somebody complained and that somebody is probably an influencer—even in those days without social media, you can be an influencer—and so the policy remained as such. It’s the same as the dialect thing, I think the government today is quite happy to let it go. But because no civil servant wants to put it up because they don’t want to lose their job, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, right? So it carries on. So we have to push, the civil servants have to regain their spirit of being servants.
Walid: Any final questions or comments?
Question: I keep hearing the notion of how the precarity of these spaces seem to be forcing you to innovate the way you stay sustainable or relevant or, for the lack of a better term, edgy. So would stability then rob these spaces of that pushing-the-boundaries thing that you have?
Walid: That’s an excellent question, so the moment the PAP opens up, these places will not be edgy anymore?
Prashant: No that’s the thing. It applies to all commercial entities, not just independent art spaces. Every business that needs to generate revenue always has to be on the forefront of innovation, and if you don’t then you just don’t exist anymore, and that’s the way the free market operates. So for us, we’re also forced to always be innovating because we know that this is the reality of the landscape. I don’t think we’ll ever be in a stable state at any point, we’ve gotten comfortable in that space of instability and constant change. In fact by the time we settle Cineleisure, we’ll be looking for the next step on what that is going to be and these other spaces, whether we can unlock heartland spaces and all that. So I think as a business and as an independent space, we’re always in a state of flux.
Walid: I guess the question is, if Singapore/the PAP democratises, will your entity cease to be relevant?
Prashant: I think there’s always somebody who needs space. Even if PAP democratises, people will need space, there’s always somebody at the bottom rung of the ladder who needs space, and we’re there for them.
Hoe Fang: I think democratisation is one thing, it’s going to take some time to happen, maybe your grandchildren will get to see it. It’ll probably happen but it’ll take some time. Secondly, we need to protect the existing independent spaces that we have so they do not disappear, and I’m talking about Projector of course, spaces like that, go and see more films to support them more. But there’s one space, Hong Lim Park, which is really quite independent. Of course you still have to apply for licences and so on, but nobody seems to want to use that, because it’s associated with rebels, associated with all those guys who are pains to the government, you know? So people are frightened, and it doesn’t help that there are cameras all over the place. So I would say, don’t be afraid, go for it, support whatever causes that you see there, protect that space. That space was achieved, from my perspective, by Dr Chee Soon Juan, who really pushed for it until Lee Kuan Yew, in his interview with some journalist in America, promised that we will make this space. And so Hong Lim Park was born. And so let’s value it, let’s not avoid it.
Question: My question is related to what you just said about fear. How do we make it more palatable to mainstream audiences to be receptive to alternative viewpoints, in your experience? How do we introduce not new but alternative views—about social justice especially—to these audiences?
Walid: So how do we avoid preaching to the crowd, right?
Question: Thanks for the sharing and the allegories. I think my question is more for you (Prashant). My question is, is the Substation like a hanging thought in the back of your mind? I guess a more pointed question would be, do you ever see yourself as a spiritual successor to the Substation?
Walid: So two questions, how do we make these ideas more palatable to the mainstream because, let’s face it, everyone here probably agrees with whatever we have said, everyone watching online also. How do we avoid preaching to the choir, the congregation? And the other one, do you see yourself as a spiritual successor to the Substation?
Prashant: How to avoid preaching to the choir, for us it’s always about how we create that cross-pollination from events to entertainment to activism and all that, and a lot of this happens in this communal space that we call Intermission Bar or the foyer space. Often enough we actually do have exhibitions in this space, so people who may come to watch some fluff kind of movie gets exposed to these issues that they otherwise might not be exposed to. The other thing is also that we offer complimentary listing of events like the Freedom Film Festival and all that, which may not be our events, but we list it in our website, so people going to watch some other film may be exposed to this and therefore maybe interested to then catch it. These are quite simple ways, but if it at least helps one or two people be exposed to this kind of thing and know that these things exist—because a lot of times, organisations do their things but it’s very hard to do the outreach, but for us we have a very broad outreach that spans all kinds of demographics, and particularly in a more lifestyle entertainment kind of thing, so it becomes a bit more palatable, it’s not so scary in a way and it’s not—like you said, people do find going to Hong Lim Park a bit more… there’s a sense of fear. But going to Projector to listen to a talk and all, it’s not so fearful in a way. So that’s how we try and create that kind of environment.
Walid: Mr Fong, final word?
Hoe Fang: I think fear is something that’s very real, and ideas - we’re always bombarded by the media or by the powers that be that it’s dangerous to have alternative ideas, it’s wrong if you do not follow the official narrative. But it will come because the younger people, give them credit, they’re getting more and more—they have their ideas, they know what is right and what is wrong, their feelings for truth is very much stronger. I’ll give an example. In the early days when the Workers’ Party was going around trying to raise funds, people would always sidle up to them, have some money in an envelope, and say “take this”, cover their face and move away. Seriously. But today it’s a bit different: people go up and say, “you use Paypal?” and pay. Don’t forget, I think Mr Low [Thia Khiang] and Sylvia Lim raised almost a million dollars in two days using Paypal, bank transfers and so on, because people were so angry at the injustice being done to them. I mean at least the guys who donated. So I think the young people are getting braver and braver, and the fear is dying off. But it will take time.