Government bans stage play on death penalty, censors artwork

6 December 2005
Source: Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA)

Singapore’s Media Development Authority (MDA) withheld a license from a local theatre group to stage a play about the execution of a drug courier until it revised some scenes and took out all references to the death penalty, the English daily ‘Today’ reported.

The play “Human Lefts,” was supposed to be staged at the Drama Centre at the National Library on 3 December, a day after the execution of Australian national Nguyen Tuong Van for drug smuggling, despite repeated pleas for clemency from the Australian government.

The theatre group, The Fun, was asked to submit a completely new script a few days before it was to stage the play, ‘Today’ said on 6 December.

Benny Lim, artistic director of the theatre group, said that all reference to the death penalty was already taken out in the new script that had won the MDA approval. Originally written about the hanging of drug courier Shanmugam Murugesu on 13May, Lim had told ‘Today’ that it was “unfortunate timing” that Tuong Van’s hanging was scheduled just the day before the play ran.

Local coverage of Tuong Van’s trial, conviction and sentence has been almost non-existent in the government-owned media, with daily reports only appearing in the past week and limited to the outcry in Australia.

A week before the execution, an artwork by a Slovenian art student with reference to Tuong Van’s final days was banned, according to ‘The Australian’.

The daily newspaper reported that the artwork by Matija Milkovic Biloslav, who was participating in an exhibit at Singapore’s Lasalle-SIA College of the Arts, was altered after the exhibition opened.

Biloslav had displayed under falling nooses a single standing stool carrying a card with Tuong Van’s execution number, C856, a very deliberate reference to the Australian who was meted a death penalty for possessing heroin. The college, which receives government funding, said the artwork was about suicide and hastily removed the card.

The reaction of the art college is typical of the sensitivity in Singapore to the very limited political and social debate allowed by the long-ruling People’s Action Party.

In an open letter to Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on November 29, Robert Ménard Secretary-General of Reporters Without Borders (RFS) made a number of concrete recommendations to achieve a lasting improvement in the situation of press freedom in Singapore.

RSF also reiterated the administration’s statement of support for an open society a year ago and the fact that no significant improvement in the situation of press freedom has been observed.

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