Art and Dissent in Singapore: An Interview with Seelan Palay

I’ll hopefully exhibit some paintings based on that experience to reflect on my time in prison in December or January. I then proceeded to ask him, since the Singapore Constitution guarantees freedom of assembly to citizens so long as they don’t pose a threat to public order or national security, whether my performance that day threatened any of those things, or whether it was an immoral act. JANUARY 4, 2019

THERE’S ONLY ONE place in Singapore where citizens can protest, perform, demonstrate, or otherwise express dissent. When the trial happened, actually, it put an end to my travels for a while, and I realized I would actually be in Singapore for long enough to get started, so the gallery is actually related to the trial, in that way. When you’re stuck in a small room and can’t speak to anyone, you talk to yourself, and very often you find yourself walking around in circles. It was interesting, I would say. Is there a thematic link between the artists who show at your gallery? Why was that? So that is where probability lies in the work. What do you think about the fact that dissent is punishable with solitary confinement in Singapore? In terms of being imprisoned for art, in general: Human beings, I think, should be free to express themselves, even if they are not artists, as long as exercising their rights doesn’t take away the rights of anyone else. J. I did think about all the possibilities, but I did not know what the exact outcome would have been. Not all of my arguments were based on legal pronouncements, and it’s not so easy for someone other than the artist to represent that. I’ve read about Poh for years, and he has been in the back of my mind for a long time. Even my arresting officer told me that he didn’t understand what was being shown in front of him. Is there anyone who remembered you from your previous stints inside? But I was just expelled. He suffered 32 years without trial, five years longer than Nelson Mandela. Eventually, he said that I seemed to be causing an inconvenience to the guards. If I wanted to pay the fine, I could have done that a long time ago, but I felt that if they are keen to go to court and charge me for it, I would like to have a say in the process. 
Why did you represent yourself in court? Did you agree with those purposes? Not as far as I know. One of the guards saw me, and I was told by the administration the next day that I had to apologize or be expelled. Something interesting is that I made a plea in court to have the three objects that were confiscated from my performance returned to me, but the prosecution insisted that they be destroyed, and the judge agreed. SEELAN PALAY: I represented myself in court. He was prepared, having done two previous stints in jail for his provocations. Yes. The entire experience was quite a strong memory for me. It’s funny: on the outside, Malays and Indians are the minority, but inside, we’re the majority. I’ve sold some work mainly to private collectors. Yet in Palay’s view, Singapore is also a nation of enforced racial silos (it is one of the only countries to make citizens list their race on national ID cards), strangled freedom of expression, and harshly punished dissent. No, I don’t expect it. But even though it was disappointing, it was meaningful in its own way: it’s a permanent statement about the arts in Singapore. So far, it has been all Singaporean artists, and I am actually looking for a new space, because the lease on this one ends in December. I haven’t heard of the prime minister of any other developed country suing a citizen over a blog post. I was allowed to cross-examine them. I could hear other prisoners talking to each other and singing — because the walls were thin — and I couldn’t participate in it. The amount of years is just unimaginable. For instance, if a theater group puts on work that the government doesn’t like, it would probably get less funding the following year. I chose prison in lieu of a fine of $2,500 Singapore dollars, which I did not want to pay. Even after I was arrested, the state had the option of whether or not to charge me. Roy Ngerng, a blogger, wrote critically about Singapore’s pension scheme, and the prime minister sued him in his personal capacity. It comes with a lot of conditions, including censorship, changing of works, and also self-censorship. He performed 32 Years shortly before his own 32nd birthday to commemorate fellow Singaporean Chia Thye Poh, the world’s longest-serving political detainee, who was forced to spend 32 years in jail and house arrest, without trial, by the Lee Kuan Yew government for alleged pro-communist activity. What was process of starting your own gallery, Coda Culture, in January 2018, with the trial hanging over your head? 
I had been traveling quite a bit through Southeast Asia and visited a lot of independent art spaces in places like Indonesia, Myanmar, and the Philippines, and I felt inspired to do something similar to show that artists can be independent and do interesting things in Singapore. I just try to choose artists who are pushing some kind of boundary — in aesthetics, presentation, or concept — work that I feel is a good fit. Well, I was expelled in my second year from art school, so I’m not sure I can give a great answer. Everything became very clinical. ¤ 
KRITHIKA VARAGUR: You were released from prison on October 15, 2018, after serving a two-week sentence. I showed them to the arresting officer and asked him what meaning he derived from the objects. I saw that and thought, most passion is not possible here. Can you imagine being detained for 32 years? Have Singapore’s restrictions on freedom of expression worsened? No, I don’t agree. Is your work in any Singapore museum now? I did explain that those were not the purposes of my action, and that there are many layers to the work. What had you drawn on the mirror? I am thinking of moving to Little India, which is becoming a sort of alternative art enclave — I hope to help grow that ecosystem. I can’t say for sure what the judge was thinking, but she agreed that I had conducted a procession without a permit for three purposes: to commemorate Dr. Yes, because I have been in prison before. He speaks softly but emphatically in full, multi-clause sentences. 
For many outside observers today, Singapore is known for delectable hawker food, banks, infinity pools, shopping, and Crazy Rich Asians — the ultimate “Asian Tiger” success story. It was manageable, but the first five days were difficult, because I didn’t have my books; they were being screened for security purposes. That is unfortunate, because it was a concrete record of the work. Is there an activist element to your recent performance? How did you become interested in Chia Thye Poh? But, I mean, I don’t know what the state will do! Why did you choose prison instead of the fine? I guess people would say that, but the way I see it, had I wanted to just commit an act of civil disobedience — which is what the court was trying to frame it as, anyway — it would have been much easier for me just to “protest.” Thinking, planning, and conducting a performance is actually more difficult, to me. Not in the court itself, but some of the prison wardens recognized me, and they were quite nice. But you have a right to refuse it, which I did, because I didn’t want injections from any state institution, so then they put me in solitary confinement. I was in solitary confinement. That being said, I didn’t want to break down every single component, because I feel like art should still be left open to interpretation and it wouldn’t be doing a service to anyone. The state has been going after the historian P. The whole time? In his itinerant performance, Palay made a speech, unfurled a banner, and held up a literal mirror to the National Gallery. 
Last month, after a lengthy trial, Palay was found guilty for violating the Public Order Act and served a two-week jail sentence. I asked specifically for the officer who arrested me to come up. I was in prison for just two weeks and I had a strange, heavy feeling. What was it like studying visual art in Singapore? ¤
Krithika Varagur is an American journalist who writes about religion and geopolitics, often in Southeast Asia. The banner that I held during my performance said “Passion Made Probable,” which is a play on the promotional language of the Singapore tourism board, in whose videos you see middle-aged tourists arguing things about Singapore. Actually, the whole process was part of this performance, including being arrested, facing charges, going to trial, being detained, and then being released. The maximum sentence would have been around a month and could have been higher for a repeat offender — which I am — but my last offense was more than five years ago, so I think that helped. Palay has been working since his first gallery show in 2007, when he was 22. Do you expect to ever be in prison again? He admitted that he didn’t understand what they were trying to say. I took a few of the objects used in the performance: the book, mirror, drawings, and banner that I used at Speakers’ Corner. I said I’m willing to explain the work, but I’m not willing to apologize for it, and that perhaps we might discuss it first. Can you talk about state funding of the arts in Singapore and your position on it? At first I felt agony, and then that turned to determination, and I thought, when I turn 32, I must create a work of art that would reflect what I was feeling at that moment. I don’t foresee any other performance that has the capacity to do that. I think definitely you can say that the crackdown is getting worse. We didn’t even have daylight anymore. For example, I had explained it was equal to my own lived experience of 32 years, which is why I performed it when I did. I actually had a prospective buyer for the mirror already! It struck a strange chord with me, and I had quite an intense emotional reaction. So what I explained just now, by the way, is one of the layers of meaning for me, but I didn’t say this part in court, because the trial wasn’t over yet, and if I had spoken a lot about this probability, it would have changed that outcome. In terms of the process, the prosecution brought out witnesses, a list of police officers who were on-site at the performance. After that, I just continued to work on my own. Palay is one of the few artists in the tiny, rule-bound island to use art as a form of protest. Does the state play a role in your work? Poh, to demonstrate opposition to the government, and to oppose the institution of the Speakers’ Corner. On October 1, 2017, the Singaporean artist Seelan Palay knew that as soon as he left Speakers’ Corner during his performance piece called 32 Years: The Interrogation of a Mirror, he would be fair game for arrest. Do you feel connected to the Southeast Asian art community? One of the books I brought into prison with me was Art as Experience by John Dewey, and when I was released, I looked down at the book and the ground and announced that the performance was now concluded — after more than a year. So, the solitary confinement was not because they specifically wanted me to be in solitary but because, when you go in on the first day, they expect you to give a blood sample [for public health purposes]. I started with a few lines of a monologue, based on some notes about Poh’s life and my own — what Poh was doing in a certain year and what I was thinking in that year, up until the day of the performance. He is of compact build and is visibly energetic; he often wanders Singapore late into the night. I took out various objects from my bag and drew outlines of them on the mirror, and then I did some drawings of the facades of the National Gallery and Parliament House. Thum. There are certain commonalities that we face. So yes, I do believe it is getting worse. What was the trial and sentencing process like? So on my 30th birthday, I realized I would soon be 32 and have lived the same amount of time that he was detained. I’m not proud of it being difficult. So what exactly did the judge say in her decision? There should be a free market of ideas alongside our famous free market economy. I found it important to argue and defend myself based on the nature of the artwork, and I felt like a lawyer may not be able to do that. What was your actual prison term like? Then we moved to a new campus in an enormous, black, corporate building, and the fine arts department was put in the basement. There were three locations to my performance: the Speakers’ Corner, Parliament House, and the National Gallery, and I didn’t know where I would be stopped. Most of us have been under one-party or authoritarian rule for a long time, which shapes our societies and also our art scenes. Having met him shortly after his arrest last year, I wanted to interview him about his subsequent experiences, during which he managed to open an independent art gallery in downtown Singapore. All of these drawings overlapped on the mirror. I wanted to respond to it in some way and maybe get the other students to start thinking about the space around them, so I made a stencil that said GOTTA START SOMEWHERE and spray-painted it in the basement and on the steps. The state is an active participant in the work. That really is a sign that things are getting extremely bad. In Singapore, most of the funding and money for the arts comes from the state. I didn’t even know if would be a performance, since I prefer painting and drawing, but I came to see that performance would be the most apt medium. It was because of a work called “Gotta Start Somewhere.” I studied at LASALLE College of the Arts, which started in an older campus with a lot of paintings, graffiti, tagging, and artwork by the students. We spoke about his trial, the line between art and activism, censorship, institutional critique, and the Southeast Asian art world. It is called Speakers’ Corner, and it is on the edge of the manicured Hong Lim Park. For example, Jolovan Wham [a social worker] is facing a very weird charge for Skyping in Joshua Wong [the activist] from Hong Kong to a discussion panel in Singapore without a permit. To all those things, he said no. I came up with the name Coda Culture five years ago and was looking for an opportunity to use it. So did you envision this ordeal from the start? I still maintain that I am not guilty. To me, that was quite a big realization. And he was arrested, just outside the national parliament. I think paying the fine would have been equivalent to admitting that I am guilty.