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Activist Constance Singam's memoir pulled from launch at The Arts House

A book by civil society activist Constance Singam will not be launched during a bazaar at The Arts House after it purportedly failed to get the green light from the authorities to do so.

The move has drawn backlash from the arts community on social media and once more raised questions about the role of the state in the arts.

Where I Was: A Memoir About Forgetting And Remembering is an updated version of Singam's 2013 memoir.

The book tells the story of her life as an Indian woman, widow and civil society activist. Singam, 86, reflects on advocacy movements, as well as the events that led to the 2009 "Aware saga", in which the gender equality advocacy association was briefly taken over by Christian conservatives.

Her publisher, Ethos Books, had applied to launch the book at the Singapore Literature Book Bazaar, which kicked off on Monday (March 7) and runs at The Arts House till March 20. The event is organised by the Singapore Book Publishers Association (SBPA) and funded by the National Arts Council's (NAC).

Ethos had intended to launch Ms Singam's memoir at the bazaar on March 20. The publisher told The Straits Times: "NAC asked to review the manuscript on Feb 25, and they concluded that the book contents did not comply with funding guidelines."

The Ethos spokesman added that they were informed by the SBPA on March 2 that the launch could not be part of the bazaar.

The next day, Ethos called NAC to clarify the matter. "We were informed that Connie's book did not comply with their funding guidelines, which is why the book could not be launched at the Sing Lit Book Bazaar. The NAC officers offered to find alternative venues for us, but we did not take up their offer."

The spokesman added that on March 4, Ethos approached The Arts House and asked if it could launch the book at the same venue on the same day and time, adding that it would pay for the venue and dissociate the book launch from the Singapore Literature Book Bazaar.

"However, The Arts House replied that if our book contents did not comply with NAC funding guidelines, then it would similarly not be supportable by The Arts House."

In response to queries from ST, an NAC spokesman said: "NAC does not have any issues with the launch of this book. In fact, this book was first published and launched in 2013, and has been in circulation in Singapore, and is also available in our public libraries."

"When NAC was informed that it was not possible to hold the launch event at The Arts House, NAC reached out to the publisher to offer support in finding an alternative location. An officer of NAC and a representative of Ethos were in discussion over this issue."

The spokesman did not say if the NAC had asked for the launch event to be omitted from the bazaar line-up, and if so, what the reason for that might be.

Singam's book will now be launched at the 10 Square auditorium in Orchard at 4pm on March 20, with a live stream on Facebook. 10 Square is a community space for arts use managed by The Rice Company Limited and supported by NAC.

On Wednesday (March 9), novelist Balli Kaur Jaswal, who will be in conversation with Singam at the launch, posted on social media, implying that The Arts House had withdrawn from hosting the launch after receiving her questions for the author.

"I was asked to submit an outline for my conversation with Constance. There were hints that I should stick to safe, non-political topics," wrote Jaswal, 39, the author of novels such as Erotic Stories For Punjabi Widows (2017) and Sugarbread (2016).

"I submitted questions that were relevant to the memoir; questions about memory, travel, family and also about activism, feminism and identity."

The posts have garnered much attention on Facebook and Instagram, with other Singapore authors calling for answers from the NAC and Arts House Limited, which was set up about 20 years ago as a public company limited by guarantee under the NAC.

Ethos Books said on Facebook: "Even though there has been a slight misunderstanding that the launch was cancelled due to the contents of the questions that would be discussed during the event, the key issue still stands, that any questioning or criticism of the status quo is deemed destructive.

"Arts and culture, intellectual and moral growth, will not be enabled in such an environment. And writers and artists who have important things to say would not be supported in state-sanctioned spaces. So we pick our battles.

"What we need to hold to account, are the guidelines that are governing NAC and The Arts House. We believe in the importance of expression, and will continue publishing voices such as Constance Singam's to be heard."

Author Jolene Tan, 39, told ST she had a similar experience with The Arts House last year, when she was preparing for the launch of After The Inquiry, a mystery novel that takes the form of a government report. It was also published by Ethos.

Tan said the launch did not go ahead after The Arts House was sent a copy of the book. In the end, the event took place at the Huggs-Epigram Coffee Bookshop.

She added: "If institutions meant to nurture the arts deny space to writers for rigid ideological reasons, Singapore's cultural scene loses out on deeper and more open exchange. Moreover, public institutions should be transparent and accountable for why and how such decisions are made."

booksNON-FICTION BOOKSnational arts councilCIVIL SOCIETY