(UPDATED on 12 March 2022 with response from NAC)
Ms Constance Singam, 86, is one of Singapore’s most celebrated civil activists.
She started her career as an activist later in life and became active in the women’s rights group Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE), where she rose to become its president for three separate terms.
She was even inducted into the Singapore Women’s Hall of Fame in 2015.
Yet, when her updated memoir Where I Was is scheduled to launch on 20 March at The Arts House, the venue allegedly “withdrew from hosting, leaving the publisher scrambling”, author Balli Kaur Jaswal posted on both her Facebook and Instagram accounts on 9 March, less than two weeks before the launch of the book.
The Singapore novelist was supposed to interview Ms Singam at the launch and wrote that she had to submit questions she wanted to ask Ms Singam at the event. “Upon receiving my questions, The Arts House withdrew from hosting the launch,” she added.
Where I Was is the updated version of Ms Singam’s 2013 book Where I Was: A Memoir From the Margins, which included the AWARE saga of 2009. Now that the incident has been propelled back into public consciousness under AWARE’s 2021 podcast, Ms Singam decided to update her memoirs and retell the stories to the younger generation.
An indignant Ms Kaur posted, “It’s International Women’s Month, and this is the sort of ‘support’ women can expect from a venue that calls itself the home of literary arts of Singapore. We can also expect that they will hide behind excuses about logistics and get the publishers to deliver the news.”
She posted that her excitement over the memoir and inviting people to read it “has been overshadowed by this reminder that there are people who just don’t want our voices to be heard. … There’s a word for this sort of gatekeeping of content, Arts House. Let me help you out: it starts with ‘c’ and ends with ‘ensorship’.”
Publisher clears the air, announces new venue
Publisher of Ms Singam’s memoirs Ethos Books posted on Facebook that it had intended to launch the book as part of the Singapore Literature Book Bazaar, organised by the Singapore Book Publisher Association, and funded by the National Arts Council (NAC).
“We provided the synopsis of Where I Was to the organisers, following which the launch was included in the bazaar’s programme line-up and slated to take place on 20 March. On 25 February, a request came in from NAC to review the manuscript. On 2 March, the bazaar organisers broke the news to us that the bazaar would ultimately be unable to host the launch. Later, we understood that this was because the book contents did not comply with funding guidelines of NAC nor The Arts House. Since this decision was communicated to us only last week, we had to swiftly find an alternative venue, which thankfully, we have,” it wrote.
The launch for Where I Was will take place at 10 Square on 20 March.
Ethos Books said while it “deeply appreciate how Balli Kaur Jaswal, who will be hosting the launch, has so bravely spoken up about the inconveniences and frustrations that this has brought about, and the crucial role that spaces play in championing diverse voices”, it added that 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,” it wrote. “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.”
While arts practitioners “pick our battles”, Ehtos Book said what needed to be held 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,” it said.
Not the first time The Arts House pulls out from hosting book launches
This is not the first time The Arts House, as a venue, has withdrawn from hosting book launches.
Close on the heels of Ms Kaur’s posts, author Jolene Tan wrote in her Instagram account that it also happened a year ago to the launch of her novel After The inquiry, a fiction that “steps into the mirror maze of Singapore’s bureaucracy, where silvered surfaces hide troubling secrets, and those who search for the truth risk getting lost”.
“Venue all booked, then (The) Arts House got a copy of the book and cancelled,” Ms Tan wrote.
In 2017, The Arts House also withdrew from hosting the launch of a children’s fairy tale book entitled The Phantom of Oxley Castle, which is based on the Oxley Road saga. It was the brainchild of Edmund Wee, publisher and CEO of Epigram.
According to a report in The Straits Times, Epigram and The Arts House each said the other was responsible for the cancellation of the event.
But in a statement dated 13 November 2017, The Arts House said there had been online media chatter generated by the book and highlighted the implications it might have on the launch of Dream Island, the original book which was supposed to have been launched together with the children’s book, and the impact on the event. It went on to say that the cancellation was a decision by Epigram, which The Art House stated had informed it that the publisher would handle the pullout.
“At no point did The Arts House inform Epigram Books that we did not want the book launch to take place on our premises,” The Art House said.
The National Arts Council (NAC) had said on Thursday (Mar 10) that it “does not have any issues” with the launch of a re-print of activist Constance Singam’s memoir Where I Was. It said the book was first published and launched in 2013, and has been in circulation in Singapore. It is also available in public libraries.
In response to CNA‘s queries, NAC said when the council was informed that it was not possible to hold the launch event at The Arts House, it reached out to the publisher to offer support in finding an alternative location. NAC also confirmed that an alternative venue has been found at 10 Square.
“As in all of NAC’s programme partnerships or commissions, the event organisers would assess how best to meet its programme objectives and also decide on the participants,” its spokesperson added.
TheHomeGround Asia reached out to The Art House on Ms Singam’s book launch but did not receive a response by the time this article is published.