Thinking and Talking about Arts and Culture in Southeast Asia

Unravelling the History of Nudity in Singapore Theatre

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By Akanksha Raja

(2144 words, nine-minute read)

The naked body on stage (even if only imagined) has a potent social power: taboos surrounding the body can shock and offend some Singaporeans. But when did this start? How has public response to incidences of nudity on the Singapore stage changed, and how have changing policies on censorship have (or have not) affected what gets bared on stage?

One of the first recorded instances of on-stage undress was at the 10th Singapore Arts Festival in 1986, where the Ballet National du Senegal performed Rhapsodies and M’bini M’dam topless[1] – while the headline suggests it “caused hardly a stir”, there emerged a reaction from a Straits Times Forum letter-writer who was “embarrassed by Senegal’s bare-breasted dancers”. In response, a PR officer from the Ministry of Community Development advised that “we should not impose our own personal cultural yardsticks on them”, asserting that “the organisers allowed the dancers to perform in their traditional style. They can distinguish between artistic performance and eroticism.”

Four years later, the 13th Singapore Arts Festival in 1990 saw the first occurrence of nudity by a Singaporean performer. Directed by Krishen Jit, it was a production of American playwright David Hwang’s M Butterfly. Playing a man pretending to be a female Chinese opera singer Song Liling, actor Ivan Heng briefly revealed the anatomy of his true gender to his lover, the French diplomat Gallimard, and the sitting audience. At a press briefing days prior to opening night, Robert Iau, a member of the steering committee for the arts festival, announced “the play will be staged as written … we will not be squeamish about it” meaning the nudity in the staging would not be expunged.[2] The show sold out well before opening night.

Three years later, Vinod (Abdul Latiff Abdullah), of The Necessary Stage’s Off Centre stripped naked, his back to the audience, before killing himself. Originally a commission by the Ministry of Health, the play’s funding was revoked because of “extreme depictions of mental illness”. TNS went ahead with the production, uncensored. The sub-headline of Hannah Pandian’s glowing Straits Times review of the play read “Do not go if you want to see just nudity”.

While it’s entirely possible that there were other instances of unreported nudity employed in performances in the intervening years, the next public account of on-stage nudity is a full seven years on from Off Centre – The Necessary Stage (them again), staged 3some [3], in May 2000 (video). What happened between the early 90s’ Off Centre, and 2000’s 3some? It’s difficult to say definitively why nudity on stage was almost absent after what seemed a promising start. However, two points bear considering.

In December 1993, Singaporean performance artist Josef Ng protested the police entrapment, arrest and caning of 12 homosexual men with a performance that involved him pulling down his briefs and snipping off some pubic hair, his back to the audience. His naked buttocks were splashed across the front page of a national tabloid, taking his performance from the realm of consenting art audiences, to a general public primed for sensationalism and outrage. Ng was charged with committing an obscene act, and banned from performing in public. While this incident is not directly related to theatre, its impact rippled through the arts in the 1990s. At the same time, founders of The Necessary Stage were alleged to have had Marxist leanings for their use of forum theatre. The National Arts Council (NAC, which had been formed in 1991) withdrew its support for performance art and forum theatre. It was not an outright ban on the forms, but lack of support and increased government scrutiny effectively stunted their development well into the next decade.

In 1991, the Censorship Review Committee (CRC), conceived by Tommy Koh, was formed to review and make recommendations on Singapore’s censorship policies enacted by what was then known as MITA: the Ministry of Information and the Arts. In the CRC report, published in 1992, nudity in performance was not on the committee’s radar enough to warrant a mention, but there was a sub-section on “nudity in calendars, posters, magazines and newspapers”. The report recommended that while “nudity itself is not obscene or offensive to many people … censorship should protect … people [who consider nudity offensive] from being unwittingly exposed to materials containing nudity.”

Works of art are also subject to general laws and regulations, as the Josef Ng case proved. Section 27A of the Miscellaneous Offences (Public Order and Nuisance) Act (1997) states that it is an offence for a person to appear nude in a public place. Section 292 of the Penal Code meanwhile, states that whoever “distributes, transmits by electronic means, publicly exhibits or in any manner puts into circulation…any obscene book, pamphlet, paper, drawing, painting, representation or figure, or any other obscene object” shall be punished with up to three months’ jail and/or a fine. The Act considers a publication to be obscene if it could “deprave and corrupt persons who are likely, having regard to all relevant circumstances, to read, see or hear the matter contained or embodied in it”.

Yet, by the turn of the millenium, occurrences of nudity on stage re-emerged: TNS followed 3some with BOTE: The Beginning of the End in 2002, and W!ld Rice presented Landmarks: Asian Boys Vol. 2 in 2004. This re-appearance of the nude (or semi-nude) body in theatre coincides with a time when the state was ostensibly liberalising. It was ten years into the tenure of Singapore’s second Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong, a leadership that encouraged greater open-mindedness and creativity. The state’s increased investment in the arts was showing too: the Esplanade Theatre was in development, the Renaissance City Plan, released in March 2000, positioned Singapore as a “global arts city conducive to creative, knowledge-based industries”; and effective proscriptions on forum theatre and performance art were fading away.

In 2003, the second CRC was convened, with its report stating that:

“Opinions … are less clear-cut, (on content that includes) violence, nudity and homosexuality. Disagreements on these issues among various segments of our society are not unusual. It is therefore necessary to:

1. Create opportunities for public discussion on sensitive moral issues in a rational manner.
2. Adjust content guidelines regularly, taking into consideration changing community values.

What is clear is that from 2000, disrobing on stage became, if not commonplace, certainly more visible. There are a few well-publicised examples such as 251[4] (2007, Toy Factory Productions) which featured topless nudity by actress Cynthia Lee MacQuarrie, as Singapore-born porn actress Annabelle Chong. Then there were Quills (2005, Luna-id), Equus (2011, also Toy Factory Productions), both featuring full frontal male nudity, and that same year, Dick Lee’s production of Beauty Kings, directed by Jonathan Lim and produced by Fantastic Entertainment and MediaCorp VizPro International featuring male back nudity.

In 2008, Choy Ka Fai’s “Dance Dance Dance”, a performance work adapted from the Haruki Murakami novel of the same name featuring a segment with a dancer performing nude was staged Theatreworks (video). In 2011, Jereh Leong’s solo dance performance as part of Fireball 2011 / ECNAD saw Leong performing nude. There is also Vincent Chia’s My Sentimental World, (The Substation in 2013). An abstract retelling of the performer’s life, it involved Chia disrobing towards the end of the one-hour performance.

Several smaller, often independent shows also caused barely a blip in mainstream or social media. Re-inventing Sita (2012, TheatreStrays and Teatro Kalipatos) was a performance-installation at Sculpture Square (I had volunteered on as a LASALLE student, my first encounter with nude performing bodies). Four years earlier, Sculpture Square had also hosted Zai Kuning’s A Closed Door [5] that featured nude performers, as part of the Future of Imagination 5 showcase of performance. 

Some non-Singaporean works that featured nudity did not ruffle any feathers of “moral standards” or “public decency” – 3Some by Knut Berger (not related to the 2000 production of the same name by The Necessary Stage) , Nir de Volff / TOTAL BRUTAL and Sahara Abu Gosh, January 2009, Grand Singe (Great Ape) by Nicholas Cantin in January 2015, Internal by Belgian company Ontroerend Goed at Singapore Arts Festival 2011 (source), Dimitri Papaioannou’s Still Life at SIFA 2016, If there’s not dancing at the revolution, I’m not coming by Julia Croft (New Zealand) at the M1 Singapore Fringe Festival 2018.

Nearly three decades on from M Butterfly, with a seemingly more liberal Singapore society, is nudity in theatre legitimised as a sometimes required part of the creative output? As the previous 17 years had proven, incidences of onstage nudity do not always lead to public controversy, and in fact, in the majority of cases, it doesn’t cause as much of a stir at all. While local and foreign works featuring nudity seem to pass through without much public outcry, one of the very few exceptions was the recent case of  IMDA’s proscription of Ming Poon’s Undressing Room and Thea Fitz-James’s Naked Ladies at M1 Singapore Fringe Festival 2017, which were slated to be performed at the M1 Singapore Fringe Festival in 2017. In this particular case, an anonymous posting on social media by “Singaporeans United For Family” surfaced soon after the M1 Fringe program was announced, leading to an atmosphere of moral panic and sensationalism.

Subsequently, Undressing Room and Naked Ladies were denied ratings because they were considered to contain “excessive nudity”. IMDA requested that parts of each of the productions be changed and re-submitted for classification, which the Festival team refused to do, in order to protect the integrity of the works. The Arts Entertainment Classification Code (AECC) defines “excessive” as “beyond reasonable limits, especially in terms of detail, duration or frequency,” and also states one of its guiding principles to be “[sensitivity] to prevailing community standards of morality and decency.” This raises the question : who decides what is considered “reasonable”, and what are the prevailing standards of morality and decency? It would be useful to consider which “community” these standards belong to, and where “prevailing” ideas of decency stem from.

Yet despite the apparent increase in openness and freedom of expression across the arts and media, the presence of the ambiguous “OB markers” – the nebulous markers of what is deemed permissible for audiences by the state – prevails.

The Media Development Authority was established in 2003[6] and in 2016 it merged with the Infocomm Development Authority to become the Info-communications Media Development Authority (IMDA). A statutory board responsible for promoting and regulating the Singapore media sector, the organisation has the power to regulate the production of art works through its licensing scheme and classification system. A license will not be given to a work whose content exceeds the IMDA’s classification standards. The IMDA’s AECC is found here. Launched in 2008 (source), the code was most recently updated 2 Jun 2014, and the IMDA states that reviews to the code are occasioned according to “societal changes and expectations”.

It is further noteworthy that in most cases when nudity is considered “excessive”, an element of unpredictability or spontaneity seemed to be present in the work – when the parameters of the occurrence of nudity cannot be controlled or pre-determined, such as in the case of Undressing Room. This is why the controversy surrounding Josef Ng’s performance still resonates with the arts community nearly three decades on – this is what still hasn’t changed: it would appear that nudity is only tolerated when it is entirely scripted, thoroughly vetted, and approved of in advance.

The idea of what is considered “decent” for audience consumption is one of the themes toyed with in Choy Ka Fai’s “Dance Clinic”, which also featured full-frontal nudity. Staged at dans festival 2017, Choy plays an inventor testing his new (fictitious) device, Ember Jello, which among its other functions, measures levels of “audience disgust” in response to a piece of choreography. To demonstrate this particular function of the device, Austrian dancer Florentina Holzinger’s performance becomes increasingly provocative, the climax of which sees her completely naked and pulling a string, ostensibly, out of her vagina, her back to the audience. Ember Jello’s “disgust” meter is almost bursting out of the scale.

This self-reflexive moment in Dance Clinic can be read as a remark on how art and its impact on audiences is measured by governing bodies. It begs the question of what it takes for a nude body to be perceived as obscene, depraved or indecent. Authorities that enact censorship have the right to do so according to society’s “prevailing norms” and changes in societal expectations. But the question needs to be asked: how will societal norms and expectations change unless they are confronted, examined and challenged? The public understanding of nudity will take a long time to evolve – it can start with questioning ourselves on our personal relationship with the nude body and its impact on our assumptions of decency and morality.

 

[1] Lee, Valerie. “Senegalese Dancers Go Topless — but Cause Hardly a Stir.” The Straits Times, 11 June 1986.

[2] Peterson, William. Theater and the Politics of Culture in Contemporary Singapore. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP, 2001.

[3] “With 3SOME‘s nudity, experimentation, swearing and its merest smidgen of political satire … [t]his production is a necessary step in reconfirming the company’s identity in a time of change – a necessary step and, more or less, an enjoyable one.”

[4] “Quek chose to turn to the audience when exposing her breasts. …. Also, the exposure of breasts proved nothing except that she could and would bare herself.” (Flying Inkpot review, Vivienne Tseng).

[5] Pictures at Asia Art Archive

[6] Prior to that, the arts came under the purview of Ministry of Information and the Arts.


The author would like to thank Loo Zihan and Kathy Rowland for their advice and input in the writing of this essay.

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