28 Nov 2005

Artist's protest against death penalty silenced by Singapore censorship

This is a transcript from AM. The program is broadcast around Australia at 08:00 on ABC Local Radio.

You can also listen to the story in REAL AUDIO and WINDOWS MEDIA and MP3 formats.

AM - Monday, 28 November , 2005 08:00:00
Reporter: Lisa Millar
TONY EASTLEY: Singapore is a shopper's paradise and a protestor's nightmare.

It's illegal for more than four people to have an outside protest unless it's licensed, so open dissent in the island state is rare.

In 1989, post-Tiananmen Square Chinese populations around the world demonstrated publicly against Beijing's brutal crackdown, but not in Singapore.

So this week's execution of a convicted Australian drug smuggler isn't likely to cause any waves at all.

Indeed, the Singaporean Government is confident the majority of its citizens agree with its tough stance on drugs.

But as Lisa Millar reports from Singapore, there is one small group of local artists who are feeling the heavy hand of Singapore's censorship over Van Nguyen's case.

LISA MILLAR: Singapore's Lasalle College of Art invited students from around the world to spend two weeks observing life before showcasing their work.

ANNOUNCER: From Slovenia, Matija.

(Sound of applause)

LISA MILLAR: Matija Milkovic Biloslav from Slovenia produced a piece featuring a dozen nooses hanging from the ceiling, beneath them upturned stools.

Only one chair was standing, on it a rope and a card that read C856 - Van Nyugen's prison number.

Tonight's 7.30 Report reveals just how sensitive Singaporeans are about the death penalty. We were stopped from speaking to the artist. And the school's director objected, saying she wasn't dressed well enough for an interview.

AVIS FONTAINE: Oh well, we don't mind. I'm really not looking my best for this (laughs).

LISA MILLAR: Off camera she said she thought the artwork was about suicide. Her staff said any connection to Van Nguyen was a coincidence.

The school's dean, Milenko Pravachi, a Singaporean resident for more than a decade, said the student didn't intend to make a statement.

MILENKO PRAVACHI: They're looking for some kind of attractions, they're looking for some of the issues that they maybe want to highlight or question what is really normal, but I don't think that it's anything like a political statement in this case.

LISA MILLAR: Andy Ho, a senior writer with the Straits Times, says Singapore is unfairly portrayed as a tightly controlled nation.

ANDY HO: So the freedoms are always there. I don't think protests or dissent has been stifled at all. If people want to stand up and be counted, they are always free to do so. I sincerely think and believe and am convinced that the Government has no problem.

LISA MILLAR: But the college had a problem with this piece of art.

The day after the 7.30 Report's visit, the nooses remained but the card with Van Nguyen's prison number was blank. Other media were stopped from taking photos.

Andy Ho, though, says Singaporeans aren't sensitive about the decision to execute Van Nguyen; the death penalty still wins overwhelming support.

ANDY HO: Whether the law will be changed or not will depend, I think, on political developments in the future. But as it stands, absolutely, whoever breaks the law, regardless of nationality, will face a mandatory death sentence.

TONY EASTLEY: Andy Ho, a senior writer at The Straits Times newspaper in Singapore.

Related Links:
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