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S'pore bans Indian origin playwright's new work

Singapore media bans P Elangovan's play, Smegma, over its "negative portrayal" of Muslims.

india Updated: Aug 07, 2006 12:16 IST

Singapore's media watchdog has banned a new play by a controversial Indian origin poet and playwright even before it was staged.

P. Elangovan's new work, Smegma, was supposed to debut Saturday evening at the Substation, an independent contemporary arts centre in Singapore, and was scheduled to run over two nights in the weekend.

But the city state's Media Development Authority (MDA) put the brakes on it, stating that the play portrayed Muslims in a negative light, according to a report in the Today newspaper. It also withdrew the arts licence it had issued to Elangovan to stage the play.

According to the report, this is the first time that the MDA has banned a play since its formation in 2003. Besides promoting the growth of the media industry, MDA also has the responsibility of managing content to protect core values and safeguard consumers' interests.

The watchdog, in a release Friday, stated that it was banning the play, which was to be staged by the theatre group Agni Kootthu, because it was "insensitive and inappropriate for staging".

It stated that in taking the decision, it had consulted the Arts Consultative Panel, a committee comprising arts and media professionals, educators and grassroots representatives, who also were "concerned that the play could create unhappiness and disaffection amongst Muslims".

The synopsis of the play, as posted on the Substation website, read: "Smegma interrogates the 'moral, cultural, religious, political, economical legitimacy world' from many different perspectives of the underdogs and their masters.

This plastic society's hidden hierarchies are brought to the surface by the experiences of its outsiders: a schizophrenic transsexual, pregnant female suicide bomber, irate non-smokers and defiant smokers.

"When the comfort-zone is shattered ugliness rears its head like cheesy smegma," it stated.

Smegma is a transliteration of the Greek word for soap and is used to describe a secretion of mammalian genitals.

When contacted by Today, Elangovan, a Tamil born in Singapore, said that he was "unsurprised".

He told the newspaper that he had submitted the script last month and was granted a licence for it under an RA (18) rating for "strong language and adult themes" last Tuesday.

However, the very same day, he was also informed of the National Arts Council's (NAC) decision to cut its funding for the play due to "sensitive content". NAC is a statutory board under Singapore's Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts, whose mission is to nurture the arts.

On Friday, he was informed about the MDA's decision over the phone first and later by writing.

According to the Today report, the play, comprising 10 vignettes, is filled with Hokkien and English expletives. These included one which depicted Singaporeans' sexual escapades with under-aged girls overseas and a class of kindergarten children calling their Member of Parliament a "pig".

One scene shows three men in a prison cell making fun of the Singapore Flag, the report said.

This is not the first time that the playwright, described by many as a maverick, has come under a controversy.

In 2000, another of his plays, Talaq, about an Indian-Muslim woman's brush with marital violence, was banned by the then Singapore's media watchdog, Public Entertainment Licensing Unit, after protests from Muslim and Indian authorities.

In 1975, Elangovan, now 48, was investigated by Singapore's Internal Security Department because of his reinterpretation of a classical Indian story where a Muslim and Hindu king have a conversation, according to the Today report.

In an interview to another newspaper three years ago, he was quoted as saying: "All my plays are published by me. Nobody will take the risk of publishing them as they think they are too controversial."

He had said that Tamils in Singapore dismissed his plays as vulgar and profane, for he subverted "the images of the pseudo-Tamil culture".

"Controversy is my middle name," Elangovan, winner of the region's premier literary prize, the South East Asia Write Prize, had said in that interview.