Titled after the cheese-like secretions found in genitals, Smegma comprises a series of ten short plays, each examining the many faces of power and exposing a different aspect of exploitation within society. This is how playwright Elangovan describes the multi-vignette work himself :
In every society, the privileged groups’ control over and exploitation of the disadvantaged groups is the key source to social problems. These problems endlessly shape the material and spiritual landscapes of the outsiders. The outsiders’ education and environment generates beliefs and values that are diametrically opposed to the empowered status quo and if unchecked will fester and spread like virulent disease to destroy everything set by the powers that be. […] SMEGMA interrogates the ‘moral, cultural, religious, political, economical legitimacy world’ from many different perspectives of the underdogs and their masters. When the comfort-zone is shattered ugliness rears its head like cheesy SMEGMA.Source: Smegma by Elangovan (2006).
Some of the colourful characters in the play include a pregnant suicide bomber, a transsexual waiting for God at a train station, an imprisoned ex-politician, a maid about to sleep with her employer, and soldiers who rape women out of patriotism.
By 2003, Agni Kootthu [Theatre of Fire] was running into financial difficulties. The company did not manage to secure funding from the National Arts Council (NAC), and its staging of Mines in June 2002 did not do well in terms of sales:
Although Mines can be staged, Elangovan is fuming that it was given a last-minute go-ahead and a RA rating even though it contains no nudity or violence. Without the benefit of publicity, only a handful of people turned up when the play opened on Friday. The poor showing added to the financial problems of the theatre group, Agni Kootthu, whose appeal for public funding was rejected by the NAC.Source: Call him R(A) Elangovan by Gillian Wong. In The Straits Times (22 Jun 2002).
Instead of backing down and turning out something tamer, Elangovan’s next play, Smegma, was even more hard-hitting. Referring to his controversy-courting play-writing career, he says:
“I want to sensitise people by exposing them to issues that maybe sensitive to others,” he said. “I feel the truth is more important than winning literary awards for boot-licking.”Source: Call him R(A) Elangovan by Gillian Wong. In The Straits Times (22 Jun 2002).
Smegma was due to make its debut performance by Agni Kootthu on 5 and 6 August 2006 at the Guinness Theatre, The Substation. The Media Development Authority (MDA) – which had taken over the task from the Public Entertainment Licensing Unit (PELU) in 2003 – vetted the play and allowed it to go ahead with an RA18 rating:
The play was initially granted a licence from MDA, which was subsequently withdrawn. It was originally given an ‘R(A)’ rating and Agni Kootthu was obliged to announce in its publicity materials that the play contained ‘objectionable language’ and an ‘adult theme’.Source: Censorship and Liberalisation in Singapore by Terence Chong. In Space and Polity, Vol. 14, No. 3, 235-250 (Dec 2010).
However, MDA later decided to withdraw the licence the day before the show’s opening, citing religious insensitivity:
The Media Development Authority (MDA) is withdrawing the licence for the play “Smegma” written by Elangovan. Comprising 10 playlets, “Smegma” undermines the values underpinning Singapore’s multi-racial, multi-religious society. The play portrays Muslims in a negative light. The Arts Consultative Panel (ACP) was consulted about the play. The majority found most of the content of the play insensitive and inappropriate for staging. The members were concerned that the play could create unhappiness and disaffection amongst Muslims.Source: MDA press release (4 Aug 2006), http://bit.ly/2kxA25i
It was, according to news reports, the first time that the MDA banned a work from being staged:
Less than 30 hours before it was to open on Saturday evening, the Media Development Authority (MDA) pulled the plug on controversial playwright P Elangovan’s latest work. […] It is the first time the MDA has disallowed the staging of a play since it was formed in 2003.Source: Early curtains for provocative play by Loh Chee Kong and Ashraf Safdar. In TODAY (5 Aug 2006), http://bit.ly/2kxA25i
Elangovan would later publish Smegma on his own within the same year of its cancelled premiere. The script would also join two of Elangovan’s banned works – Talaq (2000) and Stoma (2013) – in a collection titled The Good, the Bad and the Ugly by Math Paper Press in 2014.
S Thenmoli – the president of Agni Kootthu and Elangovan’s wife – voiced her frustration in a press release she sent to the media immediately after hearing that the licence had been revoked:
If MDA had cancelled the licence much earlier, we would not have proceeded with our production. We would have saved our finances but now we have lost so much.Source: Agni Kootthu’s press release by S Thenmoli. (4 Aug 2006), http://bit.ly/2kZXgCZ
Some believe that it was a deliberate strategy on MDA’s part:
Yet, perhaps more tellingly, MDA left it to the eleventh hour before informing the theatre group that it would not be granted a licence even though the script was submitted a month before it was scheduled to be staged on 5 August 2006. This particular strategy of informing the theatre group that its licence would be withheld or of objectionable parts of a script just hours before opening night is not, according to practitioners, an uncommon practice by the authorities, leaving directors and scriptwriters little or no opportunity to come up with alternative solutions other than to remove the offending sections completely.Source: Censorship and Liberalisation in Singapore by Terence Chong. In Space and Polity, Vol. 14, No. 3, 235-250 (Dec 2010).
While the media, as they did with Talaq, viewed it as another case of state censorship:
Singapore has in recent years relaxed censorship regulations for films and plays in an effort to loosen up and market itself as a media and arts center. But controls remain tight.Source: Singapore pulls play’s license for alleged negative portrayal of Muslims. In Associated Press (5 Aug 2006)., http://bit.ly/2lHzQlM
Playwright Eleanor Wong – whose own play The Campaign To Confer The Public Service Star on JBJ ran into some problems with the MDA at around the same time – says:
As for MDA’s withdrawal of the licence for theatre group Agni Kootthu’s staging of the play Smegma last Friday for being offensive to Muslims, Wong says: “If I had my way, I’d prefer there be no censorship. I’d much rather that the dialogue takes place between the production and its audience.
“If a play like Smegma is seen to be insulting, let it happen with the audience rather than have the censors come in. However, this is the country we live in.”Everything is politics after all by June Cheong. In The Straits Times (8 Aug 2006).
However, the then 23-year-old actress Dew M Chaiyanara, who was supposed to star in Smegma, was more diplomatic about it:
Dew M. Chaiyanara, 23, an actress in Smegma and a Singapore permanent resident of Thai-Muslim origin, told The Straits Times yesterday she was disappointed that the licence had been withdrawn.
“But I understand that the MDA is just doing its job.”Licence for controversial play withdrawn by June Cheong. In The Straits Times (5 Aug 2006).
Elangovan himself, meanwhile, told The Straits Times that he was not too affected about the result:
“I’m not cynical about it,” he says. “It is my job as an artist to push the boundaries of what people think is taboo, and to create awareness of the society we live in.”Source: Playwright back with satirical play by Tara Tan. In The Straits Times (1 Aug 2008).
The Vault: Dancing the Good, the Bad and the Ugly is the second of three presentations focusing on local dance-makers’ responses to Singapore play-text. In this edition, contemporary dance artist Lee Mum Wai responds to the themes of social injustice in three banned plays by Elangovan. Presented on 24 February 2017, 8pm at Centre 42 Black Box. Admission is give-what-you-can. Find out more about the event here.