Stoma – which refers to a natural opening in the body – is a play written by Elangovan, centring on a disgraced former priest who had been defrocked over alleged sex abuse. Over seven scenes, he undergoes a surreal, graphic process of confession to seek redemption.
Agni Kootthu [Theatre of Fire] – the theatre company headed by Elangovan and his wife S Thenmoli – had acquired a reputation for producing and staging bold works that tackle topics that are often viewed as taboo. Stoma was no exception, though he insists that the play is not an attack on religion:
Elangovan, who began working on the play last year, however, says: “I am not attacking religion. The play is about someone who abuses his power through the veil of religion.”Source: Elangovan’s new play fails to get licence by Huang Lijie. In The Straits Times (10 Jan 2013).
Indeed, the play came at a time when a case similar to the play’s premise was unfolding in real life, as an assistant pastor had been arrested for sexually abusing an underaged girl in Singapore:
An assistant pastor of a church was charged in court yesterday with two counts of having oral sex with a minor and one of committing an obscene act with a child. The 45-year-old cannot be named as there is a gag order prohibiting the publication of any information that will lead to the identification of the girl. She was 15 at the time of the alleged offences in 2011 and worshipped at the church.Source: Pastor accused of sexually abusing girl by Elena Chong. In The Straits Times (15 Jan 2013).
Still, Elangovan later said that he had expected there to be some furore over Stoma:
Elangovan says: “When I was writing Stoma, I knew there would be a tsunami but I thought I would have an opportunity to defend it.”Source: Elangovan’s new play fails to get licence by Huang Lijie. In The Straits Times (10 Jan 2013).
Stoma was due to be staged at The Substation from 17 to 19 January 2013, directed by Elangovan and starring Hemang Yadav and Gloria Tan. However, Elangovan and Thenmoli were contacted by the Media Development Authority (MDA) the week before opening:
The company was initially scheduled for a meeting with MDA regarding the licence tomorrow, Jan 9, but was given the letter earlier tonight instead.Source: Agni Kootthu play Stoma banned by Mayo Martin. In TODAY (18 Jan 2013), http://bit.ly/2ltgVxA
The MDA’s letter reads:
We have carefully considered your application for an Arts Entertainment licence to stage the play “Stoma” (the “Play”) from 17-19 January 2013 at the Substation. Please be informed that the licensing authority has determined not to issue you a licence as the content of the Play contains sexually explicit, blasphemous and offensive references and language which would be denigrating to the Catholic and the wider Christian community.Source: Media Development Authority bans Elangovan’s play. In The Straits Times (9 Jan 2013).
The Straits Times then contacted the MDA for further clarification:
In reply to queries from Life!, a spokesman for the MDA says the licence was rejected because its explicit description of sexual acts with Catholic and Christian iconography exceeded the authority’s classification guidelines. One of the guidelines is that the content of performances should not denigrate religion.
The MDA spokesman says its decision considered the views of its arts consultative panel, a citizen-led content advisory committee for arts performances, which comprises 40 members of various races, religions and ages. He adds that an “overwhelming majority” of the panel found the content to be objectionable and offensive to the Catholic and wider Christian community.Source: Elangovan’s new play fails to get licence by Huang Lijie. In The Straits Times (10 Jan 2013).
To date, no one has attempted to stage Stoma again, but it was published in a collection titled The Good, the Bad and the Ugly in 2014 together with Elangovan’s other banned plays, Talaq (2000) and Smegma (2006).
Elangovan didn’t seem too surprised or bothered by the MDA’s decision – this was, after all, the third time that his play had been banned:
[Elangovan] adds that he is “blasé” about the licence rejection as it is his third time and he does not plan to appeal against the decision. He will bear the cost of the performance, an estimated $1,000, which includes props and fees for the two actors. Source: Elangovan’s new play fails to get licence by Huang Lijie. In The Straits Times (10 Jan 2013).
He did, however, wish that he had the chance to discuss the work with MDA officials:
Elangovan, who could not attend the meeting in person but was prepared to participate via telephone, says he had expected a discussion and was prepared to defend parts of the play that were found to be objectionable, but there was no opportunity for a dialogue at the meeting.Source: Elangovan’s new play fails to get licence by Huang Lijie. In The Straits Times (10 Jan 2013).
Reactions to the ban varied, with some believing that the MDA’s decision was justified:
Filmmaker Colin Smith, a Catholic and a regular church-goer, said: “It’s a very precarious balance in Singapore and maybe (MDA) is playing it safe and don’t want to rock the boat, which is fair in a country like Singapore with many religious groups. To any religious community, something like this could possibly be offensive.”Source: Elangovan play denied licence by Mayo Martin. In TODAY (10 Jan 2013), http://bit.ly/2lgmgpP
While others were concerned that the censorship was unwarranted:
Ms. Janice Koh, 39, Nominated Member of Parliament for the Arts, says: “If censorship is a blunt tool, which the authorities agree should be used with regret and reluctance, then this lever should be rusty and old. I am concerned that with increased use, it may become well-oiled, and therefore easier and easier to exercise.”Source: Elangovan’s new play fails to get licence by Huang Lijie. In The Straits Times (10 Jan 2013).
And some felt that the MDA should be clearer about their guidelines:
The Substation’s artistic director Noor Effendy Ibrahim, 39, says a statement on why the performance licence was rejected is not sufficient.
“There is no way for the artist to understand better what is offensive,” he says. “There should be greater transparency so that everybody can learn and mature together.”Source: Elangovan’s new play fails to get licence by Huang Lijie. In The Straits Times (10 Jan 2013).
But there is also hope to find common ground as Singapore’s arts scene grows:
The Necessary Stage artistic director Alvin Tan said that a “mature society” would have allowed this sort of play. “There will be disagreements but that’s the beauty of (an open) discourse that we’re not benefiting from. We should just work on the ratings system and how the public deals with it so we can all coexist.”Source: Elangovan play denied licence by Mayo Martin. In TODAY (10 Jan 2013), http://bit.ly/2lgmgpP
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.