OB Marker: Strategies of Dissent in Contemporary Art Practices in Singapore

Jeffrey Say

Programme Leader, MA in Asian Art Histories Programme, LASALLE College of the Arts, Singapore

This paper comes in the wake of the recent controversy in Singapore in September 2019 when Yale-NUS (National University of Singapore) cancelled a programme on dissent and resistance that was proposed by the notable Singapore playwright Alfian Sa’at. This episode brings into focus the effectiveness of the OB marker (or out of bounds marker) in determining the boundaries of acceptable political discourse in Singapore. Singapore has gained a reputation of having a strict censorship regime while allowing some free space for expression provided it is within the OB marker, an unspoken rule that certain topics are out of bounds.  This paper seeks to examine the ways in which the OB marker affect how visual artists express social and political concerns in Singapore and the artistic strategies that they employ to navigate the parameters of civic and public space. This paper proposes to show that visual artists in Singapore who engage with politicised themes employ conceptual and performative strategies which enabled them to circumvent the OB marker but which may be read as dissensual and subversive in their effect. Humour, satire, creative performance and interventions in the public space are some of the strategies used to counteract the dominant political narratives.


Jeffrey Say is an academic and art historian based in Singapore. In 2009, he designed the world’s first Master’s programme focusing on Asian modern and contemporary art histories. He is a frequent speaker on art at public institutions. Say co-edited Histories, Practices, Interventions: A Reader in Singapore Contemporary Art (2016).


The Asian Studies Association of Australia (ASAA) is the peak body of university experts and educators on Asia in Australia. Established in 1976, we promote and support the study of Asia in Australian universities and knowledge of Asia among the broader community. Our membership is drawn mainly from academics and students, but also includes industry and government Asia experts. We take a strong interest in promoting knowledge about Asia in schools and in contributing to state and Commonwealth government policies related to Asia. We provide informed comment on Asia to a broad public through our bulletin, Asian Currents, and specialist research articles in our journal, Asian Studies Review. Four book series published under our auspices cover Southeast Asia, South Asia, East Asia and Women in Asia.

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