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Singapore: censorship and the importance of being earnest

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Photo: Meeting on Censorship Review Committee, Monday 1 June 2009, Post-Museum

By June Yap

Advisory: This article may contain information and graphic descriptions that might be deemed disturbing for those with particular sensitivities, feel immature or find humour disquieting. You should consider yourself warned, and may stop reading now, clicking your way to another webpage with more pleasant and agreeable content. It’s not too late, go now, run along.

Too late.

A few caveats (of course): this is written in a personal capacity, views are my own unless otherwise indicated. Names have been simply ignored to protect the innocent (the default argument for censorship), and where there are parts that are not in fact mine, I have indicated in quotation marks. Some parts which are mine or have nothing doing with being quoted, I have also put into quotations marks just to keep things lively, seeing how quotation marks might suggest other emphases and ambiguities that censorship is all about.

On May 21, 2009, the Ministry of Information, Communication and the Arts (MICA) issued a statement that it would ‘soon appoint an independent Censorship Review Committee (CRC) to conduct a mid-term review of content issues across a spectrum of broadcast, films, videos, publications, audio materials, the arts and new media’ found here. Just about anywhere you might possibly get information from. In case it is thought this is coming from left field, a bit of background to the CRC. According to official notes, the CRC is to be formed every decade to review and update censorship objectives and principles. The last CRC in 2002/3 comprised of 22 members chaired by Mr Liu Thai Ker. Details of the report from the last committee may be found here including the list of members then (see Annex A). The timeline for this upcoming review is from ‘the third quarter of the year (to) complete its review by mid 2010.’

Some members of the arts community took this opportunity to gather and chat about censorship in a friendly and convivial manner after having sent a letter to the Acting Minister Lui Tuck Yew expressing interest in engaging this independent CRC and proposing names of members of the arts community to participate in the CRC. The arts community has in the past attempted to engage with the CRC, in 2002/3, issuing its own proposal found here even though those involved were not part of the CRC. So what should one do on a slow Monday night? Allow television sitcoms to bring all thought to a standstill or talk about art?

The report from the last committee does not detail the discussions that actually took place when they met, and one hopes there was in fact animated dialogue. The group Monday-met did attempt to ask a couple of the 2002/3 members to come share their experiences of how the committee functioned however the invitations were declined. It would appear the CRC itself has also been censored. Not knowing what might come out of this proposed caucus, the discussion turned to understanding the kinds of issues that have been faced by artists in the past related to censorship in the areas of film, theatre and visual arts. As there are other avenues for a blow-by-blow account of what ensued, this is less a chronicle as it is a mention of some of the fine (and finer) moments and points that were made (or not made) in the discussion.

One thing that seemed to have the group’s consensus is that censorship itself is problematic. Censorship is ‘always arbitrary’ and forces individuals to be ‘locked in a relationship with the government’ where different measures or compromises need to be made for works to be realised or presented. Calls for transparency when ratings (which are paid for by the individuals submitting their works for censorship), appeals and arguments about ‘artistic merit’ and ‘limited audiences’, so often fall on deaf ears. Ratings are never explained, just decreed. Even after a rating is given or a work is passed, it may still be censored by a different government body, institution, venue, have its funding withdrawn in a passive-aggressive form of censorship, be ‘black-listed’, or ‘disallowed’ just before it is shown because someone (innocently unnamed) found it a bit too raw for his/her taste. A problem with censorship within the current terms and from experience seems to be one of shifting boundaries, ambiguities and lack of transparency, and the simple inability to define or communicate what exactly is supposedly wrong with the work.

Which brings us to the related problem of advisories (and classifications) which do not actually say what they might really mean. What is disturbing for me may not be disturbing for you. What really is ‘mature content’? Same sex relationships? Is violence less mature than sexuality? How many seconds does a lesbian kiss make? Does it get worse if it is freeze-framed into a photographic print, and hence appears to last forever? How much viewable flesh, the flesh that that both you and I have, needs to be visible before one is considered ‘nude’? What is ‘political maturity’ when politics is basically about power and certainly children do understand power for what did you think tantrums were?

Censorship is difficult. You have to be willing to watch lifetimes worth of films, read forests worth of scripts, and stare at miles of artwork, looking out for the stray nipple or pubic hair, the loosely hurled or whispered swear word embedded in a dialogue, and conjure up fantasies of what ‘the two characters kiss’ or ‘touched each other gently’ might actually mean played out on a stage. Policing censorship is just as difficult, and the work never seems to end. But the real problem of censorship isn’t that of whether this is more provocative for you or for me, but that of letting other people make your decisions for you. When the clarion call is made for censorship, it often follows sweeping statements of moral turpitude and the need to protect by not telling you (someone, anyone) the whole picture, by keeping you in the dark, afraid and alone. The alternative to censorship is information, or as some have phrased it ‘regulation’ or ‘classification’, which needs a lot more care in my opinion as it can easily become inflexible and end up as high-handed as censorship is. Real information allows individuals, families, institutions, schools, groups, to make informed decisions about what they would watch, read, do, find pleasurable, interesting, engaging, important to themselves, and to then debate, discuss and think about these things, or not – to take responsibility for themselves, ourselves.

As the discussion continues and proposals are made, it would be interesting to see what might emerge from this attempt to engage with the CRC. And if certain assessments are right, perhaps the government would welcome this ‘independent’ body as a means to address problems it has itself encountered defending us from moral depravity… if only it could allow it to truly be ‘independent’. After all here we are, busy envisioning a vibrant cultural scene, a creative hub bursting with life and colour; but if we insist on being so quick to strike-through each contentious topic, bleep each occasion emotions might get stirred, soon we will find ourselves with absolutely no room to .


This article was first posted on the original Arteri site on 5 June, 2009 .

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