Artists call for boycott of MDA's Arts Term Licensing Scheme

Artists have responded strongly to the Media Development Authority's (MDA) Arts Term Licensing Scheme, with several calling for a boycott of the plan.

The scheme aims to cut red tape by allowing individuals and companies to self-classify performances with age-appropriate ratings according to MDA guidelines. It will kick off with a pilot run in July. Public consultation for the scheme is ongoing and will close on May 30.

Artists argue that it passes the responsibility of censorship from the MDA to the artist, effectively encouraging self-censorship. They are also wary of penalties they would incur for misclassifying a performance.

T. Sasitharan, a former Cultural Medallion recipient who heads the private Intercultural Theatre Institute, said in an online statement: "All artists should empathically reject and refuse to participate in the MDA's new self-classification or co-regulation scheme."

Among the reasons he gave, is that the scheme "is morally unconscionable because it forces the artist to self-censor", and "it amounts to the state policing the arts by proxy; this is censorship in the guise of regulation, ratings and advisories".

Under the scheme, set to roll out fully early next year, artists can apply for two types of licences. Participation is optional.

Tier 1 licences allow for the self-classification of General-rated performances, suitable for all ages, which made up about 90 per cent of the 1,200 arts entertainment licences MDA issued last year. However, unscripted performances, or those touching on race, religion or politics, will still have to be submitted to the MDA for licensing.

Tier 2 licences allow for the self-classification of all performances up to R18, restricted to those aged 18 and above, but unscripted and outdoor performances with an Advisory, Advisory 16 or R18 rating will have to be individually licensed by the MDA. Arts groups each have to appoint a content assessor who will undergo training in classification.

Ms Chetra Sinnathamby, director of content and standards (films, video games & arts) at the authority, said: "The objective of the optional Term Licensing Scheme is to empower industry players to classify the performances and events which they stage, while being mindful of prevailing community standards and expectations."

She also emphasised that participation in the scheme was optional. "Ultimately, while arts entertainment event organisers who choose to participate in the scheme stand to benefit from cost and time savings, those who do not wish to participate can continue to submit individual applications to MDA."

Sasitharan is part of Arts Engage, a network of arts practitioners from various disciplines who discuss the policies that affect what they do. There are over 270 members in its Yahoo! group and about 10 core members of the group who lead projects.

The group held a meeting on May 17 to discuss the scheme. It was attended by around 40 people including artistic director of The Theatre Practice Kuo Jian Hong, artistic director of The Necessary Stage Alvin Tan and managing director of TheatreWorks Tay Tong.

The group plans to gather feedback from the arts community, and then submit a position paper to MDA on May 30, the last day of the public consultation process.

For now, the Arts Engage website has gathered personal responses from artists. One is dancer Chan Sze Wei, who lauded MDA's move to reduce the "burden of censorship in Singapore".

However, she will not be taking part in the scheme, and says: "The proposed mechanisms of self-classification, content assessors and penalties for misclassification are confusing and flawed. These measures do not lead to a greater level of freedom for anyone. They represent the same regime of censorship in another guise, calling on artists to act on behalf of the censoring government."