Art of censorship in Singapore

A Wild Rice theatre production of Romeo and Juliet. The Media Development Authority sees its new licensing scheme as an "empowering" one for artists and arts groups, and it could have been. But a myriad of punitive measures and caveats have left arti
A Wild Rice theatre production of Romeo and Juliet. The Media Development Authority sees its new licensing scheme as an "empowering" one for artists and arts groups, and it could have been. But a myriad of punitive measures and caveats have left artists dismayed that it might encourage self-censorship. PHOTO: ALBERT LIM K.S.

Censorship has long dogged artists in Singapore. It is a dull ache, with the occasional painful twist.

The most recent - and perhaps unintended - turn of the screw came on May 12 when the Media Development Authority (MDA) released its proposed amendments to the Public Entertainments and Meetings Act for public consultation.

The authority sees this new move as an "empowering" one, and it could have been. But a myriad of punitive measures and caveats have left artists dismayed that it might encourage self-censorship.

Under it, arts practitioners are to be trained by the MDA as "content assessors" to ensure compliance with the authority's classification guidelines.

The trouble is that not all artists agree with the guidelines. Nor are they likely to always agree with what MDA might classify as a performance. It is, after all, a matter of subjective judgment whether a performance merits an Advisory 16 classification - no age restriction imposed but it suggests that the content may not be suitable for younger audiences - or labelled R18, restricted to those aged 18 and above. The most stringent classification is Not Allowed For All Ratings - which is effectively a ban.

The MDA argues that its across-the-board training sessions for content assessors help ensure consistency. But this in effect means that artists have to second-guess officialdom. Might they opt for a stricter classification to avoid falling foul of the authorities? Groups whose content assessors mis-classify performances could face a fine of up to $5,000, and may have their licences revoked.

It is no wonder that many in the arts community find it difficult to reconcile these measures with the supposed progressiveness of "co-regulation".

Despite its good intentions, the scheme falls back into the same template of censorship, of allowing the authorities to be the arbiter of what is in the "public interest", rather than trusting the artist to be responsible, and trusting the audience to be able to judge a work critically. As a result, on May 30, 45 arts groups registered strong objections to the scheme in a position paper addressed to the MDA.

Artists are often viewed here as a vocal minority of rabble-rousers separate from the man in the street. But these are not merely the grouses of a few. The 45 groups represent a large swathe of the arts community, including commercial heavyweights like the Singapore Repertory Theatre and Wild Rice, and traditional arts groups such as the Chinese Theatre Circle. It is also likely that their regular audiences will be supportive of their decision.

As the position paper puts it: "Artists and arts practitioners... are also citizens, parents, members of religious groups, live in the 'heartlands', and we pay our taxes - like everyone else. It is misguided to presume that artists' interests are at odds with community's interests."

I believe that it is in the MDA's interest to heed their concerns, if the arts landscape in Singapore is to continue to flourish - or risk falling into the relentless trap of "one step forward, two steps back".

The 2010 Censorship Review Committee described censorship as "a necessary tool, but a blunt one", and affirmed the need for consumers to be responsible in deciding what they choose to view. The Government can no longer act as gatekeeper, especially in a digital age where access to graphic material is a click away.

The MDA has stressed that the Arts Term Licensing Scheme is optional. This provides arts groups with a false dichotomy: to continue with the current regime where the MDA issues all classifications and advisories, or to choose to be part of a different regime that is ultimately the same: being trained to heed the MDA's specifications.

For so long, the authorities have been wary of trusting the populace with the responsibility of weighing what is in the "public good". Knee-jerk reactions by small groups of people to what they view as "offensive" performances have led to clampdowns on arts groups, without the population at large being given a chance to grapple with various shades of grey of these performances.

The arts community has reiterated that it does not champion an irresponsible approach to artistic creation. Certainly performances must be within the ambit of the law, and those who break the laws of sedition or are guilty of inciting hatred between various groups of people must be held accountable.

But the role of the artist is to forge new paths and tackle new ideas. Some of these issues may be discomfiting to segments of the population - but the arts provide a safe platform, within the realm of imagination, where contentious issues can be discussed and grappled with.

One recent example is playwright Chong Tze Chien's Charged (2010), a well-crafted army drama thick with suspense that confronted race relations in Singapore. It brought to light the secret prejudices many Singaporeans harbour despite co-existing in a multicultural environment. It received an R18 rating for "mature content and coarse language". The MDA justified: "Due to the realistic portrayal of racial tensions and use of strong language within the army camp, the issues discussed could be... unsuitable for a young audience."

But perhaps an Advisory 16 classification would have sufficed? This way, teenagers about to do full-time national service could have mulled over portrayals of racial tensions on stage and reflected on how the issue might emerge in real life.

As an avid consumer of the arts, I have not seen a single production here that exploits violence or sexuality in a way that would leave anyone vulnerable to attack. Rather, the art is mostly considered and thoughtful. It may not always be executed perfectly, but it is steeped in earnestness and social conscience.

I think it is time for us to trust the artists who have grown in our midst. Instead of fearing debate and fining a group for a piece that, perhaps, only two people found objectionable, the MDA could be a facilitator and bridge-builder.

It could bring together the arts group and audience members for a mediation session, where the latter could better understand the artistic intention of the work, and the artists have a chance to see where the audience is coming from. This empowers the artist - who is given a chance to stand up for his or her work, and improve it - and the audience members, who can choose to embrace an alternative point of view, or decide not to purchase tickets from this group in the future.

In the end, we should not expect all art to be comforting or pleasant. The Guardian newspaper's theatre critic, Lyn Gardner, wrote in a recent column: "I love being charmed and delighted in the theatre, but I don't want to be killed with kindness by artists, I want to be provoked by them and made to look at the world differently... If that sometimes means they are going to risk boring me, offending me or even being cruel to me, then I'm not going to complain. Great art is seldom easy or kind."

The mirror that art holds up to life may not always reflect beauty. It may reflect the ugliness of humanity, or its lack of virtue. But good art interrogates the human condition in all its weird and wonderful states, and puts them all on display, so that we who look gain insight into our own lives.

A step towards 'co-regulation'

THE Media Development Authority (MDA) announced its Arts Term Licensing Scheme on May 12. It is set to have a pilot run next month.

The voluntary scheme is meant to give artists and arts groups that sign up for it more agency in self-classifying their shows. This scheme was floated during the 2010 censorship review.

Right now, the MDA assesses every single production - a process which can take up to 40 days. It then gives it an age-appropriate advisory or rating. Under the proposed term licensing scheme, selected arts groups can classify multiple productions on their own.

Groups taking part in the scheme will need to appoint an MDA-registered content assessor, who will be trained in classifying each show according to the authority's classification code.

Licensing officers from the MDA have the authority to reject groups' classifications and revoke their licences.

Groups whose content assessors mis-classify performances could also face a fine of up to $5,000. Those who disagree with the licensing officer's decisions can appeal to the Minister.

MDA says this is meant to "facilitate the creation of an environment which allows arts practitioners to undertake greater ownership and responsibility for their content in ensuring it meets community standards; and to be able to directly engage in dialogue with society".

The MDA views this as a step towards "co-regulation", its term for working together with artists to define classification boundaries. It invited the public to give their comments on the scheme in a public consultation that closed on May 30.


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