The fine art of regulating performances

Arts practitioners who are up in arms over the Media Development Authority's arts term licensing scheme are free, of course, to opt out of the scheme, which allows self-classification of performances with age-appropriate ratings. A total of 45 groups have backed a position paper by artists' network Arts Engage that opposes the scheme for various reasons, including the use of content assessors trained by MDA, fines and penalties for misclassification, and the so-called misrepresentation of MDA's terminology.

If the vast majority of arts groups indeed choose to opt out of the scheme at this stage - the pilot run is to start next month and views were sought last year - the public would not be wrong in viewing this as a regrettable communication failure on the part of both sides.

MDA sees the scheme as "a major step towards advancing co-regulation with the arts industry in general". But arts groups see such co-regulation as tantamount to self-censorship, which they object to in the name of art. Authentic co-regulation cannot take place, they maintain, when "art works are subject to prescribed guidelines and criteria pre-determined by MDA, without adequate and prior consultation or discussion".

The principles of the arts entertainment classification code - which replaces the classification framework of 2008 - have been aired quite extensively. And MDA has gone on record to state that principles are to be "reviewed periodically to reflect societal changes and expectations of Singaporeans".

Predictably, however, the application of principles by co-regulators can also lead to contention. This is to be expected as setting classification boundaries is a problematic process when dealing with broad principles such as community values and national interest.

Given artists' impulse to "push the upper limits of artistic expression", as Arts Engage puts it, who is to make the final call in any proposed co-regulatory system? It would be unrealistic to expect regulators to be adventurous when weighing the variegated nature of society and its conservative leaning.

What can promote mutual understanding is greater dialogue rather an adversarial stance at the outset. More is to be gained by discussion of adjustments that can be made to enable co-regulation to function meaningfully.

For example, fewer sanctions and more flexibility at the start might help the pilot project take off so lessons can be learnt and incorporated for future iterations.

The tension between creativity and responsibility is a never-ending one but it doesn't help when key players are at odds with each other. In striking a balance, what ultimately matters are the social norms embraced by Singaporeans as a whole.