MDA and arts groups: Controversial licensing scheme should not be swept off the table completely

At first glance, the dropping of Arts Term Licensing from a list of proposed amendments to the Public Entertainments and Meetings Act might be chalked up as a 'win' for Singapore artists. They felt - among other things - that the scheme allowing arts groups to classify their own performances according to the Media Development Authority's (MDA) guidelines would encourage self-censorship.

But I think it is only the start of a process that must continue to be carefully negotiated if Singapore is to move forward in the arena of censorship and regulation.

While censorship would bluntly define what is acceptable and unacceptable for the public by banning or trimming work, regulation through age-appropriate ratings and advisories would allow for critical thinking and evaluation on the part of the consumer as to what they would like to see, which is essential in a digital world where misinformation and graphic material is just a click away. For artists, one of the sticking points about self-classification is that they would have to adhere to current MDA guidelines which include a Not Allowed For All Ratings category, in effect a ban, for certain kinds of objectionable content.

On this note, I hope that the MDA will continue to keep the possibility of regulation on the table, and not throw the baby out with the bathwater. While certain aspects of the Arts Term Licensing scheme may not have been palatable to artists, the spirit of regulation is something that both a high-level review committee on censorship and Singapore artists have raised as a better alternative to the censors - giving audience members and the public greater responsibility in choosing what they want to view, rather than hand-holding both consumers and artists.

Perhaps, instead of linking a term licensing pilot directly to a Bill or piece of legislation, the MDA could use it as a test run to see whether implementation would be feasible, with input from both the public and arts groups on the scheme's finer points. The results of this test run could then be used to finesse the scheme.

The MDA framed the removal of Arts Term Licensing somewhat cautiously, positioning themselves as having done their best to work out a compromise with artists on term licensing, but ultimately citing "fundamental differences" for its lack of implementation, which sounded uncannily like the start of divorce proceedings.

But even if there are what seems to be irreconcilable differences, I would suggest marriage counselling rather than an ugly custodial battle or a severing of ties - and the issue of term licensing should not be swept off the table altogether.

The relationship between the MDA and arts groups has often been fraught with tension. A general sense of mistrust tends to permeate any proceedings between the two parties, particularly when the MDA is perceived to be using a heavy-handed approach (for instance, by denying performance licences to certain shows), or when artists are misunderstood as provoking for the sake of provocation in their work.

On this note, it was encouraging to see both the arts groups (by way of artist network Arts Engage) and the MDA engaging each other directly both during the public consultation and in a series of follow-ups in the wake of this proposed scheme.

Artists and groups also came together as a unified whole to challenge the framework of the scheme, giving the public a profound look at the rich diversity of the arts landscape we have in Singapore today.

For this reason, I hope that the MDA and arts groups will continue to meet each other on the same plane so that each side might be able to gain a deeper understanding of the other, and perhaps slowly move towards a broadening of classification codes so that the conservative tastes of one segment of society will not curtail the keen appetites of another for progressive artwork.

Keeping our artists on too short a leash will continue to breed in the public an expectation that the term "artists" should be mentioned in the same breath as "irresponsibility". This is not true. One of the key roles of the artist is to help their audiences make sense of difficult or ambiguous realities, to explore challenging and confronting material within a safe space, to open up audiences' minds to new possibilities and ideas. They tell stories and relay emotions that connect in a way that equations or lists of statistics cannot.

Singapore has often been compared to The Republic of Plato, drawing parallels between both republics' distrust of artists and their subjection to censorship for, ostensibly, the greater good. The ancient Greek philosopher envisioned a well-ordered, ideal society firmly under the thumb of the state, with no room for poets and artists.

But let us not aspire to be Plato's Republic. Let us aspire to be a republic that can be both an economic powerhouse - and a great renaissance one.

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