Book on political cartoons banned here as caricatures of Prophet Muhammad are unacceptable: Masagos

Red Lines: Political Cartoons And The Struggle Against Censorship has been classified as objectionable under the Undesirable Publications Act. PHOTO: MITPRESS.MIT.EDU

SINGAPORE - A book on political cartoons was banned here because it is unacceptable in Singapore to publish caricatures and insulting images of the Prophet Muhammad, said Minister-in-charge of Muslim Affairs Masagos Zulkifli.

Such pictures in the book Red Lines: Political Cartoons And The Struggle Against Censorship are offensive to Muslims even if they are published in the name of free speech, academia, or otherwise, stressed Mr Masagos in Parliament on Wednesday (Jan 12).

"Beside the caricatures of the Prophet and Islam, the book also included images insulting to other religions. The authors may say that they do not intend for the publication to be insulting or demeaning, and their intention is to educate, but the Government rejects that," he said.

The Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA) said last November that the book, published in August, will not be allowed to be sold or distributed here, as it has been classified as objectionable under the Undesirable Publications Act for containing content that denigrates religions.

This includes reproductions of French magazine Charlie Hebdo's cartoons of Prophet Muhammad, which led to protests and violence overseas, as well as denigratory references pertaining to Hinduism and Christianity.

The book, by Hong Kong Baptist University's professor of media studies Cherian George and graphic novelist Sonny Liew, has already been distributed in other countries like the United States. It examines political cartoons from all over the world and explains the various motivations for and methods of cartoon censorship.

The demeaning and insulting images of the Prophet has led to rioting and deaths in several parts of the world, noted Mr Masagos, and major publications have refrained from publishing these offensive pictures.

Singapore's harmonious race and religious relations require constant care and attention of the Government and the society at large, and it is vital that every faith is treated with respect, he added.

"We don't want to risk anything that will begin unravelling the peace and harmony we enjoy from the due respect and consideration everyone gives to others," said Mr Masagos.

"We remain committed to working closely with all our religious communities to preserve and strengthen our racial and religious harmony, which is a bedrock of our cohesive society."

On Wednesday, Minister for Communications and Information Josephine Teo also spoke about the book, and stressed that the Government does not allow any religious group to be insulted or attacked, as hate speech and offensive content can easily be normalised and lead to deep social divides if left unchecked.

"To preserve racial and religious harmony in Singapore, we take a firm stance on such content regardless of their purpose of publication," she said.

Mrs Teo pointed out that in the last five years, the Government had assessed six other publications besides Red Lines to be objectionable for denigrating various religious communities. These publications, and others not allowed for distribution in Singapore, were assessed to be likely to cause feelings of enmity, hatred, ill will or hostility between different racial or religious groups.

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Ms Tin Pei Ling (MacPherson) asked if the political nature of the cartoons in Red Lines played a part in the decision to disallow it from being distributed here.

To this, Mrs Teo said that political cartoons were not in themselves a problem, and some are already in circulation. She reiterated how the Government has not allowed six other books to be distributed here for similar reasons in the last five years.

"None of them were about politics either. They either contained offensive and prejudicial content about other religions, or espoused polemical religious teachings which were likely to cause ill will and hatred among the different religious groups in Singapore," she said.

"Red Lines is objectionable for similar reasons."

The book’s distributor, as well as its authors, have not confirmed their specific plans on the treatment of the offensive content, said Mrs Teo. If and when they do so, they can approach IMDA to assess the suitability of a revised version for distribution here, she added.

Prof George said yesterday that before their distributor approached IMDA, he and Mr Liew had decided they should make some redactions for copies destined for Singapore bookstores “out of respect for local norms”.

“We were waiting for IMDA’s inputs before doing the edits, but the government banned the book instead. We intend to proceed with the changes that we had in mind before the ban,” he said. 

Responding, Mrs Teo’s press secretary Dawn Tay said the book was launched in the United States on August 31, two months before IMDA’s decision on Nov 1 to disallow the publication for distribution in Singapore.

“Even now, more than two months later, IMDA has not received any confirmation on specific plans to address the offensive content in the book from the authors or distributor,” Ms Tay added.

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Minister for Communications and Information Josephine Teo detailed why a book on political cartoons is banned in Singapore. MPs debated a private members motion to advance Singapore's transition towards a low-carbon society.

On Wednesday, the Ministry of Home Affairs said that it will not allow offensive cartoons like those in Charlie Hebdo to be published here, regardless whether the cartoons are about Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, or other religions.

Such images, even if intended as social commentary or for discussion on the issue of censorship, have the potential to cause offence to various religious communities, it said.

"The caricatures in the 'Red Lines' book will in our view, be deeply offensive to different religious groups, regardless of why these cartoons are dealt with in the book, and regardless of the authors’ intent in publishing them," said the ministry.

"The multi-racial and multi-religious harmony that we enjoy in Singapore today
is not the “natural order” of things. It is a state that we have worked hard to
achieve and carefully nurtured over many decades."

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