Singapore: “Censorship isn’t working – regulate instead”


The core message in a 33-page paper by Arts Engage entitled ‘2010 Arts Community Position Paper on Censorship and Regulation’ is: “Censorship isn’t working. Regulate instead”.

Arts Engage is a group of 180 people from the local arts community in Singapore who have been hard at work formulating this position paper on censorship ever since they got together in 2009 with regard to the new Censorship Review Committee. The paper was rejected by the government. However, it has some interesting views.

» Position paper on censorship and regulation with 1,786 signatories: Open or download PDF

The Censorship Review process

“This position paper represents one outcome of this on-going process of consultation and debate.”

“In May 2009, the Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts (MICA) announced a mid-term censorship review. Feeling that they could make a useful contribution to this process, ArtsEngage proposed 22 names for inclusion in the Censorship Review Committee. None were selected.

Over the following months, interested members of the arts community (including practitioners from theatre, film, the visual arts, the literary arts and other forms) have continued to engage with the Censorship Review process. This has included:

• Email discussion on ArtsEngage
• Being interviewed by the press
• Meetings amongst interested practitioners, and discussions with the public
• A review of earlier CRC reports, and of ‘best practices’ in other countries
• A survey of censorship experiences by a diverse range of practitioners (See Appendix 1)
• Participation in CRC focus groups
• Discussions with individual members of the CRC
• A presentation to the CRC
• Participation in a follow-up presentation by the Media Development Authority (MDA)”

Problems of Censorship

Lack of clarity and transparency about rules and processes
Timelines, guidelines and other information are not always readily available; where they are, wording can be vague, and decision-making processes obscure.

Inconsistencies in the treatment of local and foreign works
Different standards are used in judging local and foreign works often to the detriment of local work

‘Censor first’ attitude
On certain questions of content or form, the first impulse is to censor, with the individual merits of the case only given due consideration after the ‘alarm bells’ have started ringing.

Disproportionate response to criticism or complaints
Letters of complaint to the press or government appear to trigger a disproportionate and over-cautious response. This indicates a lack of faith in the regulatory procedure, and an unwillingness publicly to defend decisions or the merits of specific works.

Inconsistency in inter-agency interactions
Besides the Media Development Authority (MDA), a number of other statutory boards and ministries are involved in censoring cultural products. However, this appears to happen on an ad hoc and rather obscure basis, leaving few avenues of appeal for censored artists, who may not be permitted to know the source of the prohibition against them or their work.

Multi-level censorship
The government is extensively involved in the administration, funding, promotion, housing, hosting, curating, regulating and censoring of artworks. The scope for interference both direct and indirect in the creation and public presentation of a work is therefore wide. As with the point above, the results are inconsistent, with sometimes contradictory information being given out by different government agencies, and decisions by one being reversed by another without explanation.

Existing rules flouted
It appears that the demands of one ministry or agency can override the judgments of another, even where the latter has operated in accordance with available guidelines.5

Personalisation of the process
Censorship decisions seem to vary from individual to individual, demonstrating the need for more robust and transparent regulatory guidelines. Sometimes, a decision can stand or fall on personal contacts.

Culture of defensiveness, secrecy and intimidation
There seems to be a general perception in government that artists are a threat, who take pleasure in embarrassing it locally or internationally. The modus operandi for censoring individuals reflects this misperception. Communications take on a furtive quality, being conducted by phone or face-to-face meetings, rather than in writing; decisions are made – or at least communicated – at the last minute; additional demands are made of artists at the precise moment they are most focused on their work; compromise solutions entail the removal of government logos from publicity.

Lack of consumer advice
It is not easy for members of the public to find out why and how a given work has been censored. Informed consumer choices are therefore hard to make.

Impoverished public discourse
The level of public discussion of censorship in the media is clichéd, insubstantial, and ill-informed. We take this to be symptomatic of the constraining effects of censorship itself on the quality and scope of independent thought.

Lack of independent oversight
For a number of reasons, including the legacy of Emergency-era censorship and Singapore’s distinctive political culture, we could say that the government is institutionally predisposed to censor. All the more reason, then, for properly independent oversight of procedures, as well as the drafting of subsequent reviews.

Setting the wrong tone
On matters of censorship, many individuals and institutions take their cue from the government. For example, an ‘Advisory’ is never just that: it can have a damaging knock-on effect on independent funding sources and school bookings, without regard for the merits either of the work, or of the decision to award an advisory.

Benefits of Regulation

Greater freedom of expression
The arts community supports regulation without bureaucratic censorship. This means that except for materials which are prohibited by law and whose prohibition has been decided by a court of law, or where the producer of the work expressly requests it (in order to achieve a specific age rating, for instance) there need be no cuts to content. All works in the highest rated-categories can be uncut.

Greater consumer choice
The aim of regulation is to enable members of the public to make an informed decision about whether or not they wish to view a work, or to allow their children to view it.

Part of the bigger picture
Because censorship entails the arbitrary exercise of power, it is exceptionalist: it brooks no debate and invites no consensus. Regulation is ordinary. It takes its place in a larger system of procedures and standards, and its legitimacy rests on the quality of its outcomes. Its objectives are clear, as are its limitations. As such, it invites the active engagement of stakeholders, and establishes a clear expectation of the responsibilities they, themselves, should take on.

Increased professionalism
Repeated encounters with the censors suggests to us that a culture of second-guessing and buck-passing prevails. A transparent and open regulatory system should enable decision-makers at all levels to have confidence and pride in their judgments. This will have a knock-on effect on relations with and attitudes of other stakeholders.

Depoliticisation of the process
The civil service implements government policy, which is determined by the democratically elected government of the day. However, it discharges this duty in the larger service of the state. In Singapore, ‘ruling party’, ‘government’, and ‘state’ are often conflated. However, what may be in the interests of one is not always in the interests of all. Even a robust regulatory framework formulated by the state may not be able to stop party-political interference; but it should enable stakeholders to identify it as such when it happens.

A level playing field
At present, local artists are disadvantaged when it comes to competing with less tightly-controlled international content and products. This is fundamentally at odds with the government’s own stated aims of developing the creative industries, and is prejudicial to local forms of expression.

The right to offend and be offended
Several high profile cases of offensive speech have recently been addressed through legal avenues or by the security services. Such measures are not the hallmark of a healthy or robust society, nor do they demonstrably contribute the fostering of one. This is, of course, a contentious issue. However, we maintain that it is not the business of government to protect individuals from offence a priori. 7

Morality, not moralism
All regulatory guidelines express the moral norms of a society – including the norm that entails the continued questioning of such norms. However, it is not the job of regulators to moralise. Disinterested decision-making helps guard against that.

Better censorship
The arts community does not, as is sometimes misunderstood (or wilfully mischaracterized), advocate a “free for all”, with no limits on the freedom of expression. The laws of the land must be upheld. However, if censorship can be definitively separated from regulation, then both processes will gain a measure of credibility where now both are compromised.

A new benchmark
Informal conversations with employees from other branches of government indicate that MICA agencies may be behind the curve regarding internal communications and stakeholder relations. Certainly, censorship is a ‘hot’ topic. All the more reason, then, to grasp the bull by the horns and develop a regulatory framework that establishes new standards of transparency and accountability – best practices that other branches of government should aspire to reproduce.

A new start?
When it comes to state support for the arts, Singapore’s artists are only too happy to give credit where it is due. However, many who have been subject to the censorship process harbour a degree of resentment at the high-handedness of state representatives, and frustration at the arbitrariness of the resulting decisions. The introduction of a properly disinterested regulatory framework, based on principles the majority of artists – along with other stakeholders – can agree on, will provide an excellent opportunity to clear the air, and build professional relationships afresh.

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