A country without Shame

Shame has no place in Singapore. We boast of being “first-world” and speak of striving to be “world-class” in this and that, while quietly engaging in third-world autocratic methods as if there is no contradiction.

Shame – the critically-acclaimed film directed by Steve McQueen – has also been effectively banned, joining a long list that includes A Jihad for Love (dir: Parvez Sharma), David the Tolhidan (dir: Mano Khalil) and Boy (dir: Auraeus Solito).

Coming in the wake of the controversy over freedom of expression sparked off by plans for the Yale-NUS college, it pulls the rug from under the feet of those trying desperately to defend Singapore. See for example Tommy Koh’s commentary published a week ago in the Sunday Times and archived here.

About 200 faculty members of Yale earlier this month approved a resolution expressing “concern regarding the recent history of lack of respect for civil and political rights in the state of Singapore,” and urges Yale-NUS “to uphold civil liberty and political freedom on campus and in the broader society.”

The move by the Media Development Authority (MDA) – the Orwellian name for our state censors – also recalls Malaysia’s effective ban on our Singapore Dance Theatre performing in Kuala Lumpur, reportedly because their costumes were too revealing. If we laugh at Malaysian authorities’ narrow-mindedness, the inch-wide width of our own authorities’ minds is nothing to boast about either. At least Malaysia does not have the conceit of seeing itself as equal with first-world countries.

The Life! section of the Straits Times reported that MDA

gave [the film] an R21 rating and, additionally, asked for a group sex scene to be trimmed. Despite an appeal from Cathay, MDA remained firm on the snip needed.

– Straits Times, 21 April 2012, What a Shame about no-show, by Annabeth Leow

Cathay-Keris Films is the Singapore distributor.

Director Steve McQueen stood firm and refused to allow any cuts to his work. Rightly so, but as a result, the film cannot be shown here.

However, a Google search will display any number of free downloads, though I am not sure that this is the right thing to do, it potentially being an act of piracy.

Shame is about addiction – in this case, to sex.  Lauded by the Guardian newspaper as “fluid, rigorous, serious cinema; the best kind of adult movie,” Shame was one of the two sensations (together with Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy) at the 2011 Venice Film Festival. Lead actor Michael Fassbender won the Golden Lion for best actor, for his role as a “a sex-addicted corporate drone”, as described by the Guardian in its review.

The precise scene that MDA objected to was a three-way sex scene involving a man and two women, reported the Straits Times, which quoted this statement from MDA: “After consulting the Films Consultative Panel on the film Shame, we are of the view that the prolonged and explicit threesome sex sequence has exceeded our classification guidelines.”

I take such statements with a pinch of salt. I have spoken to members of the Films Consultative Panel and the process is far from straightforward. From what I’ve been told, the panel may approve a film only for MDA to reject it. “Consulting” in MDA-speak does not always mean following the direction of. For example, in the case of the film The Kids are Alright, a member of the panel told me that he only learnt of MDA’s decision to permit just one print of the film (in order to constrain its distribution to the absolute minimum) from the press. All the while that the panel was debating its rating, he was not told (nor were others on the panel, he said) that even if the panel agreed with a restrictive R21 rating, which they eventually did, the MDA would further tighten it with a one-print rule. He felt that the MDA was not following the spirit of the panel’s decision to allow the film.

Diehard defenders of the Singapore government would argue that even the United States has a film rating system, but these folks will probably play down the crucial differences. In the US, it is an industry body that issues ratings. If the body disapproves, a film might find its distribution much reduced since cinema chains tend to follow its rulings. But at no time does it become criminal to possess and exhibit the film.

Not so in Singapore. A film that the MDA has refused to classify – and this now includes Shame – becomes contraband. You cannot possess or exhibit it without infringing the law. The state controls what you can see, hear, think and do.

Instead, the MDA has a tendency to gloss over this crucial distinction and use Orwellian-speak, saying that they are not in the business of censoring films. By that, they use the narrowest of narrow definitions of the word (in keeping with inch-wide minds?) to mean that they do not do the actual snipping. Yes, but as the example of Shame shows, they demand that someone else snips in submission to their demands, or else the film is deemed contraband. Such dishonesty in language is another characteristic of illiberal, undemocratic systems trying to disguise themselves.

The demand itself is quite silly. If the MDA thinks that a three-way sex scene is too “prolonged and explicit”, what does that actually mean? Does it mean a brief but explicit scene would be okay? What about a prolonged but not-so-explicit scene? How prolonged is prolonged? And where does that leave two-way sex?

We have every reason to laugh at the MDA as we have at the Malaysian authorities when they reportedly said Singapore Dance Theatre’s costumes were too revealing. It’s all in the eye of the beholder, and such decisions reveal far more about the censors, their neuroses and backwardness, than of the art.

24 Responses to “A country without Shame”


  1. 1 Anonymous 22 April 2012 at 16:05

    MDA, please please allow this boring, vacuous and over-hyped film to be screened so that it may fail commercially as it deserves.

  2. 2 SpeedyG 22 April 2012 at 17:20

    In many countries the censors exhibit (no pun intended) their own private fears and phobias when making these decisions, but Singapore censors are truly in their own league. The funny thing is you can buy all these movies on DVD in Thailand, Hong Kong etc and bring them over without any worry of getting caught.

  3. 3 AYewTree 22 April 2012 at 17:22

    Alex,
    From the trailer, the film is NC-17 in the US but R-21 here -with cuts to the said scene, before it can be shown. So, we are not even the maturity of an 17 years old American. That’s uproarious!

    • 4 D. 22 April 2012 at 23:51

      Hi AYewTree,

      I sincerely think comparisons to the US shouldn’t be made, for the simple idea that we hold different values from them.
      In any case, US citizens can’t drink until they are 21. Does it make us ‘mature’ to be able to drink at 18? That’s uproarious!

      Vanessa

      • 5 Reza 23 April 2012 at 21:09

        In that case, let’s do an internal comparison. We can drink at 18 and can even hold a rifle and shoot to kill, and yet we can’t watch this film. That’s uproarious!

      • 6 Ziggy 24 April 2012 at 07:28

        Minimum enlistment age for Singapore is 16 years and 6 months. So kids in Singapore are deemed mature enough at 16 to handle a rifle with live ammunition but adults need to be protected from a film.

        Truly Singapore.

      • 7 Anonymous 25 April 2012 at 11:49

        Minimum enlistment age for Singapore is 16 years and 6 months. So kids in Singapore are deemed mature enough at 16 to die for their country but adults need to be protected from a film.

        Truly Singapore.

        FIFY Ziggy

      • 8 Poker Player 27 April 2012 at 14:29

        “we hold different values from them”

        Who is **”WE”***?

        Some of us think that women need to cover their whole body leaving only the eyes. Others disagree.

        You have to choose a different word – but the force your position depends on you using that word ….. what does that say about your position?

      • 9 FC 29 April 2012 at 23:53

        Another internal comparison- Sex itself is legal after 16, but to WATCH it, oh no, thats 21 or never.

  4. 10 周文伟 22 April 2012 at 23:20

    Just another good film that’s banned here. Like in 2005, where they banned Brokeback Mountain that was critically acclaimed. And in 2003, Kill Bill…

  5. 14 Faiz Zohri 23 April 2012 at 00:09

    Usually, i just ignore censorboard ratings. But these sex scenes, especially the long three-way scene brings the viewer (at least for me) to the realisation of a guy who is having lots of sex, to a guy trapped in his own sex addiction – which is the essence of the film… I am happy the director didn’t bend down to the censor board. Sometimes i think the most dirty-minded of us all are the people sitting in the censor room. Not all orgies are bad, MDA. : )

  6. 15 Crap 23 April 2012 at 13:43

    I wonder how MDA will classify the upcoming movie “1965” starring Tony Leung as Lee Kuan Yew??? Would it be classified as a “party political film”??

  7. 16 Lim 23 April 2012 at 17:25

    Why let MDA hold you hostage?!

    Just get an itv, purchase or rent it on iTunes US, and viola!
    No point arguing with a bunch of prudish technocrats and conservative fundamentalist. Look what happened today. They just decided to rebuke you directly with the latest HIV stats on mainstream media, enough to make their point. This country will never progress if they continue to wish to bury their head in the sand. That’s why NUS deserves the flak from Yale.

  8. 17 Anonymous 24 April 2012 at 15:13

    Just because you don’t agree with it as an individual doesn’t mean that the majority of Singaporeans disagree with the ban. The majority are still conservative and would probably want the film censored. You cannot assume your views speak for the majority and MDA should follow your viewpoints.

    • 18 Poker Player 26 April 2012 at 16:03

      Being out of the education system for so long, just what goes on in schools today that produces people who reason like this anon?

      • 19 Anonymous 26 April 2012 at 22:45

        I don’t think it’s secular education that taught him to reason like that. Note the tell tale signs: majority are conservative, majority should dictate what everyone else can or cannot see/do, I speak on behalf of the majority. He might as well add in “I am the parent of 2 young children”.

    • 20 Jason 27 April 2012 at 20:23

      If you don’t like it, don’t watch it, it’s as easy as that.

      Why do you think you have a right to impose your personal moral values on everyone else?

      What makes the values of this conservative “majority” (in quotes because that’s debatable) superior to my personal moral values?

      Why should MDA dictate what I can or cannot watch?

      If it’s a matter of keeping away from those who are too young, than impose an age limit. Again, if you don’t agree with the film then just don’t watch it.

      • 21 Anonymous 28 April 2012 at 17:09

        I agree wi Jason. Majority has been brainwashed way too long to understand that nobody has to the right to tell u what u can or cannot watch. Movies r expressions, visions of creative minds & an enjoyment of sorts. Why censored? Why did the censors themselves get to watch? Why?

  9. 22 Go Kick 30 April 2012 at 11:54

    What is shameful in Singapore is the normalization of xenophobic behaviour.

  10. 23 Marcelo 2 May 2012 at 17:32

    old enough to handle a rifle at 16 and a half years? Army teaches people to follow and not think. It is the questioning and thinking which loosening of restrictions potentially brings that might worry the guys in power. Far easier for lions-wannabe to lead a pack of sheep than convince a group of fellow citizens that can think critically for themselves.

  11. 24 hokkien peng 27 April 2012 at 13:37

    just downloaded shame and a jihad for love from itune us. forbidden fruit always taste the best…


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