My letter to the Censorship Review Committee 2009

To the Chairman and members of the Censorship Review Committee 2009:



This submission is in two main parts. The first half addresses principles that should guide the regulatory review. The second is focusses on specific recommendations.

My chief interest, platform-wise, lies in the area of film, including broadcasting. Subject-wise, it lies in the expression of sex, sexual identity, orientation, gender identity including transgenderism, and advocacy speech pertaining to these issues. The rest of this letter should therefore be read in the context of these concerns, and less in the context of depiction of violence or racial and religious hate speech, which I recognise are also areas of contention. In the interest of length however, I will not be addressing non-sexual issues.

Principled versus populist approach

I see from your website that the CRC intends to conduct a survey as previous reviews have done. While this may yield useful findings, I am concerned that over-reliance on the findings may cause other perspectives to be neglected. A population that has known no media regime other than a censored one will no doubt express great misgivings about a more liberal regime, and it will surprise no one if your survey findings reveal a substantial degree of fear about any loosening up.

In particular, many people who have grown up in an environment of discriminatory laws, rules and attitudes against gay and transgendered persons can be expected to want to maintain such rules and attitudes; the unknown is always feared.

Surveys therefore tend to yield results biased towards the status quo, even if intellectually, the status quo is obviously unsustainable.

And indeed, it is unsustainable. Just today, the Straits Times published an excerpt from the interview Minister Mentor gave National Geographic correspondent Mark Jacobsen. In it, Mr Lee was quoted as having said:

We cannot censor [the internet] because [people can] just go to some server outside [of Singapore]. You have got to leave it to parents, schoolteachers and peer groups, to say: look, don’t waste your time [visiting pornographic sites]…. You want to cut off the internet? You want to cut off your cellphones? You want to cut off satellite TV? Then you will become like Myanmar. It’s not possible.

(Straits Times, 6 Jan 2010, ‘My job is really as a long-range radar’)

Like Mr Lee, you are no doubt aware that technological trends will make any attempt to regulate, let alone censor, as futile as the proverbial boy sticking his finger into a breached dyke. It is not many years away when we will be able to download a full-length feature film from abroad in a few minutes. Who will need bricks and mortar cinemas and domestic broadcasters by then if they are tied up in fussy rules preventing them from matching such offerings?

In the face of such a prospect, what useful role can the CRC then play? You will be tempted amidst clamour from certain quarters against change, to try to hold back the flood. But you won’t be doing Singaporeans any favours. The CRC should not give people the false impression that they can be protected from the winds of change by government fiat. To do so would only cause people to pay little attention to their own responsibility to guide their own children, in the belief that the government will do it for them.

It is more meaningful to use the opportunity to help prepare Singaporeans to cope with the flood. We have maybe five to ten years before the flood arrives; this is our chance to let our society develop personal and social immunity.

This means the CRC has to be bold; not to propose a small incremental change, but to take us at least halfway to where we’re going to end up anyway, so that when the flood comes, people will have half-adjusted and it is less disruptive.

Your duty to freedom of expression

There is another perspective that is under-prioritised in Singapore: It emanates from principles of human rights.

This is where the name of the committee – The Censorship Review Committee – is unfortunate, because the very idea of censorship conflicts with the principle of freedom of expression. I ask that you see your mandate in broader terms than one of merely revising censorship rules; you should be questioning the very notion of censorship.

Singapore’s constitution enshrines this principle in its Clause 14(1)(a), which says in stark clarity, “every citizen of Singapore has the right to freedom of speech and expression”.

The minister, in his oath of office pledges to uphold the constitution; he therefore has a duty to protect the freedom of expression. Thus, I ask the CRC to bear in mind that since you are tasked with producing recommendations to the minister, you should not be asking him to undertake any action that violates the constitution and his oath of office.

In a similar vein, Singapore, as a member of the United Nations, is obligated to uphold the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), Article 19 of which says: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”

You will notice that freedom of expression includes the right to receive information. Hence, it is necessary to interrogate how any recommendation of censorship can be consistent with this human right and Singapore’s international obligations.

Recommendation 1: Respecting constitutional and international obligations, the CRC should make it crystal clear that there should be no censorship, only regulation. The power to ban films should be rescinded. The recommended regulatory regime should be one that only classifies films and zones their distribution – where “zoning” can mean both spatial zoning in the case of cinemas and time zoning in the case of broadcasting.

The morality qualifier

Clause 14(1)(a) of the Constitution is qualified by clause 14(2)(a), which says that Parliament may by law impose “such restrictions as it considers necessary or expedient in the interest of … public order or morality”.

Some will argue that this qualification should weigh heavily on the right to freedom of expression, especially when it pertains to sex. Yes and no.

Yes perhaps, to the public display of sex and the public depiction of sex in media, and that is why there may be grounds for a reasonable regulation of such expression.

But this same clause is cited for something quite distinct – the discriminatory silencing and censorship of homosexual and transgender expression. The argument for this is that homosexuality itself is immoral, and when added to the moral concerns about the depiction of sex in media, it – including depiction of homosexual identity, inclination, affection, desire and sex – should be subject to greater control than the depiction of heterosexuality.

The CRC should not accept such an argument. Only certain religious teachings (or certain denominations of them) consider homosexuality and transgenderism problematic; while the teachings of Buddhism, Taoism and Hinduism have nothing significant to say on this, instead treating various forms of sexuality wholistically. To unthinkingly adopt the jaundiced viewpoint of certain religions as a general rule for Singapore is to contravene the secular foundations of our republic. This, I ask you to strenuously avoid.

Treating homosexuality and transgenderism as immorality also contradicts the principle that discrimination on the grounds of sexuality orientation and gender identity violates Equality provisions in both the constitution and the UDHR. Clause 12(1) of the Constitution: “All persons are equal before the law and entitled to the equal protection of the law.”

This resonates with Article 7 of the UDHR: “All are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law. All are entitled to equal protection against any discrimination in violation of this Declaration and against any incitement to such discrimination.

There have been many precedents abroad, including the ruling from the United Nations Human Rights Committee in Toonen vs Australia (1994), establishing that discrimination on the ground of sexual orientation violates Equality provisions.

The present differentiated treatment of homosexual and transgender sexuality in existing censorship guidelines violates this important principle.

Then there is the question of ensuring that Singaporeans are attuned to the rest of the world. Country after country has moved to treat their gay citizens with respect and dignity; some have begun according marital rights. Openly gay people are heading multinational corporations and rising up the political ladder. By preventing the necessary exposure of Singaporeans to a more rounded picture of gay and transgendered people, censorship stunts Singaporeans’ ability to shake off stereotypical thinking and deal seamlessly with the outside world. This is self-defeating given that we aspire to be a globally-connected hub, interacting with people from everywhere.

Recommendation 2: Regulation of media should be even-handed and non-discriminatory, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity. Depictions of homosexual or transgender characters, their affections, desires and activity should be held to the same standards, not more stringent standards, as depictions of heterosexual characters.

In other words, whereas previous censorship guidelines treat homosexuality as an issue by itself with regulatory handling more restrictive than depictions of heterosexuality, the new recommendations should insist that there be no differentiation, in the interest of non-discrimination and secular equality, and in the interest of maturing Singaporeans’ minds.

Censorship of advocacy speech

Over the years, there have been instances when television broadcasters were fined for broadcasting programs that the Media Development Authority (MDA) deemed to be “promoting homosexual lifestyles” – itself a term that is offensive to gay people and drawn from sectarian and religious politicking. These instances ranged from talk shows when guests spoke honestly and openly about their sexual orientation and romantic relationships, to a reality show where a gay couple were participants. Learning from these instances of fines, television broadcasters themselves preemptively snip segments from programs they have purchased, including speeches made at public events, such as the Oscars awards.

The likely motivation for such censorship is similar to the above, where depiction of homosexuality is seen as far more abhorrent than depiction of heterosexuality, though in this case, it is extended to plain speech (as opposed to depiction).

You may also hear arguments that link advocacy speech to threats against public order, thereby falling within the scope of Clause 14(2)(a) of the constitution. This tendency should be seen for what it is: an absurd expansion of the meaning of the term “public order”. Advocacy for peaceful change is part and parcel of a democracy, which the Constitution of Singapore serves to put in place.

Either attempt to justify such censorious behaviour – on morality or public order grounds – would be incorrectly reasoned and motivated by prejudicial bias, violating both the principles of freedom of expression and non-discrimination.

Recommendation 3: Advocacy speech in favour of equality for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered persons should not be subject to any regulatory prohibition.

Removing the ‘ban’ category, redefining film classifications

As mentioned above, a key recommendation should be the discontinuation of the practice of banning films. The present framework comprises both regulation and censorship, wherein the BFC can refuse to rate a film, saying it exceeds even R21 standards and thereby classify a film as banned. This framework puts Singapore at great distance from the ineluctable reality of technological trends. The reality is in fact upon us; there are any number of websites from which full-blown pornographic films can be obtained. It is necessary to put our regulatory regime on a more realistic footing.

In addition, what regulation remains should be much lighter, moving Singapore forward, to prepare our society for the day when media is borderless and immune to bureaucratic controls.

Lighter regulation should take two forms:

1. A revision of the film classification standards.
2. An easing of controls over venues for the higher classification standards.

Film classification standards

Currently the Media Development Authority (MDA) and the Board of Film Censors (BFC) do not seem to publicise what is meant by each of the five film classification standards. A search of the MDA’s website yielded no useful information. This is neither respectful of citizens’ right to know how decisions are made, nor is it helpful to parents who wish to understand what any given rating implies.

It would also be more comprehensible to the layman if the same rating standards apply across cinema and broadcasting.

Recommendation 4: Going forward, film classification standards should be publicly published and the same standards should apply as guidelines for different time-blocks on free-to-air and subscription television.

I propose below new descriptions for each of the five classification standards. In this scheme, no film needs to be submitted to the BFC, but in the absence of a certification from the BFC, it is rated R21 by default. Lower ratings can be granted by the BFC after review, in keeping with published guidelines.

Recommendation 5: No film need to be submitted to the BFC, but a film that is not submitted shall be considered as rated R21.

Recommendation 6: The five categories proposed, with sexual content descriptions, are:

  • G – expressions of loving and romantic intent, e.g. verbal declarations or a quick kiss on the lips;
  • PG – fleeting mention or body expression of erotic interest or experience, no depiction of it being acted upon and/or prolonged kiss on the lips;
  • NC16 – depiction of the sex act without frontal nudity, excluding situations of commercial sex or sexual violence;
  • M18 – depiction of sex act with frontal nudity that is not prolonged (e.g. totalling not more than 30 seconds per hour running time), including depictions of commercial sex and hints of sexual violence;
  • R21 – all else, including films not submitted to the BFC for rating.

Recommendation 7: Television broadcasters should abide by these standards in these time-blocks:

Free-to-air television:

06:00h – 22:00h G
22:00h – 24:00h PG
24:00h – 06:00h NC16

Subscription television cannot be similarly regulated because programming is not done locally. Where possible however, they should insert viewer advisories if any program to be screened meets the tests of NC16 or higher.

Venue controls

Currently, the MDA requires that films with ratings NC16 and higher be shown only in such venues as have a Film Exhibition Licence. Only corporate bodies, not private individuals, are allowed to apply for such a licence. A bond or bank guarantee of $10,000 also needs to be deposited.

This is overly restrictive, discriminatory against unincorporated individuals, and as discussed below, undermines the development of arts and media industries.

Recommendation 8: The Film Exhibition Licence be open to any individual to apply, for any enclosed venue, and the bond be reduced to $1,000 or lifted altogether.

Arts and media industry

Not only does censorship and heavy regulation violate human rights guarantees and fly in the face of technological trends, it also impedes the development of Singapore’s domestic arts and media industries.

Any artist or entrepreneur wanting to do challenging work with sexual content faces hurdles on many fronts. Funding is harder to get because of uncertainty whether the final output will be banned. Showcasing is harder because venues are fewer and costlier (due to reduced competition as a result of the difficulty of getting venues licensed).

Even film festivals are held back from full potential by censorship and venue difficulties. Film festivals can bring enormous economic benefits, but they need a supportive regulatory environment to flourish.

The CRC will do Singapore’s push into a knowledge economy no favours by being timid in its recommendations.

Symbolic, ceremonial censorship

I can foresee other submissions making arguments along these lines: Censorship standards are still needed even if technology renders actual censorship impractical, because we need to set the tone for society.

This is a very damaging path to take. Laws and by-laws should not be confused with well-intentioned but toothless homilies. They should either be effective or be dispensed with, lest they bring the authority of law and government into disrepute. Do not try to censor what cannot be censored.


The CRC is meant to serve the public interest, which in this case, is to prepare Singapore society for the true information age by doing what is necessary and realistic, not to give excuses to those who would deny reality, procrastinate on needed change, discriminate against sexual minorities, and frustrate our media artists who are eager to seize the day.

Undoubtedly, your mission is going to be difficult because Singaporeans have for too long been overprotected. There will be vocal arguments for going slow in any liberalisation, not to mention calls to reverse and tighten up. These should be seen for what they are: pleas to continue denying that the landscape is changing, to close our eyes and to pretend that we can cut ourselves off from the rest of the modern world. Precisely because we have been mollycoddled for so long, the catching up has to be faster-paced. In short: be bold.

10 Responses to “My letter to the Censorship Review Committee 2009”

  1. 1 How are panels chosen? 6 January 2010 at 21:21

    Took a quick look at the constitution of the panel; it seems to have only one filmmaker, and one film academic among the 17 total on the panel. Might it not be better to have the industry more represented?

  2. 2 Desmond 6 January 2010 at 21:58

    Good letter Alex, but I predict it will fall on deaf ears.

  3. 3 MTKoh 7 January 2010 at 19:08

    Even people who are not filmmakers or academics can hold liberal views, so unless we know the backgrounds of the members of the CRC, we shouldn’t consider it a lost cause. I fear too many do, and never even bother to write in as Alex has done. So come on, guys (and gals) write to the CRC. Having said that, time for me to get started on my own letter 🙂

  4. 4 Being aware 9 January 2010 at 21:26

    It is an excellent letter. I would like to highlight even more that the language and reasoning used in broadcasting codes and decisions relating to censoring the depiction of homosexuals based on myths and misinformation has clearly been imported from American religious extremists, rather than fact and science. This didn’t just happen by accident, any more than it did in the disgraceful scenario now playng out in Uganda where such hatred and ignorance of gay people has been stirred up by American fundamentalists that gay people are potentially facing the death penalty, and anyone defending them or not reporting them faces jail.

    I would like to see an investigation into the involvement of religious fundamentalists in drafting the existing guidelines and the decision making process

  5. 5 Desmond 13 January 2010 at 09:36

    The CRC has spoken going by this line “Let me emphasise that fundamentally, it is societal norms and values that shape our content standards and the extent to which we should liberalise or tighten up,” (Lui Tuck Yew), what I predicted has come true.

    I can hear it now “We are conservative society… Homosexuality goes against the current norms… We cannot be seen to promote ‘alternative lifestyles’…”

    Seriously, does anyone think that they will change?

  6. 6 Sun Koh 9 February 2010 at 15:24

    By the way the BFC’s guidelines have just been published. It was dated 1 Feb 2010. Thanks to YB who documented his non-transparent ordeal with the censors.
    Go read it and see how a common term Banned is re-term as NAR and how the Films Act overwrites these guidelines.

    Compare it with the BBFC guidelines Classification Guidelines 2009.pdf

  7. 8 yuen 27 February 2010 at 22:06

    Feminism & Sexuality? Its Relevance today: Innate? Choice?

    this is actually a cagey title; it does not even mention homosexuality; so is the speaker a bit uncomfortable about homosexuality? maybe he is too conservative?

    I dont think anyone really knows whether homosexuality is born or bred; genetics, upbringing and personal choice all seem to play a part, but I dont think this is really the important point

    to make an analogy, are males naturally inclined to be unfaithful? if so, do we have to permit polygamy? or should society be specially stringent to prevent this “innate” tendency from harming the family?

    you can argue either way, but ultimately, you still have to make a moral/legal decision, whether innate or not; the same situation holds for homosexuality

  8. 9 Pire 15 June 2010 at 09:42

    I want to fight for internet surfing freedom
    but I don’t know how to…
    BTW,thanks for writting the letter.
    I think Mda is very unfair to us.
    Is there anything we can do to make Mda lift the banns on websites?
    I don’t know how to say but…
    I really really hope we Singaporeans can have more freedom.
    Everything is already so strict in real life,now even the internet…
    I mean,the internet

    It’s so unfair!Always pushing!
    Income Tax,GST,freedom to speak,censorship of the internet!
    [I can’t (didn’t) say who are the people I’m refering to]

  9. 10 yawningbread 15 June 2010 at 10:16

    Pire – which websites are you referring to that MDA has banned? What do you mean by “internet surfing freedom”? You will need to frame more cogent arguments to be credible, and the starting point should be to know one’s facts.

    Another thing: Yawning Bread is not an anti-government website; it’s not the place for flinging handkerchiefs into the air, inscribed with unexamined frustrations.

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