Arts group: “Censorship isn’t working: regulate instead”

T Sasitharan on the censorship review process: “One of the myths about the process is that it is just about some artists who are hot under the collar.”

Tan Tarn How on seeing the issue as one between Us and Them: “It’s a false dichotomy… We all have multiple identities. I speak not just as an artist but as a parent.”

T Sasitharan: “I’m also a parent. I have two young daughters and I have two conservative Hindu parents. We all have the same anxieties, but one thing we know is that censorship does not work.”

Tan Tarn How: “The internet has made the practice of censorship untenable.” He gave an example of his daughters downloading a full-length film from the internet. “I cannot tell them don’t watch it,” he pointed out; they would watch it anyway.

Resources could be better spent dealing with the things that matter such as child pornography and promoting self-responsibility. “Don’t fight the wrong war,” was his message.

The effort expended in fighting the wrong war has tremendous costs.

T Sasitharan: “Censorship is not only about freedom of expression. It’s also about business costs and consumer rights.”

Playwright Alvin Tan gave an example of how the authorities demanded three big chunks cut out from a play just 24 hours before the curtain was to go up. It would so eviscerate the message of the play that the audience would think the playwright and theatre company produces confused crap. The company could not just cancel the production; aside from the time, effort and costs in rehearsals, there was the down-payment made to Jubilee Hall.

Yet the play could not go on in its censored form either. “We have the right to protect our reputation,” he pointed out. “And consumers have the right to know” what was in the original and what happened to the original.

Referring to the actions of the censors, “Where,” he asked, “is the moral accountability?”

Film-making is the one area with possibly the biggest cost burdens, said Sasitharan. “When a censor comes in, [after the film has been made] it adds to the business costs. It also flies in the face of everything that Singapore prides itself in being — a business-friendly centre, efficient… When censorship is deployed, all these other aspects of our identity is denied.”

* * * * *

They were just a few of the 300-plus arts practitioners who came together as Arts Engage, to discuss the policies that govern and impact their respective practices. After six months’ work, they have put together a position paper as their joint response to the current censorship review process. You can read or download their paper from their website. If you agree with their arguments and proposals, they invite you to add your signature to it.

A press conference was held on the morning of 14 June 2010 to launch the signing phase.

T Sasitharan: “Are we saying that anything goes?” Of course not, he made clear. The position paper distinguishes between censorship and regulation:

Censorship entails proscribing content, prohibiting its public presentation, and/or preventing its creators from working towards its realisation. While conducted by civil servants who may sincerely believe they act in the name of the public good, censorship is often politically motivated, and always arbitrary. It fosters a culture of dependency on the part of the public, timidity on the part of institutions, and resentment or self-censorship on the part of content producers. It is costly, inefficient, and dignifies no one.

Regulation entails the disinterested classification of content according to publicly available guidelines. It enables access to the widest choice of content for the greatest number of individuals. It promotes responsibility on the part of all stakeholders, and transparency and accountability within and between institutions.

— Arts Engage’s position paper

Further down the document,

As long as regulation and censorship are confused, the exercise of the latter will continue to impede the transparent and accountable execution of the former.

Sasitharan slammed the demonisation of people arguing for greater freedom. “We are for the laws of the land,” he said, citing laws against hate speech and obscenity, adding that some of the latter may need changing. “If [people] break the laws, then haul them to court and punish them, but let that be an open process,” distinguishing it from the opacity of censorship.

The Arts Engage group themselves were surprised how many cases of censorship they could find when they started to compile some examples for their position paper. Censorship had become so “bureaucratised, routinised, and thus, invisibilised” that while each arts practitioner knew he was being censored, he didn’t know how often others were too.

June Yap pointed out that while their position paper lists ten examples of censorship during the last few years, there were many, many more cases.

Returning to the point that censorship diminishes everybody, theatre director Ivan Heng explained: “Theatre serves as a forum for people who live in the same country to share an experience, and together to celebrate our shared identity and our triumphs, to ponder our dilemmas and mourn our great losses. [It is a forum for] concerned citizens who actually care about this country.”

From a different angle, comic artist Otto Fong said he saw art as important for giving us the language to deal with issues. Citing his personal experience of wanting to communicate better with his family, “we need to learn a language to do so” and often it comes from the arts.

That should hardly be surprising. The nature of art is that it deals with the human condition and in so doing, it teaches us perspectives and vocabulary, inviting us to “walk in somebody else’s shoes”. To censor is to deprive ourselves of that chance to learn.

More generally, Sasitharan pointed out, the proposal to roll back censorship  “is about letting people speak without fear, whether you are gay, an opposition party supporter or a ‘marxist conspirator’. It’s about our country. We don’t want to bring it down. Most of us just want to talk without being afraid.

“We want our media to say what they want to say; our reporters to write what they want to write; our academics to research what they want to research.

“Yes, we are for freedom of expression. The human spirit is diverse, with different tastes and different needs. Let’s respect those…. We need to embrace the differences that exist among us.”

His point was that censorship silences those differences: “Everytime a work is censored, an opportunity to dialogue is cut…. Censorship is an exercise of power, in which the weaker always gets screwed.

“The question is how to make the CRC aware that they are carrying a burden not only about the arts, but about society.”

* * * * *

In the last few months, there have been many points of engagement between the Arts Engage group and the Censorship Review Committee (CRC), despite Arts Engage being disappointed when all 22 names they had proposed to the government for inclusion in the committee were rejected.

Tan Tarn How said they were grateful that it has been a productive and meaningful process. “Thirteen people [from the Committee] met us on their own time outside of the CRC,” in addition to meeting as a group.

Still, speaking for himself, Sasitharan said that after the meetings, he has concerns. CRC members, he said, generally saw their job as one of very limited scrutiny of the issues — merely a question of how to improve the present system — when what was really hoped for was a fundamental review, doing it from the ground up.

While he thinks there is a minority within the CRC that understands their proposal, he is not sure whether they will eventually sway the rest of the committee.

What was particularly disturbing was that some members of the CRC were grossly misinformed about the state of censorship. These members seemed to have bought into the rhetoric that there is no existing censorship in Singapore.

Another point of concern is over the conflict of interest when the whole process is being mediated by the censors — the Media Development Authority (MDA) — themselves. The MDA acts as the secretariat for the CRC.

The third point Sasitharan made was that some of the individual members of the committee gave the impression that they didn’t feel empowered enough to make a difference; these persons think they are part of a government process whereby they are beholden to deliver certain outcomes.

Arts Engage is concerned that this 2010 review will make little difference again, pointing out that the CRC process has been part of the landscape since 1982/3, but for arts practitioners at the coal face, it has not substantially made much of a difference, they said.

* * * * *

There is the question too of the scope of review being, from another angle,  too narrow. Arts Engage’s position paper speaks of “multi-level” censorship.  This comes about when

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… is therefore wide.

— Arts Engage’s position paper

It is not just the MDA that can interfere with a work. The Ministry of Home Affairs has been known to dictate conditions or insist on a ban. Venue operators, because they are a government building, can deny access. Grant contracts have for years contained a clause that says the work so produced must not offend a third party.

Alvin Tan: “The whole point of the arts is to challenge, to get you to think.” In the course of that, those who don’t want to think will prefer to just feel offended. Then what?

Although this clause has been in grant contracts for a very long time, he revealed that the government as grant-giver has recently been invoking it to punish courageous works.

Clearly, even if this round of censorship review puts in place a new framework for the MDA, more work needs to be done to address this kind of multi-dimensional censorship coming from so many different quarters. Currently, there is no process to address these concerns. The CRC is all we have.

Says Sasitharan: “This is a long process and more people should be aware of what is at stake.”

3 Responses to “Arts group: “Censorship isn’t working: regulate instead””

  1. 1 Weng 15 June 2010 at 09:35

    I applaud these representatives from the arts community for their courage to speak up, for putting into words finally the injurious effects of censorship. The paper is acutely observant and masterfully written.

    • 2 Pire 15 June 2010 at 09:49

      I really hope Mda will be more reasonable and lift the censorship bann.Very unfair.
      If theres anything I can do to help make Mda lift the bann,
      email me.Thanks.

  2. 3 KiWeTO 16 June 2010 at 00:00

    They have my support, as a friend of friends who are parents.

    Censorship is about the imposing of morals by a subgroup of society over the rest. IF we truly seek to be an enlightened society, then the need to continuously re-test society’s boundaries is necessary for the continuance of that society because NOTHING remains the same over time.

    [why are such fights to redefine what is society almost always led by those who question rather than those who are more the mainstream… or is that rhetorical in itself?]

    [PPS: all ideas need an expiry date; tested frequently too.]

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