I had a hard time figuring out what Clarissa Oon’s point was in her Sunday Times commentary Time to censor the censors (20 June 2010). I had the sense that her heart was in the right place, but sprinkled throughout the article were so many instances of genuflection to the authorities and their mantra, she ended up with no coherent argument.
It’s one of the occupational hazards, I suppose, of being a journalist with Singapore Press Holdings: Anything you write has to subscribe to the government’s way of framing the issue, and the approach has to be along the lines of “how shall we improve on the existing?” rather than calling for the demolition squad.
I don’t intend to tear into her article. As I said, I believe she’s heading to the same goal as I would wish. But in her article, she retailed a number of flimflam statements which, if she can’t do it for fear of losing her job, then I feel I must expose.
Her third paragraph:
The last 10 years have seen an end to outright bans on art works and performances. However, contentious works may continue to suffer any number of nips and tucks — in order for them to be classified as, say, an R21 film or R18 play and be watched by mature audiences.
This is plain untrue. I would not be surprised at all if Oon got this from the Media Development Authority (MDA). There have been outright bans on art works and performances during the last ten years. In the year 2000, the play Talaq by theatre company Agni Koothu was denied a licence and thus could not be performed to the public. In 2007, my photo exhibition of Kissing pictures was also denied a licence. In the year, Ng Yi-Sheng’s Lee Low Tar was denied a licence too for a public reading. In December 2006, acclaimed photographer Leslie Kee’s book SuperStar and the associated photo exhibition, both to raise money for victims of the 2004 tsunami, were banned.
What about the long list of banned films including Antonia Bird’s Priest, Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, Chen Yin-jung’s Formula 17, Pavez Sharma’s A Jihad for Love, and Remi Lange’s Devotee? Every one of these when they were banned were either in the news headlines or I had written about them. The censoring decisions are on public record. How can anybody still claim that outright bans have not occurred in the last ten years?
The MDA maintains on its website a Films Classification Database where you can do searches. I did a search (between 12 a.m. and 1 a.m. on Monday 21 June 2010) for each of the above-named films, just to see what the MDA itself says.
I got the following results:
Antonia Bird’s Priest was declared as banned. Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut was declared as banned. Below are the screen captures for each of my search results. See for yourself.
There was no record of Formula 17, A Jihad for Love and Devotee, but if you do a search of Straits Times, Today and Yawning Bread for July 2004, April 2008 and August 2009 respectively, you will find a public record of the MDA’s decision to ban them in their original form. Here are the screen captures of the “no results” result from the search of MDA’s database in respect of these three films:
A Jihad for Love was one of four films that the MDA banned from the Singapore International Film Festival in 2008. The others were Arabs and Terrorism by Bassam Haddad, David the Tolhildan by Mano Khalil, and Bakushi by Ryuichi Hiroki. The bans were reported by the press. Yet, none of these four titles appeared in the MDA’s database (I searched both Feature Film and Documentary categories). Is the MDA trying to hide its actions from the public eye, the better to lie to us?
I have a faint idea how they will try to explain their tricks. They will say “We declined to give a classification to these films, and that is why they are not on the online classification database”, or something to that effect. They said that to me last year — “We are unable to classify this film” — when I tried to get Devotee rated. But let’s not fall for this kind of Orwellian doublespeak. When they decline to classify a film, it means they are banning it, because the law says that an unclassified film is prohibited from being shown. In fact it even makes possession a crime.
I invite readers to go to Arabsandterrorism.com, where you will find a number of video clips from Bassam Haddad’s film of the same name. Watch and judge for yourself how absurd it is that the MDA would ban Singaporeans from seeing this documentary.
And then there is Martyn See’s video interview of Said Zahari, a political dissenter imprisoned for 17 years without charge. The video Zahari’s 17 years remains “prohibited”. See Martyn See’s October 2009 blogpost highlighting an email he received from the MDA.
The claim that there are no outright bans is utter bullshit. It’s bad enough that the MDA is as heavy-handed as ever, it’s worse now, because they won’t even admit to banning, they’d rather resort to concealing the truth. This is corruption: corruption of public integrity.
Would journalists please check facts before buying wholesale into the disinformation put out by government agencies?
This is before considering the critical cuts that the MDA demands of plays, etc, before granting a rating. Sometimes playwrights accede because they face financial ruin if they cannot go ahead. But such censorship is also mutilation and a key part of the message is in effect banned. To call these “nips and tucks” as Oon did is to trivialise the mutilation.
Midway through her article, Onn says:
On its website, MDA says it has moved away from “traditional censorship” towards classification and co-regulation with the industry.
This is simply not true. The only thing new is how blatant the MDA has become in putting out empty words. Either that, or “co-regulation” is really far more sinister. Through cutting grants, denial of venues, we see new ways of making people with something to say toe the line and silence themselves. The MDA would love nothing less than to have clean hands while everybody else self-censors.
Then there is the sin of omission:
Films may be classified under one of five ratings, the most stringent being R21, which is restricted to those aged 21 and above. Arts performances have three ratings, the highest being R18, for audiences aged 18 and above.
What’s omitted? There is one more category for film and arts performances. It’s the “ban” category, a category that is well populated with examples. We shouldn’t just lift words wholesale from MDA’s website. Think before we use them.
[update, 23 June 2010: Filmmaker Martyn See sent me an sms referring to his blogpost on this subject, which appears to be a mirror of the guidelines the MDA itself put up in February this year. I draw your attention to paragraph 6 which describes the category Not Allowed for all Ratings. It reads: “In exceptional cases, a film may not be allowed for all ratings (NAR) when the content of the film undermines national interest or erodes the moral fabric of society.” There you have it, in MDA’s own words – the “ban” category.]
[update, 24 June 2010: I draw readers’ attention to the comment below by Clare, 24 June 2010, 20:18h, which appears to be from Clarissa Oon herself. It’s important to highlight her right of reply.]