Journalists should not retail government disinformation

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, 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.]

14 Responses to “Journalists should not retail government disinformation”

  1. 1 Anonymous 22 June 2010 at 21:38

    It’s the PAP’s well known tactic of co-opting, getting people to self censor.

  2. 2 sgcynic 23 June 2010 at 00:41

    Singapore moves toward a more open society. Subtefuge. Take it from the actions of our “leaders” in white.

  3. 3 Alan Wong 23 June 2010 at 12:03

    I suppose the Shit Times writer was tasked to try to soften the image of MDA as that of a gcvt agency operating under a running dog regime which has no mind of its own. Hence the half hearted article.

    The MDA is just being plain stupid and silly, to hold the general perception that the human mind can be that easily brainwashed by what we see or hear. In fact MDA should really banned the Internet from all schools as all kinds of questionable materials can be easily googled and accessed by the students and in turn groomed them to become our young & new Internet-savvy generation of sex devationists, pornographic addicts, rapists, murderers, etc.

    But what can we really expect from MDA when the current Infomation Minister under which MDA is being supervised, have proudly (or hypocritically?) proclaimed to have never watched any pornography in his entire life.

    The reality of life has shown to us that certain people with the most conservative mindset also can actually be the most outrageous in their personal lifstyles. It’s just how they continue to carry on with their perception. So likewise the MDA staff especially those eager with the scissors could be helping themselves enjoy all the exclusive censored materials and make a killing for themselves.

    I just wonder how these censoring staff will ever turn into those sexual misfits that according to MDA nonsensical arguments say we will if they allow us to watch them.

  4. 4 Kirsten 23 June 2010 at 12:13

    Definitely the MDA can always step back and say they aren’t censoring when everyone has already been so freaked out and intimidated that they are self-censoring. And then Singapore boasts about wanting to become an ARTS HUB? How funny!

  5. 5 tauhuayboy 23 June 2010 at 13:46

    I think her article was ‘softened’ by the editor. What a pity.

  6. 6 toolantoo 23 June 2010 at 17:12

    Good that you have exposed the half-truths from the
    Shit-times otherwise readers may take what is written
    as Gospel.
    Isn’t it moot for MDA to ban films when most of these
    could be viewed from the internet, the same media the
    Govt is trying to promote?
    A stupid leader at the helm would only beget stupid
    (civil) servants.

  7. 7 clare 24 June 2010 at 20:18

    Hi Alex,

    Just want to make a clarification about the line: “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… ” I did not get that from MDA, as you speculated. The point was derived from the arts community, which had said in its position paper: “Today, the outright banning of cultural products is relatively rare; but censorious interference by the state in all levels of the creative process and the presentation of its outcomes is all too common.”

    Perhaps the use of the words “an end to” is misleading because it suggests there were no bans at all in 10 years. What I meant to say was that there has been a decreasing tendency to ban works outright, but instead to call for all manner of cuts to content.

    Also, if you read my article, immediately after talking about the ratings system, I do say that MDA lists on its web site what content is not allowed for all ratings. I have not omitted “not allowed for all ratings”, as you suggest.

    I thought the point I was making in the article was quite clear, that MDA should stop censoring, give artists and audiences the space to express themselves and to debate issues, and let the ratings system do its work of limiting access to adult content for younger audiences. Anyway, thank you for the feedback.

  8. 8 Agagooga 26 June 2010 at 21:14

    If you scroll down in the search for Eyes Wide Shut, you will notice 2 versions were passed with cuts and 1 was passed clean.

    It was also conspicuously shown in cinemas, with mention made of censored Hindu chanting

    • 9 yawningbread 26 June 2010 at 22:06

      “Passed clean” simply means the Board of Film Censors passed without excision the tape or disc that the film distributor submitted for vetting. The distributor himself may have made the cuts beforehand knowing that the BFC would want certain cuts made.
      In other words “Passed clean” does not necessarily mean that the original version of the work was approved for exhibition.
      In a situation (like Eyes Wide Shut) where there are versions with cuts made, plus there are press reports of cuts demanded, I would suspect that “Passed Clean” simply means a pre-snipped version was submitted to BFC and it was then approved.

      • 10 Agagooga 26 June 2010 at 22:16

        In that case, there was nothing wrong with the original article’s:

        “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.”

  9. 11 Akikonomu 26 June 2010 at 22:19

    “The distributor himself may have made the cuts beforehand knowing that the BFC would want certain cuts made.”

    Alex, you’re wrong again. There’s a classifcatory rating for that and it’s known as CE – “Clean Edited”.

  10. 12 yawningbread 26 June 2010 at 22:45

    That term may exist in theory, but unless the distributor tells the BFC it is an edited version, the BFC won’t know, thinking they’re viewing the original. I have personally dealt with the censors and they do not ask whether the film I am submitting is the director’s original version or a pre-edited version. So one can very well submit a pre-edited version and get a “Passed Clean” result.
    Specifically for Eyes Wide Shut, the only way to settle the question is to locate that “Passed” version and compare it to the original, or else locate a press report or cinema advertisement that says the BFC has changed its mind and allowed the version with Hindu chants to be screened. I don’t think that has happened. As far as I know, no other version has been released for public screening.

  11. 13 yawningbread 26 June 2010 at 22:52

    Agagooga, 26 June 22:16 –

    But there have been outright bans as I have mentioned in the post, plus others detailed in the ArtsEngage paper. My Kissing exhibition was one, for example. Martyn See’s Zahari’s 17 years is another.

  12. 14 Gaba 9 July 2010 at 15:51

    Seriously though, a line needs to be drawn. Look at where we’re at. If someone screened a film that was insulting to Muslims, our neighbours would hardly be pleased. I’m not saying it’s justified to ban films like Martyn See’s, but at some point we have to acknowledge some films are just not permissable.

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