Censorship Review Committee regrets but affirms censorship

The Report of the 2009 Censorship review Committee (see www.crc2009.sg) takes realistic stock of the media landscape in its opening sections, and then ducks all the serious issues raised.

It recognises that media convergence is happening rapidly. The same content can be delivered on different media platforms, from print to internet to mobile downloads. Moreover, where content used to be produced by big organisations that are susceptible to regulatory pressure, it is much more diffuse today.  It notes too that “the enormous volume of content distributed via the Internet, which bypasses physical media altogether, makes regulation a challenge.”

It then paints a picture: “Our regulatory fort was largely built in a simpler era.” But now, the walls of the fortress are being “blasted repeatedly by technological change, [and] will eventually only have its gates left standing, stoically and symbolically defended.”

But look at the rest of the report, and it’s mostly about tweaking and oiling the iron gates.

Tweaking and oiling

Loads of text were devoted to fine-tuning processes; content standards were barely discussed. There were calls upon calls for broadening committees and more “engagement”. There were motherhood statements about a “holistic approach”, shared responsibility and “meaningful partnership”.

“The industry should understand and support the need for sound and reasonable regulations,” sounded like a plea on bended knees.

The members of the committee seemed never to have interrogated their own paternalistic approach, one where there’s the state doing the regulating allegedly for others’ good. They merely recognised that that state can no longer do it alone and the entire report takes the direction of persuading others to join the state so that it becomes less ineffective.

This is especially troubling when it talks about “term licensing” for local arts groups. Instead of licensing one event at a time, the committee suggested that the Media Development Authority (MDA) adopt “essentially a co-regulatory scheme as it allows the arts groups to take over the responsibility of ensuring that they stay within clear guidelines set by the MDA.”

The effect is to demand that arts groups self-censor. What is striking is that the report still gives a blank cheque to the MDA to set those “guidelines”.

At no point does the report go into a serious discussion of content standards. Where it does, it largely reaffirms existing film and other classifications. With film, it dismisses the lowering of the R21 category to age 18, and it affirms that there should remain a “ban” category.

It makes absolutely no mention of the separate provision under which the MDA bans political films.

Perhaps to prove that it is capable of laying an egg, albeit a tiny one, the committee recommends the creation of a new category PG13, mostly to serve television.


Yet, on page 15, it says:

Censorship is a necessary tool, but a blunt one. Its application, while with determination, should be with regret.

Censorship is a restriction on personal freedoms, imposed by the government but reflecting the will of a substantial majority of the people. To be accepted as valid, it must be seen to fairly reflect widely-held sentiments.

Note the words “substantial majority” and “widely-held”. I will come back to them later.

But after mouthing the above, the committee quickly ducks. Perhaps trying to justify why it does not discuss content standards, it next says:

The boundaries of censorship, being subjective, should be set through an ongoing engagement with the public.

But weren’t they supposed to be the ones engaging and arriving at conclusions? Never mind, it’s bad enough that they affirmed censorship; even if they had engaged and arrived at conclusions, would it be much different from existing?

In the few places where the report discusses classification standards (as opposed to banning) it gets somewhat confused.

Although it begins well by calling for a harmonised system across all media platforms (currently different platforms have different grading systems) it quickly makes an exception for arts entertainment, and then also says it is not needed for print.

It calls for greater leeway for film festivals but also notes that anybody, including commercial operators, can call any screening a film festival.  It never resolves the question that the report itself raises.

Page 66 tries to discuss what R21 should mean, but leaves the reader high and dry. It notes that the government wields this classification quite arbitrarily. Where it should mean material that has “explicit content” or “extreme violence and gore”, the report goes on to say, “It was also noted that not all R21 films are so rated because of their adult content. One example cited was Milk, a critically acclaimed film about the first openly-gay person to win elected office in America.”

One would have thought that the committee had a responsibility to set down clearer standards, it being their job, but after “noting” the above discrepancy, it says nothing further.

Gay content

At this point, let me bring together the little bit of discussion about homosexual content that the report contains. In the Executive Summary, there are these two oblique mentions:

The values and beliefs of minority groups should be respected on the understanding that these are within legal bounds. Consumer advice is the best way to ensure effective audience segmentation, so that those who think they may be offended will be warned away.


Censorship decisions should be sensitive to context. Depiction is not necessarily promotion, and discussion is not necessarily incitement.

Then on page 76, there is a longer mention:

49. The CRC 2003 recommended that the MDA take a more flexible and contextual approach for homosexual content. It further proposed that greater leeway be given to adults, through suitable channels, to access such content provided the material is not exploitative. In accepting and implementing this recommendation, the MDA has gradually moved towards allowing more content on homosexuality. Generally such content is allowed under the higher, restricted ratings to address concerns over their suitability for younger viewers. Content which glamourises or promotes a homosexual lifestyle is disallowed.

50. This CRC agrees with the proposition that depiction should not be presumed to mean promotion of homosexual lifestyles, and recommends that the MDA continues to adopt a flexible and contextual approach in classifying homosexual content. This will ensure that adults have a wider variety of choices while the young are protected from content deemed unsuitable for them.

51. The CRC notes that the issue of homosexuality continues to be a sensitive subject for many Singaporeans. Nevertheless, based on the principle of informed adult choice, the CRC recommends that a lighter touch be taken in classifying non-explicit homosexual content, subject to the provision of clear and unambiguous consumer advisories.

I think the above speaks for itself. But I would like readers to compare the above with the more specific proposal I made to the committee: that a clear policy be articulated that gay themes, characters, emotions and sexual behaviour be treated on par with heterosexual. Depiction of a gay politician in a movie should be rated the same way as that of a straight politician. A movie with a gay couple in a relationship should be classified the same way as a movie with a heterosexual couple in love. A gay teenager coming of age should be given the same rating as a straight teenager experiencing puppy love.

This is the kind of specificity that the report dreadfully lacks, substituting it instead with banal references to community engagement and widened consultation.

What is a majority?

Even when the report tries to argue that minority tastes should be accommodated where legal, that censorship is regrettable and should only be resorted to when a “substantial majority” and “widely-held” consensus can be found (as mentioned earlier) the report demonstrates that it really doesn’t walk the talk.

On page 74, it speaks about attitudes to Playboy magazine as a litmus test. It reports that,

A similar question on whether to allow the sale of Playboy has been asked in each of the previous CRC surveys since 1992. It is noteworthy that the proportion opposed to Playboy’s distribution in Singapore has fallen with each CRC, from 57% in 1992 to 54% today.

In the next breath, it describes that 54 percent as a “clear majority”.

Nevertheless, with a clear majority continuing to oppose its distribution, there is no compelling reason to adjust standards at this juncture, notwithstanding the widespread availability of risqué content on the Internet.

Keep the ban on the magazine, the report says, so what if crude, full-blown porn is available via the internet? This little bit of incongruity, in my opinion, sums it all up. Never mind the crumbling walls; defend the gate at all cost.

14 Responses to “Censorship Review Committee regrets but affirms censorship”

  1. 1 KiWeTO 16 September 2010 at 23:51

    Liberalization – what price society?

    In some countries, the will of the majority is also known as “tyranny of the majority”.


    Is intellectual genocide the way our society wants to kill its’ non-conformists?

    Or just to guarantee the sheep never have an un-conservative thought amongst themselves?

    The future is ever-changing. Conservatism is ultimately defeatist-in-its-nature since it cannot like change. Unfortunately, it will take a longer while before Singapore get to the greener grass if being an intellectual paradise.


  2. 2 mackinder 17 September 2010 at 11:40

    Scrap censorship. It is presumptious to tell a segment of the population that they cannot discern for themselves. Let parents take personal responsibility for their children’s consumption habits.

  3. 3 Tanky 17 September 2010 at 15:25

    It boils down dollar and cents, not sense, common or otherwise. When there is money to be made, through direct taxes or anticipated boost in the economy, we seem quite ready to close an eye or two — think tobacco and casino. Find a way to allow censorship board or yet another statutory board to make tax revenue, power up a fancy PowerPoint to show how much economic activities you can generate from “liberization”, and you will have tail wind.

    • 4 Paul 18 September 2010 at 06:13

      Sadly, even economic gain may not be sufficient leverage where a moralistic agenda is at stake. Look what happened to the Nation party. Disallowing it surely translates to a not insubstantial loss in revenue from regional tourism annually, so some decision-maker must have thought that the economic loss (not to mention the loss of face among less conservative members of the international community) was outweighed by the moralistic imperative.

  4. 5 Arif 18 September 2010 at 13:34

    People have the right to hold diffrering opinions. In a democratic society, a nation’s laws must reflect the norms, customs and views of the majority. That majority in Singapore holds to a more conservative set of values and they have the right to do so. Singapore is attractive to immigrants like me precisely because I have the confidence that my children will grow up in a society in which the majority of citizens holds similar values as I do.

    • 6 KT 18 September 2010 at 16:58

      What if your children don’t hold the same values as you or the society you have chosen? What will you do then?

      True democracy serves everyone, not just the majority. Your notion that the law serves the interests of only the majority is ridiculously selfish (and sad). Minorities have rights, just as a single individual has rights.

    • 7 KiWeTO 19 September 2010 at 01:24

      Germany 1939.

      … the majority of the population did not disagree with Hitler’s genocidal prosecution of the Jews, many (majority?) were even openly supportive.

      Does that mean that Hitler was right?

      Tyranny of the majority

      Aren’t ‘immigrants’ usually in the minority?
      {maybe not in SG.]


  5. 8 Arif 26 September 2010 at 22:46

    Majority of Singaporeans are against lifting of restrictions on R21 movies in the heartlands. The current status quo should remain.

    Minorities have rights and their views deserve to be heard and they are heard. But when opinions differ, a decision still has to be made. In that situation, the majority rules.

    The comment about Germany supporting Hitler is an old argument without merit. If it were true that is sad that the country was so deluded. But if Hitler had gone to war as Tony Blair did against the wishes of the majority, that would be far worse.

  6. 9 KT 27 September 2010 at 12:57

    ‘But when opinions differ, a decision still has to be made. In that situation, the majority rules.’

    The majority of Singaporeans are non-Muslims. Do they have the right to forbid Muslims from practising their religion?

    • 10 Arif 27 September 2010 at 14:04

      They do, if that’s how they want to run the nation and they will have to live with the consequences of their decision. For the same reason, homosexuals will be stoned to death in Saudi Arabia because the majority of Saudi Arabians support the implementation of Sharia law.

      • 11 KT 28 September 2010 at 09:15

        You mistake might for right. Saudi Arabians have the might to stone homosexuals, but do they have the right?

        If you really think might equals right, then you are a very sad and sick person.

      • 12 Gard 28 September 2010 at 10:20

        Last I checked, Saudi Arabia was not a democracy. Connecting non-democratic institutions with majority view is a hard sell.

        Isn’t a better example would be France banning the burqa and niqab?

        Democracy, as it is being implemented, serves the majority; but I am reminded not all views can be heard:
        – The views of the environment
        – The views of children
        – The views of future, unborn generations
        – The views of the disadvantaged or oppressed
        – so on…

        So everytime someone says, ‘the majority says …’, it’s good to bear in mind the warning of ‘sampling bias.’

  7. 13 Arif 28 September 2010 at 21:49

    Every government has to be sensitive to the views of its constituents and in a one man-one vote system we have in a democracy, it is crucial to follow the will of the majority. Going back to the issue of censorship, as reported in the papers, the Minister is collecting the views of heartlanders and so far, the majority is gunning for the status quo.

    • 14 Gard 29 September 2010 at 12:19

      “Every government” is a bit too strong. How much faith are you going to put into the November general election in Burma?

      As for following the will of the majority, I guess it depends on what you mean by ‘follow.’ Surely it cannot mean carrying out surveys and interviews and then carrying out the wishes of the majority view? Our ministers have to justify their (very) high salary somehow.

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