In part 1, I argued that one area where rule-making has taken leave of fundamental principles is our electoral system. It has left us with a crazy-quilt of arrangements that serve none of the basic principles of fairness and democracy.
The same spinelessness can be seen in the Censorship Review Committee’s report recently released (and which I wrote about earlier in Censorship Review Committee regrets but affirms censorship). One discerns nothing by way of guiding light in their report. The committee didn’t seem to know where they were supposed to go and its feeble recommendations are a hodge-podge of incoherent ideas.
I had tried to remind them of the and constitutionally-enshrined principle of freedom of expression, but evidently, they hardly noticed that such a thing existed.
If they had freedom of expression as a principle to steer by, then the review process becomes clearer. It becomes one where every demand, whether from bureaucrats, politicians or private individuals and groups, to curtail that freedom has to be tested for (a) its legitimacy as a state interest, (b) the validity of any alleged harm argument, (c) the balance against other interests, and (d) the practicality of implementation. The default should be freedom, and any demand to curtail it, whether by censorship or classification has to bear the burden of proof. No doubt, the burden of proof has be much, much higher for censorship than for classification.
I had said in my earlier article that the report was heavy on process (e.g. plenty of recommendations to consult), but very light on content standards. This is hardly any wonder when they had no principles to go by. How does one decide anything without clarity of goals and purpose? The result is massive avoidance of hard decisions about content standards.
Yet, what is a review committee if it does not tackle the question of content standards? They are supposed to be the body that takes in submissions from the public in order, as its own Terms of Reference says:
1. To recommend refinements to existing content standards and guidelines to reflect societal and technological changes since the last CRC, while recognising the need to protect the young and respect racial, religious and social sensitivities;
2. To study whether there is a need to introduce additional content standards and guidelines that would be relevant to the emergence of new technologies and new media platforms;
I have rendered bold the expression “content standards” to show you how far up in priority it was supposed to be. And thus, how inadequate has been this committee’s performance. In an earlier post, I pointed out that most of this review committee’s recommendations are along the lines of let’s have more inclusive committees and let’s spend more money on education.
Rehashing vague language
On the rare occasion when it stepped into the arena of content standards, it did so with the most timid of language. Why? The reason is clear: They did not fortify themselves with principle. They were adrift amidst cross-currents, trying hard not to antagonise too many sides.
This was so even when they had ample evidence that timid language does not achieve anything significant.
For example, on the matter of homosexual content, the 2003 Review committee (here called CRC2003) had advised that the authorities should adopt a flexible and contextual approach.
The CRC 2003, recommended that the MDA take a more flexible and contextual approach for homosexual content
— CRC2009 Report, page 76
Despite this, since 2003, we’ve continued to see numerous examples of heavy-handedness by the censors. And no wonder, for bureaucrats can’t function with vague language that require intelligence and guts to implement. The ArtsEngage group and others, in their submissions, pointed out the many examples of inconsistent classification and outright censorship in recent years of homosexual content.
Faced with the clear failure of vague language to drive change, what does the new CRC2009 do? It repeats the same.
A flexible and contextual approach for homosexual content should be adopted.
— CRC2009 Report, page 63
Brilliant. But totally understandable if it has no guiding star.
Above, I mentioned that its recommendations were a hodge-podge. They were also internally contradictory. One of the most glaring examples can be seen by comparing its recommendations to (a) keep the ban on print editions of Playboy magazine, and (b) allow R21 movies in HDB heartlands.
Justifying the ban on print editions of Playboy magazine, the report cited the fact that its survey showed a “clear majority” of 54 percent of respondents supporting the existing ban.
The same survey also showed 60 percent of respondents agreeing with the existing ban on R21 movies in HDB heartlands. Yet the report proposed that this ban should be lifted.
This kind of inconsistent and credibility-destroying nonsense is entirely traceable to wanting to find some changes to propose — lest it be accused of producing no new ideas after spending a year on the project — yet doing so without any guiding principle.
This is not to say that they should have followed popular opinion. On that I strongly disagree, for popular opinion can be extremely censorious towards unpopular speech. My argument is that they should have adhered more courageously to the human right of freedom of expression; had they done so, they would have emerged with a more consistent and better-justified set of proposals.
Censorship damages national interests
The sorry thing about the whole affair is that by failing to do propose the ending of censorship and a greater loosening of classification, the committee has contributed to damaging Singapore’s national interests.
Why do I say that?
It’s like this: The heavy hand of media control falls unevenly. The nature of new media is such that the government really has no choice but its much-touted “light touch”, which means that porn and religious craziness will continue to reach Singaporeans’ computers and mobile phones with little impediment. As will mind-numbing celebrity fluff.
Such material however will primarily be from the perspective of foreign societies, their interests and their fads. Singapore’s digital output is infinitesimal compared to what is produced abroad.
The local art scene and film output, on the other hand, will suffer disproportionately from the heavy hand of the regulators. This is due to the fact that local artists and filmmakers operate within Singapore’s borders; they depend on local funding and need local venues. Unlike new media that is physically borderless, art and filmmaking here cannot escape the rules and conditions produced by our control-freak regulators.
Yet, local art and film are the primary means for Singaporeans to reflect on what it means to be Singaporean; they deal with issues from our perspective, they struggle with dilemmas that concern us. They are the industries that create and mature our national identity.
By hobbling our local industries with censorship and onerous classification, we undercut their vitality and inevitably, their quality will suffer and audiences flee. Look for example, how bad local television content is.
The result? An entire society preferring to tune to foreign media content, our minds shaped by foreign perspectives and values, leading to a weak sense of being Singaporean.
Censorship does not protect us. It hurts us. Censorship is not nation-building. It is nation-destroying.