Rudderless in a choppy sea, part 2

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.

Internally contradictory

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.

5 Responses to “Rudderless in a choppy sea, part 2”

  1. 1 namioiman 23 September 2010 at 01:44

    Well said. I haven’t watched local television since 2002 and in fact i don’t watch television anymore, the media I come into contact with are all of foreign sources.

    hmm…actually a large proportion of our successful local productions are based on foreigns scripts too. Maybe a few exceptions like Dimsum Dollies but that one’s got MOE/gov’t stamp of approval.

  2. 2 Joogad 23 September 2010 at 05:19

    The internal inconsistency and lack of direction in the CRC’s report probably reflects the internal disagreement between CRC members. The recommendations were undoubtedly arrived at after much compromise and give-and-take between more liberal and more conservative members.

    The sad thing is that Christian fundie Lui Tuck Yew has indicated that MICA will not accept some recommendations made by the CRC. No prizes for guessing which recommendations will be rejected.

  3. 3 Alan Wong 23 September 2010 at 11:19

    The National Library @ Esplanade are already dispensing R21 and mature themed DVD movies to the public, restricting lending to adult members. Parents are seen borrowing such titles with kids in tow. By any chance, do we look like a conservative society ?

    Maybe it is one of our Govt’s discreet ways to help the population procreate & contribute to addressing the declining our birth rate. I suggest they should go all the way and allow all kinds of sex materials into the country.

    As some of our conservative members of our society may not support gambling, but I’m sure most of them can’t do without sex when they are still young and passionate.

    Who knows, maybe one day our Minister who hasn’t watched a porno movie in his entire life may decide to change his mind if he is pragmatic enough like LKY especially if they can allow gambling, what is the big deal with sex ?


  4. 4 hahaha 23 September 2010 at 13:12

    Was just flipping through Subhas Anand’s bio yesterday and I have to say, that he was very cautious with words as well, so as to avoid running foul with the censors.
    Our censorship works like an inhibition organisation to prevent people from becoming creative!
    What that will eventually make us? Robots and machines!

  5. 5 Sad 24 September 2010 at 23:38

    The root of many problems stemmed from lousy policies and regulations. They are implemented to make Singaporeans homogenous in terms of behaviour and thinking. Singapore is already space constraint, yet our rights are restricted beyond recognition resulting in us living in high class prison (Singapore). I can’t believe pap still think we are happy living in such tightly controlled “cell” always obeying them. What happen to our education system, where have all the learned minds gone to?

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