In Singapore, some thoughts are not All Right

The Singapore Democratic Party, in its latest budget proposals, has called for the abolition of the Ministry of Information, Communication and the Arts. I fully support this idea. This is a ministry that adds no value to Singapore; on the contrary, it subtracts value. The money saved can go to promoting internet literacy, helping poorer families get wired up, thus promoting equality of opportunity, and supporting the arts in general.

This ministry’s negative value is once again shown by its latest action: creating new rules that limit freedom of expression. In this particular instance, it is the act of not just rating the film The Kids Are All Right as R21, but by limiting it to one approved copy for the whole of Singapore. The last is novel and represents a huge leap backwards.

Here’s the official trailer:

As reported by the Straits Times:

If you think R21 is the strictest classification a movie in Singapore can receive, think again.

The Oscar-nominated drama The Kids Are All Right has been rated R21 and has also had an additional condition imposed on it. The Board of Film Censors (BFC) says that it can only be released on one print.

This is likely to be the first time an R21 film will be screened under such a condition outside of a film festival.

— Straits Times, 16 Feb 2011, The lesbian-themed The Kids Are All Right gets R21 rating and restricted screenings

Further down the news article, it was explained that the Board of Film Censors issued a letter earlier this week to the film’s distributor, Festive Films:

It stated: ‘The majority of the members [of the Committee of Appeal] agreed with the board that the film normalises a homosexual family unit and has exceeded the film classification guidelines which states that ‘Films that promote or normalise a homosexual lifestyle cannot be allowed’.’

In addition, the committee said the fact that the film is allowed for release in Singapore at all was already a concession.

It said: ‘Imposing a condition of one-print serves as a signal to the public at large that such alternative lifestyles should not be encouraged.’

— ibid

There are two problems here:

Firstly, can/should the civil service create additional rules at whim?

Secondly, why is the idea of two gay persons raising a family considered something to be defended against?

There are any number of ideas that lots of people take exception to, for example:

  • Premarital sex is OK;
  • Muslims should be free to convert out of Islam;
  • Domestic maids should be given at least one day off per week;
  • The People’s Action Party is the best thing that has ever happened to Singapore.

Each of the above can be highly controversial too. Should films that depict and represent these ideas be strictly limited to one copy each and rated R21? Is it a proper mission of the State to demand that its citizens not think these thoughts? Is it the proper use of State power to deny or severely limit access to such ideas?

It is all the more ridiculous when this film The Kids Are All Right has been nominated for four Oscars this year — for Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay, Best Actress and Best Supporting Actor. Much of the world is talking about the film and the issues it raises, but the Singapore government is determined to make up our minds for us and give Singaporeans as little opportunity as possible to see the film for ourselves. All the while, the propaganda goes on: We are a world-class global city.

The root problem, as I have argued many times before, is the failure of our government to respect the constitution, which mandates freedom of expression. Instead, their guiding policy is to allow majoritarian views to ride roughshod over other points of view. Worse yet, sometimes it is even arguable whether the view being defended has majority support, since in the matter of film classification, the government appoints its own nominees as the “public”  consultation body. How do we know whether they represent the public?

All manner of excuses are paraded out to justify censorship. As the press report above indicates, the government is waving, in this instance, the film classification guidelines because somewhere there is the clause that ‘Films that promote or normalise a homosexual lifestyle cannot be allowed’, words that the government itself penned. The exact words, not that I agree with them, in the current Guidelines are:

Films should not promote or normalise a homosexual lifestyle. However, nonexploitative and non-explicit depictions of sexual activity between two persons of the same gender may be considered for R21., accessed 17 Feb 2011.

By the example of the treatment of this film, we now shine new light on the censorship impulse:  gay sex can be suggested in non-explicit ways in film, but gay people living ordinary, respectable lives, doing non-sexual things, (e.g. raising a family and looking after children) cannot. It really boils down to reinforcing a policy that has been in effect for a long time, and which I have found extremely insulting: Gay people can be depicted as deviants that come to tragic ends, but any positive portrayal must be cut out.

To call such a  prescription a passive representation of popular opinion is mind-fuck. It is not passive. It is active promotion of hate; it is a deliberate policy to skew representation in order to propagate a certain prejudicial objective.

You would also notice that nowhere in this episode is reference made to the 2009/2010 Censorship Review Committee’s Report. This Committee I have already lambasted as timid and unprincipled. Yet, its (gutless) words are these:

It is also not surprising that the CRC received many submissions calling for a lighter hand in the classification of films and plays which contain homosexual themes.  Homosexuality and other nontraditional lifestyles remain contentious issues for Singapore. While the MDA’s content regulators have to calibrate their decisions on ratings according to the majority, the CRC agrees that minority interests should also be considered and that a flexible and contextual approach should be taken for content depicting homosexuality. At the same time, clear and specific audience advisories should accompany the ratings so that the content issues will warn away those who think they may be offended by such content., accessed 17 Feb 2011, para 24.

If I have to paraphrase it, the recommendation was to allow but provide audience advisories. It certainly didn’t say tighten up.

The government, in its Response to the CRC’s Report, said

63. Recommendation: A flexible and contextual approach for homosexual content should be adopted.

Govt’s response: Agree. The current practice is already sufficiently flexible. Industry and artists must also be prepared to be more explicit in advising consumers on homosexual content., accessed 17 Feb 2011.

Again, nowhere does it say “tighten up”.

And what do the civil servants do? They tighten up. They seize up like frigid vaginas and assholes at the very introduction of an Other Idea. These civil servants create a new rule that limits the classified film to just one copy. They violate their own name and mission — “Film Classification” — by doing more than classification, branching into distribution limitation. To serve whose agenda?

See also Which came first: Homophobia or censorship?, by Kirsten Han in The Online Citizen.

20 Responses to “In Singapore, some thoughts are not All Right”

  1. 1 ape 17 February 2011 at 20:06

    It appears that the board think they have lightened up because the film should have been banned but they take a lighter touch and allow it to be screened with restrictions of course.
    It’s like saying ape can take away all your bananas but ape leaves one for you to suck on… suck only hor, cannot eat har.

  2. 2 Praveen 17 February 2011 at 22:01

    Its high time we got educated and not miseducated. Completely eradicating a ministry as such might be drastic but the attention might just be necessary. We cling on to supposed Asian values that are not taught to us so much by our family but by our omni-benevolent government.

  3. 3 Trig 17 February 2011 at 22:21

    No surprises there. I watched TKAAR online a few months ago and suspected that a film like this – portraying gay people living normal lives and raising emotionally healthy children – would not be allowed in Singapore.

    I suspect that the limit of one print is not so much a “concession” as a shrewd move aimed at avoiding the dreaded “Singapore BANS X film” headline. A news report stating “Singapore limits distribution of X film” sounds less bad.

    In any case, in this Internet age, any form of censorship (especially of a movie that will soon receive much publicity from the Oscars) will simply pique people’s curiosity and just drive them to watch the movie through illicit means.

    • 4 ST 18 February 2011 at 00:58

      I think the authorities could care less about what the headlines say. Maybe they are trying to hit the distributors where it hurts. Like getting people to self-censor by springing arbitrary rules whenever to keep people second guessing themselves.

  4. 7 cy 17 February 2011 at 22:57

    MICA has become more hardline and conservative after Lui Tuck Yew became minister.

  5. 9 Paul 17 February 2011 at 23:05

    [Semi-spoiler alert]

    The irony is that ‘The Kids Are All Right’ is ultimately quite a conservative film. In the end, the value of the nuclear family is reiterated to the exclusion of any alternative kind of family unit (even if Ruffalo’s character is a bit of an idiot).

  6. 10 ST 18 February 2011 at 00:54

    I think it’s the ‘conservatism’ or ‘normalcy’ that totally freak some people out. The fact that 2 women are seen to have raised a son and daughter that turned out so well (especially when contrasted to their 2 friends who presumably don’t have 2 mums or 2 dads). Now that’s scary!

  7. 11 Akikonomu 18 February 2011 at 01:03

    “The money saved can go to promoting internet literacy, helping poorer families get wired up, thus promoting equality of opportunity, and supporting the arts in general.”

    But this IS precisely the set of public policy initiatives that should be carried out under a Ministry of Culture.

  8. 12 Michael Ng 18 February 2011 at 01:25

    I’ll leave the political debate aside and address purely the legal issue you raise on the Singapore Constitution. With respect to that narrow point, you are unfortunately wrong. The Singapore Constitution allows for restrictions to the freedom of expression not only when it is “necessary”, but also when it is “expedient”. As things stand, that does not leave much of a freedom of expression in Singapore, but that is what the clear wording of the Constitution says.

  9. 13 SD 18 February 2011 at 01:37

    I really don’t see what is wrong with a homosexuality content here in singapore, okay people have values, moral rights. But that is your own decision, your own choice. People already know a general knowledge about it and basically, should be open minded about it. It’s alright to have a stand, but it isn’t right when you don’t respect other people’s decision and that you insist that you’re right. It’s ridiculous to just not allow something due to homosexuality content though

  10. 14 Tanky 18 February 2011 at 10:33

    In Singapore context, putting Information, Communication, and Arts in one group is just Oxymoronic.

  11. 15 Gard 18 February 2011 at 15:37

    I don’t think the show is hardly about gay people or gay families, but about the resilience of children growing up ‘okay’ amidst the imperfections in their lives, e.g., abusive friendship, absent father/parent-figure, disappointments. After all, the title is “The Kids…”, not “The Lesbians …”

    For all we know, the censors may be more concerned about the message that raising kids in ‘imperfect’ conditions is acceptable. Why tell our kids the hard truth: about the less advantaged, competiting with foreign students, the government’s limitations, etc.?

    Actually, “since the government has delivered the astounding 14.5% growth to you Singaporeans, why are you so damned concerned about one damned show? There are many other shows for you to choose from. Be satisfied! Keep quiet. And vote fo PAP.”

  12. 16 N 18 February 2011 at 16:11

    MICA is not supportive of creativity at all.

    This film is simply beautiful and well-made. And it really reflected the complexities of human relationships and growing up.

    Kudos to the movie. Boo to the censors!

  13. 17 Broken Mountain 18 February 2011 at 19:55

    May be the promise to lighten up is not meant to be kept if the govt view that it has no economical value to do so. Probably the top Silver servant is also trying hard to be the good guy but delegated dirty works to their staff at the lower rank. Otherwise, why do they keep screwing our lives for very ambiguous reasons. It is so grey, like we are neither a nation or city and forever stucked in this status regardless of all the rhetorics to be global and forging ahead slogans.

  14. 18 18 February 2011 at 22:03

    The ministry of Information, Communication and the Arts is very well in place with a new arts uni in Dhoby Ghaut. Its all part of a government initiative to enhance out-of-the-box thinking. But obviously people who don’t think out of the box won’t like the idea…they’d rather abandon the entire plan and make Singapore into an even more clinically sterile nation.

    In my honest opinion, I belive it is a great idea that the Singapore government focus on developing thought-provoking industries that have the potential of creating innovative leaders for the future.

  15. 19 bling 19 February 2011 at 09:53

    I think the issue it NOT the content of the film.

    The issue here is the underlying assumption that Singaporeans age 21 and above are :

    1. incapable of being mature

    2. have their value systems and lifestyle options entrenched in movies … correction … ONE MOVIE … they watch

    This type of assumption is pervasive in our ‘police’ state and appears in various forms in Singapore life.

  16. 20 Desmond 21 February 2011 at 15:24

    Actually Alex, MICA has very important roles in Singapore, to censor everything and anything that would cause Singapore to fall into moral degradation, to toe everyone to the gahmen’s party line and to ensure that Singaporeans do not think, because as we know so well, thinking will install violent behaviour in individuals.

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