Shame has no place in Singapore. We boast of being “first-world” and speak of striving to be “world-class” in this and that, while quietly engaging in third-world autocratic methods as if there is no contradiction.
Shame – the critically-acclaimed film directed by Steve McQueen – has also been effectively banned, joining a long list that includes A Jihad for Love (dir: Parvez Sharma), David the Tolhidan (dir: Mano Khalil) and Boy (dir: Auraeus Solito).
Coming in the wake of the controversy over freedom of expression sparked off by plans for the Yale-NUS college, it pulls the rug from under the feet of those trying desperately to defend Singapore. See for example Tommy Koh’s commentary published a week ago in the Sunday Times and archived here.
About 200 faculty members of Yale earlier this month approved a resolution expressing “concern regarding the recent history of lack of respect for civil and political rights in the state of Singapore,” and urges Yale-NUS “to uphold civil liberty and political freedom on campus and in the broader society.”
The move by the Media Development Authority (MDA) – the Orwellian name for our state censors – also recalls Malaysia’s effective ban on our Singapore Dance Theatre performing in Kuala Lumpur, reportedly because their costumes were too revealing. If we laugh at Malaysian authorities’ narrow-mindedness, the inch-wide width of our own authorities’ minds is nothing to boast about either. At least Malaysia does not have the conceit of seeing itself as equal with first-world countries.
The Life! section of the Straits Times reported that MDA
gave [the film] an R21 rating and, additionally, asked for a group sex scene to be trimmed. Despite an appeal from Cathay, MDA remained firm on the snip needed.
— Straits Times, 21 April 2012, What a Shame about no-show, by Annabeth Leow
Cathay-Keris Films is the Singapore distributor.
Director Steve McQueen stood firm and refused to allow any cuts to his work. Rightly so, but as a result, the film cannot be shown here.
However, a Google search will display any number of free downloads, though I am not sure that this is the right thing to do, it potentially being an act of piracy.
Shame is about addiction – in this case, to sex. Lauded by the Guardian newspaper as “fluid, rigorous, serious cinema; the best kind of adult movie,” Shame was one of the two sensations (together with Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy) at the 2011 Venice Film Festival. Lead actor Michael Fassbender won the Golden Lion for best actor, for his role as a “a sex-addicted corporate drone”, as described by the Guardian in its review.
The precise scene that MDA objected to was a three-way sex scene involving a man and two women, reported the Straits Times, which quoted this statement from MDA: “After consulting the Films Consultative Panel on the film Shame, we are of the view that the prolonged and explicit threesome sex sequence has exceeded our classification guidelines.”
I take such statements with a pinch of salt. I have spoken to members of the Films Consultative Panel and the process is far from straightforward. From what I’ve been told, the panel may approve a film only for MDA to reject it. “Consulting” in MDA-speak does not always mean following the direction of. For example, in the case of the film The Kids are Alright, a member of the panel told me that he only learnt of MDA’s decision to permit just one print of the film (in order to constrain its distribution to the absolute minimum) from the press. All the while that the panel was debating its rating, he was not told (nor were others on the panel, he said) that even if the panel agreed with a restrictive R21 rating, which they eventually did, the MDA would further tighten it with a one-print rule. He felt that the MDA was not following the spirit of the panel’s decision to allow the film.
Diehard defenders of the Singapore government would argue that even the United States has a film rating system, but these folks will probably play down the crucial differences. In the US, it is an industry body that issues ratings. If the body disapproves, a film might find its distribution much reduced since cinema chains tend to follow its rulings. But at no time does it become criminal to possess and exhibit the film.
Not so in Singapore. A film that the MDA has refused to classify – and this now includes Shame – becomes contraband. You cannot possess or exhibit it without infringing the law. The state controls what you can see, hear, think and do.
Instead, the MDA has a tendency to gloss over this crucial distinction and use Orwellian-speak, saying that they are not in the business of censoring films. By that, they use the narrowest of narrow definitions of the word (in keeping with inch-wide minds?) to mean that they do not do the actual snipping. Yes, but as the example of Shame shows, they demand that someone else snips in submission to their demands, or else the film is deemed contraband. Such dishonesty in language is another characteristic of illiberal, undemocratic systems trying to disguise themselves.
The demand itself is quite silly. If the MDA thinks that a three-way sex scene is too “prolonged and explicit”, what does that actually mean? Does it mean a brief but explicit scene would be okay? What about a prolonged but not-so-explicit scene? How prolonged is prolonged? And where does that leave two-way sex?
We have every reason to laugh at the MDA as we have at the Malaysian authorities when they reportedly said Singapore Dance Theatre’s costumes were too revealing. It’s all in the eye of the beholder, and such decisions reveal far more about the censors, their neuroses and backwardness, than of the art.