Guest essay by Tania De Rozario
When I was first asked to present my personal thoughts on the “The Future of LGBT and the Arts in Singapore” at IndigNation 9 (August 2013), I was stumped where to start. Both our arts community and queer community are so diverse: At what points do they intersect? What concerns do they share? Is the issue queer artists or queer art? Does the latter even exist?
I’ve been working in the creative industry for just over a decade and yet still do not feel as though I have satisfactory answers to the above questions. So the first thing I did was run the brief by a number queer people across different creative disciplines: “What are your concerns with regard to the future of LGBT art-makers and art-content in Singapore?”
Not everyone responded or wanted to, but here are the words of a few who did:
“I hope we are successful enough so that it’s no longer necessary to talk about LGBT art smiths any more than left-handed ones. Not because we’re ‘accepted’ but because it’s taken for granted that there will be left-handed scissors and pens and LGBT hospital and hospitality options. For me that’s relevant to the art creation because if you can accept me you can accept my art because that’s what I am.”
– Ovidia Yu, novelist and playwright
“I think the immediate future will be an uphill struggle, with the increasing hyper-religiosity of this country coming up simultaneously against the ways with which LGBT continue to assert themselves. But the increased visibility will ensure that LGBT will always be in the ugly faces of these repressed fundamentalists, which is good enough–for now.”
– Cyril Wong, poet
“That I’ll be forced to write the same old shit on local TV here. No tattoos, no positive portrayal of LGBT folk, or any other type of person or family that doesn’t fit into the government’s ideal or message they want to send out to the masses. That I could be sued or jailed for posting a funny political video or cartoon and that the people who write and produce drivel like the videos on STOMP or Point of Entry (which be honestly sounds like a porno film) are not.”
– Jaclyn Chan, screenwriter
First, what struck me about both Ovidia and Cyril’s responses was the lack of distinction between person as artist and person as queer. This resonated deeply with me. I’ve always believed that art is always personal and therefore, always political.
Second, Cyril’s comment suggests a symbiotic relationship between the visibility of queer people and the acceptance thereof. And I feel that this is deeply connected to Jaclyn’s concerns regarding censorship and feeling the need to toe the commercial line: If art is a means of cultural production, in/visibility of queerness not only reflects, but also reinforces the status quo with regards to our lives as queer people in Singapore.
Sometimes, talking about censorship in Singapore feels like flogging a dead horse. But it’s necessary, because the more “cosmopolitan” or “modern” Singapore attempts to appear, the more sophisticated means of censorship seem to become. Let me illustrate this with a personal example:
Last year, I curated an exhibition in conjunction with IndigNation 2012. It comprised works by ten queer artists, one of whom was Elisha Lim, a Canadian artist who grew up in Singapore. Elisha submitted Ruby, a 52-second animation describing the adolescent experience of having a crush on a girl for the first time. It contained no sex, violence, nudity, foul language, drug references or elements of horror. When submitted to a film festival in New York, it was housed under the children’s category.
When I sent the film in to be rated by Singapore’s Media Development Authority (MDA), it received an NC-16 for “mature content” and I was told that I needed to pay a $10,000 deposit if I wanted to screen it. I did not have that money.
Upon requesting clarification about the classification, I got vague responses regarding homosexuality and “community norms”. When I requested more specific clarification, asking whether Moulmein High’s portrayal of same-sex attraction on mainstream television was acceptable because its lesbian character was portrayed as dysfunctional, I was told that I would get a response soon. I never did.
For me, this incident (and its eventual consequences) raised three important issues:
Who Sets The “Standard”?
Who sets the MDA’s “community standards” -from whom are these “standards” derived, by whom, for whom and how? Last I checked, a survey conducted by NTU was chosen by the MDA as a barometer for “social norms” pertaining to sexuality in Singapore. Titled “Influence of Values, Predispositions, Interpersonal Contact and Mediated Exposure on Public Attitudes Towards Homosexuals in Singapore”, the essay was published in the Asian Journal of Psychology and used to justify the MDA’s current policies.
According to this article, in this survey conducted in 2010, “64.5 percent of those surveyed held negative attitudes towards homosexuals, while 25.3 percent expressed positive attitudes and 10.2 percent were neutral.”
Are these the “community norms” that the MDA so affectionately refers to?
While the numbers in the article seem to reflect the MDA’s conservative stance, it seems as though the organization has conveniently ignored other important aspects of the study, which involve their very sphere of practice. According to co-investigator Dr. Shirley Ho, who was part of this survey process, “As more Singaporeans come into contact with gay people and with the rising availability of films and television programmes with gay characters via cable television, local cinemas and the Internet, it seems possible that there will be a more significant shift in attitudes towards gays and lesbians over time.”
By referencing this study as justification for its policies on homosexuality, shouldn’t the MDA also accept the other findings it proposes? Shouldn’t the MDA therefore accept its role in perpetuating negative attitudes towards queer people by limiting positive representations of them onscreen? The organization cannot merely disclaim its moral positioning by relegating reasoning to “community norms”. It must also concede to the harm that it perpetuates by subjecting the representations of a minority to the whims of a majority and admit that it is part of the problem.
Censorship & Financial Status
A classified rating may seem like just a number and no big deal, but the consequences of our current rating framework have a direct impact not just on who is able to access content, but also whether it is dis/allowed a platform at all.
All films screened in Singapore require classification by law and all films rated NC-16 or above, require the person/venue screening it to provide a temporary $10,000 deposit under the MDA regulations. Anyone working in their personal capacity, or for whom such an amount is not a given, are not able to afford such a deposit. The requirement of $10,000 discriminates specifically against private individuals and small companies who cannot afford to put it up and more importantly cannot afford to lose it if certain conditions, (e.g. ensuring that no one under 21 gains access to the screening of an R-21 movie), are accidentally not met. This discrimination ensures that only established institutions or commercial entities (most of whose interests, presumably, do not lie in rocking the boat) are allowed to contribute (or not contribute) to the cultural narratives of the queer community.
“Co-Regulation” or Self-Censorship?
In recent years, there has been a lot of talk about co-regulation with the MDA describing it as a “partnership” that “enables the MDA to be responsive to bother public and industry needs”.
However, according to the MDA’s 2011/12 Annual Report, it “will not hesitate to take firm regulatory action against “companies which contravene the licensing conditions or content guidelines.”
So that said, what exactly is “co-regulation”?
The fact of the matter is that a lot of the MDA’s talk regarding “co-regulation” actually refers “co-administration” more than anything else. It involves an online, DIY classification system that encourages content-makers to take their own initiative with regards to declaring their “content concerns”. However, these declarations, still have to adhere to the MDA’s ideas of “community standards”: When I was in the process of getting “Ruby” classified for example, I learned that “themes” of homosexuality are housed under the same section in the MDA’s guidelines as “themes” of suicide, child abuse and terrorism.
Content-makers participate in “co-regulation” by declaring content concerns according to an existing standard, and are punished if they do not do it right. This is not “co-regulation”. This is institutionalised self-censorship.
Questions and more questions
So at the end of the day, what do all these issues mean for us as queer people and/or artists? What does it mean for the future of our communities? The truth of the matter is, I have more questions than answers:
- How does a lack of queer role models in our media affect the psychological well-being of young queers Singapore?
- How does our institutionalised invisibility in the mainstream media affect the ways in which we relate to Singapore as our home?
- To what extent have local queer artists learned to “self-censor” in an effort to work the system and how many stories have we lost in the process?
- How can we in the creative community employ our respective skills to reach out to the queer community without manufacturing new and equally harmful hegemonies?
- Must creative content be packaged to please “mass” audiences in order for its message to reach a wider public?
- Is either art or activism compromised when this happens?
Perhaps all these questions can be summed up in the response that arrived in my inbox while I was drafting the last few minutes of my presentation:
“What makes us a community and how wide is its embrace? How do we acknowledge and celebrate difference and diversity within our community? How can we inspire, encourage and support the younger generation of artists? How can we work together towards social, cultural and political change? To quote Tony Kushner in Angels in America, ‘The Great Work begins’.”
– Ivan Heng, director, actor and executive director of Wild Rice Productions.
It is important for those of us who make work about queer experiences -and about anything else that does not meet “community standards” — to continue telling our stories, even though they may not sell, be pretty, stay on shelves or remain on screen. Even though they may be “classified” as “unsuitable”. I’ve learned over the years that the state cannot be relied upon to protect us or sanction our right to be heard. Time and technology are opening up many new possibilities (crowd-funding platforms, social networking, new media) when it comes to funding, promoting and platforming work in ways that aren’t reliant upon the government and we need to work together to employ them to the best of our abilities. And perhaps most importantly, it is essential for us as creators, organisers and mentors, to consistently make attempts at provoking change, claiming space and challenging existing notions of acceptability – not just in spite of “community standards” but also because of them. Not just because we are subjected to them, but because we are in a position to shape them.
Let the great work begin.
Tania De Rozario is an artist, writer and curator interested in issues of gender and sexuality. She is the author of Tender Delirium (Math Paper Press) and co-founder of art collective, EtiquetteSG. Tania an alumna of Hedgebrook (USA) and Sangam House (India), and currently serves as an Associate Artist with The Substation, where she is working on Making Trouble, a research project investigating relationships between art and activism in Singapore. She blogs at www.taniderozario.com.