Confusing the public space in Singapore

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By Ong Keng Sen

With the recent censorship of ‘excessive nudity’, Singaporeans and residents of Singapore have to accept that the Info- Communications Media Development Authority (IMDA) is a very powerful agency in our lives on this small island. (If there is any doubt, one only has to read the Films Act of Singapore.) The IMDA has to be judicious about its own power and exercise this power with good rational judgement. As a legally trained artist, I am increasingly alarmed by developments which can clamp down on talents calling Singapore home, even for a couple of years.

Civil servants who work in the IMDA must be aware of the legal precedents they are setting as they administer the regulations surrounding classification of arts and culture, ultimately governing the public space available to all of us. There is an increasing denial of classification or rating by IMDA for some films and performances. Every exercise of regulation which denies classification is de facto an act of censorship. Many may ask why is censorship a problem? Simply because today it is another community that is censored, tomorrow it can be your community. Censorship is a threat to all society.

As a performing artist who is also a public functionary serving as the Festival Director of Singapore International Festival of Arts (SIFA), I am extremely confused by ‘excessive nudity’ as a new parameter for censorship. Beyond what it means, I question why the IMDA has to introduce such a parameter which only injects further subjectivity, giving excessive power to those who exercise this regulation.

In 2015, when I invited Chilean company Teatro La-Resentida to perform in SIFA, I was informed by IMDA that there was a problem in the performance. An actress, playing the role of a politician, ran into the audience space protesting the decisions of the cabinet that she was a part of. In line with the comedy of the situation, she stripped off her top to protest the absurdity of her colleagues’ arguments. This was problematized by IMDA as the act of stripping was happening in the audience space and not on stage. Whether we accept this or not, the regulation is very clear. If a performer is in the space of the audience and stripping amongst them, this will not be allowed. This is a clear administration of a regulation concerning nudity in performance. It does not become a problematic precedent which allows for laws to be made through the backdoor. Administrators of regulations are not legal representatives of the state, hence their actions must be checked and balanced. They are not legally trained and they should not be creating new laws confusing the public space of Singapore.

This existing administration of the ‘no stripping in the audience area’ would justify IMDA’s denial of rating for Ming Poon’s “Undressing Room”. In Poon’s proposed performance for one audience only, they will both be involved in a ritual of undressing in silence, a different dialogue between two individuals. Why does IDMA create a new vague ruling about ‘excessive nudity’? What are the implications of ‘excessive nudity’ for the future? Can we have a judicious consistent administration of regulations instead of a willy nilly proliferation of subjective ‘laws’? Can this power continue to go unchecked in Singapore? When is our governing party going to install checks and balances to the execution of regulations in Singapore?

We have a system of classification in Singapore. I have been told by the Ministers and Ministries publicly that there is no censorship in Singapore. So let the IMDA implement a clear system of classification, taking into consideration that limited audiences have been pre-warned so that they can choose and there is an age limit to protect minors in certaincontexts. Unfortunately for Singaporeans our public space is heavily circumscribed for now, yet the lack of clarity is urgent and unsettling. What happens when shows cannot be classified or rated? This means that our system of classification has a gap which leads to a subjective exercise of power rather than an objective rating system.

Ultimately, it is irresponsible of the IMDA to justify their actions by sweeping statements inciting fear. We need to objectively interrogate what has been said by IMDA: “Artistic expression cannot be an end in itself, without consideration for social mores.” A performance to a small number of people (a liberal estimate may be 300 individuals for a country of 5,700,000 population), classified for mature audiences who have been informed, cannot realistically be an end in itself destroying social mores.

There is an international standard of classification which is provincially and irrationally exercised in Singapore. It is a censorship system disguised as classification. At this moment, those who are censored cannot even begin to contest rationally the fine print of what’s being filtered from our public space.

This was first published on Mr Ong's Facebook page


Further clarifications by Mr Ong on his Facebook post.

i was asked by a newspaper in singapore to write a commentary/opinion on the recent censorship debacle. Not surprisingly they didnt want to print it unless i made it more balanced and less passionate. As i did not agree with them, i withdrew my opinion and decided to put it on my Facebook.

This is my personal opinion and does not represent the position of SIFA. Thats why its on my personal Facebook. Please feel free to share it.

For the record, I clarified with the newspaper editors through the staff writer who had requested for my opinion/commentary piece that they had misunderstood the piece:

1) i did not speak against any group who is against nudity. i am just stating that IMDA should not be willy nilly proliferating ‘laws’ such as EXCESSIVE nudity. i think that the IMDA should be more judicious about such vague language, being aware of the huge powers they have.

2) In fact, i am already saying that the IMDA will be able to stop Ming Loon’s performance for instance by exercising their existing regulation. they simply need to be responsible about setting inconsistent precedents.

3) My commentary is not about stopping anybody from having diverse opinions. communities can be concerned about nudity just as communities can be concerned about conservative evangelicalism. however communities should not begin from trying to censor each other by law.

4) In fact, i say that all are at risk in a society which practices censorship.

5) I was very careful to avoid challenging other communities. I think the new legal angle that I propose is that the administration of such wide-ranging and subjective exercise of powers should be judiciously administered as in any just, objective system of law and governance.