By Ariffin Sha
Editing and images by Howard Lee
Are we muzzled? Are we getting access to information? Can we cope with diversity of views? What is the role of public institutions like the National Library Board? Who are they supposed to serve and how? How do we ensure that our personal values also have a space in secular Singapore?
These were some of the questions that arose from the recent near-pulping of two library book titles that were deemed to contain “non-pro-family” content, which MARUAH, a human rights NGO in Singapore, attempted to answer by organising a forum last Sunday, titled “Pulp Friction: Our Right to Information and Right to Expression”.
MARUAH’s president, Ms Braema Mathi, indicated that the forum was meant to facilitate an open discussion on these issues. A panel comprising writers, a theatre practitioner, a researcher and a law academic gave an audience of about 100 a comprehensive take on the right to information and expression.
Diversity of voices and the contest of social space
Speakers noted that the lack of publicly available information on certain topics of discussion has led to a deliberate marginalisation of certain groups in society, which in turn creates an imbalance of power in how we navigate our social space.
“Heterosexuality is dominant in culture and mass media today, said writer Ms Teng Quan Xi. “Thus, even the kids of the parents who want their children to read “And Tango Makes Three” and the “White Swan Express” will be exposed to books, films and television shows featuring mainly, or only, heterosexual characters.”
Ms Teng also remarked that the ease and speed with which NLB was willing to pulp the books represents how disrespect for families that do not fall into the norm has been entrenched in NLB.
Ms June Yang, a writer and former journalist with Mediacorp, agreed. She suspected that groups like “We are against Pink Dot” were behind the call for NLB to withdraw the books and were also involved in an organised effort to support the ban in public space, such as the comments sections of online media.
he explained that these groups knew their strategies would work because the government and our society as a whole has been institutionally conditioned to exclude people who do not fall into the heterosexual family mold.
The normalisation of censorship and the suppression of information
The speakers were also worried about how the incident has effectively signalled that censorship has become a matter of course in Singapore, where people accept that censorship is permissible so long as they have been given certain privileges, rather than seek free expression as an entitlement.
“Because of the NLB saga, the phenomenon of censorship has finally been mainstream,” said Thirunalan Sasitharan, a veteran theatre practitioner. “The act of silencing, the act of oppressing a voice, has finally been spotlighted. What is critical about this incident is that it has become clear to everyone that it could happen to anyone. Anyone could be subjected to this vicious power-play, which is what censorship is. Let us never forget that.”
Mr Sasi defined censorship as the power of a person or a group or the privileged in society to silence others, to deface what other people think or say, to obliterate a point of view and to eradicate an opinion. “It is a brutal exercise of power,” he said, drawing from 30 years of experience in theatre.
Mr Sasi noted a trend in recent years where censorship is increasingly being viewed as a “victimless crime”, where many young artists who are working in theatre and film are sometimes growing up in a context where they don’t even know they are being censored.
Such a mindset is dangerous because “it is no longer the state, which is an external body, which is doing this censorship. It is the artist himself. They start to think that this is how it should be, this is right and therefore this is how I should do it.”
The fact that the government essentially controls all theatre venues is another cause for concern. “For many young artists, the mere act of being published or shown is sufficient grounds to comply with whatever the venue demands,” said Mr Sasi. “In order to show the work, to screen the film and to publish the book one is willing to make substantial artistic changes. Many of these artists don’t even realise that they are being censored and think that this is the normal procedure.”
“All of us here as citizens, not just as artists, have the constitutional right to express ourselves freely and without fear. And that is the position we have to take,” said Mr Sasi.
Mr Imran Taib, a researcher on international conflicts, believes that the suppression of information is can lead to the monopolisation of ideas in society, which his studies has shown to be a main factor of oppression in history.
Mr Taib cited the use of eugenics in the White Supremacy movement, and other cases where the deliberate denial of complete information was used as a basis of starting conflicts.
From these examples, he believed that restricting information by filtering what is desirable or undesirable by the people in power could be detrimental to society at large.
“Power as we know corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” said Mr Taib. “It is the gatekeeping that leads to the collapse of society. This lack of access to information, even with the noble intent of restricting information for the greater good, will also lead to good and desirable ideas from entering society.”
Mr Taib also reminded the audience that “when we deny the right of others to information, we will someday be denied that same rights.”
The solution to this, he said, was the development of a citizenry capable of critical thinking through education. “This can be done by encouraging students to identify problems in society by themselves and then solving it, instead of the government telling them what the problem is and they going to solve it. In other words, a problem-posing method instead of a problem solving one.”
Mr Taib also emphasised the need for a free and open press and for a Freedom of Information Act. The lack of transparency impedes research on issues and history, and has allowed the government to dismiss citizens on the basis that they do not know the whole story.
According to Mr Taib, promoting the right to information is the only way that we can grow and mature as society, cushion the impact of social change and minimise conflicts.
Role of public institutions
Members of the panel indicated that, at the initial stages of “Penguingate”, NLB lost an important opportunity to open conversations between diverse groups on the issue.
There was also a need to examine the constitutional rights granted to the government vis-à-vis those of citizens, which in the case of the NLB saga, was actually instrumental in providing too much leeway for NLB to act indiscriminately in removing books from its collection without consulting the public.
Mr Jack Lee, a law professor versed in constitutional law, indicated that various statutes, such as the National Library Board Act and the Undesirable Publications Act, provides broad-ranging powers to government agencies, without clear definition of terms like “public interest”.
This effectively allows government agencies like NLB and the Media Development Authority to define regulatory frameworks on their own, which are just as vaguely defined. In such instances, citizens who wish to challenge regulations, particularly through the legal system, would find it hard to do so.
Mr Lee suggested introducing a mechanism where citizens can raise objections to legislations without having to go through a court case. He also suggested that concerned citizens should request for their Members of Parliament to raise queries in Parliament about government legislation that they find problematic.
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Members of the audience also interacted vigorously with the panel, asking if advances in technology would lead to the redundancy of censorship laws. Panelists were of the view that while online media remains important to social discourse, mainstream media remains important due to their wider readership, and hence ability to challenge social norms.
They also asked if it was possible for a concerted effort for civil rights groups to lobby the government, the way faith-based groups have done in the NLB saga. Panelists agreed that while presenting diversity to the government was important, an open debate between divergent groups, based on mutual respect, was equally important.
Ms Mathi closed the session by encouraging participants to “claim our citizenry and take action” instead of blaming the government and expecting legislation to change.