Our need to protect the arts from censorship

censorshipBy Ghui
Given that the banning of Singaporean movie To Singapore With Love has generated much controversy, it is no surprise that it is the topic of conversation amongst many Singaporeans whether living in Singapore or otherwise.
As already mentioned before, I personally do not think this film is of any particular national security concern. It is essentially a human narrative of individuals who have run afoul of certain government sensitivities some 30, 40 and even 50 years ago. The perpetrators of these alleged misdemeanours are in their sunset years, and some have even passed away. The ideals that some of them allegedly stood for, such as communism, are not even really relevant in the current political climate of Singapore.
Where then is the national security concern?  This then begs the deeper question of who the government is actually targeting when they speak of national security concerns.
I have always thought of this in a one sided fashion. From the time I have heard about the film to the time after I have watched it, I have always thought about this from the point of view of why the individuals featured are not a cause for concern and how everyone deserves a voice and a place in the history of our island state.
But in the course of my discussions with a learned friend, a fresh perspective came up. To counter my points dispelling the notion of the protagonists of the film being national security concerns, my friend said: “But it is not what you think. It is what the PAP feels Singaporeans will think. You may not view this as a security concern but they do”.
The power lies therefore not with me and what I think but what they think and perceive.
Dr Yaacob Ibrahim was quoted by Channel NewsAsia as saying, “The film’s “one-sided portrayals” are designed to “evoke feelings of sympathy and support for individuals” who in reality chose to leave Singapore and remain in self-exile.”
Similarly, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong was quoted by TODAY as saying, “You write a book, I can write a counter book, the book you can read together with a counter book. You watch a movie, you think it’s a documentary (and) it may be like Farenheit9/11 – very convincing, but it’s not a documentary. And I think we have to understand this in order to understand how to deal with these issues.”

Revisiting Censorship and the Live Arts in Singapore panel discussion 1 - Ghui
The Revisiting Censorship and the Live Arts in Singapore discussion panel in London.
I can only come to the conclusion that my friend is spot on. It isn’t at all about what I or average Joe may think. It is about what the government thinks we think and how it thinks we should think. Is that right? You can be the judge.
Further questions regarding how the government perceives the people it is elected to govern, how it pre-amps and predicts public reactions to a given situation and what the government hopes to achieve in taking the actions that it takes should also be kept in mind.
The issues are very complex and for us to flesh out the issues that have been manifested by TSWL, we have to have a deeper understanding of how censorship works in Singapore. It was therefore timely that the SEA ArtsFest and the Cross Cultural Live Arts Project (CCLAP) organised a panel discussion on Revisiting Censorship and the Live Arts in Singapore.
TSWL is definitely not the first artistic venture that has been denied air time on our shores. Brother Cain and Sex, Lies and Family Values are but a few other examples of the restrictive environment in which the arts operate under in Singapore.
In the case of Sex, Lies and Family Values, the film was originally given a M18 rating by the Media Development Authority (MDA) before being banned and then subsequently reinstated by the Films Appeals Committee who overturned the Board of Film Censor’s decision to ban the film. Despite being permitted for screening, the rating was revised to R21 and was subject to heavy editing.
This example highlights various issues, such as the criteria for banning a particular film or artwork. Why is there so much inconsistency within the MDA on what needs to be banned and/or censored? Who decides what needs to be banned? Does the vagueness lead to self-censorship?  Does the arbitrariness dumb down the arts and sweep under the carpet issues that really ought to be openly discussed? The role in which the arts play in bringing up social issues where open dialogue is required?
Tan Wah Piow speaking at the Revisiting Censorship and the Live Arts in Singapore discussion panel.
Tan Wah Piow speaking at the Revisiting Censorship and the Live Arts in Singapore discussion panel.
These were all issues that were discussed in the Revisiting Censorship and the Live Arts in Singapore panel discussion.
Taking TSWL for instance – why was there a deemed national security issue? PM Lee and Yaacob Ibrahim have both alluded to the fact that their concerns lie with how the target audience of the film would react to the contents of the film. But who is this audience? How did they come to the conclusion that the audience would be swayed one way or other? What is the basis of this fear of public perception? Did the MDA discuss the contents of the film with the Ministry of Defence before banning it? Was it just a case that there are “sensitive” topics that cannot be discussed and it is a blanket ban regardless of the actual contents?
Censorship by its very nature is subjective. The Board of Censors is made up of individuals who come from different backgrounds. They may be mothers, Christians, Muslims, women and the list goes on. They are there to protect a particular interest. But what is that interest? And who protects them from the contents? What gives them the power to protect? Should the power to “protect” be vested with the government?
At the panel discussion an example was raised in the context of a Muslim woman who had voted for a particular film to be banned because although she personally felt that the film in question was okay, she did not think that her community was prepared to accept it. This immediately raises a multitude of questions and concerns – which is her community? Is it as a woman, as a Muslim or both? Where did this perception that her “community would object” come from? What is the basis? Did she ask them? Are we all censoring on the basis of conjecture and presumption?
The arts play a critical role in society. Artists take inspiration from societal issues and bring them out into the court of public opinion. If something is never discussed, how can we get an accurate sense of public perception? On what basis are we censoring something because it could upset public sensibilities if we don’t have an accurate barometer for public perceptions? Are there untouchable issues which no one dares go near?
To Singapore With Love 700x400The problem with “no go zone” topics is that it is a machine that will perpetuate itself. For example, many people have the presumption that anything political is a “no go zone”. Artists have gotten into trouble before for entering into the fray of political discussion. It is therefore no surprise that artists (whether unwittingly or otherwise) self-censor to the detriment of society where a healthy discussion that could have occurred is now taken underground.
The other problem with this blanket approach is that censors are no longer looking at each case for its merits but just banning anything that could be construed as remotely political. It then becomes a wholly pointless and meaningless exercise.
The viability of the arts as a forum for public issues to be fleshed out and public opinion to be formed is vital to any democracy and one that we cannot lose (again). Given that many banned works have been allowed air time after protracted negotiations with the authorities is a sign that there is leeway for lobbying. While the artist must play a part in this, it is incumbent upon the public to support them. If the government wants to ban something, it is for them to justify why. It is not for the artist to justify why his or her work should be shown.
I don’t have all the answers, but as we near our 50th birthday, we should reflect on what kind of society it is that we want for the next 50 years and for any reflection to be informed, we have to be aware of the many issues that affect how we live our lives.
A freer press perhaps? A more open arts scene? A greater awareness of censorship? An acknowledgement of history? A greater respect for our ability to think for ourselves?

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