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Censorship Of The Arts In Singapore

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Autor:  anton  12 November 2010
Tags:  Censorship,  Singapore
Words: 1458   |   Pages: 6
Views: 356

What is the right balance to strike between freedom of and restrictions upon artistic expression?

The commonly accepted definition of censorship- that certain texts, images, or films should be banned. The Longman’s English Dictionary defines censorship as to examine books, films, letters etc, to remove anything that is considered offensive, morally harmful, or politically dangerous. Narrowing down the definition to cover The Arts scene in Singapore, the question beckons should anyone have the power to place restrictions on an individual’s freedom of expression? One might liken that tying a gag over someone’s mouth!

In a recent dialogue with Minister Mentor Lee (Friday, October 5th, 2007 – Singapore: From Arts to censorship), students posted the view on the natural contradiction in censorship codes and Singapore’s efforts to promote artistic expression. MM Lee answered simply by suggesting that artists can find expression through many other areas without crossing the red tape. An individual’s rights end when they impinge on the safety and rights of others. By enacting laws against pornography and other deviant sexual practices, we have accepted that freedom of expression should have limits. In addition, art, like any other form of free expression, should be subject to the same restrictions on an individual’s freedom of expression. To create a legal loophole for content such as racially intolerant speech, which could then seek protection on the grounds that it was a form of art. Other content such as race, religion, violence, coarse language, nudity, homosexuality are less clear cut. However can one say that so long as no illegal acts were committed in the creative process, the public should have a choice in deciding whether to view the resulting content?

In recent years (2002-2007) the level of Arts activities in Singapore has gone up. We have many more events in our annual Arts calendar, higher enrolments in our arts schools, larger number of Singaporeans who make the Arts a career or serious hobby. At the advent of Singapore’s Art scene in 2002, Mr David T E Lim, Acting minister for Information, Communications and the Arts. (13 April 2002; 2:35PM) stated the 3 core factors in shaping censorship locally; namely a Multi-racial society, Globalisation, and technological advancements. He argues that due to our geographical and historical context we are constrained to “keep the peace” and social harmony first over assertion of rights. One might argue from a point that “one who pleases all pleases none at all.” Global influence, although with its economic merits might introduce ideas that would destabilize our society or introduce divisive elements, hence the need to filter such influences to suit the maturity of the country. The onslaught of technology has enabled us to command information at our fingertips, hence making it a near impossible task to keep track of; thus undermining controls and safeguards society has in place. In summary, his views (the government views) the resultant stifling of free expression outweighs the potential for exposure to unacceptable material.

Censorship, even when age rating systems are used, is a very blunt tool. It takes no account of the differing standards of education or maturity between children and youths, or the varying attitudes towards parenting in different households. By imposing an external standard of censorship, the government is depriving parents of the right to raise their children in a manner that they see fit. We lose the element of parental discretion, which is arguably part of the right to lead a private family life as one sees fit – a right that is enshrined in many international human rights conventions. The European convention of Human rights, article 8 states that “everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence.” Looking at adults, one can see that they have the right to vote, bear arms, & die for the country. Why should they be the deprived of the ability to decide what they wish to see, or what their children should be allowed to watch? Lastly, we should note that people are not being forced to view artwork at gunpoint. Every member of the public has the right to avert their eyes & not look at art that offends them. Similarly, they can refrain from entering a gallery with an exhibition of offensive works.

The risks of stifling free expression far outweigh the potential for unacceptable material. Content which we consider perfectly acceptable today would have been regarded as taboo 50 years ago. In the report of the Censorship Review Committee of 2003, it was noted that the report was kept relevant against the backdrop of our social evolution and changing global landscape while understanding the need to fan the creative flames of the new generation and to accommodate the diversity of views. The social “glue” that bonds our society was not to be compromised, namely Singapore’s core values, identity, shared memories, religious and racial harmony. But the question one has to ask would be, are these changes coming fast enough to cope with the blooming art’s scene here, or is it a tightening noose fighting progress and growth? The report declares that “censorship is not just about classification, or access control; nor is it simply about liberalisation or tightening up. Censorship is multi-dimensional, relating media and artistic expression to the social values of community.” (Part IV, 9.0, Conclusion, pg 71) I beg to differ.

So does censorship help the artistic cause? Would the general public be far more inclined to support and fund, for example, erotic art with sexual content, if they do not have to worry about their children seeing it? From scrutinizing the report coupled with the observation of current affairs, only broadcast media such as films and videos receive a full classification system to enforce age restrictions. Arts entertainment receives a brief categorisation of “allowed, allowed with advisory, RA18, and banned”. Publications and sound recordings have only a simple toggle between “banned” and “not banned”. Although it seems that arts entertainment in Singapore has been given some leeway due to its niche audience, the censors (mostly comprising of civil servants), are left with the vague guideline :” objectionable on moral, racial and religious ground, detrimental to Singapore’s national interests.” Regardless of the uniqueness of every art work presented to them, would they take a risk in their decision making, facing the wrath of their governing bodies? Rather than “weakening the glue that bonds our society”. I favour the latter. In reality, censorship is far more likely to hurt the Arts – if something has been “decreed” by the Government to be unsuitable for children, the odds of the general public wanting to “buck the trend” and fund it are somewhat slim.

Some might argue that certain forms of art, such as certain controversial films and modern art pieces seek to push the boundaries of what is acceptable, even perhaps aim for the lowest denominator in taste, hence leading to unacceptable content which should not be permitted. The risks of stifling free expression, however, far outweigh the potential for unacceptable material. Content which we considered perfectly acceptable today would have been regarded as taboo 50 years ago! From the blog of Mr Ng Yi-Sheng (http://lastboy2005.blogspot.com/2007/02/censational_21.html), a fairly accurate list can be found chronicling the censorship history of Singapore since the 1959. A perfect example cited would be the “first censor” of the arts in 1968 when the Equator Arts Society exhibition was closed down due to the paintings portrayal of Americans as morally degraded figures. Till recent years where even Leslie Kee’s photograph book “Superstar” was banned due to the depiction of male nudity. But clearly the shift towards a more open artistic society is gradual if not at snail’s pace. The ban on Jukeboxes was only lifted in the early 1990s and had remained banned for a good 32 years! It is the my opinion that if a novel and controversial art form proved to be completely out of touch with society, then the individuals in society would reject it rather than be corrupted by it.

In the advent of modern technology and the internet age, it makes it ultimately infeasible to censor art on the internet. Text, photography and film can now be distributed over the internet. In addition if art is censored which depicts an unacceptable act or viewpoint, it merely sends it underground. It might also glamorise the prohibited artwork and play to the forbidden fruit and counterculture tendencies inherit in human nature. Far better to keep such art accessible to the public, where people can see for themselves that it is “unsuitable”. If the censorship board is truly acting in line with public morals, it has nothing to fear from transparency and letting the public decide for themselves that a piece of art is unacceptable.



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