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13 Mar 2008

the invisible scissors

Fridae first reported that part of director Cynthia Wade's speech made during the acceptance of her Oscar award was snipped when it was shown on Singapore TV... Alex Au attempts to decipher what's allowed and what's not based on replies by the broadcasting authority and broadcaster.

Several days ago, I was moderating a luncheon talk by Roby Alampay, the Bangkok-based Executive Director of the Southeast Asian Press Alliance. He told a story which typified how Singapore is seen by others.

One day, a friend of his, visiting Singapore for the first time, found herself walking down Orchard Road, the city's main shopping street. It was an ordinary day, with lots of people going about their shopping or socialising. The shop windows were gaily dressed, the crowds in a kaleidoscope of colours. Suddenly, a thought occurred to her and she froze.

It was not that she saw anything untoward. Not at all. The street continued with its buzz. It was just a thought entering her head but it was enough to make her momentarily fearful.

"Oh my God, is it illegal to be dressed entirely in black? Is there a law against it? Am I allowed to be Goth in this city?"

As Roby pointed out, Singapore's reputation as a no-nonsense, big-brother kind of state precedes it. There are plenty of rules, all draconian, and all designed for social control. Media censorship is among the least of them.

Thus, it would not have surprised many Singaporeans that part of Freeheld director Cynthia Wade's Oscar acceptance speech was cut out from the repeat telecast of the Academy Awards (See Fridae's story, 26 Feb 2008). At last year's Oscars, Melissa Etheridge's acceptance speech was similarly snipped when she referred to "my incredible wife Tammy." It was reduced to "my Tammy" by the republic's guardians of morality.

Clearly any favourable mention of homosexuality is a no-no. Yet, Fridae operates out of Singapore, does it not? So, how does the system work, again?

The first thing to understand about the censorship system here is that it isn't a crude system where editors have to submit drafts up to dour bureaucrats for yes/no answers. On the contrary, Singapore's system is quite sophisticated, but in that sophistication lies a chilling effect that is far greater than a crude system would ever have. At the same time, it is designed to invisibilise censorship, thus allowing the government to deny heavy-handedness and to present an acceptable face to the international community.

Two key principles need to be grasped in understanding the Singapore system: the use of a mass/fringe distinction, and the strategy of delegating the actual censorship work away from the government.

The mass/fringe distinction
Different standards apply to different platforms, depending on the social impact of each platform. Thus, television is the most strictly regulated medium since the belief is that visual images can be very emotive and the effect of broadcast immediate. Moreover, within television, a distinction is made between free-to-air broadcasting, which has the strictest standards, and cable television, which gets a little more freedom. Free-to-air, reaching many homes at the same time is said to have more impact than cable channels which tend to reach fewer homes which are generally wealthier - by the government's logic, better-educated and more discerning.

The same logic applies to print. Mass circulation newspapers are watched very carefully, while weekly or monthly magazines get more leeway. The Economist's or Time magazine's stories are rarely interfered with, but this is not to say that local dailies can do similar stories.

The cinema has very detailed censorship standards, but live theatre, which tends to have smaller, more elite audiences, even permit full nudity on stage. As for the Internet, it is virtually unrestricted.

This mass/fringe distinction allows the government to boast about media freedom in Singapore when it is useful to do so, especially to foreign audiences. When people criticise them for only permitting state-controlled newspapers to circulate, the government points to how foreign newsmagazines can be imported, conveniently ignoring the fact that foreign magazines never devote much space to Singapore news.

When others highlight how dull and subservient the television stations in Singapore are, the government points to how the Internet is largely free, ignoring the fact that it is precisely the question of relative reach that makes it important to free up broadcasting.

The result is that free expression is limited to the margins. There's enough there for the government to boast that Singapore is not a stalinist state, but at the same time, the truth that is too often brushed aside by its apologists is that the main arena is a highly regulated space.

Delegating censorship
Much more insidious is the way the system delegates censorship away from government bureaucrats to corporate officers. The people who do the frontline censorship are usually the editors of newspapers and producers of TV programs. Others include distributors of feature films and book retailers, who look over their shoulders each time they decide whether to import a film or a book.

In the case of editors and producers, they know their jobs are on the line if they make any wrong moves since the board of directors above them is largely appointed by the government. In turn, through the daily influence of editors and producers, the reporters themselves internalise the culture of never asking probing questions of ministers, and avoiding stories on "sensitive" social topics.

Much of what is permitted or not permitted is unwritten, but even when there are published rules, one can never be certain how these rules will be interpreted, an uncertainty that makes editors and producers play safe, generally preferring a more conservative reading of the rules than may actually be warranted.

Thus, in the case of the comments snipped from Cynthia Wade's acceptance speech, when Fridae asked the government about it, the reply, one week later, from Cecilia Yip, Senior Assistant Director, Broadcast Standards, Media Development Authority, was in effect, to deny responsibility for it. She said: "The Media Development Authority (MDA) does not pre-censor programmes that are aired on TV. Broadcasters are guided by the MDA's TV Programme Code, which outlines the general standards to be observed by broadcasters for television broadcast.... Broadcasters are free to edit programmes to suit their programme schedules."

Notice too the red herring - "to suit their programme schedules," diverting attention from MDA's censorship requirements.

A few days later, the reply from the broadcaster, Mediacorp, came through. David Christie, a senior programme manager said in an email: "All our shows follow the guidelines set out under the MDA Free-to-Air Programme Code. Under the code, topics which involve 'information, themes, (and) subplots on lifestyles such as homosexuality' are required to be handled with 'utmost caution and should not in any way promote, justify or glamourise such lifestyles'.

"While documentary producer Cynthia Wade's comments indeed addresses the issue of discrimination, it specifically refers to discrimination of same-sex relationships. Her speech had to be edited because it subscribed to the position that same-sex relationships should enjoy the same legal entitlements as heterosexual relationships and could be construed as justifying such a lifestyle."

As you can see, the government said they didn't censor. Mediacorp said they had to censor because that's what the government wanted them to do. But you would also have noted, it's all a matter of interpretation too. You're being strangled by shadows.

Saying yes and no simultaneously
Another example of how uncertainty reigns supreme: In January this year, Mediacorp aired an episode of a reality TV show, where a married gay couple went about looking for secondhand items to spruce up their adopted son's room. Someone named Bennie Cheok then wrote to the press complaining that a gay family nucleus had been shown on TV. Nominated Member of Parliament Thio Li-Ann raised the matter again in early March.

The Senior Minister of State for Information, Communication and the Arts, Balaji Sadasivan, said in reply to Thio that the gay relationship was merely an "incidental feature" of the programme, and that Singaporeans would "need to take a balanced view".

While that may sound very hopeful, he also said TV would continue to promote traditional family values, and that Mediacorp was being investigated for the above-mentioned incident. So, they're not off the hook.

Which means what? Allowed or not allowed? You never know where you stand and this debilitating uncertainty eventually makes legions of corporate executives and ordinary citizens part of the conspiracy, censoring yourself, censoring others around you in case what they do gets you into trouble. Meanwhile the bureaucrats can claim they have not wielded the scissors at all.

That's the other side of Singapore's famed efficiency.


Reader's Comments

1. 2008-03-14 07:16  
I recall a time when as a young person watching TV in Singapore I made a comment that stumped my parents. It was something about why that documentary had so many scenes of bare breasted African women. And why the "breast feeding scene" from the movies "The Last Emperor" and "Clash of the Titans" were censored. So were they equating the African women to the apes on other similar documentaries? Was breast-feeding deemed suggestive/saucy? Who's trying to protect whom? Alex is right again on so many counts. Forget even discussing rules pertaining to us gay folks, these people can't even get breasts right! So yeah, I wouldn't bother. I have the faith and hope in the eventual triumph of our intellect. Shield as much as you want from the young ones, come time, they will seek out their own sources of information because the only success the likes of the MDA has is in establishing Singapore media as lopsided and untrustworthy. All who call themselves intellects know that the only time they use the local papers is when someone goes shirtless in the leisure section or when they need to wrap fish. Same applies for local television. Hurray for the internet and free speech.
2. 2008-03-14 09:05  
Both Malaysia and Singapore are so F#@Ked up when it comes to their social mores and morality..... Hyprocricyboils rampant! The higher (and Richer!) the person is and also Homosexual seems not to be persecuted nor rediculed.

Many of Singapore's and Malaysia's "society" gays seem not to be touched by discrimination and are 'accepted' by the masses.

Just look at some of the chefs and TV personalities and Celebrities in both countriesand you will find dubious sexuality and slants!

One of the main reasons I have chosen NOT to live in the country I was born in.
3. 2008-03-14 11:06  
each time fridae.com publishes a story of this nature, my broken-record, knee-jerk comment will be the same: not one single pink dollar of mine will ever be spent or invested in Singapore. As utterly pretty and buff as the gay boys there are..and as tempting as it is to WANT to go there to meet as many as possible....for me, it just isn't possible until censorship and sexual discrimination there come to an end. In other words, "not in this lifetime".
4. 2008-03-14 14:34  
caesar darling - i'm glad you say it's a broken-record knee jerk comment - you took the words right out of my bunny mouth.

this is a great article dissecting the mechanics of censorship in singapore, and how it is not as direct as many believe. it's one of the most constructive discourses on the subject i have yet read. well done alex.

this article should be forwarded back to mediacorp and mda (and I won't be surprised if they're already reading it!)
Comment #5 was deleted by its author
6. 2008-03-14 18:11  
they can try to stop/prevent/degrade/ or whatever to homosexuality, but the truth still hurts.

Homosexuality is here to stay, no matter how much they try to cover up or stuff.
Comment #7 was deleted by its author
Comment #8 was deleted by its author
Comment #9 was deleted by its author
10. 2008-03-14 23:11  
An interesting and informative article, but it contains no conclusions how to redress the balance to ensure that gay people are treated fairly and with respect by broadcasters.

Looking at the free-to-air "code" (equating homosexuals with paedophiles and the incestuous, and implying we are anti-family - see post by Kellen in earlier article), I could be forgiven for thinking that it might have been drafted by someone with a particular agenda, and the intention of being as deliberately offensive to gays as possible.

But it is even more insulting to the straight population, who, the code implies: will become gay just by being exposed to images of gay people as ordinary human beings (despite the government acknowledgement that our sexuality is inborn); or are too immature to handle the discussion; or are incapable of reaching for the "off" switch if they don't like it.

For a country that prizes everyone getting along in a spirit of harmony, this code is extremely divisive: it aims to separate out gays and make them (and the straight people that see the social injustice, like Cynthia Wade), invisible and silent. It perpetuates ignorance and prejudice, instead of creating understanding, understanding that helps gay people integrate more fully into society. It also contributes to the exodus from Singapore.

The purpose of public broadcasting is "to educate, inform and entertain the whole nation, free from political interference and commercial pressure".. (Lord Reith, founder of the BBC in 1922). SBC was presumably modelled on the BBC and its mantle has been inherited by Mediacorp. But I would suggest broadcasters everywhere have a moral duty to combat prejudice and ignorance, including that around gay people, and to promote understanding, by educating and informing, as well as entertaining.

So I respectfully suggest the question for anyone in Singapore with a sense of social injustice is: who and how to lobby for a code more in keeping with good broadcasting practice and tradition.

11. 2008-03-15 02:01  
being an opened-to-the-public gay, i never encountered any difficulties among the society, no matter in singapore/malaysia/indonesia/thailand
so i can say, actually people in society/community, majority can accept gay existency and tolarable toward them
just goverment ( especially singapore and malaysia, as i know, except indonesia even majority muslims, there is no law against homosexuality, as well as thailand i think ), in the name of "morality" they always try to cover these issues
12. 2008-03-15 02:44  
Sickens me. The more I come to Singapore the more I just see hamsters in a cage running round paying the monopolised Singaporean business owners/politicians their hard earned wages.

As the Sixth Sense film quote goes "I see dead people"

The other big problem in your country is the shallow minded gossiping. LIfe is so dull that anything out of the control ridged 'norm' is worth gossiping about.

Wow you should see the stops, stares, amazement when I walk down the street holding hands with my bf. Not in a adam and steve, sitting in the park, k i s s i n g - kind of way, just normal, walking side by side touching.

Singapore is a Shopping Mall, thats it. Get in, try a few things, get out!
13. 2008-03-15 02:46  
great comments steveuk!!!
14. 2008-03-16 17:29  
Well, at least in Malaysia they showed Oyoung and my public 'coming out' on several cable and national TV programmes and reported widely in major English and Chinese press.

However, they banned a Malay TV programme which featured me as a positive gay man. Then there were also several Malay TV documentary programmes interviewing a few transexuals, gays and lesbians, where positive and negative comments were given. They also showed "Queer Eyes For The Straight Guy" on 8TV. They banned "Brokeback Mountain" but allow "I Pronouce You Chuck & Larry" to be shown in cinemas. There was never a clear censorship guideline, but the Chinese medium media seems to be more liberal and supportive.

It may seems like we have more freedom here as compare to Singapore. But then should we thank to we should thank to the inefficiency and inconsistency of the Malaysian authorities?

Well, we just play along.

15. 2008-03-16 18:51  
I'd love to see your coming out programme sometime Eric, is it available online with English subtitles anywhere?
16. 2008-03-17 12:01  
Well, thats Singapore... the democratic-aristocratic society.
17. 2008-03-17 13:47  
Nothing surprising; we've long gotten used to it.
Bt seriously, it's only the idiots who rely on information on the local media & news alone...haha.
And I'm proud of some of my smarter Singaporean counterparts ;)
18. 2008-03-18 20:27  
Just look at some of the chefs and TV personalities and Celebrities in both countriesand you will find dubious sexuality and slants! I just know Some hot gay boys have their own personals on gaysinglehunt.com seeking their gay love. Their Mr right not girl. Lol
19. 2008-03-19 11:51  
If there's a skill I can be proud of as a Singaporean, that would be the ability to double-talk: to say one thing and to mean the complete opposite of whatever is being said.

Censor whatever 'they' want... as if that can stop people from travelling to other countries, from choosing the lifestyle they want for themselves, or the information they can access, and so on. Chey!
20. 2008-03-20 21:16  
"as if that can stop people from travelling to other countries, from choosing the lifestyle they want for themselves, or the information they can access, and so on"

Very true, but why put up with such a misinformed and unprofessional paragraph in the code to start with, which leads to broadcasting decisions that damage Singapore's reputation (censoring the oscars, for heaven sake) as well as offending gay people everywhere. I'm sure you guys have the power to get it changed if you want to.

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