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30 Jan 2007

making sense of censorship in singapore

2006 saw a bumper crop of gay-themed movies screened in Singapore. In light of the recent ban of gay Singaporean photographer's book on Asian stars in the citystate among other incidences, Alex Au examines the censors' rationale of its decisions.

It was pure serendipity: I walked into Quinceanera simply because I had time to kill, not because I was expecting anything gay. Contrary to habit, I had not even checked out reviews of the film prior to watching it, so it was a surprise to see a gay subplot in it.

It went as far as showing two men lying in bed seeped in post-coital glow. It also had lines about "8 inches." By the way, gay bits apart, it's a very good film. Excellent storytelling.

Quinceanera was rated M18, a classification that meant one had to be at least 18 years old to enter. No scenes were cut.

At HMV the music store, on the third level where DVDs are found, was a rack marked "Best sellers" just inside the main door. Saint Jack was boldly advertised and amply stocked. It too was marked M18, with no scenes cut.

Saint Jack is an old movie, made in 1978, but it has a special place in Singapore because it was shot entirely here, with all outdoor scenes in real streets and alleyways. While, like Quinceanera, its main narrative is not gay, it has a scene from the old Bugis Street complete with real transsexual hookers in them, followed by one in a Telok Kurau house where two of them performed a fully nude "sexy dance" la Patpong. The climax of the story involves a rentboy picked up late at night on Orchard Road by an American senator, going up to the pre-notified hotel room, and being photographed by a spy camera (only rear nudity).

All rather titillating. But once again, titillating bits apart, Saint Jack is also a remarkably good film. The movie was banned for 20 years, and the DVD has only recently been given its M18 rating.

In September 2005, theatre company Luna-ID staged Quills, an acclaimed play by Doug Wright. Revolving around the fictional contest of will and wits between an imprisoned Marquis the Sade and Abb de Coulmier, the play had long scenes of full nudity, front and back. Rated RA18, it garnered excellent reviews in the mainstream media.

Top: The ban on Saint Jack, a film that captured the seedier side of Singapore in the early 1970s, was recently lifted after 20 years. Above: Superstars, the now famous book of photographs of well known male and female celebrities in Asia by well-known Singapore-born celebrity photographer Leslie Kee has been banned by the Singapore government. In its response to a letter in the press about the banning of the book, the Singapore censors faulted the book for containing "numerous pictures of Asian personalities in full nudity with pubic hair and genitals clearly visible.
In December 2006, Leslie Kee's book of photographs SuperStars was banned outright, because "it contains numerous pictures of Asian personalities in full nudity with pubic hair and genitals clearly visible," according to the Media Development Authority (MDA), Singapore's state censors.

What gives?

Classification system
The first thing that comes to mind is that Singapore has a rating system for movies, and a similar but separate one for theatre. There is no rating system for books, magazines and other printed materials; for these, it's a simple toggle between banned and not banned.

For film, the available classifications are G, PG, NC16, M18 and R21. However, films can also be banned if it doesn't even fit into R21.

For the theatre and other arts events, the categories are "allowed," "allowed with advisory" and RA18. Productions can also be banned.

For books and printed materials, bans are imposed if they are "objectionable on moral, racial and religious ground, or are detrimental to Singapore's national interests," as stated on the MDA's website.

The availability of classification seems to make all the difference, allowing for a more graduated response from the censors.

It's also clearer to civil servants, either through written explanation or precedents, what each category represents, giving them more references by which to make a decision. Civil servants, the world over, are not famous for taking risks in their decision making; they prefer the comfort of looking up regulations or at least past examples. Sure, every film or play that is submitted to them is unique, but the chance of going wrong with their decision - where going wrong means getting a scolding from their superiors or political masters after the fact - is less, since the classification pigeon-holes are more defined.

With books and magazines, they are left with just one vague guideline: "objectionable on moral, racial and religious ground, or are detrimental to Singapore's national interests." It is no wonder then that civil servants may prefer to play safe rather than take risks and put their careers on the line.

In actual fact, the 2002 Censorship Review Committee's report - there is one such review every 10 years - suggested "allow[ing] permissible publications where content may be sensitive to some, through suitable channels to adult readers." However, it did not recommend a classification system for books, magazines, etc.

In hindsight, this might have been a fatal cop-out. Allowing "sensitive" content on a case by case basis would not only be contingent upon negotiation between publisher or importer and the MDA, but would also require the MDA to show unaccustomed flexibility sans rulebook. It would be difficult to expect exemption decisions.

This negotiation angle is also pertinent. Book publishers and importers in Singapore seldom see much profit in their trade; the volumes are small and margins thin. Hence, they may not see any point in investing time and effort in persuading the MDA. Arts practitioners are quite different, often armed with a sense of ownership over their work, and sometimes, they even have the National Arts Council on their side. As a result, they are typically much more persistent.

Film distributors are probably somewhere in between.

This may explain how theatre practitioners in Singapore has, over the years, won much more latitude for themselves, to the extent that Quills could be staged. Additionally, theatre is relatively expensive and the MDA may feel that the audience is limited; thus more leeway can be given.

Films, before and after the last review
Film too has seen a degree of relaxation since the 2002 censorship review, most of whose recommendations were implemented in 2003 and 2004. Content which in the past might have been banned or slapped with an R21 rating - audiences must be at least 21 years old - now seem to given the new M18 rating.

The old standards were:

- Content that promotes homosexuality to be disallowed.

- Films with non-exploitative homosexual theme or scenes allowed only at film festivals.

(If the above language strikes you as impenetrable, you're not alone.)

The current standards are premised on these broad principles, when it comes to homosexuality:

- Take a more flexible and contextual approach when dealing with homosexual themes and scenes in content.

- Allow greater leeway for adults, through suitable channels, to access such content provided it is not exploitative.

Regarding "sexual content":

- To give greater leeway for [sexual] content targeting the adult.

- Depictions of sexual activity and nudity, although non-exploitative, should not be given a lower rating.

(Lower rating than what? You may ask. It should be fair to assume the committee meant R21 for film and RA18 for the theatre.)

The effect can be seen from a comparison of Brokeback Mountain, and the Japanese art film, Big Bang Love (46-okunen no koi), a 2006 film by Takashi Miike. The latter is infused with a smouldering homoeroticism from beginning to end, but has no more than one scene with rear nudity, and a fleeting close-up of one character's face as he was penetrated. It was rated M18, with no cuts.

Brokeback Mountain was rated R21 (with no cuts too). As many people know, it is a story of homosexual love from start to finish, but it does have a rather intense scene where the two men had sex for the first time. And that probably tipped it over to R21.

Thus we may be able to surmise that a gay-themed story merits M18, but one with a significant depiction of sex gets R21.

The question that remains is what would happen if a gay-themed film also had frontal nudity? I don't know of any example since the new censorship guidelines came into effect. It would be worthwhile watching out for them in future and seeing how the MDA handles them.


2. 2007-01-30 21:47  
I think censorship is still in its infancy here, but definitely the trend points towards loosening up the tight reins. Since people are the decision makers, and mankind will never always be black and white nor will everyone think in the same way, there will no doubt be some inconsistency in the rating process. A young society such as Singapore has progressed much, you will agree, especially if you live amongst the lower to average income earners and less educated of the social fabric. Many of these folks are still very traditional and conservative in thinking.

Society can only advance as a whole, or otherwise with the trendsetters moving too fast and the rest still holding their ground behind, the social fabric will be highly stretched and this naturally results in tension and even disintegration which is obviously what we all do not want.

I wouldn't say it is entirely the government's fault for the many laws, restrictions and censorship in place, as I actually do tend to agree, that by and large our society is not ready for many of these advancements. We have to understand that the majority of our people are still conservative in thinking and brought up in a traditional old school family setting. Instead of denouncing these, we may consider looking up to some of them as virtues of eastern philosophies and upbringing. As long as no one is hurt or caused undue grief, I believe there is a place for every cause and belief, whether conservative or liberal. It is the very mixture of both that makes us unique and colorful.

Kandy H

Ps: On a personal note, I have 'tested' this very society in a single night out in full drag. Contrary to popular belief, nightspots management isn't that 'hip' and open afterall when it comes to patrons of dubious gender identity. In the queue for MOS the bouncer checked with another before I was allowed in, without further hassle. I only briefly overheard something to the tune of 'do we allow this type...' After a generally great night there, even posing for photos with friendly strangers, me and my friends proceeded to The Living Room @ Marriott's around 2 to 3am. Now they were still open - but apparently not so 'open'. They repeatedly rejected me entry, and yet were unable to offer me a satisfactory reason for denial of entry. Instead, the bouncer kept telling my friend (straight guy by the way) 'you know... you know..' I'm sorry but that does not count remotely as even an excuse so I've decided to boycott them for good. If they are discriminatory, at least have the homophobic bollocks to admit it.
3. 2007-01-31 04:04  
Well Kandy I think everybody is hurt when a few cannot legally see a film containing a fleeting image of a willy- especially when an R restriction is able to warn the prudish not to come in and be shocked. Severe censorship creates an inhibited and despairing environment and probably stifles all sorts of creative thinking , not just dirty thoughts.

How ready do you have to be? Let another forty years go by? For those of you who are twenty five now, that means you will be sixty five. You would hardly be in a position to take advantage of a relaxed society when you have cashed in your pension and are looking at walking frames and hearing aids.

What strikes me as ridiculous is that the Singapore Government does not censor violence in film and tv (Bruce Willis and Sylvester Stallone can be as macho idiot violent as they wish on film) yet wants so desperately not to have any terrorism or civil disorder break out on Singaporean soil. I think I prefer the Swedish policy , censor violence MORE heavily than sex. The former can be infinitely more dangerous for everybody than the latter.
4. 2007-01-31 08:56  
Leslie Kee's book is just a show of celebrity pubes, aesthetically weak... all the controversy will onkly strive to make it a hot item.....

Singapore's Government stand has always been homophobic and one of the main reasons I have stopped going there since 2003.... why should I spend my Pink money as well as my Pink Business money there when I am not appreciated even as a tourist!

5. 2007-01-31 09:01  
My question: Despite all the efforts, all the economic resources incurred, time, salaries of civil servants, and what have you, all the debates about what is moral, immoral, acceptable, unacceptable, blah blah blah, one can still easily access so-called unacceptable and immoral materials from the internet. The keyword is easily. So, what is wrong in the whole equation? And who are we trying to bluff here?
6. 2007-01-31 09:19  
I love your tongue in cheek title to this article!...... Making Sense of Singapore Censorship.....that's an oxymoron!
7. 2007-01-31 09:53  
Nude is beatifull
there is only men and women
and we all know what thay look like
to censor nudity is to deny humanity.
That is again the religions telling wha tis moral
How are we born all of us if not throught sex
And we cannot show that ! We should all walk naked and be naked we are born naked .
8. 2007-01-31 10:18  
I always find it funny that Singapore Government is so against gay activities whereby in Fridae, Singapore has the most profiles listed.

Maybe all the gay Singaporean should stop voting for the Government and see whether they will change their policies on gay.

Seriously, I find the gay issues are so outdated and boring (just accept the fact we exist and gay is part of the nation) and please concentrate in their economy and national safety (i mean the government)

9. 2007-01-31 12:53  
I havent much to say, I was just hoping to get a bigger copy of the picture headlining this story of the cute guys jumping and twisting :-)
10. 2007-01-31 18:51  
I don't think censorship makes sense. There is always other means to get these nudity and sexual related stuffs. We are adults afterall.
11. 2007-02-02 02:41  
censorship... oh bother... is roystan tan's "CUT" band too...? 'DUH'....
12. 2007-02-05 10:30  
Singaporean has no idea what politic is. That's why Lee Family is still on the trone.
13. 2016-09-12 01:43  




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