On Censorship & Regulation

Arts Engage

This is the position paper of the Arts Engage network which was submitted to the 2010 Censorship Review Committee.

Arts Engage

The basic position of the arts community on censorship and regulation has changed little from that articulated in the 2003 “Arts Community Proposal” submitted to the CRC of 2002/2003 (link here). There, our position was “Yes to regulation, no to censorship”. Subsequent experience, however, has caused us to reformulate our position slightly more insistently: Censorship isn’t working: regulate instead.

Censorship entails proscribing content, prohibiting its public presentation, and/or preventing its creators from working towards its realisation. While conducted by civil servants who may sincerely believe they act in the name of the public good, censorship is often politically motivated, and always arbitrary. It fosters a culture of dependency on the part of the public, timidity on the part of institutions, and resentment or self-censorship on the part of content producers. It is costly, inefficient, and dignifies no-one.

Regulation entails the disinterested classification of content according to publicly available guidelines. It enables access to the widest choice of content for the greatest number of individuals. It promotes responsibility on the part of all stakeholders, and transparency and accountability within and between institutions. Disagreements and contested decisions are resolved through an open and inclusive appeals procedure. Regulation is no panacea, but by comparison with censorship, it empowers applicants, decision-makers and audiences alike.

Of course, there is already a substantial regulatory component to the current censorship regime in Singapore. Indeed, it is because the foundations of a regulatory infrastructure are in place that divesting institutions and mindsets of censorious procedures and attitudes is not only sound in principle, but possible in practice. This does not mean, however, that ‘tweaking’ the system will suffice, since, in our view, the problem is systemic. As long as regulation and censorship are confused, the exercise of the latter will continue to impede the transparent and accountable execution of the former.

It may be the case that in some areas of cultural production and content management, distinguishing between censorship and regulation is a less pressing concern than maximising profits. We are also aware of a perception in some quarters that artists represent a ‘vocal minority’ at the ‘libertarian’ end of a spectrum, with ‘concerned parents’ and ‘social conservatives’ at the other. This is untrue.

We are a diverse group of individuals brought together not by a sense of self-righteous indignation or the need to defend abstract values, but by long experience of dealing with the current and previous censorship regimes in Singapore. The comments and proposals that follow are not pie-in-the-sky ideals, but workable solutions to fundamental problems with the current system that are both principled and practical.

As citizens and residents of Singapore, we find the prevalence of censorship to be at odds both with the core values of democracy, equality and justice enshrined in the Pledge and instilled in us from young, and with Singapore’s status as a dynamic, forward-looking society with a 21st Century economy.

As practising writers, artists and administrators, the effects of censorship impact all aspects of our creative and professional lives. In part, this is because of the uncertainty and anxiety it arouses. But, as extensive consultation with our peers has made plainly apparent to us, it is primarily because of how insidiously the censoring impulse has spread through institutions and the social body more generally.

Today, the outright banning of cultural products is relatively rare; but censorious interference by the state in all levels of the creative process and the presentation of its outcomes is all too common. This, in turn, appears to have fed a risk-averse culture among institutions that take their cue from government, and an expectation of censorship-on-demand among certain individuals within society. In light of the very real social and moral challenges Singaporeans face in the global age, this situation is untenable.

In what follows, we summarise our perceptions from the receiving end of the current censorship regime, and outline how we think the system can be improved.

Problems of censorship

  • Lack of clarity and transparency about rules and processes

    Timelines, guidelines and other information are not always readily available; where they are, wording can be vague, and decision-making processes obscure.

  • Inconsistencies in the treatment of local and foreign works, often to the detriment of local work.

  • ‘Censor first’ attitude

    On certain questions of content or form, the first impulse is to censor, with the individual merits of the case only given due consideration after the ‘alarm bells’ have started ringing.

  • Disproportionate response to criticism or complaints

    Letters of complaint to the press or government appear to trigger a disproportionate and over-cautious response. This indicates a lack of faith in the regulatory procedure, and an unwillingness publicly to defend decisions or the merits of specific works.

  • Inconsistency in inter-agency interactions

    Besides the Media Development Authority (MDA), a number of other statutory boards and ministries are involved in censoring cultural products. However, this appears to happen on an ad hoc and rather obscure basis, leaving few avenues of appeal for censored artists, who may not be permitted to know the source of the prohibition against them or their work.

  • Multi-level censorship

    The government is extensively involved in the administration, funding, promotion, housing, hosting, curating, regulating and censoring of artworks. The scope for interference both direct and indirect in the creation and public presentation of a work is therefore wide. As with the point above, the results are inconsistent, with sometimes contradictory information being given out by different government agencies, and decisions by one being reversed by another without explanation.

  • Existing rules flouted

    It appears that the demands of one ministry or agency can override the judgments of another, even where the latter has operated in accordance with available guidelines.

  • Personalisation of the process

    Censorship decisions seem to vary from individual to individual, demonstrating the need for more robust and transparent regulatory guidelines. Sometimes, a decision can stand or fall on personal contacts.

  • Culture of defensiveness, secrecy and intimidation

    There seems to be a general perception in government that artists are a threat, who take pleasure in embarrassing it locally or internationally. The modus operandi for censoring individuals reflects this misperception. Communications take on a furtive quality, being conducted by phone or face-to-face meetings, rather than in writing; decisions are made – or at least communicated – at the last minute; additional demands are made of artists at the precise moment they are most focused on their work; compromise solutions entail the removal of government logos from publicity.

  • Lack of consumer advice

    It is not easy for members of the public to find out why and how a given work has been censored. Informed consumer choices are therefore hard to make.

  • Impoverished public discourse

    The level of public discussion of censorship in the media is clichéd, insubstantial, and ill-informed. We take this to be symptomatic of the constraining effects of censorship itself on the quality and scope of independent thought.

  • Lack of independent oversight

    For a number of reasons, including the legacy of Emergency-era censorship and Singapore’s distinctive political culture, we could say that the government is institutionally predisposed to censor. All the more reason, then, for properly independent oversight of procedures, as well as the drafting of subsequent reviews.

  • Setting the wrong tone

    On matters of censorship, many individuals and institutions take their cue from the government. For example, an ‘Advisory’ is never just that: it can have a damaging knock-on effect on independent funding sources and school bookings, without regard for the merits either of the work, or of the decision to award an advisory.

Benefits of regulation

  • Greater freedom of expression

    The arts community supports regulation without bureaucratic censorship. This means that except for materials which are prohibited by law and whose prohibition has been decided by a court of law, or where the producer of the work expressly requests it (in order to achieve a specific age rating, for instance) there need be no cuts to content. All works in the highest rated-categories can be uncut.

  • Greater consumer choice

    The aim of regulation is to enable members of the public to make an informed decision about whether or not they wish to view a work, or to allow their children to view it.

  • Part of the bigger picture

    Because censorship entails the arbitrary exercise of power, it is exceptionalist: it brooks no debate and invites no consensus. Regulation is ordinary. It takes its place in a larger system of procedures and standards, and its legitimacy rests on the quality of its outcomes. Its objectives are clear, as are its limitations. As such, it invites the active engagement of stakeholders, and establishes a clear expectation of the responsibilities they, themselves, should take on.

  • Increased professionalism

    Repeated encounters with the censors suggests to us that a culture of second-guessing and buck-passing prevails. A transparent and open regulatory system should enable decision-makers at all levels to have confidence and pride in their judgments. This will have a knock-on effect on relations with and attitudes of other stakeholders.

  • Depoliticisation of the process

    The civil service implements government policy, which is determined by the democratically elected government of the day. However, it discharges this duty in the larger service of the state. In Singapore, ‘ruling party’, ‘government’, and ‘state’ are often conflated. However, what may be in the interests of one is not always in the interests of all. Even a robust regulatory framework formulated by the state may not be able to stop party-political interference; but it should enable stakeholders to identify it as such when it happens.

  • A level playing field

    At present, local artists are disadvantaged when it comes to competing with less tightly-controlled international content and products. This is fundamentally at odds with the government’s own stated aims of developing the creative industries, and is prejudicial to local forms of expression.

  • The right to offend and be offended

    Several high profile cases of offensive speech have recently been addressed through legal avenues or by the security services. Such measures are not the hallmark of a healthy or robust society, nor do they demonstrably contribute the fostering of one. This is, of course, a contentious issue. However, we maintain that it is not the business of government to protect individuals from offence a priori.

  • Morality, not moralism

    All regulatory guidelines express the moral norms of a society – including the norm that entails the continued questioning of such norms. However, it is not the job of regulators to moralise. Disinterested decision-making helps guard against that.

  • Better censorship

    The arts community does not, as is sometimes misunderstood (or wilfully mischaracterized), advocate a “free for all”, with no limits on the freedom of expression. The laws of the land must be upheld. However, if censorship can be definitively separated from regulation, then both processes will gain a measure of credibility where now both are compromised.

  • A new benchmark

    Informal conversations with employees from other branches of government indicate that MICA agencies may be behind the curve regarding internal communications and stakeholder relations. Certainly, censorship is a ‘hot’ topic. All the more reason, then, to grasp the bull by the horns and develop a regulatory framework that establishes new standards of transparency and accountability – best practices that other branches of government should aspire to reproduce.

  • A new start?

    When it comes to state support for the arts, Singapore’s artists are only too happy to give credit where it is due. However, many who have been subject to the censorship process harbour a degree of resentment at the high-handedness of state representatives, and frustration at the arbitrariness of the resulting decisions. The introduction of a properly disinterested regulatory framework, based on principles the majority of artists – along with other stakeholders – can agree on, will provide an excellent opportunity to clear the air, and build professional relationships afresh.

Replace the current system by one where there is a clear separation of regulation and censorship

This may seem obvious. And indeed, there is any number of more specific recommendations concerning procedures and content that have been discussed and could be made here, for instance mediation. But for all the complex debates over the nitty-gritty of standards and classification, for as long as regulation remains compromised by censorship, little will be changed, and even less achieved in developing the creative life of the nation. Conversely, a principled argument for the separation of regulation and censorship by the CRC would have some or all of the following consequences:

  • A process that is consistent, clear and transparent, which is conducted at arms-length from party political interests, whose outcomes are open to public scrutiny, and that enjoys the engagement of diverse stakeholders.

  • A process that is ordinary, unexceptional and efficient, conducted by informed and impartial individuals whose decisions can inspire confidence across government, and who can explain and justify those decisions in public.

  • A process that focuses on the education and empowerment of citizens, and grants the widest possible scope for expression and access to creative works to the greatest possible number of interested individuals.

  • A process that promotes a new tone, vocabulary and terms of reference for public discourse, and that both encourages and contributes to free and open debate about the complex issues inevitably arising from it.

  • A process that avoids conflicts of interest by the agencies charged with executing it, and that is subject to periodic review by an independent body.

A clear separation of regulation and censorship

Can such a prospect be realised, as some may charge, only in an ‘ideal world’? Based on our practical experience, as well the principles we share, it is the only realistic solution to the increasingly outmoded and untenable system currently in place.

At present, the decision to censor is taken far too lightly in Singapore. This is because it has become routinized to such an extent that individuals are shielded from the ethical implications and practical consequences of their actions. Some blame for this must be laid at the door of successive CRCs, whose pro-forma insistence that ‘all societies censor’ has stood in for any meaningful discussion of what is really at stake in an act of censorship: the arbitrary exercise of power.

As artists whose primary function is cultural expression, and whose first responsibility is to our audiences, we feel that the government can do more to separate out regulation from censorship, and to implement a regulatory system that is user-friendly, transparent and accountable.

Arts Engage is a network of arts practitioners from various disciplines coming together to discuss the policies that govern and impact their respective practices. Started by members of the Arts Community egroup, Arts Engage is intended to be used by arts community members who wish to engage in issues of art practice, such as censorship, funding, spaces, intellectual property, making a living as an artist, position of art/artists in society, etc., in a more focused manner. This position paper was first published here.