Wednesday, May 31, 2006

In Singapore, a censor's cuts and sensibilities

By Sara Webb | May 31, 2006

SINGAPORE (Reuters) - Singapore's chief censor, Amy Chua, says she loves human interest films -- the kind where the humble protagonist succeeds against all odds.

"Erin Brockovich," "Billy Elliot" and "Million Dollar Baby" are among her favorites. "Cut," in which Singapore director Royston Tan settled a score with the censors for mutilating one of his films, is not.

In "Cut," a film buff chases a frumpy censor as she wheels her cart down a supermarket aisle, and reels off a string of films which the bureaucrat had snipped -- from "Lost in Translation" to "Titanic." "Cut" itself, first shown in 2004, was not censored.

"This film misrepresents the Board of Film Censors (BFC) because we are portrayed as being "scissors-happy" when this is far from the truth," Chua, the BFC's chairwoman, told Reuters. "I'd prefer if we are viewed as classifiers rather than censors.

The film won a following among cineastes in the city-state, where an outing to the cinema often used to be memorable not so much for the film itself as for the jerky edits excising bare breasts, sex scenes and obscenities.

"'Cut' is a plea from the Singapore film industry," said Tan.

However, Singapore's long-standing stranglehold over content is being eroded thanks to technology, now that many films can be downloaded for free over the Internet.

Two years ago, following a review of censorship practices, Singapore revised its classification of films and videos, giving a wider range of ratings. Now there is a category for viewers over 18 years old, in addition to existing ones for 16-plus and 21-plus. Now there is less need to cut "adult" scenes as a film can be rated for a mature audience.


"Censorship is a reflection of a country's social norms and values," said Chua, a demure woman in her 50s who is in charge of content for film, video, broadcast and publications at the information ministry's Media Development Authority (MDA).

"In Scandinavia full nudity (on screen) might not be a problem, but if we had full nudity, parents would complain."

The censors' vetting of videos brought into the country for personal use may be eliminated next, Chua said.

The addition of the category for over 18s gave viewers more choice while protecting younger audiences, she said. As a result, films that deal with controversial issues -- at least for Singapore -- can be seen in cinemas.

The city-state officially outlaws gay sex.

Wong Kar-Wai's gay love story "Happy Together" was shown first at a film festival but was not allowed for commercial distribution under the old rating system.

But award-winning "Brokeback Mountain," based on Annie Proulx's story about two gay cowboys, was shown uncut this year.

"It didn't really glorify homosexuality as a lifestyle, and scenes were tastefully shot," said Chua who, as head of the BFC, reviews controversial films such as "Brokeback Mountain" and "Kinsey," which is based on the life of sex researcher Alfred Kinsey.

But Tan, the Singaporean director, ran afoul of censors with his film about local youth gangs: "15" had 27 cuts for offensive language, violence and gang chants which the authorities feared might incite violence and glorify gang culture.


Singapore's sensitivities extend beyond sex, violence and swear words to political, racial and religious issues, reflecting more than four decades of one-party rule and a population mix of ethnic Chinese, Malays and Indians.

The People's Action Party, which has dominated politics since independence in 1965, has repeatedly used defamation lawsuits against opposition politicians. In the run-up to the May 6 general election, the government warned Singaporeans against posting political commentary in blogs and podcasts.

Last year, Singaporean film director Martyn See had to withdraw his documentary on opposition politician Chee Soon Juan from a film festival. See was then questioned by police, who confiscated copies of the film as well as his film equipment.

"Political subjects can be treated in a film. It's how you treat it, whether it's balanced," said Chua who spent most of her career at Singapore's state broadcaster making documentaries and managing programing.

The Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts (MICA) said last year that "party political films are disallowed because they are an undesirable medium for political debate in Singapore." MICA said "the ban here is only on films which deal with political issues in a partisan manner."

The See saga prompted a member of the public, Kelvin Lau Jit Hwee, to write to a local newspaper pointing out that the state-owned broadcaster had screened a series about government leaders: Could they also have violated regulations and face investigation by police, he asked.

The government said the series did not breach the Films Act "as the discussions were conducted in a non-partisan manner."

"Things have improved, but it's often a case of two steps forward, one step back," said poet and writer Felix Cheong.

Friday, May 12, 2006

Exiled dissident Tan Wah Piow on Singapore elections

Singapore: New regime, old authority?
Yong Kai Ping and Kuek Ser Kuang Keng
May 6, 06

Is Singapore opening up under the new administration of Lee Hsien Loong? Are the new casinos a sign of greater freedom? Will the Singapore elections promise any breakthrough for democracy in Singapore?

For one of Singapore's most renowned dissident, Tan Wah Piow, the new regime under Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong is experimenting with a slightly more liberal agenda to counter the cynicism among the young, but party politics is still very much under strict control.

According to Tan, the whole political process in Singapore is so "sterile" that nobody will challenge the state's authority unless the state feels there is a need to loosen up a bit for their own interest.

"In Singapore, they will give you the basic rights if only when they feel is good for them," Tan told malaysiakini while visiting friends in Kuala Lumpur last week.

Tan's 'infamy' stems from his student activism heydays at the National University of Singapore (NUS) during the 70s where he was jailed eight months for "inciting riots".

Fearing for his safety, Tan fled Singapore in 1975 and sought asylum in United Kingdom. Later he was admitted to Oxford and studied law. Currently holding a UK passport, Tan is a leading human rights lawyer in London.

Tan spoke extensively on Singapore's coming general election which takes place today. The People's Action Party (PAP) was denied a walk-over victory as in previous elections and now having to contest for 47 out of 84 parliamentary seats, an unprecedented event since 1988.

Q: How do you view the new administration under Lee Hsien Loong?

A: I don't see anything new in terms of mindset. They have made it illegal to campaign via blogging and text messaging during the elections.

Lee Hsien Loong tries to look as though he is giving the opposition a fighting chance. But why they need to take that kind of action against Chee Soon Juan (who was bankrupted for defamation by the government and thus not eligible to contest) if they want to show themselves as being democratic?

The message that you sent to the population is "don't mess around with us." That is the most serious consequence to Singapore's political culture.

It is reported that Lee Hsien Loong wants to wipe out all the opposition in the coming elections to gain a stronger mandate.

Goh Chok Tong's lost four seats when he first led PAP into an election. The second time, he lost two. It is not a question of losing the elections, but the percentage of votes obtained. The benchmark Hsien Loong will be judged on is probably Goh's first elections.

I think he will have to win with less than four opposition seats. However people say that the PAP is now fielding more professionals and they have also implemented the group representation constituencies (GRC) system. To win one (constituency) is already very difficult for the opposition, let alone a GRC.

Probably what they are most afraid of will be the active cynicism, the attitude of "I don't care, you will get in but I will dissociate with you" among the younger generation.

You can praise your own regime by whatever way, people just 'switch-off'. It means the justification for nation building is difficult for them. They won't identify with the party and the state, if I have to leave, I will leave (through migration).

So you think the PAP can't capture the people's attention? But there have been efforts since the 80's to get the people to be involved.

What they are doing appears to be extremely progressive in getting more public participation. There are a lot of those institutions for the old and young but the underlying motive behind is still the hegemony of one party, which is what distorts the whole process.

If you challenge the decision of the state, you will be accused of all kinds of things. They will undermine you before you start. The moment they smell that you have the opposition tendency, they will mark you and if you are really an oppositionist, then you will get into serious problems. If you exist as an individual, they can tolerate you as a eccentric, tolerate in the sense that they won't put you in jail. The moment they sense (you are) organising, then you are in deep trouble.

You don't think the regime is more open now? They are allowing gambling.

That is the neo-liberal economic philosophy, which needs not necessary involve political liberalism. I hope people are not misinterpreting this.

They are experimenting a bit of this and that, but that absolute control is undeniable.

Do you think they are experimenting with political liberalism?

I can't say they are exactly the same as the Lee Kuan Yew's regime, they are experimenting a slightly more liberal agenda but the party politics is still under very much direct control and monitoring.

They will never cease using the Internal Security Department (ISD) to monitor the opposition. I think once an instrument of the state is used to monitor the opposition to serve the ruling party, and not for national security, you can't call such a system democratic.

But why?

They need to respond to the demand of the younger generation, to address the perception that they (PAP) are intolerant and so on. They need to demonstrate that the government is open-minded and tolerant of dissent.

I suppose that is why the senior Lee (Kuan Yew) wanted to test the younger generation's disappointment. The (televised) debate among Kuan Yew and the youths ended up as (a debate) on whether it is right to be disrespectful (to Kuan Yew), but that is not the issue.

So do you still pin the hope on the younger generation?

I think in every political process, they still need new ideas. The youths seem more distracted and show more concern for materialism than political ideals. Singapore wanted to use, although not overtly, Israel as a model to harden national consensus and the sense of national survival.

But I think that is a different context because Israel is very different from Singapore in terms of ethnicity, religion and so on. You can't copy the whole model, the idealism and the sense of nationalism, The urgency is not there.

The whole justification that Singapore can't have democratic space is that you are surrounded, and thus adopting a kind of 'under siege' mentality. You might get some support in the early period but not in this age. I can always pack up and go, then come back to Singapore as a visitor.

There is definitely a close political culture and historical link between Singapore and Malaysia. It is better for us to emphasise on our common destiny instead of differences. Is it by coincidence that the younger generation did not feel any affinity for Malaysia or is it the consequences of the way the Singapore state handles the relationship. I think Singaporeans will know more about Europe or Australia or those places where the culture is alien compared to Malaysia. We have to ask ourselves, is this healthy? Can Singapore's long term destiny be completely independent from Malaysia?

You think Malaysians have the same misunderstanding towards Singaporeans?

If you study in Britain, then you will know how people in the campus look at Singaporeans. There is the impression that they are arrogant, does not have that kind of maturity to understand the differences and disparity; and that they always think they are more sophisticated. In UK campuses, the 'kiasu' mentality is alive and kicking.

Malaysian Chinese may see Singapore as a heaven for career, and really, Singapore, I must say, is very well managed. (But) that cannot be a justification for the restraints in giving political rights. I think Singapore is effective because it has a powerful state intervention apparatus which is far better than any industrialised country.

Someone told me that the government is giving more publicity to the opposition. Apparently Lee Hsien Long is trying to appear to have a clean fight so that they can enjoy a more convincing win. And PAP will win convincingly again.

The whole political process in Singapore is so sterile that nobody will challenge the state's authority unless the state feels there is the need to relax a bit for their interest. In Singapore, they will give you the basic rights if only when they feel is good for them. That's why I can never agree with them.