Censorship in Singapore
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Censorship in Singapore mainly targets political, racial and religious issues, as defined by out-of-bounds markers.
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The Media Development Authority (MDA) approves publications, issues arts entertainment licences and enforces the Free-to-air (FTA) TV Programme Code, Subscription TV Programme Code, TV Advertising Code, Radio Programme Code and Radio Advertising Code through financial penalties. The MDA's decisions may be appealed to the Broadcast, Publications and Arts Appeal Committee (BPAA) and the Films Appeal Committee (FAC).
The Censorship Review Committee (CRC) meets every ten years to "review and update censorship objectives and principles to meet the long-term interests of our society". The CRC was most recently reconvened in 2009 and made some 80 recommendations the following year, most of which were accepted.
The Government of Singapore argues that censorship of political, racial and religious issues to a certain extent is necessary to avoid upsetting the delicate balance of Singapore's multi-racial society.
Films and videos
The importing, making, distributing or exhibiting of films in Singapore is governed by the Films Act of 1981.
Film censorship has historically been strict, although the gradual introduction of the NC16, M18 and R21 ratings now allow most major Hollywood features to be shown uncut in Singapore. The rating system was first introduced in 1991 with the now defunct R(A) rating to allow those aged 18 years and above to watch films with explicit content. However, due to public objection, the rating system was revised and the age limit was lifted from 18 to 21 years old.
- G (General) – Suitable for all ages. Everyone is admitted.
- PG (Parental Guidance) – Suitable for most but parents should guide their young. No age-restriction for admission. May contain moderate violence without details, partial/brief rear nudity, moderate coarse language and mild sex references/innuendos.
- PG13 (Parental Guidance Strongly Cautioned – Suitable for 13 And Above) – Recommended by the CRC in 2009, the PG13 rating is given to films with content deemed unsuitable for young children but for which a NC16 rating is not warranted. May contain moderate violence with some details, some mature themes, intense and realistic horror, moderate sexual imagery, crude hand gestures, rear and female frontal side nudity, discreet drug use/references and coarse language including infrequent usages of F-word. (This classification was introduced in 2011)
- NC16 (No Children Under 16) – Nobody under age 16 is admitted. May contain brief scenes of female frontal nudity with/without sexual context, moderate sexual activity without strong details, homosexual kissing, graphic violence/gore with some details, strong horror, strong religious themes, moderate drug use with some details, strong coarse language and may offend religious people. (This classification was introduced in 1993)
- M18 (Mature 18) – Nobody under age 18 is admitted. May contain full frontal nudity with moderate details (male/female genitalia) in sexual context, strong graphic violence/gore, frequent strong coarse language, frequent drug use with some details, strong religious themes, homosexual subplots, strong sexual activity with some details and may offend religious people. (This classification was introduced in 2004)
- R21 (Restricted 21) – Nobody under age 21 is admitted. May contain graphic full frontal nudity with strong details (close ups of male/female genitalia) in sexual context, sequences of explicit and prolonged simulated sexual activities, deviant sexual content without strong details, moderate homosexual sex acts, homosexuality as a main plot, pervasive strong coarse language, very strong graphic violence/gore and torture, hard drug use sequences with strong details and may offend religious people. (This classification was introduced in 2004)
- NAR (Not Allowed For All Ratings/Banned) – Contains content that are likely to cause controversy in Singapore.
Note: Any vulgar denigration of race or religion, depictions of hardcore pornographic scenes/unsimulated sex and depiction of explicit homosexual acts are still banned. Royston Tan's award-winning 15, a graphic depiction of Singapore's underbelly, was only allowed after over 20 scenes were cut.
The categories G, PG and PG13 are age-advisory ratings. NC16, M18 and R21 are age-restricted ratings.
Movies that are classified as R21 are currently excluded from home video releases. However, as recommended by the latest CRC in September 2010, R21 Video-on-Demand (VOD) is now allowed on Pay TV.
As of March 2004, only cinemas located in downtown Singapore are licensed to screen R21-rated movies such as Hollywood's gay biopic Milk which won Sean Penn the 2009 Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal of a homosexual politician. A ban on showing R21 movies remains in suburban cinemas.
Oftentimes, this film classification system compels film distributors to create an alternate, cleaner version of the film to qualify for less restrictive ratings. For example, 20th Century Fox submitted an "international version" of A Good Day to Die Hard (2013), with the swearing muted, in order to be "passed clean" for a PG13 rating. However, in 2007, distributor Focus Features released Lust, Caution (2007) in two versions: an edited NC16 version that was nine minutes shorter and another that was R21-rated and uncut. At the same time, the MDA allows for "some leeway during classification" for films with "limited screenings". For instance, in 2012, Cathay-Keris Films was told that Shame (2011) would receive an R21 rating in mainstream cinemas if a scene involving group sex was removed. However, when the film was re-submitted for classification by the Singapore Film Society in 2013 for a film festival, the MDA gave it an R21 rating without cuts.
There have been numerous instances of film censorship. In the 1970s, A Clockwork Orange (1971), Last Tango in Paris (1972), The Exorcist (1973), The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) and Saint Jack (1979) were all banned. In the late 1980s, The Accused (1988) had a five-minute gang rape scene cut, while the fake orgasm sequence in When Harry Met Sally... (1989) was excised. By the 2000s, the film Black Swan (2010) was passed with an M18 rating, but only after a scene showing a lesbian sexual act was cut. In 2011, the Oscar-nominated drama The Kids Are All Right (2010) was given an R21 rating and restricted to one screen because it portrayed two lesbians raising children. The films Following Desire (2007), A Jihad for Love (2007), David the Tolhidan (2008), Arabs and Terrorism (2008), Bakushi (2008), Female Games (2009), Boy (2009), Brides of Allah (2009) and Transgressor (School of the Holy Beast) (2009) were all banned with the NAR rating.
Local films are not spared from censorship. In 2007, filmmaker Loo Zihan's homosexual-themed Solos (2007) was given an NAR rating. In June 2012, the MDA revoked the M18 classification of Singaporean director Ken Kwek's Sex.Violence.FamilyValues (2012) and banned the film a day after its premiere, alleging that the "Porn Masala" section of the film contained scenes which were offensive to Singapore's Indian community. The film's director and producers submitted an appeal to Singapore's government-appointed Films Appeal Committee, asking for the ban to be lifted. In January 2013, the Films Appeal Committee overturned the Board of Film Censors' decision and lifted the ban, giving it an R21 rating subject to edits by the filmmaker.
In September 2014, Singaporean filmmaker Tan Pin Pin's documentary about Communist Party of Malaya (CPM) political exiles, To Singapore, With Love (2013), received an NAR rating, with the MDA claiming that it undermined national security as "the individuals in the film have given distorted and untruthful accounts of how they came to leave Singapore and remain outside Singapore," and that "a number of these self-professed 'exiles' were members of, or had provided support to, the proscribed CPM."
Party political films
The controversial Section 33 of the Films Act bans of the making, distribution and exhibition of "party political films", at pain of a fine not exceeding $100,000 or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 2 years. The Act further defines a "party political film" as any film or video
- (a) which is an advertisement made by or on behalf of any political party in Singapore or any body whose objects relate wholly or mainly to politics in Singapore, or any branch of such party or body; or
- (b) which is made by any person and directed towards any political end in Singapore
Exceptions are, however, made for films "made solely for the purpose of reporting of current events", or informing or educating persons on the procedures and polling times of elections or referendums.
In 2001, the short documentary called A Vision of Persistence on opposition politician J. B. Jeyaretnam was also banned for being a "party political film". The makers of the documentary, all lecturers at the Ngee Ann Polytechnic, later submitted written apologies and withdrew the documentary from being screened at the 2001 Singapore International Film Festival in April, having been told they could be charged in court. Another short documentary called Singapore Rebel by Martyn See, which documented Singapore Democratic Party leader Dr Chee Soon Juan's acts of civil disobedience, was banned from the 2005 Singapore International Film Festival on the same grounds and See is being investigated for possible violations of the Films Act.
Channel NewsAsia's five-part documentary series on Singapore's PAP ministers in 2005 were not considered a party political film. The government response was that the programme was part of current affairs and thus does not contravene the Films Act.
Since March 2009, the Films Act has been amended to allow party political films as long as they were deemed factual and objective by a consultative committee. Some months later, this committee lifted the ban on Singapore Rebel.
In 1963, Singapore banned the hit song Puff, the Magic Dragon, fearing that it referenced marijuana. Janet Jackson's albums Velvet Rope and All For You were also banned due to homosexual and sexually explicit themes that the BPAA found "not acceptable to our society". The bans have since been lifted. Katy Perry's hit single, I Kissed a Girl, is banned on the airwaves as it discusses homosexuality however the album is available on sale at retail outlets.
On 14 April 2008, the Media Development Authority announced that an official video games classification system will be in effect on 28 April 2008. No cuts are stipulated to Approved titles. Under the system, video games that contain stronger content featuring graphic sex/nudity, coarse language, drug use and graphic violence, will be given either an age-advisory rating sticker or use/share the M18 rating used for film classification similar to those found on home video media in Singapore. These are the ratings:
- ADV (Age Advisory) – Anyone can buy a video game with this rating, but it's not recommended to children. Contains mature themes, some violence with little or no blood, mild drug use, implied sexual activity, partial nudity and infrequent explicit language.
- M18 (Mature 18) – Nobody under age 18 can buy a video game with this rating. Contains adult and/or offensive themes, realistic depictions of violence with/without blood, strong drug use, nudity with/without sexual context and frequent explicit language.
Games that do not fall into any of these categories and are approved for general audiences do not require these stickers and games containing offensive material (such as racial or religious denigration) are still banned. The purchase of games with the M18 rating legally require retailers to conduct age checks, while "Age Advisory" games are not required to have mandatory age checks.
Previously, the Media Development Authority and by extension, the Singapore government has also banned several video games before the introduction of the classification system. For example (as of November 2007) the video game The Darkness (due to presence of graphic violence and swear words) and more recently Mass Effect from Bioware due to the in game option of a homosexual romance if the player chooses to play as a female. Mass Effect was later unbanned with the implementation of the aforementioned games ratings system that was still in development then. However, similar games with graphic violence such as Prince of Persia and Gears of War (players can perform decapitation moves) or other Bioware games like Neverwinter Nights and Jade Empire (which both allow the possibility of male-male and female-female romances) have not been banned or censored.
The scripts of all plays to be performed in Singapore must be vetted in advance by the Media Development Authority (MDA), which has the right to ban any it views as "contrary to the public interest". Appeals against MDA's decisions can be made to the Broadcast, Publications and Arts Appeal Committee (BPAA).
In 1994, performance artist Josef Ng protested the arrest and caning of 12 homosexual men by caning slabs of tofu, then turning his back to the audience and snipping off some pubic hair. He was charged with committing an obscene act and banned from performing in public, and his theatre group's grants were cancelled.
In 2005, the MDA withheld the licence for the play Human Lefts unless some scenes were edited and all references to the death penalty removed. The play was originally written about the hanging of Shanmugam Murugesu and was to have been staged one day after the controversial execution of Australian national Nguyen Tuong Van.
In May 2010, the National Arts Council has cut the annual grant given to local theatre company W!LD RICE. It will get $170,000 this year, down from $190,000 the year before. It is the lowest annual grant that the company has received from the council. Artistic director Ivan Heng says the council told him funding was cut because its productions promoted alternative lifestyles, were critical of government policies and satirised political leaders. In March 2011, NAC increased to $1.92 million, a 25% hike, the amount to be given to 16 arts companies, including W!LD RICE, under its one-year Major Grant scheme.
The local papers ... are essentially organs of the state, instruments of only the most desirable propagation.
With the sole exception of MediaCorp's daily freesheet Today, all daily newspapers including the flagship Straits Times are printed by Singapore Press Holdings, whose management shareholders are appointed by the government in accordance with the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act of 1974. While current shareholding structure does not imply direct governmental control on media content, their active presence promotes self-censorship amongst journalists. In 2008, Reporters without Borders ranked Singapore as 144th out of 173 surveyed countries in terms of freedom of the press. The Singapore Government said it is not ashamed of its low rank for press freedom because it has achieved top ratings for economic freedom and prosperity. Instead of subscribing to the Western press model, it believes that a non-adversarial press can report accurately and objectively. A recent Gallup poll found that 69% of Singaporeans trusted their media.
On 30 June 2006, blogger mrbrown wrote an article, titled "TODAY: S'poreans are fed, up with progress!", for his weekly opinion column in Today newspaper concerning the rising income gap and costs of living in Singapore. Three days later, on 3 July, an official from the Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts published a response letter on the same newspaper calling mrbrown a "partisan player" whose views "distort the truth". On 6 July, the newspaper suspended his column. Fellow blogger Mr Miyagi subsequently resigned from his column for Today. This was followed by Today newspaper chief executive and editor-in-chief Mano Sabnani's resignation in November 2006. The action fuelled anger over the Internet due to the perceived heavy-handedness action taken by the government over criticisms.
The MDA requires importers to "ensure that the publications/ audio materials brought in for distribution do not feature content which could be considered objectionable on moral, racial or religious grounds, or deemed detrimental to Singapore's national interests". According to the MDA, more than 2 million publications and 300,000 audio materials are imported into Singapore each year under the Registered Importers Scheme.
Foreign publications that carry articles the government considers slanderous, including The Economist and the Far Eastern Economic Review (FEER), have been subjected to defamation suits and/or had their circulations "gazetted" (restricted). The sale of Malaysian newspapers in Singapore is prohibited; a similar ban on the sale of newspapers from Singapore applies in Malaysia.
In August 2006, the government announced a tightening of rules on foreign publications previously exempt from the media code. Newsweek, Time, the Financial Times, the Far Eastern Economic Review and the International Herald Tribune will be required to appoint a publisher's representative in Singapore who could be sued, and to pay a security deposit of S$200,000. The move comes after FEER published an interview with Singaporean opposition leader Chee Soon Juan, who claimed that leading members of the Singaporean government had "skeletons in their closets". On 28 September 2006, FEER was banned for failing to comply with conditions imposed under the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act.
Pornography is strictly prohibited in Singapore; this encompasses magazines such as Playboy or Penthouse. However, magazines which are deemed to contain "mature content" such as Cosmopolitan Magazine are free to be distributed at all stores with a "Unsuitable for the young" label on its cover.
In December 2008, a Singaporean couple was charged with sedition for distributing the Chick tracts The Little Bride and Who Is Allah?, said "to promote feelings of ill-will and hostility between Christians and Muslims in Singapore".
The state-owned MediaCorp controls all free-to-air terrestrial local TV channels licensed to broadcast in Singapore, as well as 14 radio channels. Both free-to-air and pay television channels are available on cable, but the popular HBO series Sex and the City was not permitted to be shown in Singapore until 2004, after its original run had ended. Private ownership of satellite dishes is illegal, though international TV broadcasts (such as CNN, BBC, Fox News Channel etc.) are available on Starhub TV and SingTel IPTV service mio TV.
The Media Development Authority, through its Programme Advisory Committees for each of the four official languages, constantly monitors and provides feedback on broadcast content. Permissible content on Singaporean TV is minutely regulated by the MDA's Free-to-Air Television Programme Code.
Part 5 of the Code states that TV programs "should not in any way promote, justify or glamorise" homosexuality in any form. MediaCorp has been fined repeatedly for violations of this, most recently in April 2008 for showing an episode of Home and Design that depicted a gay couple. In February 2008, the Academy Awards acceptance speech for the short documentary Freeheld was censored by Mediacorp in the rebroadcast of the program due to the filmmakers' mention of equal rights for same sex couples.
Part 7 of the Code states that "Gratuitous and graphic portrayals of violence, such as cutting up body parts and spurting of blood, should be avoided.", and that programs "should not glamorise or in any way promote persons ... who engage in any criminal activity". Local productions thus typically avoid depicting the local police or military personnel as victims of violence, resulting in predictable storylines considered "ethically correct". The police, for example, are increasingly shown to rarely succumb to graphic violence or other unfortunate events, and even if they do, are typically shown to prevail ultimately, as depicted in police dramas Triple Nine and Heartlanders.
Part 12.3 of the Code states that use of the local English-based creole Singlish "should not be encouraged and can only be permitted in interviews, where the interviewee speaks only Singlish." The popular Singlish sitcom Phua Chu Kang was singled out in a National Day rally speech. The Programmes Advisory Committee for English TV and Radio Programmes also singled out the use of Singlish in local sitcoms in its 2005 annual report, saying they "contain excessive Singlish" and "this should be avoided as it could give the wrong impression, especially among the young, that Singlish is the standard of spoken English in Singapore"
Part 12.4 of the Code states that "All Chinese programmes, except operas or other programmes specifically approved by the Authority, must be in Mandarin." The Cantonese used by popular TV serials from Hong Kong had to be dubbed into Mandarin, while local television series or programmes may not use dialects. Similarly, local newspapers were not allowed to carry listings for Malaysia's TV3, which showed programmes in Cantonese. However, Hong Kong's TVB, broadcasting in Cantonese, is now available on cable.
The latest annual report by the Advisory Committee for Chinese Programmes, for instance, chastised dramas such as Beyond the aXis of Truth 2 (police thriller on the supernatural) and Wing of Desire (contemporary family-feud drama) for graphic violence, while giving credit to A Promise For Tomorrow, A New Life, A Child's Hope, and so on, for the "positive messages" transmitted. Hence, locally-produced dramas in recent decades are overwhelmingly family-based, with action-thrillers generally avoided.
As of September 2010, Singapore relaxed television broadcast guidelines allowing Pay TV operators to screen NC16, M18 and R21 films containing explicit content on Video-on-Demand (VOD) services.
Internet services provided by the three major Internet Service Providers (ISPs) are subject to regulation by the Media Development Authority (MDA), which blocks 100 "symbolic" websites such as Playboy and YouPorn. Since 8 October 2014, online gambling has been regulated in Singapore.
Government agencies have been known to use or threaten to use litigation against bloggers and other Internet content providers. The first instance of such activity was against Sintercom in July 2001 when the founder, Dr Tan Chong Kee was asked to register the website under the nascent Singapore Broadcast Authority Act (now Media Development Authority). Dr Tan chose to shutdown Sintercom due to concerns over the ambiguity of the Act. In April 2005, a blogger, Chen Jiahao, then a graduate student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, was made to apologise and shut down his blog containing criticisms on government agency A*STAR, after its chairman Philip Yeo threatened to sue for defamation. In September 2005, 3 people were arrested and charged under the Sedition Act for posting racist comments on the Internet. Two were sentenced to imprisonment. Later, the Teachers' Union announced that it is offering legal assistance to teachers who want to take legal action against students who defame them on their blogs, after five students from Saint Andrew's Junior College were suspended for three days for allegedly "flaming" two teachers and a vice-principal on their blogs.
In the last few years, the government has taken a much tougher stand on Internet-related matters, including censorship. Proposed amendments to the Penal Code intend to hold Internet users liable for "causing public mischief", and give the authorities broader powers in curtailing freedom of speech.
In September 2008, US citizen Gopalan Nair was sentenced to 3 months imprisonment for insulting a public servant after he accused a Singapore judge of "prostituting herself" in his blog.
Starting 1 June 2013 the Media Development Authority requires sites "that report regularly on issues relating to Singapore and have significant reach" among website visitors in Singapore to apply for individual licenses, which will be subject to annual renewal. These websites must then post a "performance bond" of 50,000 Singapore dollars and remove any objectionable content within 24 hours of receiving a government order. On 14 June 2013 the Asia Internet Coalition responded.
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|Library resources about
Censorship in Singapore
- Media Development Authority
- Censorship in Singapore – IFEX
- Undated Centre Street Broadcast in which Martyn See and others discuss the film Singapore Rebel
- The 3 tiers of censorship in Singapore, a review of censorship laws and practices. (5 November 2009)