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. In response, commentator Godwin Tan called the censorship 'a grave mistake on pragmatic grounds'.
Films and videos
The importing, making, distributing or exhibiting of films in Singapore is governed by the Films Act of 1981. Films for commercial release are presented to the Media Development Authority (MDA) which classifies the films under six different ratings for different groups of audiences:
- G (general) – suitable for all ages.
- PG (parental guidance) – suitable for most but parents should guide their young.
- PG13 (parental guidance 13) – suitable for persons aged 13 and above but parental guidance is advised for children below 13.
- NC16 (no children below 16) – no children below 16 years of age.
- M18 (mature 18) – for persons 18 years and above.
- R21 (restricted 21) – restricted to persons aged 21 and above.
- NAR (not allowed for all ratings) – In exceptional cases, a film may not be allowed for all ratings (NAR) when the content of the film undermines national interest or erodes the moral fabric of society. This includes themes that promote issues that denigrate any race or religion, or undermine national interest, language that denigrates religion or is religiously profane, real sexual activities (e.g. actual penetration, actual ejaculation), content deemed to be pornographic or obscene in nature, explicit promotion and normalisation of homosexual lifestyle, explicit homosexual activity, materials glorifying or encouraging drug and substance abuse and detailed or gratuitous depictions of extreme violence or cruelty. Films classified as 'NAR' in Singapore are banned and cannot be legally sold, rented, possessed, imported or made public in any format in Singapore, punishable by fines and/or imprisonment.
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." 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
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, was banned from the airwaves as its homosexual lyrics violate the Free-To-Air Radio Programme Code.
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 such as graphic sex/nudity, strong coarse language, drug use, graphic violence/gore and mature themes will be given either an Age Advisory rating label or use/share the M18 rating label used for film classification similar to those found on home video media in Singapore.
- General (Suitable for all ages) - Games approved for general distribution. These titles are not required to carry any rating labels.
- Age Advisory (Suitable for persons 16 and above) – May contain moderate graphic violence, some drug use, implied sexual activity, partial nudity and some strong language.
- M18 (Mature 18 – Restricted to persons 18 years and above) May contain depictions of strong realistic violence, such as killing, maiming or causing other serious injury to humanoid characters if the violence is not sadistic, cruel and abhorrent, realistic drug use, portrayal of sexual activity with some nudity, both topless and full frontal, if not detailed, depiction of topless nudity or occasional full frontal nudity, frequent use of strong coarse language and mature themes including homosexual content.
A video game, in the most extreme cases, may be disallowed for all ratings (NAR) when the game contains content that exceeds acceptable social standards and could be potentially harmful to society. 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 August 2006, a play Smegma was banned by Media Development Authority which said that: "the play portrays Muslims in a negative light." 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 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. The popular HBO series Sex and the City was banned from broadcast originally in the late 90s when the series debuted but the ban was later lifted in 2004 after modifications to the Subscription TV Programme Code of Singapore. Private ownership of satellite dishes is illegal, though international TV broadcasts (such as CNN, BBC, Fox News Channel, RT, 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 regulated by the MDA's Free-to-Air Television Programme Code. As of September 2010, Singapore relaxed television broadcast guidelines allowing Pay TV operators to screen NC16, M18 and R21 films containing explicit content/controversial themes 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.
- "Media Development Authority – Licences". Mda.gov.sg. Retrieved 16 December 2012.
- "Media Development Authority – Broadcast, Publications and Arts Appeal Committee". Mda.gov.sg. 15 November 2006. Retrieved 16 December 2012.
- "Media Development Authority – Films Appeal Committee". Mda.gov.sg. Retrieved 16 December 2012.
- "Media Development Authority – Censorship Review Committee". Mda.gov.sg. Retrieved 16 December 2012.
- "Government's Response to CRC Report". App.mica.gov.sg. Retrieved 16 December 2012.
- Mokhtar, Faris (10 September 2014). "The Media Development Authority (MDA) says the film is not allowed for all ratings as contents undermine national security.". Channel NewsAsia. Retrieved 10 September 2014.
- "Singapore upholds Janet Jackson ban". BBC News. 5 June 2001. Retrieved 28 April 2010.
- "Singapore introduces video games classifications system". Media Development Authority. 27 April 2008.
- Salil Tripathi (14 December 2002). "Artistic ambitions don't play well in uptight Singapore". New Statesman.
- "Government bans stage play on death penalty, censors artwork". Southeast Asian Press Alliance. 6 December 2005.
- "Singapore bans play for negative portrayal of Muslims". Reuters. 5 August 2006.
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- "AFP: Singapore relaxes censorship of television sex and violence". Google. 29 September 2010. Retrieved 16 December 2012.
- Lee, Melanie (23 May 2008). "Singapore bans two porn websites in symbolic move". Reuters.
- "Internet Regulatory Framework". Mda.gov.sg. Retrieved 16 December 2012.
- "Country Reports on Human Rights Practices 2005", The United States Department of State. Retrieved 20 March 2006.
- "Schools act against students for 'flaming' teachers on blogs", The Straits Times, page 1, 27 September 2005, by Sandra Davie and Liaw Wy-Cin.
- "Mixing welfare and elitism in Singapore", Alex Au, Asia Times Online, 23 November 2006
- "US blogger sentenced to three months in Singapore jail". Agence France-Presse. 18 September 2008. AFP Report
- The Wallstreet Journal Europe edition, Media & Marketing on 29 May 2013
- 'Public letter dated June 14th, 2013 from the Asia Internet Coalition (AIC) to Ministry of Communications and Information of Singapore' on the website of the AIC (PDF)
- Terry Johal, "Controlling the Internet: The use of legislation and its effectiveness in Singapore (pdf file)", Proceedings, 15th Biennial Conference of the Asian Studies Association of Australia, Canberra, 2004.
- Gary Rodan, "The Internet and Political Control in Singapore (pdf file)" Political Science Quarterly 113 (Spring 1998)
|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)