Censorship : Balancing liberalisation with the need to protect
The Straits Times
| Apr 22, 1995
By: Wang Hui Ling
In the recent Budget debate, Member of Parliament
Peh Chin Hua spoke out against what he called lax censorship which
had allowed Nell, a film with three scenes of nudity, to get past
the censors with a PG rating. Are censorship guidelines in fact
lax, and should the Government tighten up legislation? Wang Hui
Ling finds out.
MR PEH Chin Hua was worried that lax censorship would lead to moral
decay. The current situation, he felt, was already undesirable.
Citing a National University of Singapore survey on sexual attitudes
among students, he noted that some students admitted having sex
two or three times a month.
Furthermore, molest cases had also been rising. He urged Information
Arts Minister George Yeo to look into these "sparks" before
The conservative majority: Fact or fiction?
That Singaporeans are a conservative people is generally accepted
as correct, based on a survey on morality commissioned by the Censorship
Review Committee set up in 1991, headed by Professor Tommy Koh.
It showed that:
* 67 per cent disapproved of marital sex;
* 66 per cent disapproved of cohabitation;
* 90 per cent disapproved of extra-marital sex;
* 86 per cent disapproved of homosexuality/lesbianism.
This conservatism is seen by many as an indication that Singaporeans
are not ready for the relaxation of censorship standards.
But a distinction should be drawn between the attitude of Singaporeans
towards such behaviour within the community, and towards that portrayed
in films or in books.
For example, even as 86 per cent of respondents disapproved of homosexuality,
only 34 per cent wanted a ban on films with themes of homosexuality.
Thirteen per cent wanted no censorship, while 33 per cent wanted
adults to have access to such films.
Even towards material which depicts homosexual behaviour as a way
of life, which would have the effect of making it more acceptable,
less than half (48 per cent) were in favour of a complete ban. Twenty-eight
per cent wanted access for adults at least, and another 18 per cent
felt that only some of these material should be banned.
Looking at the survey as a whole, and assuming things have not changed
much since 1992 when the survey was carried out, it would appear
that one in three Singaporeans are highly conservative, both in
their attitude towards what they see as deviant behaviour, and in
how it is depicted in films, books and magazines.
A smaller percentage, but still significant, - roughly one in four
- are more liberal, at least towards censorship. The majority of
just under half of all Singaporeans appear to be happy with the
What do the figures show about Singaporean society? MP for Toa Payoh
GRC Davinder Singh notes that Singaporeans appear to be content
to treat Singapore differently from the rest of the world.
"It does not matter if censorship is lax in other countries.
In Singapore, there is a very strong moral view and many Singaporeans
do not want their children to have access to say, pornography,"
Nominated MP Kanwaljit Soin feels it indicates that while Singaporeans
know, or set limits, on what they see as acceptable behaviour in
Singaporean society, they also realise that people in other cultures
and societies might not share the same values.
"And they want to see these films just as they want to see
any other film about other societies, to find out how other people
live," she noted. Such a characteristic could be seen as a
sign of a maturing people, who would not necessarily ape everything
they see on the big screen, she adds.
Mr Singh feels that this is an optimistic view. He says those who
responded to questions about what they find acceptable might have
done so not because they have thought through these issues but gave
reflex responses based on ingrained social values.
"You say the word homosexual, and the immediate response is
'no'. But it could be because of values or laws that have been ingrained
Furthermore, such behaviour is not seen often
in public. "Our whole life revolves around a system of relationships
which are socially acceptable - father, mother, husband, wife, brother,
girlfriend - the less you are exposed to something, the less inclined
you are to accept it."
But should Singaporeans, especially younger ones, see such behaviour
frequently on the screen, they might be lulled into thinking that
it is less socially unacceptable, he says.
Prof Eddie Kuo, chairman of both Access (Advisory Committee on SBC
Chinese Drama and Variety Shows) and the Publications Appeals Committee,
says that though it would appear that the percentage of Singaporeans
who are for strict censorship is not as big as those who hold conservative
views towards what constitutes acceptable behaviour in Singaporean
society, it is by no means a small group.
But he adds that there is another factor to take into account when
assessing the degree of conservatism in Singapore society. This
is the "third-person effect" whereby a person feels that
something that would not do him any harm might not be as innocuous
for other people. This third-person effect, says Prof Kuo, appears
to be strong in Singapore, and might explain the highly conservative
So how does the Government tailor its policies?
According to those interviewed, three factors dominate the Government's
considerations when formulating censorship policy.
Besides the need to balance the wants of conservatives and liberals,
it has also to protect the vulnerable sectors of the population,
such as children, as well as the sensitivities of the various racial
and eligious groups.
There is also the goal of long-term liberalisation, made necessary
by the fact that it would become increasingly difficult to shut
out undesirable influences due to technological advances. Everyone
interviewed agreed on some fundamentals: the need to protect religious
and racial sensitivities, and the need to shut out hard-core pornography.
Surprisingly, there was also consensus that the current situation
is healthy - ranging from the liberal NMP Walter Woon to the more
conservative MP for Braddell Heights, Mr Goh Choon Kang.
Where there was disagreement, it was over the pace of further liberalisation
and over details such as whether nudity should be allowed. On the
question of nudity, MP for Hong Kah GRC Kenneth Chen expressed a
view similar to Mr Woon's when he said: "I do not understand
why there is this widespread view that nudity is detrimental when
there are so many more explicit scenes of violence and love-making
on television, albeit
fully-clothed at times."
While it would not do to go the whole hog as in the West, where
everything is available for the viewing, Singaporeans should not
swing to the other extreme of being so prudish that they do not
talk about anything that smacks remotely of sex or nudity.
"It would be very bad if we were to go to the other extreme,
where we do not talk about anything ... then society becomes a bit
twisted," Mr Chen argued.
Mr Woon concurs. He adds that if a fuss were made over nudity, children
likely to become even more curious. "When you go abroad, you
will see nudity on television. You have to explain to your children
what it's all about. They will learn from their parents. If you
explain to them that some of it is trash, they eventually get the
message. But if you keep switching if off, then it becomes forbidden
Here is where conservatives will part company with the more liberal-minded.
Many would argue that constant exposure to nudity for example might
make it seem more acceptable, the thin end of the wedge.
Mr Davinder Singh, for one, feels that many Asian parents want to
avoid discussing subjects like nudity with their children. "I
wouldn't feel comfortable talking about it to my children, it's
part of my upbringing. So I would rather it did not come up."
Liberalise further or tighten up legislation?
But the real tussle appears to be over the pace of liberalisation.
While most are happy with the current situation, some feel there
is room for liberalisation, while others counsel caution. For example,
Mr Woon feels that while current laws are adequate, they should
be relaxed for the import of videos and other material for personal
use. The Government should penalise pornographers and those who
make money from what
they bring in, but otherwise, should leave well alone.
Mr Singh disagrees, as there is the danger of people passing such
material around. Besides, those who want to view such material could
do so on their travels. As he said, "There is more potential
detriment than benefit".
Mr Goh Choon Kang also cautions against too much liberalisation,
too fast. "Singapore (television) should build up its own programmes
in order to be able to face the onslaught of foreign TV."
But Prof Kuo feels that Singapore should, in the long run, try to
move to a state - still within controls, but more liberal ones -
where people can disagree on certain movies, or books, but would
be tolerant enough to agree to disagree.
"The ideal situation would be where people say, this is not
acceptable to me, I do not like it. I will not watch. In my view,
we must prepare ourselves to move towards that direction. If anything,
cable television would force people to change."
But whatever their disagreements, one thing appears certain: none
of those interviewed wanted to see a tightening up of legislation.
All but one indicated that they would speak against further tightening,
and Prof Kuo has noted that such a move would not benefit society.
"It cannot be that we stop, say Internet, just because we think
it would ruin society. Our society must be resilient and strong
enough to withstand that."