Censorship : Balancing liberalisation with the need to protect society

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 and the Arts Minister George Yeo to look into these "sparks" before they became"fires".

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 status quo.

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," he said.

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 in us."

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, sister, boyfriend, 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 views.

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 are
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 fruit."

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."