Artists' Responses Against The Scheme

 

A. Original Statement by Sasi:

 
ArtsEngage Statement on MDA’s Term Licensing Scheme

All artists should empathically reject and refuse to participate in the MDA’s new Self-classification or Co-regulation scheme. From July 2014 onwards arts companies participating in the scheme will be allowed to stage productions without licences for up to a year, after which the Term Licence is subject to renewal. The Term Licensing scheme should be rejected out of hand as a matter of principle, even though participation is optional, for the following reasons:

1. It amounts to the state policing the arts by proxy; this is censorship in the guise regulation, ratings and advisories. Censorship by other means.

2. It co-opts the artist into a regime of surveillance and suppression that would inevitably inhibit creative risk-taking, curb free thought and curtail freedom of expression. It would be inimical to artistic creativity and innovation.

3. It is morally unconscionable becasue it forces the artist to self-censor. The limits of artistic expression in a society should be determined by the light of the artist’s reason and conscience, in dialogue with his own community. Not by presecriptive and arbitatry guidelines imposed by the state.

4. It forecloses discussion, debate or dialogue about the first principles by which the guidelines for artistic content are constituted. This is flagrant violation of free thought and expression.

T. Sasitharan
Director
Intercultural Theatre Institute

B. Tarn How’s revision of the above statement that we showed at the gathering on Saturday at The Theatre Practice.

 
Arts Engage Statement on MDA’s Term Licensing Scheme

We the undersigned members of Arts Engage  empathically reject and refuse to participate in the MDA’s new Self-classification or Co-regulation scheme because we reject censorship and the scheme is the old censorship regime in another guise. We also call on all artists to reject and refuse to participate in the scheme. From July 2014 onwards arts companies participating in the scheme will be allowed to stage productions without licences for up to a year, after which the Term Licence is subject to renewal.  We reject the Term Licensing scheme out of hand as a matter of principle, even though participation is optional, for the following reasons: 

 

It amounts to the state policing the arts by proxy; this is censorship in the guise regulation, ratings and advisories. Censorship by other means.

It co-opts the artist into a regime of surveillance and suppression that would inevitably inhibit creative risk-taking, curb free thought and curtail freedom of expression.  It would be inimical to artistic creativity and innovation.

It is morally unconscionable because it forces the artist to self-censor.  The limits of artistic expression in a society should be determined by the light of the artist’s reason and conscience, in dialogue with his own community. Not by prescriptive and arbitrary guidelines imposed by the state.

It forecloses discussion, debate or dialogue about the first principles by which the guidelines for artistic content are constituted. This is flagrant violation of free thought and expression.  

 

Signed by…

 

 

Arts Engage is a community of artists who has been working against censorship, for democracy and transparency in the selection of the Arts NMP, and for the fundamental importance of the arts.


C. The Observatory's response:

 

"To be free of all authority, of your own and that of another, is to die to everything of yesterday, so that your mind is always fresh, always young, innocent, full of vigour and passion. It is only in that state that one learns and observes. And for this, a great deal of awareness is required, actual awareness of what is going on inside yourself, without correcting it or telling it what it should or should not be, because the moment you correct it you have established another authority, a censor."

Jiddu Krishnamurti

 

The Observatory believes that the fundamental right to freedom of expression should be left as a cornerstone in the development of our creative arts industries. We reject censorship of any kind and self classification is without a doubt, an extension of the act of policing one's creative vision. Judgement and prejudice have no place in a truly creative ecosystem. Encouraging antagonistic, competitive acts of criticism and comparison serves to dichotomise and pit the public against the artist, arts group against arts group, people against people. It is unconscionable and counter to creativity. We as The Obs, have always envisioned a nurturing, creative environment and will continue to work towards a more supportive, tolerant community at large. The current proposed scheme of self-classification is at odds with this. It is detrimental to the creative process, to relationships between creative groups, between communities and with the public. It increases operating costs and places a greater punitive burden on the arts group concerned should we fail to classify "correctly". We know of no other arts industry in first world and developed countries that have implemented such a scheme. There is no statistical, anecdotal or practical evidence elsewhere of such measures and certainly none that have measured the effectiveness of a co-regulated arts approach. In mature industries, successfully navigating the issue of sensitive topics is often achieved through independent consultation and public dialogue via long, exhaustive and thorough processes, not in the guise of a spurious graded exercise, for which we may be penalised heavily should we fail to "pass" the test of classifying our work correctly. We hope to continue the dialogue because we understand the need to protect public interest which includes our own interest, but without a more nuanced approach and more dialogue, we cannot support this scheme.



D. The Art Of Strangers (Felipe Cervera)

 

Re: the town hall - Fezhah and I think that it is wise to entertain the idea of the new scheme as a positive thing in order to nuance our general position. We fear to be simply reactive and in doing so fail to see other strategies ahead. For instance, can we manage the self-regulating scheme as a stealth strategy of guild organisation? During the town hall meeting for NMP, Sasi argued how important is to engage... what does it mean to engage by not engaging? What do we win? What do we lose? In short, we have been entertaining the ideal scenario in which this can be a good opportunity to think of a somehow horizontality -  perhaps a constituency... I don't know if that can be and whether is convenient  - in which performing artists revert the self-regulating scheme into a self-organising principle. We know that sounds too lofty, but we think it can inspire productive strategies towards an answer to MDA. 

 

In more concrete and active terms, evidently, we don't subscribe to any form of censorship or regulation that nurtures a policing spirit  and, evidently, we don't think that anyone needs an MDA license to have an ethic sense of our/their work. We don't agree with submitting our scripts to a colleague in order to be licensed as much as we find  the current format to be unnecessary. 

 

E. Nirmala Seshadri

 

I enter this discussion as a practitioner of a “traditional/ethnic” art form (Bharatanatyam). Although many in my sphere may feel, for various reasons, that the traditional art forms are immune to the current state of affairs, I believe that this step ultimately impacts the entire arts scene, “traditional” practitioners included. Yes, “traditional” art forms do enjoy a “safe art” status at the moment and are perhaps already subjected to regulation from societal forces. But which society in particular - India, Singapore or the diaspora’s imagined notions of the Indian homeland and its culture? I am not a proponent of entertainment licenses or censorship here, but have problems with categorisation/boxing in various forms, which I believe is artificial and that we as an arts scene have been subjected to for a long time.

Human memory is short and it is selective. The dance form that serves as my reference point went through a long period of not just censorship but abolition. Today the invented tradition that is Bharatanatyam is celebrated as an “ancient” art form not just in India, but globally. Singapore is no exception. What if a choreographer seeks to modify, question or demystify the “traditional” form, or even draw from what is considered by society to be an unsuitable and uncomfortable point of reference in the dance form’s history? In which box do we then place the work? The line between “traditional” and “non-traditional” is therefore not as distinct as we would like to believe, especially in a scenario such as Singapore where as “traditional” artists (who are expected to act is custodians of these ethnic art forms), we are also exposed to very different influences. We will need to enter into this critical discussion if we hope for the “traditional” forms to develop in a spirit of freedom. Where is there hope for change and development of our ethnic forms if we have to begin the process in a mould of restriction and censorship? Even if we do not seek to push the boundaries of these forms, we need to keep in mind that we exist in a society whose motto is rapid change. When policies will shift and when we will cease to enjoy immunity against these constraining requirements is anyone’s guess.

I strongly believe that we have been a fractured arts scene for far too long. I think that when it comes to the issue of artistic freedom, we must stand as one community. “Traditional” or “non-traditional”, no artist should have to step into creativity with censorship (and worse still, self-regulation) on their minds.

 

F. Jennifer Teo

 

Actually, our input is just that we don't think the proposed amendments are necessary and we reject them. Also, I want to add that it's an amendment to the law (not just SOP), so it shouldn't b done so flippantly; justifications and details need to be provided!

 

G. Alfian Sa'at

 

Dear friends,

I have culled (copied and pasted) some of the ratings/advisories that MDA has slapped on various productions over the years. I hope it provides an overview on how arbitrary, puzzling, paternalistic and absurd some of the decisions have been. The list is not exhaustive.

1)     ADVISORY: 16 & ABOVE

 

i)                 LA CAGE AUX FOLLES (W!LD RICE)


The play has been given an Advisory 16 rating with the consumer advice "Some homosexual content", as it features a non-traditional family unit of a gay couple and their son.

 

(This advisory is not restricted only to ‘non-heteronormative sexuality’; the following below shows how it is applied to discourage young people from accessing alternative political views)

 

ii)                COOK A POT OF CURRY (W!LD RICE)


The play has been rated Advisory16 with the consumer advice, "Some Mature Content" as it explores the issue of immigration and the impact of the relevant government policies on the local ecosystem.

 

iii)              COOLING OFF DAY (W!LD RICE)


The play was given an Advisory rating for 16 years and above, with the consumer advice “Mature content”, as the play deals with various issues such as foreigners in Singapore, ethnic quota for public housing, transport woes, which came to the fore during the 2011 General Elections.

 

iv)              BALEK KAMPUNG (The Necessary Stage)


The play is rated Advisory (16 and above) as it has references to homosexual relationships, some usage of the coarse language as well as the characters’ perspective about political issues such as the freedom of expression in Singapore.

 

v)               GEMUK GIRLS (The Necessary Stage)


The play examines the political debate of ‘detention without trial’ and the emotional turmoil experienced by the families involved.

 

vi)              SINGAPORE (The Necessary Stage)


The play was given an Advisory rating for those 16 and above with the consumer advice, "Mature content and some coarse language" as it deals with local politics including the origins of Singapore and the presence of foreigners in the country.

 

vii)             PARIAH (TEATER EKAMATRA)


The play has been given the Advisory: Racial theme/Some mature content (16 years and above) due to the references on racial stereotypes.

 

(I wrote the script for ‘Pariah’ and I strenuously object to the ‘explanation’ given—it creates the impression that as the playwright I was perpetuating racial stereotypes in the play. This is actually the opposite of what I had done: racial stereotypes were mentioned so that they could be challenged and questioned by the characters in the play. A similar advisory was given to ‘BEST OF’ by The Necessary Stage: “The play has been given an Advisory rating and the consumer advice "Racial References & Some Coarse Language", as it mentions stereotypes about the Malay community in Singapore.)

 

2)     RESTRICTED RATING: NO AUDIENCE BELOW 18

 

i)                 ASIAN BOYS VOL. 1 (W!LD RICE)


The play has been given a R18 rating as it revolves entirely around homosexual culture in Singapore, looking at the stereotypes and difficulties that gay men face.

 

ii)                JOGET ABANG JOGET


The performance has been given a R18 rating and the consumer advice "Mature Theme and Nudity", as it explores the theme of pain with a scene of self-flagellation and rear male nudity.

 

(Again, R18 is not restricted to depictions of graphic sexuality and violence, but also to race/religion and politics, as illustrated below)

 

iii)              CHARGED (Teater Ekamatra)


The play is rated R18 with a consumer advice "Mature Content and Coarse Language" as it explores sensitive themes of racial prejudices and stereotypes of a particular race. Due to the realistic portrayal of racial tensions and use of strong language within the army camp, the issues discussed could be uncomfortable for some members of he audience and unsuitable for younger audience.

 

(Again, the mention of racial stereotypes without providing any context on how they are employed and critiqued in the play)

 

iv)              NOT COUNTED (Teater Ekamatra)


The play has been given an R18 rating as it contains mature content premised on rising up against an unsympathetic system through martyrdom.

 

v)               GODSE (Agni Koothu)


The play has been given a R18 rating and the consumer advice "Mature Content", as it portrays contrasting perspectives of Mahatma Gandhi's beliefs, such as on non-violence and his experiments with celibacy. In discussing Gandhi's political influence, there are also descriptions of violent conflicts between the Hindus and Muslims.

 

vi)              SQUARE MOON (Function 8)

 

The play has been given a restricted rating with the consumer advice of "Mature Theme" as it interrogates the right of a government - that has at its disposal, institutions and tools which serve to maintain its dominance - to rule.

 

 

H. Chan Sze Wei

 

I hope this isn't too late to submit my thoughts.  The discussion last Saturday morning was an educational experience for me and I'm glad to have had the stimulus to think further about this and have several discussions about it.

 

My essential position on this issue is that I have long been opposed to censorship in Singapore and remain so strongly opposed.  I believe that policies of state censorship such as those currently practised in Singapore infringe the human right of freedom of expression and stunt our society, discouraging citizens (individuals who are arts practitioners or audience members or both) from making responsible choices and engaging in civic-minded debate.  Certainly, Singapore may not have the most restrictive censorship policies in the world. However the proposed term licensing and "co-regulation" policies are clearly a continuation of a policy of state censorship.  Beyond the current policies that restrict freedom of expression and debate, the new policies of self-classification and content assessment conducted by members of the artistic community are clearly a burden that will unfairly limit artistic expression and sow distrust amongst arts practitioners. 

 

My utopian vision for Singapore is that censorship will be fully abolished. We will still need measures to protect civil order from unjustified and inflammatory expression whether in the arts, commercial media, political forums, or elsewhere.  However I firmly believe that our existing laws (such as the sedition act and maintenance of religious harmony act) and our able court system are equipped to deal with this. 

 

Last Saturday's meeting gave me newfound confidence that such an ideal outcome can be real in Singapore one day.

 

That said, I have read through the proposed bill of amendments from MDA and I see that there is a genuine effort on the part of the Singapore government and civil service to make a gradual move to reduce the burden of censorship in Singapore.  I can see that on this issue there are many interests to be negotiated in society as well as within different parts of government.In the case of this parliamentary bill I see an example of excellent intentions to empower artists and audiences to express themselves and encounter debate, and to reduce the burden of classification on MDA's part.  However the proposed mechanisms of self-classification, content assessors and penalties for misclassification are confusing and flawed. These measures do not lead to a greater level of freedom for anyone.  They represent the same regime of censorship in another guise, calling on artists to act on behalf of the censoring government.  I urge MDA to rethink the mechanisms proposed. 

 

In the meantime I remain firmly opposed to this bill and will not opt to participate in the self-classification scheme.



I. Chee Meng:

 

https://www.facebook.com/notes/zming-cik/empower-the-audience-in-arts-appreciation-not-empower-artists-for-self-censorshi/10152026544525806

Empower the Audience in Arts Appreciation, Not ‘Empower’ Artists for Self-Censorship

We are a consumerist society that doesn’t want to maximise our choices in the finer things. We are passive spectators who prefer to let the authorities dictate to us AND others what arts and culture means. We are a free-for-all global economy that still suffers an intolerance of the diversity around us. When will we ever grow out of this rut?

 I’m making such sweeping statements out of desperation, as a new mechanism in censorship known as ‘self-classification’ is coming its way for arts practitioners in Singapore, and chances are most of us as members of the public may not think to speak up on it, for the simple reason that we are not artists, or we are not very progressive artists - the typical divided society we are.

 But surely more reactions from all segments of society are called for by the proposed amendments to Public Entertainments and Meetings Act (PEMA), as spelt out by the Media Development Authority of Singapore (MDA) in its public consultation paper of 12th May 2014. Short of that, it would sound like the usual suspects among artists fighting for their own space, up against some faceless volunteers who play the moral police. How about the average supporters of the cultural sector, who would not want to see the vibrancy and fluidity of an open society compromised? Don’t we have a stake?

 

New scheme for ‘self-classification’

 Under the newly proposed scheme of Arts Term Licensing, arts groups and individuals will apparently be ‘empowered’ to ‘co-regulate’ their performances or exhibitions, according to MDA. They will be able to ‘self-classify’ their own shows for a term based on MDA’s classification code, instead of letting MDA issue the classification rating event by event. The catch? Any wrong classification may cost them a fine of up to $5,000, not to mention risk affecting their track records for future licensing process.

 If that is conceived as a way to liberalise or to streamline the licensing process, it’s not very reassuring for the artists. MDA appears to be outsourcing the classification rating to a new vocation that they call ‘registered content assessor’, who may be an in-house staff of the arts group or some freelancer. But what if some members of the public complain that some part of a show is offensive, that its classification has been ‘reckless’ and inappropriate? Consequences will clearly not inspire risk-taking for the ones taking MDA’s role upon themselves.  

 It remains to be seen whether arts groups will ultimately all be nudged towards an option of Arts Term Licensing. But if so, this will become an instrument of instilling discipline within the arts groups to exercise self-censorship, or what MDA terms as ‘co-regulation’, as if that is the one and only way to harmonise divergent interests in society.

 

 ‘Artistic freedom’ vs ‘wider community interests’?

MDA in its public consultation paper suggests that such co-regulation is necessary due to ‘inherent tension’ between ‘artistic freedom’ and ‘wider community interests’. Such phrasing evokes a kind of dichotomy. It’s as if artistic freedom is merely a perverse way for artists to release their own excessive energy and emotions, and not a source of entertainment, enrichment and education for the general public. It’s as if community interests are monolithic and unchanging, and are better served by speaking no evil, instead of being alerted through artistic means to new awareness of cracks in society that have to be addressed.

Such new innovation in embedded censorship is problematic on two fronts. First, it assumes that some ‘community standard’ has to be upheld vis-à-vis the artistic expressions, in order to maintain certain common interests and social cohesion. But such an approach smacks of a regression, considering that a decade ago in the Report of Censorship Review Committee 2003, it was already acknowledged that a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach in censorship is becoming less tenable given an increasingly heterogeneous society, that there is demand for greater diversity in choices.

 Classification and advisory may help the audience make better informed choices, but it should really be meant as a kind of hint, and not made so predictable and foolproof as to become akin to giving all spoilers of a show away. An attempt at micro-managing such classification to make it watertight will also tend to raise expectations of control to such a level, that only creates more tension. The more you fuss about rules governing a creative space as if observing precepts of purity at a temple, the less tolerant one would be of any faux pas or breach of taboo. If MDA itself would find the classification process too tedious to handle, why let a poor arts group bear the cost and the direct responsibility – considering that potential offence would be taken by some members of the public who have a different standard on what constitutes good art, or a different interpretation of an art work?

 Assuming that the representation of race and religion in a play or a film is the thorniest issue here, there can always be a better way than to ban and censure any depiction of racial tension and stereotyping. It may be critiqued in terms of its artistic choice, whether a scene is thrown in for cheap comic effects, or whether it provides in the context of the plot some clever insight or satire on social issues at hand. Surely such fiction or provocation will not carry more malice than real-life racist remarks floating on the net? Why pre-empt a play or a film if you cannot pre-empt the social media? Just for the ritual of a symbolic gesture? A creative work should not be treated as the final word on any issue of race and religion, but as a talking point for more constructive dialogue.       

 

Empower arts appreciation, not self-censorship

The second problem with such embedded self-censorship should be self-evident: it stifles creativity in our artists, for categories that may sound straightforward to a bureaucrat on paper would be a pain for artists to navigate in actual practice. Do we not imagine that great art should have the autonomous capacity to transcend quotidian life and all superficial divides of culture, gender and what not, to reveal some truth of universality in human possibility? Which actors and performers should be the ones to calculate the degree of intimacy, expressed or perceived, that might step over the bounds of social or sexual appropriateness, and should that be a one-inch or five-second rule of contact?      

Restrictions as such would render the artistic practice here sterile, when we should rightly be promoting more sophisticated and open-minded appreciation of the artistic experience among the public, and allowing artists and audiences alike to find their own niches. Did we imagine that we could turn Singapore from a swamp into a Renaissance City, just by pumping in money? Even if we speak of this whole enterprise as primarily a creative industry as part of Singapore’s economy, we need to treasure the artists as our assets. In this cosmopolitan age, when Singapore can take pride in one of its businessmen acquiring a Spanish football club, it would be sad if the talents who are the creators of our intellectual wealth still have to live under constant fear of a Spanish Inquisition, for any transgression that is simply part of a creative practice.

Instead of investing in ‘content assessors’, it would be more productive and meaningful if we could invest in nurturing more arts critics, be it professionals or amateurs, who may then engage in more active discussion on the merits of our artistic output. In fact, we have to keep supporting arts education generally, so that people young and old can feel empowered through the sharing of creative expressions and exercising of critical thinking.  

As it is, the use of the word ‘empower’ in reference to the proposed ‘self-classification’ scheme has been somewhat unfortunate, for it almost calls to mind the brutal process of self-criticism during China’s Cultural Revolution, when Red Guards were empowered to conduct surveillance across the nation while pledging allegiance to a supreme leader. It seems to betray an underlying mistrust of artists within our society, as if they are subversive and unruly by nature, except they are also a necessary evil which the conservative society has to tolerate alongside casinos and the sex trades, all for the sake of making Singapore an attractive financial hub.

The arts should be seen in all its diversity as nourishment that is part and parcel of the individual’s intellectual and emotional development, and it is by nature fluid and constantly evolving, not to be predetermined by those with the distinction of privileged taste or moral claims. A more harmonious society would be one where people recognise that there is always more than a single way to interpret a work of art, and there is always more than a single way in how the arts should relate to society; and the way to manage differences in opinions and sensitivities would be to practise the power of persuasion through discourse and dialogue, instead of resorting to any coercion by proxy.

The day when the pen, or any medium of expression for that matter, becomes mightier than the scissor, shall be the day we can truly call ourselves a civilised society.  

 

J. Richard Chua Lian Choon

My contribution to the discussion: No censorship. Full Stop.

For the benefit of discussion, I find co-regulation extremely problematic, in terms of how arts groups will be assessed, in a case of a perceived misclassification.

According to MDA: [A breach of licence conditions or provisions under the PEMA constitutes an offence that can result in a fine. Asked what would happened if a group’s rating of a work deviated from the MDA’s classification guidelines, MDA assistant chief executive (Regulatory) Christopher Ng said the authority would be “reasonable and fair” in assessing the situation. “Should there be public complaints on misclassification, the MDA will look into the matter thoroughly before determining the necessary action."](Today, 13 May 2014) The term "reasonable and fair" needs clarification. I don't think MDA has any. The following questions need to be answered:

a. What is the process of evaluation and inquiry when misclassification occurs?

b. What is the criteria used to deem the case as a misclassification?

c. How would mitigation be carried out? What principle would the process be based on: Guilty unless proven innocent, or innocent till proven guilty?

Co-regulation puts artists on an extremely unlevelled playing field. Unless we negotiate the terms discussions are based upon, any form of engagement would be futile; worse, cosmetic.


K. Tan Beng Tian

I first took MDA's Self-Classifying Scheme with open arms because I thought that we now have finally gained the trust of MDA to regulate our own works. However, reality sets in when I discovered that we have been offered an unjust 'job offer'.

Being given the 'power' to self-regulate, we are not able to have any say in the 'terms and conditions of the 'contract'. In a way, it's like someone throwing a job offer to you saying, "Nah, sit here under the hot sun and 'jaga' the traffic light. When a dog comes, make sure it doesn't pee there. Make sue no one sticks stickers there also. If you need to pee, DON'T. If you need to drink, DON'T. If you need to take a break, DON'T. You already have a chair to sit on, that's good enough. You can only leave your post when the relief staff comes. There will be no off days. No medical benefits as well. Lastly, no claims on transport and whatsoever. By the way, you have to pay me for offering you this job."

If a company doesn't offer a good environment, a reasonable pay or some give-and-take benefits as opposed to the long working hours and stifling environment, there is really no point in taking up their job, is there?