Basic Position

The basic position of the arts community on censorship and regulation has changed little from that articulated in the 2003 “Arts Community Proposal” submitted to the CRC of 2002/2003 (link here). There, our position was “Yes to regulation, no to censorship”. Subsequent experience, however, has caused us to reformulate our position slightly more insistently: Censorship isn’t working: regulate instead

Censorship entails proscribing content, prohibiting its public presentation, and/or preventing its creators from working towards its realisation. While conducted by civil servants who may sincerely believe they act in the name of the public good, censorship is often politically motivated, and always arbitrary. It fosters a culture of dependency on the part of the public, timidity on the part of institutions, and resentment or self-censorship on the part of content producers. It is costly, inefficient, and dignifies no-one. 

Regulation entails the disinterested classification of content according to publicly available guidelines. It enables access to the widest choice of content for the greatest number of individuals. It promotes responsibility on the part of all stakeholders, and transparency and accountability within and between institutions. Disagreements and contested decisions are resolved through an open and inclusive appeals procedure. Regulation is no panacea, but by comparison with censorship, it empowers applicants, decision-makers and audiences alike.

Of course, there is already a substantial regulatory component to the current censorship regime in Singapore. Indeed, it is because the foundations of a regulatory infrastructure are in place that divesting institutions and mindsets of censorious procedures and attitudes is not only sound in principle, but possible in practice. This does not mean, however, that ‘tweaking’ the system will suffice, since, in our view, the problem is systemic. As long as regulation and censorship are confused, the exercise of the latter will continue to impede the transparent and accountable execution of the former. 

It may be the case that in some areas of cultural production and content management, distinguishing between censorship and regulation is a less pressing concern than maximising profits. We are also aware of a perception in some quarters that artists represent a ‘vocal minority’ at the ‘libertarian’ end of a spectrum, with ‘concerned parents’ and ‘social conservatives’ at the other. This is untrue. We are a diverse group of individuals brought together not by a sense of self-righteous indignation or the need to defend abstract values, but by long experience of dealing with the current and previous censorship regimes in Singapore. The comments and proposals that follow are not pie-in-the-sky ideals, but workable solutions to fundamental problems with the current system that are both principled and practical. 

As citizens and residents of Singapore, we find the prevalence of censorship to be at odds both with the core values of democracy, equality and justice enshrined in the Pledge and instilled in us from young, and with Singapore’s status as a dynamic, forward-looking society with a 21st Century economy. 

As practising writers, artists and administrators, the effects of censorship impact all aspects of our creative and professional lives. In part, this is because of the uncertainty and anxiety it arouses. But, as extensive consultation with our peers has made plainly apparent to us, it is primarily because of how insidiously the censoring impulse has spread through institutions and the social body more generally. Today, the outright banning of cultural products is relatively rare; but censorious interference by the state in all levels of the creative process and the presentation of its outcomes is all too common. This, in turn, appears to have fed a risk-averse culture among institutions that take their cue from government, and an expectation of censorship-on-demand among certain individuals within society. In light of the very real social and moral challenges Singaporeans face in the global age, this situation is untenable. 

In what follows, we summarise our perceptions from the receiving end of the current censorship regime, and outline how we think the system can be improved.