Censorship Accounts

A few accounts...

The following are accounts of censorship and censorship-like incidents that have been encountered by various artists from 2005 to the present. The accounts documented here are far from exhaustive and are not comprehensively nor definitively chronicled here, and mainly serve to indicate for reference the different forms of censorship that have occurred recently. 

Censorship accounts tend to circulate as hearsay and rumours, at times in an attempt to protect the affected parties who may be dependent on institutions and organisations involved for future projects, or simply to avoid the general wrath of censoring bodies. When censorship accounts do get surfaced to the public, they do tend to generate substantial interest, leading to the fallacious argument that censorship ‘benefited’ the situation providing publicity, failing to realise that works have been compromised and artists under threat to comply. 

Two broad arguments are put forth through these accounts that have been kindly contributed by the affected parties - firstly the pervasiveness of censorship and censorious activity across different media, at different levels of intensity, and with different organisations and institutions. Secondly, that censorship activity has real implications for, and impacts, works, artists and audiences.

2005: Total ban of content - Human Lefts

Form: Theatre production
Venue: Drama Centre Blackbox
Organisations involved/negotiated with: Media Development Authority (MDA)

Censorship of all references to the death penalty and seemingly close references to high ranking politicians. The reason given for the censorship was that the death penalty was a sensitive issue at that point in time (it was the day after the hanging of Nguyen Van Thong). The entire content of the script was banned, however, MDA allowed another set of content to run with the same title.

Outcome & Effect:
A totally new script had to be put together within 3 days, and the show went on without further cuts, but effectively the original content was axed. In response to the ban, a sign was placed outside the theatre, stating that the original piece was banned and the piece that the audience would be watching was derived within a short time of 3 days. In the end, the talk back session focused on censorship more than ever. The audiences (especially the international crowd - as this was part of an international festival) were very responsive to the situation.

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2005-2009: Rating & cut - ContraDiction

Form: Reading event
Venue: Utterly Art, Mox Bar, 72-13
Organisations involved/negotiated with: Media Development Authority (MDA)

The first year that the reading was held, the organisers were told that they needed to apply for an arts entertainment license despite the fact that most literary readings in Singapore carry on without a license. The license has been granted every year since then, but most years (certainly from 2007 onwards), the event has been labeled R(18), even when one of the performers was clearly stated to be 16 years old. On one occasion, in 2007, a piece was also banned from live reading: Koh Jee Leong’s sonnet “Come On, Straight Boy.” The reason given for the poem being banned was that it was “encouraging homosexuality.” From recollection, no reason was given for the R-rating.  

Outcome & Effect:
In Jee Leong’s case, he read a different piece. It is however somewhat inconvenient to have to submit the text and particulars of everyone involved a few months before the show.
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2006: Unrealised work - Talk to Him

Form: Video (visual arts)
Organisations involved/negotiated with: National Arts Council

The realisation of a new work responding to an invitation to participate in the Singapore Biennale was hamstrung. The proposed work had intended to interview 5 individuals who have been active in the arts scene in Singapore coming from a wide range of subject areas such as arts, politics, land development, history, humanities and culture. The video recording would be presented as a 5-hour long screening during the Singapore Biennale 2006. After a second meeting, the artist was told he would need a lawyer for this project, and that he would be held responsible if anything should go wrong in the project. He was also told that he would not receive further support unless he had engaged a lawyer which was not possible as a lawyer would have required half of the budget given. 

Outcome & Effect:
The work was not completed and no work was presented at the Biennale. To date there has not been any further word from the organisers.
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2007: Cut - Tall Tales and Short Stories

Form: Reading of two short stories at IndigNation (5 August 2007)
Venue: 72-13
Organisations involved/negotiated with: Media Development Authority (MDA)

The short story Lee Low Tar was censored, and the reason given was that "the content of Lee Low Tar had gone beyond good taste and decency in taking a disparaging and disrespectful view of public officers." The piece was banned from the live reading event.

Outcome & Effect:
While the reading of two short stories had been planned for, only one could be read - the piece by Ovidia Yu.  In the place of the unread story, a talk on the ban was held, the short story was also distributed for reading, and a silent performance art event was held instead.  The short story was also posted on the net. In fact, the short story itself was written as a response to MDA’s intervention.  The organisers had been told about a month beforehand that MDA wanted them to apply for a licence for our short story reading, which was inexplicable, since most short story readings go on without a need for a licence.  At that point, the story was only a bare idea, which was then adapted it to fit the occasion.
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2007: Cut and others forms of censorship - 251

Form: Theatre production
Venue: Esplanade Theatre Studio
Organisations involved/negotiated with: Media Development Authority (MDA), Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts (MICA), Esplanade

The play script was censored, references to a lesbian romance had to be changed, and subsequently re-written to depict the characters as young 12 year olds exploring sexuality (puppy love) instead, even though the lesbian affair was integral to Annabel Chong’s psyche. During rehearsals, Esplanade personnel were continually asking to sit in and were obliged. They wanted to know how the kiss between two girls would be staged. They said 'ok' to the kiss but wanted to know how long the kiss would last, in which case it would have been staged for a shorter time than their expected duration so as to comply with this stipulation. No response was given however to the allowed duration. In addition to the several emails sent to the theatre company requesting for information on how scenes were to be staged, sms-es were also received asking information about staging etc. Following that, when sms-es stopped Esplanade personnel would call or drop by rehearsals to give comments etc.

One of the requests received was for the play’s opening line to be deleted. The words were ‘in the beginning was the body,' because it was considered potentially offensive to Christians. However it was highlighted to the Esplanade officials that it was not a 'live' act but a pre-recorded speech, as such it could not be done rightaway as it was opening night, and the track would sound abrupt if it began with the second part on its own. This was despite the fact that the script had been submitted long before. In the end the entire monologue was re-recorded to oblige their request.

Outcome & Effect:
Self-censorship under pressure is still censorship. The efforts of the artists, and integrity of the work was compromised, as well as the audience's experience as the artists had intended. The event generated even more publicity than it would have given the last minute censorship. It resulted in a big feature in the media even though it was still a much diluted version and did not give the full sense of what had happened.

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2007: Performance prevented - TRICK or THREAT

Form: Forum theatre
Venue: Outdoor Community Venues like Toa Payoh Central
Organisations involved/negotiated with: Media Development Authority (MDA), although the objection to the performance came from the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA)

Trick or Threat is a Forum Theatre Production about a possible bombing happening in an MRT and its effects such as causing fear, and the proliferation of racial and religious stereotypes and discrimination. It was intended to be performed in the outdoors within a community setting as the organisers felt it was a topic that should reach out to the greater community who would have much to learn about how to deal with such a crisis.  MHA felt that the forum theatre form being performed in the outdoors with such a theme would be inappropriate and hence told MDA that the production will not be allowed unless it was presented indoors.

The ban was communicated to the organisers 1 day before the show opened. The organisers met up with MDA who simply conveyed their decision and expressed their regret and asked if they could help to secure indoor venues, however the cost was to be borne by the company

Outcome & Effect:
We did not perform as scheduled as there was no license. However the organisers then proposed to perform the event at an outdoor venue but within a covered tentage.  This was given approval and performed 1 month later. The piece has since been seen by various people from grassroots leaders to public audience and international audience.  Many responded that they felt it to be an important work for the community to watch and to start learning about how to deal with such crises.  The prevention of an outdoor community performance however did limit the performance’s ability to reach its targeted audience.
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2008: Raiding of private screening - One Nation Under Lee

Form: Film
Venue: Excelsior Hotel
Organisations involved/negotiated with: Media Development Authority (MDA) and Singapore Police Force.

Private screening raided by MDA and Singapore Police. Screening ordered to cease. DVD confiscated. Attempted confiscation of video projector. Filmmaker investigated by Police in 2009.

Outcome & Effect:
Audience's viewing was disrupted and some left the room in fear. The film was never screened in Singapore again. Straits Times ran a half-page report a day after on how the screening was raided and that anyone found with copies of the film would be fined $200 per copy.
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2008: Rating - Sita Sings the Blues

Form: Film
Venue: Alliance Francaise, part of Animation Nation 2008
Organisations involved/negotiated with: Singapore Film Society

Sita Sings the Blues is an internationally acclaimed animation film. When the film was submitted to the censors it unexpectedly received a R21 rating with a one-screening-only permit, on grounds that it was religiously contentious. However, the film had been screened numerous times in India with no problem. At present, the film is available for download from the web via a Creative Commons license.

Outcome & Effect:
Being allowed to screen the film only once made it impossible to break even (financially), especially at such late notice. It was felt that the censors had misjudged the film and taken too much of a cautionary view of it which was highly disappointing.
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2009: Withdrawal of films from screening even though both films have been granted R21 status by the Board of Film Censors (BFC) - Tanjong Rhu (2008) and Threshold (2009)

Form: Film screening
Venue: National Museum Cinematheque and the Singapore Film Commission
Organisations involved/negotiated with: National Museum of Singapore, Singapore Film Commission

Film-makers were informed by the film programmer that the films were selected to be included in the 6th Singapore Short Cuts, to be held on 15th August 2009 at 2 pm at the National Museum Cinematheque, along with 3 other local short films. A week before the screening they were suddenly informed that the films had to be withdrawn, without any official reason. Both films had been rated R21, and were permitted to be shown legally as long as the screening audience was above 21 years of age. Emails were sent to the Singapore Film Commission seeking more information, but no reply was received. The event on August 15th went on with 3 films being screened officially. Information on Tanjong Rhu and Threshold were absent from the program lineup.

Outcome & Effect:
To date, no reply has been received from SFC. The censorship incident prevented ‘Threshold’ from having its Official World Premiere in Singapore. The filmmaker had postponed his flight to further studies overseas in order to be present for the screening, in vain. Lack of transparency and explanation was disheartening. The fact that even with a rating, the films were still prevented from showing displayed a lack of faith of the filmmaking community.
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2009: Changing rating - PG with cut, R21 with cut, finally R21 no cuts - Wendy & Lucy (2008)

Form: Film
Venue: National Museum of Singapore Gallery Theatre ( 247-seats) ,  22nd / 24th April 2009
Organisations: Board of Film Censors (BFC)

The main story of this award-winning film directed by Kelly Reichardt, Wendy & Lucy, is about a girl and her dog who journey to Alaska to find work and a better life. The film was submitted to BFC prior to its intended screening at the Singapore International Film Festival (SIFF) 2009. In one scene two words are said in response to a security guard who insists that the dog pound is closed. The character, Wendy, answers in frustration, “fucking christ,” in a wide-shot with the character’s back to the camera so the words are only heard.

BFC first rated the film PG with a cut of the two words. SIFF requested for a re-consideration to "PG with no cuts," this was denied. SIFF then asked for an R21 rating with no cuts. BFC responded, saying, a rating of R21 could be given, but still with the cut, and denied any appeal. During a meeting with BFC the reason given for the cut was that the phrase denigrates the representative’s religion, and the representative would not accept that in the context of this film the words were just swear words, a figure of speech spoken in frustration in this particular scene. BFC representative claimed that the SIFF representative could not be a judge of the matter as the SIFF representative was not of the same religion.

Outcome and effect:
BFC is aware that SIFF maintains a policy as with all other credible international film festivals to screen films intact. If the film's integrity cannot be protected, SIFF informs the audiences of the BFC’s rating decisions, and then withdraws the film so that the filmmaker's vision and the audience’s experience is not compromised. SIFF informed BFC that a SIFF press release would be made within the week to inform audiences that titles rated with cuts cannot be screened, and that ticket sales for these screenings would be cancelled. Hearing this BFC asked SIFF to tell the press to run their stories by BFC. SIFF explained to BFC that SIFF never did and does not have the power to make the press do such a thing. Upon this, BFC then said they might reconsider this matter again, and closed the hour-long meeting. On April 6th, BFC passed the film, changing its classification to a final rating of R21 without cuts.

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2010: Title and content changed - Nuns Gone Wild/Good Girls

Form: Theatre (10-minute Play)
Venue: The Arts House (Play Den)
Organisation involved/negotiated with:  The Arts House, Organising Team for Short+Sweet Singapore 2010

The script for the play 'Nuns Gone Wild!' by a local playwright was shortlisted (having passed the festival's assessment process) by the organisers of Short+Sweet and sent to the festival's selected directors in Singapore. However, the 'Sister-Act' Comedy, that originally depicted three Nuns fantasising and re-enacting various love/sex scenes, with one of the characters admitting that she had an affair with another sister towards the end of the play, was asked to make amendments to the script and its presentation, otherwise the production team was asked to withdraw from Short+Sweet Singapore. The director of the play was told the news, by the organisers, the afternoon of the Opening Day. The reason given was that the venue, one of the major sponsors of the festival, expressed concern that there might be sensitivity of religious subject as performed in the play. They thought it could possibly be offensive and thus possibly violating certain rules by MDA. The director finally agreed to amend the script as he did not want to disappoint the cast since they had already put in a lot of effort in research and rehearsals.

The organisers and the venue, after the request for censorship and changes were made, made efforts to compensate the group, offering free rehearsal space and other technical support, and the play in its modified form was performed on the third night after the opening. Although the plot and lines were almost unchanged, the characters were transformed to three young convent girls instead of the original Nuns, and re-titled 'Good Girls' (rated M-18).

Outcome & Effect:
This is censorship under pressure - the threat of stopping the play from being presented at the festival citing possible religious sensitivity. The amended play lost it's original context and reduced the work to just 'pure entertainment'. The integrity of the play and the experience of the audience was compromised. As the original script has the potential of making audience think while they were having a good laugh, the amended comedy removed any possibility of analysis and reflection, entertaining the audience with witty lines without their original context.

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2010: Banned - Eating Out: All You Can Eat

Form: Film
Organisation involved/negotiated with:  Media Development Authority (MDA)

A film slated to be screened at the recently concluded Indignation Film Festival in Singapore had to be withdrawn after it was classified by censors as "Not Allowed for All Ratings". Read more here.

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2011: Closed - Singapore Biennale - Simon Fujiwara's Welcome to the Hotel Munber

Form: Art Installation
Organisation involved/negotiated with: Singapore Art Museum (SAM)

The installation by British artist Simon Fujiwara curated for the 3rd Singapore Biennale, titled 'Welcome To The Hotel Munber' was closed by the national museum after the opening week of the Biennale. The installation that is designed to resemble a 1970's Spanish hotel bar contained materials that was after the opening deemed too erotic for the exhibition's general public. The closure was reported in the news (link here), and an interview with the artist was published online (Simon Fujiwara: Censored at the Singapore Biennale 2011 by Ng Yi-Sheng, link here).

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2011: Restricted Release - The Kids are Alright

Form: Film
Organisation involved/negotiated with: Board of Film Censors 

The film, 'The Kids are Alright,' a US comedy drama directed by Lisa Cholodenko, portraying a lesbian couple meeting the man who fathered their children and starring Annette Bening, that received four Academy Award nominations, including Best Motion Picture and Best Leading Actress, was rated by the Board of Film Censors as a category R21 (Restricted 21 - Suitable for Adults aged 21 and above) film. In addition, the Board of Film Censors limited the release of the film to one print.

Commentaries on the unexpected limited release:
In Singapore, some thoughts are not All Right by Yawning Bread (link here)
MDA abnormalising the normal by The Online Citizen (link here)

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