Thursday, January 21, 2010

"Why censor when you can regulate?"

What follows below is a translation of an opinion piece published in 《联合早报》/Lianhe Zaobao last Sunday (17/1/2010) regarding censorship in Singapore:

"Why censor when you can regulate?"

Every ten years, Singapore will establish a Censorship Review Committee "to review and update censorship objectives and principles to meet the long-term interests of our society". However, it is not stated clearly on the Committee's official website whose interests or what interests are being met. Recently, the Committee has again begun work.

In the past decade, Singapore's censorship regulations for the arts and media appear to have been liberalised; however, seen in the context of local society's economic and education levels, the guiding principles behind censorship nonetheless still tend towards conservatism and remain harsh. To be honest, before it made changes to censorship regulations in 2002-2003, the Committee did consult public feedback and the opinions of professionals from various sectors. Yet, the conclusion of the Committee back then was that "a majority of Singaporeans remain conservative" and it thus refused to liberalise censorship regulations to a greater degree.

However, how can we expect Singaporeans to suddenly become more open and tolerant of diversity when they consistently live in a country with limited media freedom, when they are inculcated from young with a fixed mindset, when the viewpoints and values they are exposed to through the newspapers and television remain relatively one-sided? How can we expect people living in an environment where minds remain relatively closed to not be fearful of political, media and artistic liberalisation?

Specifically, Singapore's censorship regulations seem to be mainly punitive and preventive. In other words, the regulations indicate a severe lack of trust and confidence in Singapore citizenry, in that artists, oppositional figures and radical intellectuals are preemptively deemed guilty even before they say anything. It will be virtually impossible to have a citizenry with a creative spirit and cosmopolitan worldview in such an environment.

If no progress is made with regards to the liberalisation of censorship regulations, the mainstream media will find it most difficult to shake off the impression that it is dominated by a single opinion and to not lose credibility, thus causing people to prefer getting their news updates and information from the Internet. It is an indisputable fact that blogs, Youtube, Facebook and Twitter have gradually replaced the mainstream media as people's main source of information. Even when television programmes are censored (for example, the censoring of remarks favouring gay equality at the Academy Awards Ceremony), individuals can easily view uncensored versions of these programmes online or even to download them. This thus reduces the aim and act of censorship to merely being something to placate those who are supposedly "conservative".

With constant censorship and control, people have become significantly dependent on the Government. Censorship regulations ought to be liberalised and not leave people mistakenly thinking that government censorship would be able to curb all forms of undesirable influences. It should be the responsibility of parents, not the government, to regulate how their children utilise the media. It will be most sad if an individual's moral standards need to be established and determined by national censorship standards.

Singapore is a highly globalised society but this does not mean that we have what it takes to be a cosmopolitan city. The responsibility of the Committee should thus be to allow Singapore to develop what is necessary for it to become a cosmopolitan city through not lagging behind a ever-changing world. In a globalised world where there is an "explosion" of information, the aim of "censorship" should be to widen the cultural horizons of the citizenry, not to curb the freedom of thought and cause individuals to have increasingly narrow and closed mindsets. When it comes to the issue of the censorship of opinions and the arts, instead of adopting a punitive stance, it would be better to have a regulatory stance. This would mean to acknowledge that topics, such as politics, religion, race and sex, which have been labelled as "sensitive" by mainstream opinion as rightly being part of individuals' daily lives, instead of acting to ban or censor them. Basically, with a trust in the citizenry and respect for the freedom of expression, that is to believe that individuals will be able to discuss and approach any topic in a peaceful and mature manner, there should be in principle no form of censorship. Only when we increase the openness of local censorship standards, will there be an increase in the participatory rate for the citizenry in civil societal activities and, correspondingly, a maturing of mentality.

If we continue to insist censorship standards to remain conservative, then when a political or social crisis occurs in the future, Singaporeans may, because of a narrow cultural perspective, not know how to handle it and thus result in it becoming even worse. That perhaps would be a greater danger.

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