Monday, September 20, 2010

In response to a parent's plea for censorship

Last Sunday (19/9/2010), the Straits Times Lifestyle published an opinion pieice by Mr. Andy Chen arguing that, as a father of two young girls, he will prefer the current censorship regime in Singapore be maintained as it is.

Evidently, Mr. Chen was responding to the recently released recommendations by the Censorship Review Committee (CRC). Specifically, judging from what Mr. Chen wrote, I suppose he was responding to the recommendation by the CRC that instead of maintaining a current symbolic ban on a hundred "objectionable" websites (to my knowledge, while it is not known exactly what websites are on this banned list, most of them are said to be pornographic websites or websites which have religiously or racially sensitive content on them), the ban "should be replaced with a transparent, server level filtering service, combined with a simple and well-highlighted choice to opt in at the point of subscribing to or renewing the Internet service".

As was argued by Mr. Chen, such a recommendation, if implemented, will make it more difficult for parents of young or teenage children to protect their children from accessing or being exposed to sexual content on the internet.

While I can empathise with Mr. Chen's strong desire to protect his daughters from what he may see as objectionable sexual content on the internet, I however must respectfully disagree with his plea for censorship as a means to doing so.

Firstly, it will appear to me that Mr. Chen seem to largely focus only on how the current symbolic ban on a hundred objectionable websites may be scrapped and neglected to look at the other measures which the CRC has also recommended in lieu of such a ban.

As stated above, the CRC, besides recommending a greater implementation of public education measures, has also recommended that the existing ban be replaced by an internet filtering service. Hence, unlike those who advocate for an abstinence-only education, the CRC is not recommending Singapore depend only on public education to protect its young from objectionable content on the internet.

Also, it must be realised that the existing ban, as it is, can be easily circumvented and is thus hardly an effective measure to protect/prevent anyone from accessing or being exposed to sexual content on the internet. In fact, it was recently revealed to me (by a young lady friend of mine, no less!) how the ban can be easily circumvented and open some of the pornographic websites to access. Remember also that the ban is in effect only against a hundred objectionable websites; there are many more out there which are not banned.

In addition, the ban or, broadly speaking, censorship is in effect against everyone; it does not discriminate between those who are still lacking in the necessary maturity to access or be exposed to sexual/pornographic content on the internet and those with the necessary maturity and who wish to seek sexual stimulation or satisfaction through accessing online sexual/pornographic content. Hence, while the ban or censorship may perhaps protect/prevent the young from accessing sexual/pornographic content on the internet, it, at the same time, also limits the freedom of mature adults who may wish to seek sexual stimulation or satisfaction in the virtual world. This non-discrimination is of course also in effect for other forms of content, besides sexual/pornographic content, which may be deemed "objectionable" by some.

Furthermore, as much as I can empathise with the strong desire in parents to protect their children from what they may deem as objectionable content, it is my opinion that attempts to insulate the young from supposedly objectionable content through censorship will perhaps render them ignorant about the existence of such content and thus making them even more susceptible to the influence of such content when (not if) they are exposed to such content. We need to realise that, try as we may to keep the young innocently ignorant, it is perhaps inevitable they will grow up and become exposed to potentially objectionable content; by then, innocent ignorance will quickly turn into dangerous ignorance.

On that note, I will like to recount to you all a story from the life of Gautama Buddha. As legend has it, it was prophesied not long after his birth that Prince Siddhartha (the future Gautama Buddha) will either become a great king or a great sage. Hence, perhaps in an attempt to insulate Prince Siddhartha from stuff that may provoke him to enter into a life of religious contemplation, Prince Siddhartha's father went to great extents to ensure the prince will live a life of luxury and not be exposed to any signs of old age, sickness or death. However, in the end, Prince Siddhartha was nonetheless still exposed to manifestations of old age, sickness and death and this eventually led to him to leave behind his life of luxury to become a wandering ascetic.

Hence, if even a king cannot forever prevent his son from what the former deem as objectionable content, do we really think we can insulate the young of Singapore from supposedly objectionable content?

In the end, Mr. Chen, as well as the rest of us, need to see that censorship is not the way to go when it comes to protecting the young from potentially objectionable content.


Anyway, as was reported in this news article, MICA is "unlikely to agree to all the recommendations made by the Censorship Review Committee". Thus, it is possible that the recommendation to scrap the existing ban on objectionable websites will not be implemented and individuals, an example being Mr. Chen, worried about the possible consequences of scrapping the ban will find themselves worrying needlessly.

And interestingly enough, according to the news article, MICA will be taking only two weeks to examine and then respond to the recommendations that took the CRC one year to come up with. An interesting disparity, this is.

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