Censorship & The Arts: In Conversation with Ivan Heng & Alfian Sa’at

Ivan and Alfian in conversation with the crowd at Books Actually (Image courtesy of Kevin Lee | Cake Images llp)

In late May 2014, 45 arts groups – including W!LD RICE – signed a position paper rejecting the Media Development Authority’s new Arts Term Licensing Scheme. To open up a dialogue with concerned citizens and lovers of the arts, Ivan and Alfian were at Books Actually earlier this month to discuss censorship, freedom of expression and the arts.

Here are some highlights of the discussion!

Alfian: The idea behind this ‘Term Licensing Scheme’ by the MDA is to allow theatre companies in Singapore to rate their own productions. They call it ‘co-regulation’ and ‘self-classification’. It sounds like a good deal because it seems like MDA is giving us the autonomy to decide for ourselves how we’re going to classify our productions. But the fine print is that we have to follow the guidelines that the MDA has already devised. We don’t have any freedom to come up with our own classification scheme.

Ivan: To be frank, we’re not against classification. But I think we want a say in how we’re going to actually classify our own work, if you’re going to call it ‘co-regulation’ and ‘self-classification’.

Alfian: That’s why I think a lot of us rejected it very soundly. We didn’t see this as an opportunity for further dialogue. We always think that classification should be a space for negotiation between us and MDA. But MDA is basically saying, ‘We’ve written it out, it’s set in stone. Now all you have to do is implement it and obey.’

Ivan: What’s so interesting about the mechanism by which they’re going to do this is that they’re going to ask every theatre company to appoint a ‘content assessor’ – a member of your own staff will be trained by MDA to understand these classifications and begin to classify you. The perverseness of the scheme comes in realising that, if a member of the public complains, and there is always someone, you could be seen as having misclassified. And this could subject theatre companies to a penalty of $5,000.

Alfian: Basically, what MDA is doing is outsourcing censorship to artists. It’s less “co-regulation” than self-monitoring and surveillance. They are, in a sense, making mini-MDA proxies or policemen within each company.

Ivan: This is problematic. When we are making a new work, we are in the process of creation. Directors, playwrights, and actors need to feel a certain freedom and safety to create work within the confines of a rehearsal room. But now, there’ll be a policeman in the room, looking over our shoulder, in our heads.

Alfian: I think there’s also been an extension of the classification scheme to cover things you normally wouldn’t think needed advisories or even to be censored. It’s not just sex or violence or race or religion, but politics as well. I am concerned that we don’t have any room to negotiate when it comes to classification. They have classified some W!LD RICE productions as ’16 and above’, purely because the plays have some kind of political content – like Cooling-Off Day and Cook a Pot of Curry, even though there’s no nudity or excessive swearing, nothing that you would imagine would merit the usual ratings. This is what we’d call ‘creeping censorship’ — when they create new categories of censorable material, and they can do this because the guidelines only set limits on what the public can watch but don’t set limits on what they are allowed to censor.

Ivan: The advisories we have are also very “uniquely Singapore”. In other countries, you have advisories warning against smoking, strobe lights, loud explosions, strong language and nudity. But here, in a fashion so typical of our nanny state,, we have begun to over-advise. In a play like The Importance of Being Earnest, the advisory was very earnest! All the publicity material said, ‘Glen Goei directs an all-male company in an exciting interpretation of Oscar Wilde’s script!’ But the advisory MDA forced us to put on every single piece of collateral was: ‘Advisory: 16 and above. Re-interpretation: All-male cast.’ It reminded me of an instance when I walked to the Botanic Gardens and there was a sign on the floor that said, ‘Take photo here!’ – I was being told how I should frame my experience of the Botanic Gardens. In the same way, an advisory like the one for Earnest immediately tells audiences exactly how they should be watching the play.

Alfian: That’s the other thing about advisories – they’re very reductive. They put up all these warning signposts for audiences to anticipate what they might be challenged by. Going to the theatre and encountering a work of art should always entail an element of risk; there’s always that element of surprise and danger. The best work can challenge you and take you outside your comfort zone. Sometimes, these advisories can be spoilers too.

Ivan: People have asked me why I’m so against the scheme because, given the content of our plays, W!LD RICE would not be eligible for term licensing anyway. Since our plays are about holding up a mirror to our selves, there are always ideas about politics, race, religion and public morality. So, we’d never ever qualify for term licensing. But, based on the scheme as proposed – its negative impact on how we make our work, its inconsistencies and how it compromises our audiences’ experience of the theatre and the arts in general – we feel we have to reject it unequivocally. MDA asked for a public consultation and it’s in that spirit that we got together to present this paper. To date, there has been no response from the MDA, in spite of the fact that it was signed by 45 arts companies and many individuals.

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