Media censorship in Singapore is a frequently discussed topic that was brought to our attention once again in March this year after a teenage Singaporean blogger was arrested for posting a video criticising the country’s former leader, Lee Kuan Yew.

While this prompted outcry from those arguing for freedom of speech, many others in Singapore applauded the arrest. Singaporean lawyer, Chia Boon Teck, wrote a letter to the editor of The Straits Times in which he said, “This is not a mindless rant. It is a well-considered campaign backed by graphics and statistics to defame Mr Lee and our government. It cannot go unchallenged.”

With the MDA (Media Development Authority) monopolising the media, it is difficult to ascertain what people really think. Siao Yuong Fong from Royal Holloway, University of London, argues that uncertainties regarding censorship have led to the development of the ‘performance of censorship’, where one simply acts as they believe they are expected to.

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The ‘performance of censorship’, where one simply acts as they believe they are expected to.

In her chapter “Censorship as Performance: A Case of Singapore Media Production”, in Media, Margins and Popular Culture, Fong explores the idea of censorship as performance, looking in particular at a case study involving the production of a TV show where the ‘performance of censorship’ is truly apparent. I sat down with her to discuss these ideas, alongside the practicalities of censorship in Singapore.

Lucy Slater: Why do you think the producers in your case study complied so easily with secrecy regarding censorship? Does the monopoly of the media by the MDA mean that people tiptoe around not asking questions?

Siao Yuong Fong: It’s a difficult one. The monopoly of the media probably contributes to producers asking fewer questions. However, while my chapter notes observations during production, I was careful not to impose my interpretation of the motivations behind them. There could be various reasons for actions from producers and censors copying imagined norms - complying out of fear or not questioning it because they are busy with other things. When I asked producers, they – not unexpectedly – gave different answers under different circumstances. While it is not easy to provide a simple explanation, it is important to note that what emerged was a generalised acceptance to maintain the secrecy surrounding censorship – and an acceptance requiring little justification. Significantly, this contributes to further uncertainties in censorship practices, creating a vicious cycle of uncertainty and secrecy.

I think the line between performance and acting on one’s own opinion becomes less clear than one might think.

LS: You describe the role of the censor as leading a performer to do what they thought was expected of them, rather than acting on their own opinion. Are there other cases where this is apparent?

SYF: Let me give you an example. There was a Singaporean film that was banned by the MDA in recent years and when the filmmaker submitted the film for appeal, the MDA gave it an R21 rating instead. The final decision was the result of voting within an appeals committee.

In a discussion panel about the film, one of the appeals committee members, a Malay Muslim woman, explained that when making the decision to reverse the ban and vote for an R21 rating instead, she thought she was representing her community instead of herself, and that if she had been voting for herself, she would have given another rating. In this sense, she was performing what she thought was expected of her from her so-called community.

But who was her community? Did she think she represented the Malay community? The Malay Muslim community? Women? Mothers? Working women? Or any combination of the above? So these decisions made by censors involve imaginations of groups of people, which are inadvertently affected by their own social backgrounds. Since these committees consist of people from different backgrounds, how individual censors made decisions also depended on how they imagined their positions in the group and whom they were supposed to represent. This makes the result of censorship contingent and complex and I think the line between performance and acting on one’s own opinion becomes less clear than one might think.

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Community standards and social norms” is not a meaningful or absolute matter. Who has the power to define it and in which contexts? And how does that translate into the practices of executing censorship?

LS: While the government attributes the need for censorship to uphold “community standards and social norms”, you say that in your experience the process of censorship was more a “performance of imagined social positions and the power relations amongst parties involved” than any relation to social or cultural acceptability. Why do you think this was?

SYF: In a sense, the censors have an impossible job. They are supposed to make censorship decisions based on “community standards and social norms”. However, attempting to define this is a treacherous endeavour. Who or what is someone’s community? “Community standards and social norms” is not a meaningful or absolute matter. Who has the power to define it and in which contexts? And how does that translate into the practices of executing censorship? Producers and censors make decisions based on imaginations of such standards, and in cases of uncertainty, what they imagine those in power want them to do. Their different social backgrounds and experiences mean understandings of these issues differ. The censorship process is therefore not as straightforward or clear-cut as one might imagine.

If the censorship system imposed clear rules for issues involving value judgement, it would mean the government has to dictate a set of rules that cannot be argued over.

LS: Do you think if a stronger system was developed by the MDA to give clearer instructions, performance in the way you describe would become redundant?

SYF: If taken to the extreme, the censorship system would have to have such clear rules that censors would simply be executors or parts of a machine. However, that would require the absence of any sort of value judgement, and limiting of issues to be censored to technical matters such as specific curse words. Since the media and arts involve cultural production, such a censorship system is hard to imagine.

If the censorship system imposed clear rules for issues involving value judgement, it would mean the government has to dictate a set of rules that cannot be argued over, thus shifting the nature of censorship from maintaining societal standards more towards moral policing and disciplining. I think for any censorship system to work, there has to be a certain degree of vagueness and contingency.

I cannot tell you what would constitute a ‘stronger censorship system’ in Singapore. The current system works for the authorities as it allows government officials to use the vagueness of ‘community standards’ to make certain censorship decisions whilst attributing these decisions to ‘the community’. Any changes in the censorship system would definitely impact and change the nature of such performance.

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I think for any censorship system to work, there has to be a certain degree of vagueness and contingency.

LS: You mention that in your case study the censors were told if in doubt “just be safe.” Do you think the apparent margin between ‘safe’ and ‘unsafe’ is subjective to different countries?

SYF: Yes definitely. What constituted ‘safe’ and ‘unsafe’ in my case study was uncertain for different producers even within the same production environment, much less different countries. It is entirely possible that the idea of being ‘safe’ may be specific to Singapore, and not be a primary concern for producers in other production cultures.

LS: And do you think this is particular to Singapore or is performance of censorship visible elsewhere?

SYF: I was once told a story by an ex-BBC producer about a BBC radio documentary. Before airing, three members of the management team disallowed the piece from broadcast. The documentary producer presented it to a fourth. This manager was also uncertain. However, when the producer told him (inaccurately) that the previous three managers had approved it, he agreed. It’s an interesting case that illuminates how BBC managers took into consideration their fellow colleagues’ opinions, and how the producer was aware of, and made use of, power relations and expectations among the managers to get around censorship issues.

Rather than performance limiting freedom of expression, I think the censorship environment necessitates performance.

LS: Do you think the performance of censorship on these different levels: censor, producer, even those being filmed, is limiting freedom of expression in a real way?

SYF: Rather than performance limiting freedom of expression, I think the censorship environment necessitates performance. It is how those involved cope with such uncertainties. In some cases, the result is indeed more conservative decisions. Yet, in other cases, the lack of clear rules also means producers can find ways around it.

Read the full chapter here.

Words: Lucy Slater

Image source: www.socialmediaweek.org