07 August 2006

A Singapore Play is Censored Killed

For all its many failings, the Singapore government used to be able to at least say that it was efficient. I say "used to", because in recent years, we've had a variety of incidents - the Nicoll Highway collapse; the nationwide blackout; the recent day-long failure of the MRT Northeast Line; hospital patient overloads due to the common flu - which just makes you wonder a little bit about what's really happening. Here's another great example of our (in)efficiency:
"The Media Development Authority of Singapore's (MDA) censorship of the arts has become an unbearable joke today.

We applied for a public entertainment licence for the play SMEGMA, written and directed by Elangovan (bilingual poet-playwright-director) a month ago to the MDA for censorship vetting.

I called the MDA on Tue 1 Aug afternoon at about after 2pm to find out about the licence. I was told that MDA has approved the licence and it was ready for collection.

About half an hour later, I received a call from an MDA officer saying that the licence was not ready and they were still processing. When I asked her whether it was a joke and also added that I would go the media, she immediately did a full roundabout and said that the licence was ready and we could collect it.

We collected the black & white approved licence document from MDA at 4.55 pm on Tue 1 Aug 06 after paying them S$20 by NETS at the counter.The conditions in the licence were as expected- RA18 with advisory: 'The play is Rated RA18. The play contains strong language and adult themes that may be objectionable to some members of the public. The advisory must be reflected in all publicity materials.'

Today, at about 2.30 pm, I received a call from an MDA official who did not reveal her name. She informed me that the licence which MDA issued to our group Agni Kootthu (Theatre of Fire) for the play MEGMA has been cancelled. She did not give any reasons and I demanded for a written letter. She said that MDA would follow up.

Meanwhile, MDA had a press conference for the local media at 3pm at its premises to inform that they had cancelled the licence issued for the play SMEGMA. The script of SMEGMA was given to the press members for private reading and collected back.

I finally received a letter by fax today from Ms Amy Tsang,confirming the cancellation of our licence with the following reasons:
[para1. Further to our teleconversation today, we would like to inform you that the Media Development Authority (MDA) is cancelling the arts entertainment licence No: 005/08/2006 issued on 1 Aug 2006 for the play 'SMEGMA'.

[ para 2. After careful consideration, we find that the play undermines the values underpinning Singapore's multi-racial, multi-religious society, and may negatively impact upon our bilateral relations with our neighbours.

para3.The play portrays Muslims in a negative light. Two playlets featuring Muslim terrorists are also provocative in view of the increased tension in the Middle east.

para 4. In view of this, MDA has decided not to let the play be staged.]

After the above fax, I received a call from MDA saying that they would be faxing another letter soon and it would supercede the fax sent earlier. I received the final fax at 5.29 pm with a cover letter saying - "Please ignore the earlier letter on the above subject which we had faxed to you before 5 pm today. The attached supercedes the previous letter."

Now, this fax had only one para (para 2) to give a reason for the cancellation: [para 2: After careful consideration, we find that the play undermines the values underpinning Singapore's multi-racial, multi-religious society, and portrays Muslims in a negative light."

Paragraph 2 from the earlier letter disapperaed and paragraph 2 has been amended.

Elangovan's TALAQ faced a different sort of problem in OCT 2000 from the then PELU of the Police. The licence was not issued and the whole situation ended in a fiasco, that led to a relook at the censorship laws for plays in Singapore.

But now, six years later, the esteemed MDA has created a mess for a small minority theatre group, by issuing the licence and then cancelling the licence, and also changing their reasons for the cancellation, the same day.

MDA had a month to vet the play. They claim on their website that they would usually vet a play and respond after two weeks.

MDA had sufficient time to vet the play and inform us. We would have made the necessary amendments if MDA had informed us earlier.

What's wrong with the Censorship panel of MDA and its super-efficient officers? Why are MDA officers behaving like this? Why cancel the licence on the eve of our production, which is tomorrow and Sunday?

If MDA had cancelled the licence much earlier, we would not have proceeded with our production.We would have saved our finances but now we have lost so much. It only confirms that liberalisation of the arts in Singapore is just lip-service of the 66.6% powers that be.

What happened to us ( worse than the TALAQ incident in 2000) may happen to fellow artistes in this country. With the National Day celebrations to glorify nation-building next week, and the IMF meeting in September, what Freedom of Expression are we talking about in Singapore?

It is a painful joke. Grateful if you would globalise this Singapore Joke.
Thank you.

S Thenmoli (Ms)
Agni Kootthu (Theatre of Fire).

For (a little) more detail, click here.

Basically, MDA killed the play and inflicted financial losses on the theatre group. MDA's to-ing & fro-ing and letter-amending behaviour suggests that it wasn't even sure why it was censoring what it was censoring.

If MDA had been clear about what it found objectionable about the play, the theatre group would probably have been able to save it. It could have been a matter of changing ten lines; cutting one scene; adjusting the plot a little; making one or two characters utter a few nation-building, MDA-pacifying and racial-harmonising lines. Not ideal, from the art purist's point of view, but at least the play would still have gone on.

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Anonymous said...

This reminds me of an absurd about-turn that playwright Alfian Sa'at landed in. As told in his blog, CNA withdrew its invitation to him to participate in the pre-GE 2006 TV forum with MM Lee on the same day he was asked to do a "screen test".

Guess those folks up at Mount Olympus found out in the nick of time that he's not exactly their biggest fan.

Anonymous said...

There must be something else happening.

The time scale and ding-donging suggest interference from some quarters.

Anonymous said...

Oh my, poor guys.
"Inflicted financial damages"...
Man, this poor, starving artist thing must really be so true here in Singapore.

Anonymous said...

are u cute? am drunk and need to fuck someone intellectual

Anonymous said...

The MDA civil servants are merely the guns that fire off the rounds, no prize for guessing who pulled the trigger. Of course being willing accomplices these civil servants who are "merely carrying out orders from above" are no different from those who took part in the Holocaust.

Anonymous said...

Most malays aren't even that narrow-minded, but the government keeps projecting that image. The outcome of over-protectionism is that local chinese and indians tend not to socialise with malays as they presume muslims are easily offended. Nobody wants to socialise with someone whom you have to over-consciously refrain from stepping on their toes.

Anonymous said...

And people wonder why creativity and talent (eg. in the performing arts) is almost non-existent. Don't get me started on films.

PAP can't seem to understand/accept/allow the concept of 'let the people decide'. Maybe it's because that's very democratic-ish, I guess. A leopard never changes its spots.

At the end of the day, K Bhavani is an asshole... no wait she takes orders from Lee Boon Yang. Lee BY takes orders from LHL, and LHL his daddy. Assholes' chain of command.

Anonymous said...

"Inflicted financial damages"...

Maybe that's the plan.

Anonymous said...

Funny, I thought they found out what the definition of the word "Smegma" is? Go google it!

Anonymous said...

This whole sorry sequence of events can be understood if we try to see how our civil servants and political masters think.

They're always afraid of the "what ifs" but unfortunately in the process retard or destroy the very thing that they want to promote, which I assume is a "vibrant" art scene in Singapore.

So the what ifs in this case are:

What if MUIS deems the play to be offensive to the Muslim community and makes a song and dance about it to the government?

The minister in charge will probably think how do I explain/account for this to the PM if this happens. The time-tested risk-averse approach will be don't have the bloody play in the first place.

What if, horror of horrors, one reader (presumably a Muslim Singaporean) writes in to the Straits Times to complain and say the government has not been vigilant in protecting the sensitivities of certain communities? At all costs, MDA wants to avoid having a "time bomb" in its hands.

Because of these 'what ifs", which may or may not happen, the play is banned. Our risk-averse civil service thinking could be typified as: "Hey why take the bloody risk -it's much easier to shut up a small inconsequential theatre group than to deal with a politically important body like MUIS".

The Chinese have a saying: "bu pa yi wan, zhi pa wan yi" which has been perfected to a fine art by our civil servants.

In this particular case, I actually suspect that the younger "inexperienced" MDA officers might have submitted for the play to be passed, but when it later got to the attention of the higher-ups and political masters, the play was shot down. Hence the flip flops.

But guess which civil servant will be promoted at the end of the year: the one who shot down the play.