I offer you a peek at a conversation that, after 7 years, I am quite tired of having:
Scene: Me, innocently conversing with someone in the US. “Singapore” comes up in conversation, usually with respect to “places I have family” or “places I’ve traveled” or (these days) “where I live”.
Me: Blah, blah, blah…Singapore….bla—
Someone: Oooooh! Singapore! That’s where they cane people, isn’t it??? Don’t bring your chewing gum!!! *hahahahaha*
I get it. I really do. Although Singapore is a pretty big deal in the business world, it doesn’t really come up in too many World History lessons or day-to-day conversations outside of Asia. In fact, most Americans in/older than my generation probably first heard of “Singapore” in the early 1990s, when an American teenager here was sentenced to caning for committing acts of vandalism (not for chewing gum, as legend sometimes has it).
And the truth is that Singapore does have some strict laws:
Punishable by FINE: Littering (including cigarette butts), failing to flush a public toilet, spitting, and selling chewing gum (chewing is OK, just don’t spit/litter with it)
Punishable by CANING: Vandalism/graffitti
Punishable by DEATH: Many narcotics offenses
But I share a pretty simple rule of thumb with visitors: If your parents wouldn’t approve, don’t do it. [Except the selling gum part. But really, who goes traveling to foreign countries and starts selling gum??] This isn’t rocket science, folks. For a westerner, this is basically just good manners and responsible citizenship. It’s not like I walk around afraid to do anything, wondering if the police will jump out from around the next corner to arrest me for violating some random and ridiculous law, like “No wearing purple on Thursdays!”. More or less, the rules just make sense.
And while I might have reservations about the prescribed punishments (although I am not going to debate the pros/cons of caning or the death penalty on this blog, now and probably ever), broadly speaking – the prohibitions themselves make sense. And they really don’t affect my daily life, except to help make Singapore one of the cleanest cities – and unquestionably THE SAFEST city- I have ever visited. So I will admit that it’s easy for me to get lulled into thinking that the government here is always smart and reasonable, and that I will generally agree with their rules and policies.
But then, something happens to remind me that, “Holly, we’re not in the US anymore.” (Not that the US government is always smart and reasonable.) But something happens that reminds me that Singapore is, for all intents and purposes, a one-party democracy (although this is slowly changing). Something happens that reminds me that the news sources here don’t have the independence and freedom that they do in the US. Something happens that reminds me that I’m living in a place where censorship is alive and well.
“Censorship” is almost a dirty word to someone born and bred on the American ideals of freedom and liberty. So it was with curiosity, disappointment, indignation, and a touch of anger that I watched a Singaporean independent film, Sex.Violence.Family Values, get flagged for censorship late in 2012, just days before it was due to be released. SVFV is a short film (50 min) comprised of three vignettes intended to explore and challenge the notions of sexuality, morality, maturity, family, and race – in Singapore specifically, but more broadly as well.
Despite its name, SVFV was flagged for neither sex, nor violence. It was actually flagged for racist language. One of the vignettes is a blatantly satirical scene, wherein a racist Chinese employer repeatedly insults and stereotypes his Indian employee. Even to me, when I eventually saw it, the whole scene was so over the top (the employer starts by mistaking the employee as African, rather than Indian), I’d estimate that someone would have to be blind (errrr….deaf?) to miss the satire.
But the Singaporean government has been extremely very sensitive about race relations (in some respects) since race riots broke out here in the 1960s. There is a lot of formal policy designed to mandate equality and respect, apparently without regard to satire – thus, the “racist” jokes in this film (which really ended up making the racist employer look worse than anyone else) were unacceptable. Ultimately, a compromise was reached whereby the most offensive of the insults were bleeped out (although little imagination is required to know what you’re missing), and the film eventually opened in Singapore – ironically, probably with more attention and interest than it would have garnered without the whole censorship controversy. We went to see it a little over a week ago, during our Saturday Date night.
I will not even attempt to turn this post into a movie review. I will say that the film is strictly adults-only (rated R 21): There isn’t much (any?) violence, but there are plenty of sexual situations, explicit dialogue, and honestly…more pole dancing scenes than I needed to see. But SVFV does question and challenge both cultural and societal norms, and our perceptions of them, in some unexpected and surprising ways.
Moreover, indie art of any kind is a developing and emerging expression in Singapore and, in my biased, American opinion, deserves as much support as possible. Your attendance supports the team that produced the film, and maybe – just maybe – it sends a message to the higher-ups in Singapore: People can handle this content. Let artists do their work, and push boundaries. Place a little trust in your citizens. Let them watch, and judge the content for themselves.
So: if you live in Singapore, you have one more day to catch Sex.Violence.Family Values. It’s playing at Cineleisure Orchard through
tomorrow (Wed, March 27) night Edit: April 3!! (second extension!!). Reserve your tickets through this link.
[Incidentally, SVFV was submitted to the Asean International Film Festival, and just a few days ago was censored again, this time by the Film Censorship Board of Malaysia.]
Sorry for a more-serious-than-usual post today, folks. But as I’ve discussed already, I don’t really believe in glossing over the tough-stuff, just because it’s easier. While censorship doesn’t really affect my daily life – it is a reality that Singaporeans live with that affects what they can buy, read, see, and sell.
And never fear, we’ll be back to running/eating/stretching/silly sign shenanigans shortly!
Ever had a run-in with censorship, at any level? (Your local school’s library counts, folks!)