“Holly, you’re not in the US anymore”: Censorship Edition

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!)

14 thoughts on ““Holly, you’re not in the US anymore”: Censorship Edition

  1. Nicole

    A friend of ours there is a sex therapist (sg’s first and i think only) and there have been times she needs items for her practice (educational videos and books in particular) that she doesn’t have access to (shipping them there is also prohibited). She is making great strides in opening up communication around issues that are often considered taboo and always in a productive and healthy way. I met many people there unafraid to express themselves and usually done with more civility than I find stateside. I also think Americans often forget how many socially outdated laws we have on the books that go unenforced.

    Reply
    1. Holly KN Post author

      I agree with basically all of what you say, Nicole. Frankly, I was a little surprised at how sexual the film was, and how little stir that caused. I think there IS a quietly growing movement for more socially progressive/lenient policies. And sometimes, it’s not even so quiet – did you guys ever see/do anything for Pink Dot? I think that’s one terrific example – and one that basically stomps in the face of an on-the-books policy (which makes same-gender-sex illegal).

      And you’re absolutely correct – there are plenty of archaic, un-enforced laws in the US. Singapore has its share, too. See above, as well as the prohibition of walking around naked in one’s own apartment (pornography, apparently). Others, too. I’ve even been known to (shhh!) spit while running through MacRitchie…

      Reply
      1. Nicole

        I too spit while running….shhhh don’t tell anyone. Also, I remember a friend telling about her neighbor one HDB block over, an elderly man, was arrested for reading the newspaper while naked in his apartment with the windows open. Apparently, he was a repeat ‘offender.’ We never participated in pink dot…I think it started the year after we left but I am I impressed with how big it is. I once had a conversation with my American boss there (he has been there for over 20 years and now owns a condo off of orchard near the Barnes and nobles) about civil liberties and he said he never felt limited and actually didn’t know about the laws around free speech.

        Reply
        1. Holly KN Post author

          That’s pretty interesting, because day-to-day, you really could NOT notice it. I am mostly made aware of it when I hang with Singaporeans – some of who have some critical things to say about the government and its policies. They always joke about hoping that no one is “listening in on our conversation” and going to report them. And they are mostly joking – mostly. But you only “joke” about things like that, when there was a time when it was a concern. [No one in the US has to joke about “hope no one is listening in!” when they bash the other party’s policies.]

          And I’ll admit, I did ask KMN to vet some parts of this post before I made it public. I don’t want to get us kicked out of Singapore.

          Reply
  2. Efo

    Preach! Every time my 6 yrs living in Singapore comes up in convo people immediately mention the kid that got caned (never knowing his name of course, Michael Fay) and I find myself defending Singapore’s strick rules and fines. I loved living there despite the censorship and laws. It even gives living in Boulder CO a run for its money 🙂 PS. tell me they still sell those “singapore is a FINE city” tshirts?

    Reply
    1. Holly KN Post author

      I hear ya! Hey – you must have been living here then, huh? I honestly can’t really blame people for their ignorance, but hopefully I can help them see that Caning For Chewing Gum is a million miles away from the reality of daily life here.

      We moved just a few months before the Connecticut school shooting, and I found myself feeling even more strongly about gun control than I did before. Sometimes, more restrictive policies (regarding drugs, weapons) actually mean MORE freedom – freedom for me to walk pretty much anywhere, any time of day – without my husband worrying one bit (I don’t worry either, but he usually worries FIRST, so….). It’s hard to put a price on that.

      I can’t say I’ve seen any of those shirts…. 🙁 But I’ll keep my eye out!

      Reply
  3. Grace

    They totally still sell Singapore is a FINE city shirts – try the touristy bits of Chinatown!

    I can live without gum. But there are a lot of deeper-reaching restrictions that are extremely frustrating to me as a member of the media, and as a citizen of a society that is trying to be a functioning democracy: see http://freedomfromthepress.info/resources.html (I have the book and can lend it to you – quick read it before it’s banned /only half joking)

    Reply
    1. Holly KN Post author

      Oh. Ooops. Sorry, Efo – must get meeee to the touristy bits of Chinatown, apparently! 🙂

      Understood, Grace. Understood. I’m not sure the spirit of my post came out properly – but my intention in writing was actually to start to point out that Westerns think the rules/government of Singapore are strict/repressive – and in some sense, they are correct – but for TOTALLY the wrong reasons. This was just my first small step in that direction.

      [And a step that may have totally backfired when some coding related to a link cut out the middle third of my post, unbeknownst to me, all night long. Just realized it this morning – seemed to come through OK on Feed Readers, though.] So for anyone out there who thought there was an incredibly awkward transition in the middle, apologies. Should be fixed now.

      Reply
      1. Grace

        Oh – no! I agree entirely with your take on SVFV and Western (mis)perception of Singapore — just pointing out that there are deeper and farther-reaching areas of censorship that are for all intents and purposes entirely neglected. Most Singaporeans, and most people from elsewhere living here for that matter, never have a single brush with press-freedom or censorship laws – they just don’t know how much it really affects them.

        Reply
    2. Efo

      Grace, haha, I’m so glad to hear they’re still selling those ridiculous shirts. True story: I still have one from back in the day!

      Holly, my fam moved to Singapore about a year after the MF caning incident, but it was very much a present concern/hot topic to all the Americans at the time.

      Reply
  4. Allison

    When I taught the school was very conservative and censored a lot of what we could say and do. I literally could not even say the words Halloween or Santa clause.

    Reply
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