Censorship in Singapore

Censorship in Singapore

Censorship in Singapore mainly targets sexual, political, racial and religious issues, as defined by an ever-shifting panoply of out-of-bounds markers.


The Media Development Authority (MDA) approves publications, issues arts entertainment licences and enforces the Free-to-air (FTA) TV Programme Code, Cable TV Programme Code, TV Advertising Code, Radio Programme Code and Radio Advertising Code through financial penalties. [http://www.mda.gov.sg/wms.www/mediani.aspx?sid=94 Media Development Authority - Publications ] ] The MDA's decisions may be appealed to the Broadcast, Publications and Arts Appeal Committee (BPAA).

The Censorship Review Committee (CRC) meets every ten years to "review and update censorship objectives and principles to meet the long-term interests of our society". [ [http://www.mda.gov.sg/wms.www/mediani.aspx?sid=194 Media Development Authority - Censorship Review Committee ] ]


The Government of Singapore argues that censorship of violence and sexual themes is necessary as the Singaporean populace is deeply conservative, and censorship of political, racial and religious content is necessary to avoid upsetting the balance of Singapore's delicate multi-racial society. K Bhavani, spokesperson of the Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts, has stated:

: "In relaxing our censorship policies, the Government needs to take into account the concerns and values of the majority of Singaporeans. Our people are still largely conservative. Hence, the Government needs to balance between providing greater space for free expression and the values upheld by the majority." [http://www.yawningbread.org/arch_2005/yax-446.htm]

Commentators such as Alex Au, on the other hand, argue that the true intention is to buttress the continued political dominance of the People's Action Party, and to do so partly by promoting the Government's social engineering efforts [http://www.yawningbread.org/arch_2003/yax-308.htm] .

Films and videos

The importing, making, distributing or exhibiting of films in Singapore is governed by the "Films Act" of 1981. [http://statutes.agc.gov.sg/non_version/cgi-bin/cgi_legdisp.pl?actno=1998-REVED-107&date=20060115&method=whole&doctitle=]

Movie censorship has historically been strict, although the introduction of the "R-21" rating now allows most major Hollywood features to be shown in Singapore, at least after cuts. The rating system was first introduced in 1991 with the R(A) rating to allow those aged 18 years and above to watch more adult type films. However, due to public objection, the rating system was revised and the age limit was lifted from 18 to 21 years old. [cite news
title = Film festival director about censorship in Singapore
publisher = World Socialist website
date = 2000-04-24
url = http://www.singapore-window.org/sw00/000424ws.htm
By Richard Phillips. (Posted on www.singapore-window.org)

Released films are presented to the Board of Film Censors (BFC) which classifies the films under different ratings for different groups of audiences:

* G (General) - everyone
* PG (Parental guidance) - everyone, advisable with an accompanying adult
* NC16 (not for children under 16) - for above 16s, contains partial nudity and little violence
* M18 (mature 18) - for above 18s, contains partial nudity(frontal), moderate violence and may contain religious issues
* R21 (restricted 21) - for above 21s, contains nudity (sex scenes), violence, and may contain religious issues
* Banned - contains issues that cause controversy in Singapore

Note: Any outright denigration of race or religion, matters that threaten national interest, or depictions of hardcore pornographic, offensive or deviant sexual activities are banned. Royston Tan's award-winning "15", a graphic depiction of Singapore's underbelly, was only allowed after over 20 scenes were cut.

In February 2008, the Academy Awards acceptance speech for the short documentary Freeheld was censored by Mediacorp in the rebroadcast of the program due to the filmmakers' mention of equal rights for same sex couples. [ [http://www.plu.sg/society/?p=98 Mediacorp censors pro-gay speech, again at ] ]

Party political films

The controversial Section 33 of the Films Act bans of the making, distribution and exhibition of "party political films", at pain of a fine not exceeding $100,000 or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 2 years. The Act further defines a "party political film" as any film or video

: "(a) which is an advertisement made by or on behalf of any political party in Singapore or any body whose objects relate wholly or mainly to politics in Singapore, or any branch of such party or body; or"

: "(b) which is made by any person and directed towards any political end in Singapore"

Exception are, however, made for films "made solely for the purpose of reporting of current events", or informing or educating persons on the procedures and polling times of elections or referendums.

The law has been criticized by filmmakers for being vaguely worded: Martyn See noted that "As much as I like to find my way back to stay within its limits, it's mightily difficult when these boundaries, already amorphous as they are, are constantly shifting back and forth, catching off-guard just about anybody with an opinion deemed contrary to "national interest."". [cite web|url=http://singaporerebel.blogspot.com/2006/08/singapore-rebel-saga-ends-after-police.html|title='Singapore Rebel' saga ends after police issues 'stern warning'|accessdate=2006-02-04]

In 2001, the short documentary called "A Vision of Persistence" on opposition politician J. B. Jeyaretnam was also banned for being a "party political film". The makers of the documentary, all lecturers at the Ngee Ann Polytechnic, later submitted written apologies and withdrew the documentary from being screened at the 2001 Singapore International Film Festival in April, having been told they could be charged in court. Another short documentary called "Singapore Rebel" by Martyn See, which documented Singapore Democratic Party leader Dr Chee Soon Juan's acts of civil disobedience, was banned from the 2005 Singapore International Film Festival on the same grounds and See is being investigated for possible violations of the Films Act.

On the other hand, Channel NewsAsia's five-part documentary series on Singapore's PAP ministers in 2005 were not considered a party political film. The government response was that the programme was part of current affairs and thus does not contravene the Films Act Fact|date=November 2007.

Since they do not concern the politics of Singapore, films that call out political beliefs of other countries, for example Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 911, are allowed.


In 1963, Singapore banned the hit song "Puff, the Magic Dragon", fearing that it referenced marijuana. [http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/entertainment/music/1370650.stm BBC News | MUSIC | Singapore upholds Janet Jackson ban ] ] . Janet Jackson's albums "Velvet Rope" and "All For You" were also banned due to homosexual and sexually explicit themes that the BPAA found "not acceptable to our society".

Video games

On 14 April 2008, the Media Development Authority announced that an official video games classification system will be in effect on 28 April 2008 [cite news
title = Singapore introduces video games classifications system
publisher = Media Development Authority
date = 2008-04-27
url = http://www.mda.gov.sg/wms.www/thenewsdesk.aspx?sid=862
] . Under the system, video games that contain nudity, coarse language, drug use and violence, will be given a rating sticker similar to those found on video media in Singapore with either one of the two ratings:
* Mature 18 (M18) rating - contains mature themes, realistic depictions of violence and drug use, nudity and frequent use of strong coarse language.
* "Age Advisory" rating - recommended to those aged 16 years and above, containing moderate violence, portrayal of implied sexual activity, nudity without details, coarse language and depiction of illegal drug use.

Games that do not fall into any of these categories and are approved for general consumption do not require these stickers and games containing offensive material (such as racial or religious denigration) are still banned. The purchase of games under the M18 rating will require retailers to conduct age checks, while "Age Advisory" games are not required to have mandatory age checks.

Previously, the Media Development Authority and by extension, the Singapore government has also banned several video games. For example (as of November 2007) the video game The Darkness (due to presence of graphic violence and "swear words") and more recently Mass Effect from Bioware due to the in game option of a homosexual romance if the player chooses to play as a female. Mass Effect was later unbanned with the implementation of the aforementioned games ratings system that was still in development then. However, it is important to note that similar games with graphic violence such as Prince of Persia and Gears of War(players can perform decapitation moves) or other Bioware games like Neverwinter Nights and Jade Empire (which both allow the possibility of male-male and female-female romances) have not been banned or censored.

Performing arts

The scripts of all plays to be performed in Singapore must be vetted in advance by the Media Development Authority (MDA), which has the right to ban any it views as "contrary to the public interest", with no right of appeal.

In 1994, performance artist Josef Ng protested the arrest and caning of 12 homosexual men by caning slabs of tofu, then turning his back to the audience and snipping off some pubic hair. He was charged with committing an obscene act, banned from performing in public and his theatre group's grants were cancelled. [ cite news
title = Artistic ambitions don't play well in uptight Singapore
publisher = New Statesman | date = 2002-12-14
url = http://www.singapore-window.org/sw02/021214af.htm | author = Salil Tripathi

In 2005, the MDA withheld the licence for the play "Human Lefts" unless some scenes were edited and all references to the death penalty were removed. The play was originally written about the hanging of Shanmugam Murugesu and was to have been staged one day after the controversial execution of Australian national Nguyen Tuong Van. [ cite news
title = Government bans stage play on death penalty, censors artwork
publisher = Southeast Asian Press Alliance
date = 2005-12-06
url = http://www.seapabkk.org/newdesign/alertsdetail.php?No=417

In August 2006, a play "Smegma" was banned by Media Development Authority which said that: "the play portrays Muslims in a negative light." [cite web|date=2006-08-05|url=http://in.today.reuters.com/news/newsArticle.aspx?type=entertainmentNews&storyID=2006-08-05T113612Z_01_NOOTR_RTRJONC_0_India-262499-1.xml|title=Singapore bans play for negative portrayal of Muslims|publisher=Reuters]

Print media

Local press

With the sole exception of MediaCorp's daily freesheet "Today", all daily newspapers including the flagship "Straits Times" are printed by Singapore Press Holdings, whose management shareholders are appointed by the government in accordance with the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act of 1974. While current shareholding structure does not imply direct governmental control on media contentFact|date=June 2008, their active presence promotes self-censorship amongst journalists. [ cite book
last = Gomez
first = James
year = 2000
title = Self-Censorship: Singapore's Shame
publisher = Think Centre
location = Singapore
id = ISBN 981-04-1739-X
] In 2006, Reporters without Borders ranked Singapore as 146th out of 167 surveyed countries in terms of freedom of the press. [ cite web
author = Reporters Without Borders
year = 2006
url = http://www.rsf.org/article.php3?id_article=17360
title = Worldwide Press Freedom Index 2006
accessdaymonth = 22 October
accessyear = 2006

On 30 June 2006, blogger mrbrown wrote an article, titled "TODAY: S'poreans are fed, up with progress!", for his weekly opinion column in "Today" newspaper concerning the rising income gap and costs of living in Singapore. [ cite news| title = TODAY: S'poreans are fed, up with progress! | date = 2006-06-30 | publisher = Today | url = http://www.mrbrown.com/blog/2006/07/today_sporeans_.html ] Three days later, on July 3, an official from the Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts published a response letter on the same newspaper calling mr brown a "partisan player" whose views "distort the truth". [ cite news| title = Letter from MICA: Distorting the truth, mr brown? | date = 2006-07-03 | publisher = Ministry of Information, Communication and the Arts, Singapore | url = http://www.mrbrown.com/blog/2006/07/letter_from_mic.html ] On July 6, the newspaper suspended his column. [ [http://www.rsf.org/article.php3?id_article=18208 Daily newspaper Today sacks blogger "mr brown" after government criticism] , Reporters Without Borders, 6 July 2006] Fellow blogger Mr Miyagi subsequently resigned from his column for "Today". This was followed by "Today" newspaper chief executive and editor-in-chief Mano Sabnani's resignation in November 2006. The action fuelled anger over the Internet due to the perceived heavy-handedness action taken by the government over criticisms." [http://www.atimes.com/atimes/Southeast_Asia/HK23Ae02.html Mixing welfare and elitism in Singapore] ", Alex Au, Asia Times, November 23 2006]

Foreign publications

Foreign publications that carry articles the government considers slanderous, including "The Economist" and the "Far Eastern Economic Review" ("FEER"), have been subjected to defamation suits and/or had their circulations "gazetted" (restricted). The sale of Malaysian newspapers in Singapore is prohibited; a similar ban on the sale of newspapers from Singapore applies in Malaysia.

In August 2006, the government announced a tightening of rules on foreign publications previously exempt from the media code. "Newsweek", "Time", the "Financial Times", the "Far Eastern Economic Review" and the "International Herald Tribune" will be required to appoint a publisher's representative in Singapore who could be sued, and to pay a security deposit of S$200,000. The move comes after "FEER" published an interview with Singaporean opposition leader Chee Soon Juan, [cite web|date=2006-08-04|url=http://sg.news.yahoo.com/060804/1/42kk9.html|title=Singapore tightens rules on some foreign media|publisher=Agence France-Presse] who claimed that leading members of the Singaporean government had "skeletons in their closets". On 28 September 2006, "FEER" was banned for failing to comply with conditions imposed under the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act. [cite news| title = Singapore Revokes Far Eastern Economic Review's Sales Permit | date = 2006-09-28 | author = Nesa Subrahmaniyan | publisher = Bloomberg | url = http://www.bloomberg.com/apps/news?pid=20601080&sid=aj7wQfOFNZuY&refer=asia ]

Pornography is strictly prohibited in Singapore; this encompasses magazines such as "Playboy" or "Penthouse". However, magazines which are deemed to contain "mature content" such as "Cosmopolitan Magazine" are free to be distributed at all stores with a "Parental Warning/not suitable for the young" label on its cover.


The state-owned MediaCorp controls all free-to-air terrestrial local TV channels licensed to broadcast in Singapore, as well as 14 radio channels. Pay TV channels are available on cable TV, but many programs were banned. For example, the popular HBO series Sex and the City was not permitted to be shown in Singapore until 2004, after its original run had ended. Private ownership of satellite dishes is illegal, though international TV broadcasts (such as CNN, BBC, etc.) are available on StarHub's cable TV. The Media Development Authority, through its Programme Advisory Committees for each of the four official languages [http://www.mda.gov.sg/wms.www/mediani.aspx?sid=593] , constantly monitors and provides feedback on broadcast content.

Owing to the Government's policy of promoting Mandarin Chinese, for many years local television was not allowed to show programmes in other dialects of Chinese. The Cantonese used by popular TV serials from Hong Kong had to be dubbed into Mandarin, while local television series or programmes may not use dialects. Similarly, local newspapers were not allowed to carry listings for Malaysia's TV3, which showed programmes in Cantonese. However, Hong Kong's TVB, broadcasting in Cantonese, is now available on cable.

The use of the local English-based creole Singlish is avoided by all broadcast media. While there is no formal prohibition, the popular Singlish sitcom "Phua Chu Kang" was singled out in a National Day rally speech [http://www.moe.gov.sg/speeches/1999/sp270899.htm] , and use of the creole has been limited afterwards. The Programmes Advisory Committee for English TV and Radio Programmes also singled out the use of Singlish in local sitcoms in its 2005 annual report, saying they "contain excessive Singlish" and "this should be avoided as it could give the wrong impression, especially among the young, that Singlish is the standard of spoken English in Singapore" [http://www.mda.gov.sg/wms.www/thenewsdesk.aspx?sid=660]

Graphic violence is regularly frowned upon, even when programmes were broadcast beyond primetime. Scenes depicting anything from blood splattering and/or excessive flow as a result of inflicted wounds to relatively bloodless scenes like neck fracturing are regularly censored from all local or foreign content. Local productions typically avoid depicting the local police or military personal as victims of violence, resulting in predictable storylines considered "ethically correct". The police, for example, are increasingly shown to rarely succumb to graphic violence or other unfortunate events, and even if they do, are typically shown to prevail ultimately, as depicted in police dramas "Triple Nine" and "Heartlanders".

The latest annual report by the Advisory Committee for Chinese Programmes, for instance, chastised dramas such as "Beyond the aXis of Truth 2" (police triller on the supernatural) and "Wing of Desire" (contemporary family-feud drama) for graphic violence, while giving credit to "A Promise for Tomorrow", "A New Life", "A Child’s Hope", and so on, for the "positive messages" transmitted [http://www.mda.gov.sg/wms.file/mobj/mobj.878.ACCESS_Annual_Report(FY2004-2006).pdf] . Hence, locally-produced dramas in recent decades are overwhelmingly family-based, with action-thrillers generally avoided.


Internet services provided by the three major Internet Service Providers (ISPs) are subject to regulation by the Media Development Authority (MDA), which blocks a "symbolic" [http://www.reuters.com/article/oddlyEnoughNews/idUSS2322899620080523 Singapore bans two porn websites in symbolic move | Oddly Enough | Reuters ] ] number of websites containing "mass impact objectionable" material, including Playboy and YouPorn. In addition, the Ministry of Education, Singapore blocks access to pornographic and similar objectionable Internet sites on its proxy servers.

In 2005, the MDA banned a gay website and fined another website following complaints that the sites contained offensive content. The banned website is said to have promoted promiscuous sexual behaviour and recruited underage boys for sex and nude photography. [ cite news |title = MDA bans gay website and fines another one
publisher = The Straits Times
date = 2005-10-28
url = http://yawningbread.org/arch_2005/yax-504.htm
By Chua Hian Hou (Posted on yawningbread.org)

Government agencies have been known to use or threaten to use litigation against bloggers and other Internet content providers. The first instance of such activity was against Sintercom in July 2001 when the founder, Dr Tan Chong Kee was asked to register the website under the nascent Singapore Broadcast Authority Act (now Media Development Authority). Dr Tan chose to shutdown Sintercom due to concerns over the ambiguity of the Act. In April 2005, a blogger, Chen Jiahao, then a graduate student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, was made to apologise and shut down his blog containing criticisms on government agency A*STAR, after its Chairman Philip Yeo threatened to sue for defamation. In September 2005, 3 people were arrested and charged under the "Sedition Act" for posting racist comments on the Internet. Two were sentenced to imprisonment. [ [http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/hrrpt/2005/61626.htm "Country Reports on Human Rights Practices 2005"] , The United States Department of State, retrieved 20 March 2006.] Later, the Teachers' Union announced that it is offering legal assistance to teachers who want to take legal action against students who defame them on their blogs, after five students from Saint Andrew's Junior College were suspended for three days for allegedly "flaming" two teachers and a vice-principal on their blogs. ["Schools act against students for 'flaming' teachers on blogs", "The Straits Times", page 1, 27 September 2005, by Sandra Davie and Liaw Wy-Cin. ]

In the last few years, the government has taken a much tougher stand on Internet-related matters, including censorship. Proposed amendments to the Penal Code intend to hold Internet users liable for "causing public mischief", and give the authorities broader powers in curtailing freedom of speech. The Malaysian government also looked to following suit with Singapore's policies, which intends to hauling several bloggers to court for alleged defamation and sedition. [ [http://themalaysianinsider.com.my/index.php/malaysia/8174-government-to-target-blogosphere-next Government to target blogosphere next] , The Malaysian Insider, 26 August 2008]

ee also

* Human rights in Singapore
* OB marker



# Terry Johal, " [http://coombs.anu.edu.au/ASAA/conference/proceedings/Johal-T-ASAA2004.pdf Controlling the Internet: The use of legislation and its effectiveness in Singapore (pdf file)] ", "Proceedings, 15th Biennial Conference of the Asian Studies Association of Australia", Canberra, 2004.
# Gary Rodan, " [http://unpan1.un.org/intradoc/groups/public/documents/APCITY/UNPAN002726.pdf The Internet and Political Control in Singapore (pdf file)] " [http://epn.org/psq/rodan.html Political Science Quarterly] 113 (Spring 1998)
# Ng Yi-Sheng, " [http://lastboy2005.blogspot.com/2007/02/censational_21.html Censational!] ", a blog entry listing all salient cases of censorship in Singapore from 1995 to 2006.
# John Harding, " [http://www.escapefromparadise.com Escape from Paradise] ", the website for the book, "Escape from Paradise" which was banned in Singapore.

External links

* [http://www.mda.gov.sg/ Media Development Authority]
* [http://www.ifex.org/en/content/view/full/160/ Censorship in Singapore] - IFEX

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