The missing link in the debate on access to arts content

The missing link in the debate on access to arts content
Director Tan Pin Pin at the question-and-answer session following the screening of her film, To Singapore With Love, in Johor Baru. The debate over Pema came a day after three MPs quizzed Dr Yaacob over the NAR classification for the film.

SINGAPORE - Yesterday was the second day in a row that censorship came up for discussion in the House.

At issue is the NAR or Not Allowed for All Ratings classification, which when applied to a film or arts performance, disallows public screenings and stagings.

Minister for Communications and Information Yaacob Ibrahim revealed that a disagreement between regulators and arts groups over the need for an NAR classification, was one reason a proposed term-licensing scheme was scrapped.

The scheme was to be a voluntary one for arts groups to classify their own works, instead of submitting each work to the Media Development Authority for classification. It was to have been the most significant change in the Public Entertainments and Meetings (Amendment) Bill, or Pema, passed yesterday.

But it was dropped after strong objection from arts groups, some of whom worried that the scheme would lead to self-censorship.

The debate over Pema came a day after three MPs quizzed Dr Yaacob over the NAR classification for To Singapore With Love, on the grounds that the film posed a threat to national security.

Mr Zaqy Mohamad (Chua Chu Kang GRC) described NAR as a "point of contention" and said arts groups were of the view that arts content should only be classified, not banned.

The chairman of the Government Parliamentary Committee for Communications and Information was the only member to speak on Pema.

He said he appreciated the need to protect racial and religious harmony and national security, but called for the NAR classification process to be made more transparent and its framework more robust.

He also pointed out the limits of using such a classification to restrict access, when Singaporeans could catch screenings of NAR films across the Causeway or online, as many have done with To Singapore With Love.

Dr Yaacob, on his part, said that when consulted on term-licensing, arts groups wanted changes made to the classification system such that "any content should be allowed at the highest rating of R18 and there should be no Not Allowed for All Ratings or NAR category".

But he made clear that was not tenable as regulators also have to give due consideration to the differing views of other groups who also gave feedback.

He cited one such concern, which was that the Term Licensing Scheme would result in a liberalisation of content standards.

"So as regulator of arts entertainment, MDA has to weigh the interests and concerns of both arts groups and the general public. Public consultations must be in good faith and in a spirit of give and take. The arts community cannot expect MDA to only accommodate their concerns because the Arts Entertainment Code is one in which all Singaporeans have an interest," he said.

He also defended the current classification code, which was developed after consultation with arts group, arts entertainment licensees and community-based panels last year.

"Underpinning the classification code are our community norms and values, and underlying importance of maintaining social, racial and religious harmony.

"An NAR category is necessary as an upper limit as there will be instances when a performance is deemed inappropriate for staging. For example, we certainly would not condone religious icons being desecrated in a performance just because the performer deems it artistic.

"This was also the perspective of the Censorship Review Committee in 2010," he said.

What was missing from yesterday's debate was someone to articulate the liberal view that audiences should have access to all kinds of arts content, and be trusted to judge for themselves what is right and wrong.

That was a perspective actress Janice Koh would have given voice to if she were still in the House, but her two-year term as Nominated MP ended in August.

Based on yesterday's debate on Pema, it would seem that most MPs do not question the status quo when it comes to arts classification and censorship, and perhaps even have limited interest in the subject.

Certainly, the topics of HDB upgrading, rusting lift frames and jobs and benefits for older workers sparked livelier exchanges between frontbenchers and backbenchers during yesterday's Question Time.

That, too, may reflect the relative weight most Singaporeans give to arts and culture as compared to the bread-and-butter issues that affect their daily lives.

lydia@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on October 9, 2014.
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