Friday, 9 May 2008

Think of the Children

In-line SkaterGenerally I disfavour banning things and prefer to encourage restraint and tolerance. So it's curious that Singapore manages to do both, a kind of moral third way; they have a mass of restrictive regulations and but also rely on public self-censorship to keep everything harmonious.

For example, sexual content in the media; I'm not fussed but it's like a boiling pan than spits steam out from the lid unpredictably such as the following, recent cases where the MDA (Media Development Authority) acted on illegal publications:

  • Jan08; MediaCorp TV Channel 5 ran an episode of “Find and Design,” a home and d├ęcor series, featuring a gay couple transforming their game room into a nursery for their adopted baby. The MDA: “The episode contained several scenes of the gay couple with their baby as well as the presenter’s congratulations and acknowledgment of them as a family unit in a way which normalizes their gay lifestyle and unconventional family setup.” The episode violated the “Free-to-Air TV Program Code,” which forbids shows that “promote, justify or glamorize gay lifestyles.” Fine: $15,000.
  • Apr08; Cable operator StarHub fined $10,000 for airing a music video showing two women kissing for about nine seconds.
  • Nov07: Xbox 360 video game Mass Effect banned because it contains a lesbian love scene between a human(oid) and an alien. (Judge for yourself: YouTube, "Mass Effect"). To be fair, the MDA reversed this decision with an interim game classification system pending the new video game ratings scheme.

It's not the MDA's fault, they are just applying the law but all media censorship starts to look silly eventually. Producers openly attack the margins by pushing the acceptable guidelines then negotiating with the censor to retain borderline material. Age ratings on video games is sensible but useless; if you can't keep drugs and mobile phones out of prisons, you won't stop 16yo kids buying an M18 rated video game.

It's hard to say whether such prudishness has broad support. Singapore has a significant and active Christian community that consistently lobbies against gay rights and Chinese culture is morally conservative. On the other hand, mostly people follow a live-and-let-live philosophy.

The Government's goal is self-censorship; keep Singapore tidy, don't cause a fuss or offence. The official line is of "liberalising", while retaining "a very strong conservative core", which if you can stop giggling over the inherent absurdity, is a good description of the duality of approach. The OxBridge political elite are open minded but must keep in step with the public in matters of conscience.

I reflected on these official attitudes while waiting to cross the road at Orchard on Sunday. On the other side was a tall, white foreigner, wearing shorts, an iPod, Oakley shades, inline skates and several tattoos. He looked like he'd dropped through a worm hole from Venice beach, California. The sideways glances and nervous titters from fellow pedestrians confirms just how outlandish this is in Singapore. I consider myself reasonably in-touch with the local vibe and I did briefly wonder what laws he must be breaking. Talk about going native!