May 29, 2006

In Singapore, a censor’s cuts and sensibilities

By Sara Webb

SINGAPORE (Reuters) - Singapore's chief censor, Amy Chua,
says she loves human interest films -- the kind where the
humble protagonist succeeds against all odds.

"Erin Brockovich," "Billy Elliot" and "Million Dollar Baby"
are among her favorites. "Cut," in which Singapore director
Royston Tan settled a score with the censors for mutilating one
of his films, is not.

In "Cut," a film buff chases a frumpy censor as she wheels
her trolley down a supermarket aisle, and reels off a string of
films which the bureaucrat had snipped -- from "Lost in
Translation" to "Titanic." "Cut" itself, first shown in 2004,
was not censored.

"This film misrepresents the Board of Film Censors (BFC)
because we are portrayed as being "scissors-happy" when this is
far from the truth," Chua, the BFC's chairwoman, told Reuters.
"I'd prefer if we are viewed as classifiers rather than

The film won a following among cineastes in the city-state,
where an outing to the cinema often used to be memorable not so
much for the film itself as for the jerky edits excising bare
breasts, sex scenes and obscenities.

"'Cut' is a plea from the Singapore film industry," said

However, Singapore's long-standing stranglehold over
content is being eroded thanks to technology, now that many
films can be downloaded for free over the Internet.

Two years ago, following a review of censorship practices,
Singapore revised its classification of films and videos,
giving a wider range of ratings. Now there is a category for
viewers over 18 years old, in addition to existing ones for
16-plus and 21-plus. Now there is less need to cut "adult"
scenes as a film can be rated for a mature audience.


"Censorship is a reflection of a country's social norms and
values," said Chua, a demure woman in her fifties who is in
charge of content for film, video, broadcast and publications
at the information ministry's Media Development Authority


"In Scandinavia full nudity (on screen) might not be a
problem, but if we had full nudity, parents would complain."

The censors' vetting of videos brought into the country for
personal use may be scrapped next, Chua said.

The addition of the category for over 18s gave viewers more
choice while protecting younger audiences, she said. As a
result, films that deal with controversial issues -- at least
for Singapore -- can be seen in cinemas.

The city-state officially outlaws gay sex.

Wong Kar-Wai's gay love story "Happy Together" was shown
first at a film festival but was not allowed for commercial
distribution under the old rating system.

But award-winning "Brokeback Mountain," based on Annie
Proulx's story about two gay cowboys, was shown uncut this

"It didn't really glorify homosexuality as a lifestyle, and
scenes were tastefully shot," said Chua who, as head of the
BFC, reviews controversial films such as "Brokeback Mountain"
and "Kinsey," which is based on the life of sex researcher
Alfred Kinsey.

But Tan, the Singaporean director, ran afoul of censors
with his film about local youth gangs: "15" had 27 cuts for
offensive language, violence and gang chants which the
authorities feared might incite violence and glorify gang


Singapore's sensitivities extend beyond sex, violence and
swear-words to political, racial and religious issues,
reflecting more than four decades of one-party rule and a
population mix of ethnic Chinese, Malays and Indians.

The People's Action Party, which has dominated politics
since independence in 1965, has repeatedly used defamation
lawsuits against opposition politicians. In the run-up to the
May 6 general election, the government warned Singaporeans
against posting political commentary in blogs and podcasts.

Last year, Singaporean film director Martyn See had to
withdraw his documentary on opposition politician Chee Soon
Juan from a film festival. See was then questioned by police,
who confiscated copies of the film as well as his film

"Political subjects can be treated in a film. It's how you
treat it, whether it's balanced," said Chua who spent most of
her career at Singapore's state broadcaster making
documentaries and managing programming.

The Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts
(MICA) said last year that "party political films are
disallowed because they are an undesirable medium for political
debate in Singapore." MICA said "the ban here is only on films
which deal with political issues in a partisan manner."

The See saga prompted a member of the public, Kelvin Lau
Jit Hwee, to write to a local newspaper pointing out that the
state-owned broadcaster had screened a series about government
leaders: Could they also have violated regulations and face
investigation by police, he asked.

The government said the series did not breach the Films Act
"as the discussions were conducted in a non-partisan manner."

"Things have improved, but it's often a case of two steps
forward, one step back," said poet and writer Felix Cheong.