The Discussion on Censorship Archive

as carried out in the former E-groups, now known as Yahoo-E Groups Community

Tan Chong Kee

            Besides protesting censorship on an ad hoc basis when it occurs while being ignored by the local mass media (especially when it is perpetrated by the local media), we should start to make censorship visible and accountable ourselves.

            What about this: start an archive of banned works. It should contain the date, the artist, the work, the official reason given for banning, the banning/censoring body, and finally the interactive arguments page for and against this particular incident. This could be a collaborative work among the arts community. Sintercom can help host the archive and provide technical assistance if needed.

Chng Nai Wee

            So-called Banned Works have already been on the net. is an internet archive of links to works by Singapore artists, and has links to controversial commentary on Singapore art. So far, the archived works are those not 'banned', but rather discouraged.

            To the partial observer, it appears that the Singapore government is inclined towards the paternal way of arts promotion. However, there is the temptation to equate art - that intends to provoke or shock by challenging what is considered to be comfortable limits - to be avant garde or successful. How the idea is translated to the work or performance is more important, because certainly the idea is not new.

            It is precisely to emphasise the process and translation that we should not actively promote a site for banned works. Rather, let the artist develop an independently good idea and bring it to fruition. Perhaps, we will be surprised at how many of these works actually turn out - not distracted in the myth of challenging authority - but successful for what it is. And should the work be banned, then allow the artist to discover for himself at the end; the work itself should never be contrived.

T Sasitharan

            I think Chong Kee's suggestion of an archive of banned works has merit. The operative word though is "archive". Which means each act of censorship should be inscribed in the contextualisation of the work. Making the act transparent and therefore rationally contestable.

            Censorship in Singapore is always veiled from reason and argument by the Government, Bureaucracy, Business and the so-called Patrons. We have to remove the veil in order to see and understand it for what it for it really is: An act of violence.

Alfian Bin Sa'at

            I think that having these 'banned' works aired is a good idea, although Nai Wee has mentioned the dangers of the self-mythologising aspects of such an exercise.

            At the same time though, I do not subscribe to the notion that the censorship of a work wreaths it with a kind of tragic merit, the thorny crown of the martyr. I have been reading this literary journal, for example, that was started by the poet Stephen Spender, called 'Index on Censorship'. It has contributions by the late Nigerian writer Ken Saro-Wiwa (sentenced to death for his vocal protests against the treatment of the Ogoni people by the military government and the Shell Oil Company) as well as Argentinian Haroldo Conti (kidnapped by the paramilitary police and never seen again), among others. What is interesting for me is that some of the works are actually quite mediocre by literary standards, but the kind of brutality that they provoke provides illuminating insights into the social and political systems of their respective countries.

            Hence with this context in mind, I think the decision to web-publish these works is not so much to bring focus to such writing, but perhaps to expose the mechanisms that lead to their 'censorship'. Like Sasi has mentioned, we have to make the censors visible. Only then can we identify their agendas, and however idealistic this might sound, their prejudices and preferences. Violence might be a necessary evil under certain circumstances, but random violence is something else altogether. The same thing goes for arbitrary censorship. I think it is useful for artists to derive a sense of the socio-political climate that they operate in, and I can think of nothing more exemplary than to actually read or see works that have committed acts of trangressions. And I use the word 'climate' here with an eye on how out-of-bound markers in Singapore are about as mercurial as the weather.

            Documenting these 'banned' works chronologically is also useful because it can be extrapolated against the political conditions at the time of the 'ban'. It has been speculated that the repression of Josef's work and performance art was a knee-jerk, panicked reaction from those who had advocated PM Goh's call for more liberalisation and openness. It was their way of nipping the nascent flowers of chaos in the bud, the kind of one-step-forward, two-step-back tango that we are all familiar with.

            Also, we have to extend the definition of censorship to works that have perhaps been 'rejected' or deemed unpublishable or as Nai Wee has mentioned, 'discouraged'. Because the fact is that in Singapore, censorship takes on so many guises; by a trick of semantics, for example, someone from The Straits Times can tell you that his self-censorship is actually 'responsible journalism'. When I first started putting together my poetry collection, a respected NUS academic warned me against publishing it and putting myself up in the 'front-line'; for me he was practising a kind of censorship, but one that I did not acquiesce to, because eventually the book got printed. Perhaps also we can include works which the authors themselves have 'self-censored' (although this might raise questions on the legitimacy of the piece as a 'banned' work), in the sense that they are pre-empting the resistance of those who run the reins of the mass media to publish their work. One good example of a self-censored work that is available on the Internet is that one issue of 'Commentary', 'Looking at Culture', whose link is available at the Singapore Artlinks website.

Alvin Tan

            I tend to agree with Sasi and Alfian. If at all, the archive would also serve researchers.

            A long time ago, Hannah Pandian (ex-theatre critic with Life!) wrote an article on forum theatre which did not see the light of day. ST canned it. It was a rather educational and enlightening piece of work. I have a copy of it somewhere and have to look it up. I am sure there are many other articles that have been canned under what Alfian has shared as - "responsible journalism". The other side of the coin is the right to information. I think people need to know. Now especially with S21 - Every Singaporean Matters - it is important to let the people decide so that they can participate more effectively in decision-making processes. Books get banned after they are published. At least it sees the light of day and one can get a copy of a banned book if one is rigorous enough to seek it out. But to ban a play or whole scenes seem quite incredulous and paranoid-driven. There are other myths to break and it would be all together healthier if we are able to put our efforts together to archive chronologically the events that surround and/or lead up to the act of censorship. This is the social-cultural history (the people's history) that needs to be recorded to counter officially recorded accounts.

Pern Yiau

            I am for the idea of this archive, and agree with the view that we have to make censorship (and its processes or lack of) visible. We often hear local artists say that we need to arts-educate govt officials. This view was expressed again at the first Friday Event discussion on censorship. However, I am not sure that artistic shallowness or ignorance of artistic processes is the main reason for censorship.

            Often censorship is a tool to achieve an agenda (political, social-engineering ecetera), and an understanding of the artistic process/mindset is not really going to stop the work from being censored if censoring it helps them achieve their aim. Another problem is that the agents of censorship is not one cohesive entity but a messy bunch of contradictory, ambiguous bodies. Pelu, NAC, individual MPs mouthing personal prejudices, official government pronouncements... Are we supposed to educate all of them ? Who are all of them? And in each category, who is it that makes the decisions ? Who then, are we supposed to "educate"? And can an enlightened, "arts-educated" NAC head (maybe in the third millenium) make any real difference if Pelu, or someone in MITA, decides that something must go ?

            This ambiguous nature of the censorship machinery(ies) in Singapore contributes to its invisibility and is what we have to expose. Tay Kheng Soon made an enlightening point in the Friday Event, saying that censorship (repression) is not the real problem, because a society totally without repression would be in total chaos. The main problem is denial. And I see denial in the Singapore state of affairs in two ways: first, denial that censorship exists (the best example being the NAC insistence that, technically speaking, Forum theatre and Performance Art are not banned; second, denial that the subject matter of the censored work actually matters/exists (an example: there is no gay community in Singapore so it hurts no one that this piece of work dealing with gay issues is censored.) These denials makes censorship, and the artworks facing censorship, invisible to the public consciousness. This invisibility in turns protects the censoring bodies from negative repercussions and accountability.

            The proposed documentation of censorship/censored artwork would be a step towards greater visiblity. This documentation, should not be just archival in the sense of being kept for the specific research purposes of a select few. It should be published and made available to the public.

            At least it will be interesting to see what kind of censorship such a publication would be subjected to. Who knows, it may be passed clean just to cast doubts on its claims regarding censorship in Singapore!