Response of Mr David T E Lim at Committee of Supply Debate 2003 in Parliament on: Censorship

20/03/2003

Censorship

Mr Chairman

Let me first address the issues that Mr Chandra Mohan has raised. He asserted that the government controls the media in a way that does not allow for views to be heard. This is not true. One only has to look at our forum pages to see all kinds of views expressed on almost every conceivable aspect of government policy.

Not all letters to the forum will be published due to the limited space available. Editors will pick letters that are representative of the slate of opinions submitted. Editors will also have to assess whether these letters will inflame emotions, harm our social fabric or compromise our national interests. A responsible editor would not publish a letter or an article if he thinks that it is potentially defamatory, seditious, likely to cause racial hatred or otherwise in contravention of the laws of the land. For an editor to make such a decision is responsible journalism. It is not censorship by the government.

We do have censorship in Singapore, as we do in all countries. Mr Steve Chia has asked whether censorship is still relevant, since we can access almost anything over the internet. Will Mr Chia object if a picture of a nude person appears on the front pages of our newspapers tomorrow, even though such pictures are already available over the internet?

Mdm Halimah expressed her grave concerns that TV programmes such as "Temptation Island" or "The Bachelor" can instill the wrong values in our children and youth. I share her concern.

It is for this reason that we have devised a set of measures to guide our media on what can be shown, at what times, and on which channels.

Similarly, we have developed guidelines for the theatre and the arts, to address Mr Loh Meng See's concern that in the area of the arts, we should also not have artistic licence degenerate into unacceptable expressions.

But at the same time, I am mindful of the earlier exhortation, when we discussed the Arts and the Creative Industries, that we should allow for more freedom in our censorship rules, as Miss Penny Low and Mr Tan Boon Wan have earlier asked, to be looser and more relaxed.

How can we do this, and yet address the concerns that Mdm Halimah and Mr Loh have raised? This is the challenge we face in setting the rules.

Our censorship rules and policies have been drawn up, finessed over time, and these serve us well. Periodically we do surveys, and consistently they show a high level of acceptance and comfort with current censorship norms. We will never have 100% of the people agreeing with us. If we have 70% or 80% of the people agreeing, we know we are not doing too badly. The remaining 20% or 30% will comprise about half asking for a relaxation of rules, and the other half asking for a tightening of rules.

But our society is not static and unchanging. We are not insulated from the rest of the world. Quite the contrary, if we remake ourselves into a global city, we must become even more aware of what is happening elsewhere, what the trends, the fashions, the cultures and values of others are so that we can interact and do business with them. And as we travel more, and become more widely exposed, our people's interests, attitudes and values will also become more diverse.

This was why I decided last year to convene the Censorship Review Committee, or CRC, to seek their views on what we should do to bring our censorship system up to date.

Mr Seng Han Thong asked about the progress of the CRC and its recommendations. The committee has almost completed its work. I ask him to be patient as the CRC Report will be out in a month or two. Over the past year, they have held 21 meetings, and consulted extensively, holding 13 focus group discussions, talking to more than 300 persons and receiving written representations from the public at large. They have also taken in the views expressed in articles and commentaries carried by the media, and commissioned a survey to obtain direct public feedback on key censorship issues.

Members have suggested a number of specific changes to our censorship rules. I will pass these on to the CRC for their consideration. But allow me to briefly make some observations.

Mr Steve Chia has raised the concept of rating, zoning and belting. Sir, this is not new. We currently already do these for film, subscription TV and Free-To-Air TV. Mr Chia has also hinted that we should brown-bag materials. In America, brown-bagging is done only for pornographic materials. I don't know if he truly believes that doing this will make Singapore a better society or whether he is just making an argument for choice, for choice's sake. This issue is not a question of choice, but rather a question of boundaries, and where we should draw the line. Most people would find pornography repulsive, debasing and unacceptable, even though some may argue over where exactly the line should be drawn between pornography and art or entertainment. Crossing this line would change the moral tone and character of our society. So in considering the point that Mr Chia advocates, we should therefore ask ourselves this question - whether and to what extent we want to shift the boundaries on pornography and why. But we should not approach it as choice for choice's sake.

Mr Loh Meng See mentioned that we should be careful about what we show over the media. I agree that we should be stricter in our Free-To-Air programmes, because that is what our children have easy access to.

But parents may not always agree on whether a particular programme is suitable for children or not. In such instances, would it not be better to let parents decide where they want to draw the line for their children, and to take responsibility for that decision? This is different from the point that Mr Chia has made. This is not a question of shifting the boundaries, but of providing more choices within the broadly accepted moral markers of our society. But if we move in this direction, we should ensure that parents have practical tools to help them control what their children watch. There are such tools available today for subscription TV. The remote control can be used to lock out channels that parents do not wish their children to view.

Sir, the CRC expects to publish its report within a month or two and so any comment I make would be inappropriate as I would be pre-empting what the CRC may recommend. But, I can say that the CRC is considering a wide range of issues, including, inter alia, a review of our classification standards for film, video and subscription TV, the licencing and regulation of arts groups, and whether other media, such as publications, should also be classified or rated.

Whatever the recommendations and changes we decide to make, the challenge is how to meet the opposing demands of allowing for more choices on the one hand, and protecting our young and our core values on the other.

In responding to the CRC reports, I will be guided by a number of basic considerations.

Firstly, we must develop our own approach. We are a young society, raised on traditional values, and seeking to fit into a global world. We are also multi-religious, multi-racial and multi-cultural. We therefore cannot simply follow foreign norms or import ideas from societies that are culturally different from ours. It simply would not work. We must develop our own formula, and base this on sound and clear principles.

Second, we must look at the issue from all sides. This is almost axiomatic. If we do not try to see the concerns of others, there is no reason why they should see our concerns. And if anyone insists on absolute freedom for himself, he denies all others of all their freedom. If we hope to find workable ways to accommodate our different views and values, we must be prepared for some give and take, and to make progress one step at a time.

Thirdly, we should aim to move at a pace that society as a whole can accommodate. We have not dramatically changed our approach to censorship over the last 10 years, yet anyone who has lived here during this period will recognize that we have eased up in many areas. And yet, acceptance of current censorship norms is high. This means that we have managed to find a workable balance in the tension between being too inflexible and changing too quickly. We should continue to work for such a balance.

Finally, we must recognise that decisions eventually have to be made, and we move on. As the CRC process demonstrates, the views of the public are widely canvassed when developing censorship policies. Likewise, we have many advisory, review and appeal committees where public inputs are obtained to guide the implementation of censorship rules. But in the final analysis, the government, as the elected leaders, must decide what the policies will be, and where the lines, for the time being, will be drawn.

Mr Chairman, I appreciate the members' concerns over our censorship rules. MITA will study the CRC report carefully when it comes out. We will look not only at whether some of the rules should be changed, but also how the process of administrating these rules can be improved. I hope members will continue to support us, give us their feedback, so that together we will can a better society for our children.

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