19 January 2009

TV Censorship: Eat What's On Your Plate

James is the guest writer for this week's post.

Sunday night at home. Madeline and I were watching a bit of TV on Starhub, Singapore’s cable network. Halfway through Snatch, Guy Ritchie’s tribute to profanity, tongue-in-cheek violence, and the lighter side of England’s ethnic stereotypes, I began to wonder whether I had suddenly become oblivious to “strong” language in film. Our first time watching Snatch was in NY around the time of the movie’s release. Regardless of which character was speaking, the word “Fuck” was, as per memory, prominently featured in any dialogue. The adjective was so prevalent that it was almost a character unto itself. But this time, here in Singapore, “Fuck” had been written out of the script. And with the Fuck character dead on the censor’s floor so too had died other large portions of dialogue. I began to wonder who has such power to cut and omit? Who can so dramatically alter a film and make it decisively less dramatic? Was it an “it”, a “they”, a “he”, or a “she”?

Doing a small bit of simple investigation I came across several articles on the subject. I was hoping that the censorship was a self-imposed effort by Starhub, or some other commercial vehicle, concerned about public perception of its own product. At least this would allow for some wiggle room - for free market artistic interests to emerge. But the reality is that the effort is managed by a central committee, the MDA, or Media Development Authority, which is located in the brightly colored Old Hill Street Police Station. Having been created in 2004, ironically their mandate makes what we consume less colorful. And equally ironic is the fact that they produced a rap song to help clarify their mission and which is available on youtube. Appropriately, it’s a bit bland and short of the mark, but it's a must-see just the same:

While unsurprising, the fact that all media is controlled by a central committee is a bit numbing. Yet in reality the appearance of predictable guidelines on artistic expression was a welcomed change by local artists. Until that point the capricious nature and “heavy handedness” of the government in maintaining a lock on media outlets made it a constant struggle to determine just how far was “too far”. And with a process in place local theaters and film producers now had an outlet for appeals.

But these changes do not restrain the MDA in its oversight of foreign films coming into Singapore. Until then, we must make peace with the possibility, and the probability, that any film presented by a media outlet, especially TV, has been significantly altered by the government authority. While I’m thankful Singaporeans are not told what to watch, it makes it a bit more difficult to watch what they watch.

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