September 1999

Film censorship: 'Eyes Wide Shut' banned




The European version of Stanley Kubrick's last film, Eyes Wide Shut, cannot be shown uncut in Singapore. The censorship board asked for two parts to be removed. The distributor appealed the decision to the Films Appeals Committee, which last week upheld the censor's decision.

As reported in the Straits Times on 8 September 1999, "The first of the two controversial snippets involved two women participating in oral sex, while the second featured the chanting of a sacred Hindu scripture over an orgy scene."

Appeals Committee chairman Pang Cheng Lian told the newspaper, "the oral sex scene between the two women is explicit. That is why we have decided that it should not be shown. No matter what people say, we are still an Asian society after all."

As for the second requested cut, the chanting of the Bhagavad Gita -- a chapter from the epic Indian war poem Mahabharata -- she said, "Having sacred verses chanted over an orgy scene is in poor taste and will offend Hindus in Singapore."

Like other films from directors of high stature, the movie is believed to be offered on a take-it-or-leave-it basis. Hence, it is unlikely that the requested cuts will be acceded to. The alternative may be to show the American version of Eyes Wide Shut, which has some digital masking of the sex scenes; however the chanting is still there in that version.

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There are a lot of criticisms we can make about the censors' approach, for example why oral sex between two women is out when other explicit heterosexual scenes, if done artistically, are in. A boutique manager, Tracy Wong, 26, told the Straits Times, "the lesbian scene is no big deal. It goes by very quickly -- at most four or five seconds and it is done artistically."

What does Pang Cheng Lian mean when she said, "No matter people say, we are still an Asian society after all." So what if we are an Asian society? Does that mean we must be stuffed up about sex? Does that mean we must not know about lesbian lovemaking? Does that mean we should tolerate censorship?

As for the Hindu scriptures, the excuse is that the film would offend some people. Hell, as my friend remarked to me, everything offends someone somewhere. Men object to being made to look like pigs in some films. Women object to being made to look like bimbos in others. Chinese object to being stereotyped as Fu Manchus; Italians as Mafia gangsters.

Why is religion so special that it must be protected by the censors? Because people might get emotional and riot in the streets. Right. The threat of violence is rewarded.

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But look carefully, and you'd see that in fact, only certain interpretations of religion are protected. The conservative ones. Only certain religious persons are protected. The religious establishment. Consider the critically-acclaimed film, The Priest, which was banned in Singapore. Not a matter of cuts. Banned, outright. That film was about a gay member of the clergy, and how the church reacted to him. The homophobic church establishment was not shown in the best of light. But was it anti-Christian? No. In fact I first heard about The Priest, when it was just released in the West, from a straight Roman Catholic friend. He recommended it as a must-see. The issue that the film raised was about being human and yet striving to serve God, and unequal treatment of sexual orientation. In other words, about the failings of people, not the failings of God. Unfortunately, it was the higher-up church people who weren't shown in the most flattering light in the film. Unfortunately too, the film's message leaned towards a more liberal interpretation of the faith. So, banned.

Under what circumstances then, can an adult Singaporean legally watch such a film in Singapore? None [1]. Don't you think it is quite unacceptable that some committee can tell citizens and adults what they can or cannot see? What happened to the human right of free speech? Singapore always seems to be too ready, at the slightest possibility of causing offence to the conservative fogies, to restrict human freedoms. No one seems to remember that upholding the dignity and liberties of our citizens is among the duties of the government and its agencies.

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The usual justification for film censorship, even for films in the above-21 category, is that there are societal norms to be regardful of: the "Asian society" argument. Sometimes, even those who disagree with the decisions of the censors from case to case, largely dispute them with the reasoning that the norms have shifted. They accept the premise of "societal norms" as the basis; they only disagree where exactly those norms are.

My objection to film censorship, on the other hand, comes from a point of principle -- the principle that adult citizens should have the freedom to see and hear what they want, no matter how objectionable the material may be to others. After all, if you don't like it, you don't have to see it or hear it. How we can reasonably ensure that, I will discuss below, but it is not anybody's right to restrict what others may enjoy.

Censorship relies on a "societal norm", a construct of what is acceptable to a broadish majority of people. In my opinion, this is severely defective because it stands contrary to the more basic principle of free speech. In essence it is unjust and discriminatory towards those who dissent, or those with widely different views, and who wish to see or hear material very different from the mainstream, or very critical of the establishment. Why should they lose their right to be informed and to free expression just because they don't agree with you and me? 

Going down to the level of the pragmatic, there is the additional argument that Singapore is trying to be a global city, the hub of international finance, a centre of excellence and creativity, and a "knowledge economy" (the latest buzzword). Censorship is incompatible with all this for it ossifies thinking. By putting certain ideas, even if it is about sex, religious criticism or the creative use of Hindu chants, out of bounds and unknowable, it narrows the scope for new insights and creativity. By defending the status quo and the lordly incumbents of Church and State, it freezes out reformers and their fresher ideas. It certainly doesn’t help in making Singaporeans more "cosmopolitan" (another recent buzzword).

Yet at the same time, there is also the issue of not inflicting potentially offensive or outrageous material upon those who do not wish to see or hear them. This is a valid concern, but censorship is not the answer to this. The appropriate response is zoning: that there is an appropriate time and place for all things, clearly marked out, without resorting to banning any particular thing. Film classification -- classification, not censorship -- is a form of zoning.

No film should be censored. It should only be rated. Besides retaining the current categories of G, PG, NC16, and abolishing the silly category of R(A), which stands for Restricted (Artistic) -- silly, because it puts the censors in the position of arbiters of artistic taste, what has taste got to do with free speech? -- we can add categories for "Adult - explicit sex", "Adult - potentially offensive themes" and "Adult - graphic violence". By such labelling, we make it clear to the movie-goers what they are likely to be getting. If you don't like it, don't watch it. This approach balances the two needs: be considerate to those who may find something offensive through careful segregation, but do not deny any adult of what he chooses to see or hear.

What if the material is rabid against certain races, religions or sexual minorities? This -- well, the first two dangers, not the third -- is the usual scare tactic used against free speech in Singapore. We'll just have to learn some maturity and take these things in stride. In any case, with a global, borderless information age coming, we had better prepare people to take these things in stride, rather than pretend we can insulate people from seeing or hearing anger.

Secondly, we can still take action against behaviour, such as acts or threats of violence, discrimination or abuse. And we can create channels for more moderate and inclusive views to be heard above the howls of atavistic tribalism.

But we always seem to take the easy way out. It's like saying, it's too difficult to stop men from raping women, so let's shut women away in homes and never let them out. It's too difficult to deal with the issues raised by films that challenge convention. So ban them. 

Well, we're poorer for it.

© Yawning Bread 



  1. But of course, many Singaporeans have seen The Priest right here in Singapore. The video underground is alive and well. Some videotapes are originals, brought in from abroad, smuggled within dirty laundry, others are pirate copies. Oh, yes, banning encourages piracy. Remember abolition and its cousins, bootleggers and moonshine? The cousins of film censorship are the video pirates. Meanwhile, Singapore says we're serious about protection of intellectual property, how else to promote creativity, research and development, and a "knowledge economy"?
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  1. See also the article Film censorship: 'Formula 17' banned