Yawning Bread. December 2006

Singapore bans tsunami charity book, part 2




Very often, when the government tries to justify their heavy-handed policies, they end up digging an even deeper hole for themselves. We saw that, for example, when the Ministry of Information, Communication and the Arts tried to justify its objection to the column by Mr Brown in 'Today' newspaper earlier this year [1]. And then we saw that again when they tried to ban civil society activists from Singapore during the World Bank/IMF annual meetings [2].

Here is an article that appeared in the New Paper regarding the ban on Leslie Kee's photography book "Super Stars" [3].

22 December 2006
The New Paper

More bare skin shown than this

So Singapore lensman's book of Asian celebs banned here
By Avis Wong 

Celebrity photographer Leslie Kee's controversial Super Stars charity book has been banned.

The reason: Too much male nudity.

An official statement from the Media Development Authority (MDA) said 'We have found the photography book to be in breach of content guidelines due to excessive photographs depicting explicit male nudity.

'As such, the publication will not be allowed for sale and distribution in Singapore.'

The book showcases pictures taken by the famous Singaporean lensman of 300 Asian celebrities in various poses.

According to MDA 'The book contains full-frontal nudity where the male genitals are clearly visible.'

The authority invited The New Paper to its office to view the 640-page book.


About 10 per cent of the book contained photographs of full-frontal male and female nudity.

However, the nude pictures were of personalities who are not well-known here, including models, directors and singers. Most are from Japan.

Big-name celebrities such as Gong Li, Faye Wong, Twins, Tony Leung and Yutaka Takenouchi were photographed fully-clothed, but some other male artistes such as Daniel Wu and Roy Chiu have their pubic hair showing.

Heavenly King Aaron Kwok and singer Andy Hui were reportedly unhappy about their pictures.

Aaron's manager Siu May said the swimming trunks worn by him for the shoot had been erased from the photo.

But Aaron later said he was unhappy only because Mr Kee did not show him the photo before publishing it.

Singer Andy Hui also claimed his pictures were used without his permission.

Other celebrities who have posed for Mr Kee - who began shooting professionally in 1998 - include Bae Yong-Joon, Ayumi Hamasaki, Namie Amuro, Zhang Ziyi, Lin Chi-ling, and Singapore's Christopher Lee, Dick Lee and Stella Huang.

Some art lovers here are unhappy with the ban.

Mr Gilbert Cheah, the managing director of Singapore Tatler, who saw pictures of the book on an online website, told The New Paper 'It's a great book and I'm a big fan of photography and I know good photography when I see it.

'I really can't imagine that someone... thought that this is something that's going to corrupt Singapore youth or something.'

He said the book's high price - about $438 excluding GST - would exclude the average consumer.

A netizen known as Yawning Bread said on his website 'All the 'heartlander aunties' have seen it (Aaron Kwok's picture, which was carried in a local Chinese newspaper), giggled over it and tut-tutted enough, so why the ban?'

Mr Cheah sees the ban as a case of double standards. He feels the authorities are more relaxed when it comes to female nudity.

The New Paper understands from MDA that female nudity has been featured more often in works of art and has become more acceptable.

The book was published with a 7,000-copy release, to raise funds for victims of the Asian tsunami.


Mr Kee, who worked in Japan and Asia for five years and then in New York for four years, is a prominent name in fashion and celebrity photography and contributed to magazines such as Rolling Stone, Elle, Vogue Japan and Taiwan, Harper's Bazaar Japan, Premiere and GQ Taiwan.

He has published two other photography books, Present in 2001 and Love Asia in 2004.

We were not able to contact Mr Kee, but we managed to read a recent e-mail he sent to friends.

In it, he wrote 'Two years of hard work is well paid off... The images which I have shot for the book are really 'daring and revolutionary' - for some general Asian people, they still do not have enough knowledge of art to understand my work.'

Two things stand out from this news article. The first is the newspaper's statement that "About 10 per cent of the book contained photographs of full-frontal male and female nudity." I am left to wonder how they define "full frontal". If a picture like this  (not related to Leslie Kee's book) which was published in The Nation newspaper of Thailand, had appeared, would the New Paper have classified it as among the 10% that were "full frontal"?

Caption from The Nation:

Patrick Ribbsaeter (L) and Avi Siwa hold a banner encouraging the closure of all zoos at a studio in Bangkok on Friday. This upcoming advertisement, promoted by the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA)will be releseed early next year in the Philippines, India, Sweden and Thailand, to encourage the ethical treatment of animals in zoos. Photo by Tatchadon Panyaphanitkul 

The second thing that struck me was the Media Development Authority's (MDA's) emphasis on male nudity in its statement: "We have found the photography book to be in breach of content guidelines due to excessive photographs depicting explicit male nudity."

The reporter too must have noticed it, for she seemed to have gone back to the MDA for clarification. She wrote, "The New Paper understands from MDA that female nudity has been featured more often in works of art and has become more acceptable." (Emphasis mine)

It is striking that the MDA does not realise how sexist they sound. They are suggesting that females can be depicted in the nude, but not males. The test of artistic merit does not in fact apply. They can recognise that female nudes can be artistic and those are "acceptable", but even if male nudes are artistic, they can never be "acceptable". The MDA is using the sex distinction and nothing else. Whether for artistic reasons or not, female bodies and genitals can be ogled at, but male bodies cannot. Too demeaning to the "superior" sex, perhaps?

Suppose one day, the city of Florence in Italy were to agree to put Michelangelo's David on show in Singapore. Would we turn away the offer? 

But consider this too: David (or at least a replica of it) is on public display in the heart of Florence. In that case, should we ban Singaporeans from travelling to Italy, in case they accidentally lay sight upon this abomination? Shouldn't we protect all Singaporeans from debasement of their morals from catching a glimpse of male genitals?

Note too the phrasing of the sentence, "female nudity has been featured more often in works of art and has become more acceptable."

How has it "become" more acceptable? When the MDA points to a process like that, it must mean that at one point it wasn't acceptable; however, through exposure, people got used to it. How could that exposure have occurred, if the MDA supposedly bans things when at that particular point in time, it isn't "acceptable"? It could only have happened when DESPITE popular opinion, MDA didn't ban it. 

This suggests that in truth, the MDA has never consistently relied on popular opinion or artistic merit to guide its decisions. When in the past, female nudes were unacceptable, they seemed to have allowed popular opinion to be exposed to it, probably relying on the "artistic" argument, such that they have become acceptable.  Yet with male nudes, the artistic argument cuts no ice. They are plain unacceptable based on the MDA's opinion that they are unacceptable despite artistic merit.

The better explanation for such behaviour is sexism and homophobia, and that, far from truly responding to opinion, they are actively trying to shape it.

Moreover, they pay no heed whatsoever to the fundamental right of freedom of expression. Unpopular speech and unpopular images still have a right to be aired -- at best the role of the state may be to require prior warning or rating so that only those who want to see or hear it gain access to it. 

We do that with cinema -- though in my view, still too strict -- and in other countries, books and magazines with full nudity (both male and female with no sexist distinctions) are required to be shrink-wrapped.  I know for a fact, because I was there at a feedback session in 2003, that the shrink-wrapping proposal was on the table then, but the government just did not want to move forward with it. 

This case of Leslie Kee's book indicates why -- they're not interested in a modulated system; they really want a total ban in order to promote sexist male superiority and homophobia in Singapore.

Yawning Bread 



  1. See the article The inutility of speaking truth unto power
    Return to where you left off

  2. See the article Peaceful streets.
    Return to where you left off

  3. See the article Singapore bans tsunami charity book, part 1 for more details about the book.
    Return to where you left off