Censure and Censor

Loretta Chen

An edited extract from the author’s PhD thesis, Contra-indications: Corporeality, Iconicity and Representation in Singapore Lesbian Theatre

A recent media episode ignited much (on-line) dissent amongst the Singaporean lesbian community albeit in a quiet, unobtrusive manner. Starhub Cable Vision (SCV) was fined by the Media Development Authority (MDA) for airing a commercial for a song by singer Olivia Yan on the MTV Mandarin Channel on 26 and 27 November 2007 that it alleged depicted lesbian kissing scenes. In MDA’s press statement the commercial was said to “portray romanticised scenes of two girls kissing” and highlighting that such behaviour was “acceptable.” This representation was “in breach of TV advertising guidelines which disallow advertisements that condone homosexuality” (The Straits Times, 9 April 2008). The MDA had apparently consulted the Advisory Committee for Chinese Programmes which concurred that the commercial had promoted lesbianism as a romantic and acceptable lifestyle. The lyrics of Yan’s song apparently further amplified this interpretation. Taking into account the severity of the breach, as well as the fact that the commercial was aired on a youth-oriented channel, the MDA found that a financial penalty was warranted and fined SCV S$10,000.

SCV had earlier been fined S$10,000 for what was considered “a footage of lesbian sex and bondage” (The Straits Times 24 October 2006). A statement updated on the MDA website on 23 October 2006, accused SCV of having breached the Subscription TV Programme Code by airing scenes of women having sex in an American reality television series, Cheaters.

In both instances, what was objectionable was clearly the (mis)representation of lesbians as seductive or alluring bodies. However, the severity of the indictment was really due to the (mis)representation of lesbianism as attractive and more importantly, accessible alternatives to what Adrienne Rich calls “compulsory heterosexuality”.

‘Silly Child’, Olivia Yan’s ironically titled music video foregrounded the tensions between sexuality, Chinese-ness and the queer lesbian body. The discernible narrative is as follows. A voice-over that precedes the song states, “This summer, I finally learnt what love as sung in love songs is all about”. The video is seen through the eyes of Olivia, the singer, a fledgling undergraduate singer on the brink of a creative break who reminisces about a summer fling. During one particular band practice, she notices that a girl seems to be attracted to her. Both women are what can be conventionally described as “andro-femme”, dressed casually in spaghetti strapped tops; cardigans, paired with military “cargo” pants or jeans and pretty dresses.

The girls are seen frequently flirting, kissing and cuddling in the comfort of a typical undergraduate’s room, replete with a Nirvana poster and Union Jack (Great Britain has legalised civil partnerships). There are also several shots of the girls in their burgeoning romance – practicing and flirting in what can be interpreted as the campus green room, where the undergraduates s apparently while their time away in band practice. There is also a clear shot of the girls sharing an intimate moment, kissing on the lips when one of the girls’ boyfriend (presumably Olivia’s) walks in on them. In the next shot, Olivia is seen talking to the boy. The couple look upset, with Olivia looking evidently sheepish. The duo embrace and Olivia then walks away. She breaks up with boy, presumably for the other girl thus foregoing heterosexuality for a potential homosexual encounter. There is no dialogue, nothing is made explicit.

From the brief four-minute long video, it is clear that the girls were acquainted though their love for music and shared band sessions. Alternating between the quiet domesticity of home and the benign, progressive domicile of what can be interpreted as a university campus, Yan’s video caused discomfort perhaps because of its innocuous insidiousness.

What the Advisory Committee for Chinese Programmes and MDA failed to take notice was the fact that the song and its attendant suggestive lyrics seemed not to celebrate lesbianism but was really a rejection of lesbianism. Olivia chose to be single and alone at the end of the song due to her own inability to decide (as suggested by the lyrics), the confusion and lack of personal conviction in pursuing a lesbian romance, thereby presumably caving into the pressures of a heteronormative society. In the final shot of the two women together, the girl asks Olivia in hushed tones “Can we still be friends?”. The video ends with the women standing across each other in the far-flung corners of band practice room, exchanging wan and pained looks in what can be read as the “end of the affair.” This interpretation lends itself very well to the opening preamble when we first hear of Olivia’s “summer fling.” The ignorance and foolishness of the summer fling is performed with Olivia self-reflexively calling herself and perhaps the other infatuated girl ‘Silly Child’, the title of the song.

This reading is altogether missed by the censors. In the MDA’s and the Advisory Committee for Chinese Programmes’ haste and discomfort in the very corporeal representation of the two female desiring bodies, they have ironically censored what could have been read as a flagrant rejection of lesbianism rather than a celebration of lesbianism.

The reality programme Cheaters features cases handled by the Cheaters private agency whose clients seek to find out if their partner was being unfaithful in their relationship. Despite the suggestive nature of the contents, the programme was allowed to be aired on the Zone Reality Channel (Channel 83) as part of the Family Plus Tier subscription package “aimed at a general audience!”

The controversial episode was aired from 22 to 26 May 2006 and repeated on 29 August 2006. It had apparently contained footages of a woman engaging in lesbian sex acts with another woman. The programme also showed the woman tied to a bed in a bondage session with two other women. Although the scenes were deliberately pixellated, the MDA insisted that it was still obvious to viewers that the women were naked and engaging in “unnatural sex acts.”

MDA says SCV has breached the “guidelines which disallow the promotion, justification and glamorization of lesbian lifestyles and their explicit depictions […] It also considered the fact that the channel is in SCV’s Family Tier which is aimed at a general audience (23 October 2006 ).

The MDA further noted that episode was aired on a Family Plus Tier channel. The Programme Advisory Committee for English TV and Radio Programmes (PACE) also agreed that the airing was objectionable. The Committee and MDA further argued that the woman featured in the programme had managed to get her boyfriend to accept her lifestyle and even invited other individuals to engage in threesomes with them. This portrayal was read as promoting lesbianism as an acceptable lifestyle.

The very content of Cheaters is already predicated upon couples cheating on each other and yet MDA and PACE deemed it suitable for general viewing. However a woman who cheats on her boyfriend with another woman is deemed unacceptable. What would have caused particular grief to the authorities would be the fact the woman in question actually persuaded the boyfriend to understand her attraction to the other woman and even successfully lure him into participating in a threesome. Not once did the authorities censure the threesome act as offensive but rather conflated the cheating, the threesome and the same-sex attraction as a single “lesbian act”. In fact, the presence of the boyfriend in the episode already renders the threesome act un-lesbian.

The authorities also made the sweeping assumption that all lesbians engage in threesomes. Bondage is also not part of a lesbian lifestyle but is a sexual preference that people can choose to engage in, regardless of sexuality. In fact many lesbians engage in long-term monogamous relationships much as heterosexual couples do. Heterosexual bondage acts or threesomes are written about in female magazines and openly discussed with some magazines even heralding the act as a means to spice up a staid heterosexual relationship.

MDA: Ministry of Discrepancies & Ambiguities

The Censorship Review guidelines contain discrepancies with respect to free-to-air (FTA) television, cable television, theatre (classified as arts entertainment) and film.[1] The general rule of thumb for free-to-air (FTA) television is that only NC15 programmes can be aired after 10pm. while those classified as M18 are not allowed to be broadcast at all. Cable TV, on the other hand, is able to air M18 programmes after 10pm on their international, premium and Video-On-Demand (VOD) channels, with appropriate advisory warnings given.

Clearly the concerns of the MDA were with the promulgation of “unnatural sex”. However, there is clear ambivalence (pun intended) in the treatment and outlook of these notions of morality and increasing liberalization. In particular, three sections of the censorship review appear to be in contention if not contradiction with each other. The detailed classification is also available at the Censorship Review guidelines stipulated for “Media Content Standards” proposes to:

• Continue to disallow content that undermines public order and the nation’s security, denigrates race and religion and erodes moral values through pornography, deviant sexual practices, sexual violence, child pornography, bestiality etc.
• Gradually enlarge common space for discussion of racial and religious issues through the various mediums, as a long term approach in fostering racial and religious understanding and harmony.
• Continue to strike a balance between allowing more space for creativity and maintaining moral standards (15).

However, these guidelines are unclear especially when played out against two taxonomies: “homosexuality” and “sexual content and nudity”. Under “homosexuality” the guidelines stipulate,

A more flexible and contextual approach when dealing with homosexual themes and scenes in content [and] allow greater leeway for adults, through suitable channels, to access such content provided it is not exploitative (15).

However, with regards to “sexual content and nudity”, the guidelines are to

Allow for greater leeway to non-exploitative sex and nudity relevant to context and content for adults. But, continue to impose stricter standards for such content in public spaces [and to] allow adults to access magazines such as Cosmopolitan and programmes such as Sex in the City through suitable distribution channels (16).

Yet the definitions of “flexible and contextual” and what can be defined as “exploitative” or even “greater leeway” remains ambivalent and normative, dependent upon highly personal preferences and viewpoints of the Committee members. The case with Cheaters highlights this increasing ambivalence and also performs a liminality — the state of being in the margins, the “neither nor”, as there is a clear conflict of priorities. From a mass broadcast media’s standpoint however, the indication is clear — it is permissible to have a homosexual character as long as s/he does not perform the act on air. Indeed, it seems that the guidelines promote a culture that tolerates homosexuals but still condemns the act of homosexuality — analogous to having lungs but being forbidden to breathe.

Time and Passion: How Many Seconds Doth A Lesbian Make?

I was personally embroiled in a long drawn out discussion with the MDA and the Esplanade over the staging of 251, a play based on Singaporean pornographic star, Annabel Chong aka Grace Quek. The play staged in April 2007 drew abundant local and international media coverage owing to the sensationalism and controversy surrounding Annabel Chong.

"Poster of 251, written by Ng Yi-Sheng and directed by Loretta Chen"
Poster of 251, written by Ng Yi-Sheng and directed by Loretta Chen

The officials from the Esplanade debated on the viability of the scene which shows Annabel Chong (played by Cynthia Lee Macquarrie) sharing an intimate moment with her secondary school fellow classmate and Friend (name of the character in 251) played by Cheryl Miles. The tender, fleeting kiss on the lip was integral to the play as it highlighted the first emotional entanglement and budding same-sex romance Annabel Chong had before she became a porn star. In January 2007 the authorities had already granted an R(A) rating to the play based on the draft script submitted, which meant only persons above the age of eighteen was allowed to be admitted. The play included the use of strong language, highly graphic sexual scenes and a much-touted topless scene.

As the performance date of the show drew close however, the Esplanade officials began to request to sit in for rehearsals and also started sending e-mails and sms messages to ask for daily updates on the progress of the play. They were in particular concerned with the depiction of the “lesbian-kissing” scene and demanded to know the length of the kiss. I suggested that the authorities come up with guidelines to enable me to direct the “lesbian-kissing” scene and wanted to know what the authorities regarded as “acceptable length” for the “lesbian kissing scene”. The personnel both at the MDA and the Esplanade did not provide an answer but placed an indefinite “embargo” on the scene. In the end, I decided to proceed with the “lesbian kiss” with a few small changes made. After all, the MDA has a track record of shutting down productions that they deem unfit for public viewing — even if it was opening night.[2] Instead of portraying the girls as sixteen year olds, I had them share an “innocent kiss” as young twelve-year olds (with Madonna’s iconic tune, ‘Like a Virgin’ playing in the background). The actors “clocked in” at slightly under five seconds and we never did hear from the authorities again.

Friend (played by Cheryl Miles) and Annabel Chong (Cynthia Lee Macquarrie) share a “girl-bonding” moment at home. As requested by the authorities, the actors were re-visioned as giggly 12 year-old girls so as to downplay the lesbian elements.
Friend (played by Cheryl Miles) and Annabel Chong (Cynthia Lee Macquarrie) share a “girl-bonding” moment at home. As requested by the authorities, the actors were re-visioned as giggly 12 year-old girls so as to downplay the lesbian elements.

These separate incidents testify to the lack of transparency in the attitudes and treatment of lesbians and issues pertaining to their representation in Singapore. The first instance, involving Olivia Yan’s ‘Silly Child’, demonstrates the inability to “represent” lesbians in Singapore, while the other two instances involving SCV bring up an interesting conundrum. The ambiguous legal status of lesbian sex is indicative of the ambivalent attitude to lesbianism per se. Jacqueline Lo, in an essay entitled “Prison-house, Closet and Camp: Lesbian Mimesis in Eleanor Wong’s Plays” points out that while homosexuality is amongst a list of sex offences made punishable by law under Section 377 of the Penal Code, lesbianism is not specifically mentioned since it is arguable as to whether sexual acts between lesbians involve “penetration”.

"Poster of Invitation to Treat"
Poster of Eleanor Wong’s Invitation to Treat

Yet arguably, this lack of “penetration” or more crucially, this lack of a (to quote Judith Butler’s term) “visible referent” raises the question of what Sue-Ellen Case cheekily calls “penis, penis, who’s got the penis?” This supposed “lack” has ironically abetted the invisibility of lesbians in the eyes of the law. Turning this line of argument on its head, one can question the viability and ability of the authorities to penalise an act of lesbian representation when there is first and foremost nothing to (re)present , in which case how can lesbians be visibly represented in the first place?

If the lesbian has no referent in the eyes of the law, is not able to be visible in representation, then what makes the lesbian visible? Dress, deportment, language and mannerisms are determinants of lesbian identity and there is indeed a shared lesbian reservoir of knowledge that creates a particular lesbian iconicity. While there exists an unsaid code that governs lesbian corporeality this is not a shared code with those outside the community such as censorship boards, etc. This lack of knowledge of lesbian codes of behaviour may have led to the indecisions and ambiguities within the authorities in handling issues that deal with female homosexuality. Is there efficacy in ambiguity or should there be greater transparency of the lesbian codes of conduct to enable the authorities to make clearer and more informed judgement calls? These are pressing and intricate issues that have to be stripped, teased and examined. The issue of lesbian iconicity, corporeality and subsequent representation needs to be raised and examined. If a lesbian is rendered invisible in the eyes of the judiciary and legal system, how can and how does one raise the spectre of the lesbian

Lauded internationally on the one hand for our tough stance on crime and lambasted on the other for our intolerance of oppositional views[3], this nascent state is awash with contradictions and paradoxes. Singapore is a country where chewing gum is banned, but where meteorically rising casinos define its skyline; individual creativity collectively incubated in State-run institutions homosexuals “tolerated” but sodomy criminalized. The lesbian is not recognised by the government and thus legally not in “existence”. Yet there have been overt efforts and high-profile measures taken to censure and censor lesbian representations. Theatre’s role in creating or making (in)visible the lesbian body through a decisively Singaporean framework, though aided and informed by Euro-American (and an increasing amount of Asian) lesbian scholarship has contributed to the vibrancy of the lesbian community. To quote Ng Yi-Sheng, playwright of 251, where better to start than “in the beginning [as] there was the body…” and where else better than on our local stage.


[1] There are various classifications of different media in Singapore. In film, the ratings are as follows G or General, PG or Parental Guidance, NC16 or No Children below 16 years old, M(18) or Mature content for persons above 18 years old and R(A) or Restricted (Artistic) for persons above 21 years old, i.e. R(21) to be shown only in the city areas and not the residential heartland. For theatre, advisories are given if the play deals with mature themes and the R(A) rating is applicable to persons below 18 years old i.e. R(18).

[2] One high-profile case that made it to international news is SMEGMA. Made up of 10 different short plays by controversial local playwright Elangovan, the play was to have been performed on August 5-6, 2006 by Agni Koothu, or Theater of Fire. Its characters include men who patronize underaged prostitutes, a pregnant suicide bomber and a foreign maid. The play received its license to stage with an R(18) rating on the Tuesday prior. But on the day before the event, 4 August 2006, the MDA told S Thenmoli, the Artistic Director of Agni Koothu that the license had been withdrawn. The play subsequently had to be shut down.

[3] Singapore came under international scrutiny most notably in the recent 61st Annual Meetings of the Boards of Governors of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank Group, 2006. With 23,000 delegates and 300 finance ministers, the event was the largest conference ever to take place in Singapore. The authorities banned all outdoor demonstrations in accordance to the Unlawful Assemblies Act and it was only following negotiations with the police that indoor demonstrations were allowed within a 14m X 8m red cordoned space in Suntec City. The State also denied entry to 28 accredited protesters of which 22 were allowed in following objections by IMF/World Bank officials. In response, ex-World Bank President Paul Wolfowitz stated that Singapore’s stance on the free speech issue had harmed its image, “Enormous damage has been done and a lot of that damage is done to Singapore and self-inflicted…I would argue whether it has to be as authoritarian as it has been.”