Wednesday, May 09, 2007


At a Young PAP dialogue*, Lee Kuan Yew expressed his skepticism about censorship.

He recounted his input to the Cabinet discussion on the Crazy Horse topless revue: "I said, Look, once upon a time, Singaporeans watched peep shows. You know, you pay 10 cents and you turn an old film in a box at Chinese wayangs. Today, they are going to Paris, they go to the Folies Bergere. I mean it doesn’t make sense any more. I said, ‘Let it go’. So they said, ‘No, we must stop this, stop that’. I said, ‘You either go with the world and be part of the world, or you will find that we become a quaint, a quixotic, esoteric appendage of the world’.”

On the balance that Government has to strike: "We have to decide on behalf of society what is the long-term effect of this, and if you prohibit it, will it work? And if it doesn’t work and it is flouted, does it do harm? Which is better – to let it run freely or say, ‘No, have it surreptitiously flouted at the margins’? You’ve got to weigh the two odds."

Later in the dialogue, he said that internet censorship is impractical: "We have created a society which is totally educated. You are all able to go on the Internet. So all this censorship and so on makes no sense to me. You are on the Internet 24 hours, broadband. We’re going to have Wi-Fi throughout the whole city. We cannot stop this. If we stop this, we stop the progress. We are marginalised.”

My take on these comments:

Mr Lee's words were quite remarkable, suggesting that the days of censorship are over. However, one shouldn't overstate their significance. We shouldn't look at what he said as a statement of immediate media policy, but rather as a broad, long-term principle. Anyone who takes his comment too literally would no doubt be struck by the contradiction between words and actions. Within a few weeks of his speech, we saw the government ban Martyn See's film on Said Zahari. There was no evidence there of the kind of thinking Mr Lee was advocating.

So, it is more realistic to consider Mr Lee's words as referring to a long-term trajectory. In the short term, the government can be expected to continue applying censorship powers in old fashioned ways. This gradual and controlled pace of liberalisation, with occasional reversals, will continue to be the pattern, because in Singapore it's the government that sets the agenda. It's unlike other countries where people can, for example, invoke strong constitutional guarantees to achieve quantum leaps in freedom of communication.

Even in the long term, though, it is not the case that a censorship-free system is either possible or desirable. Any society will still want to be able to protect its interests in certain broadly agreed areas. Whether it's tobacco advertising, hate speech or child pornography, there may continue to be a strong justification for censorship. In some areas, I would favour more, not less, censorship. For example, Singapore protects children against advertisers less than some developed countries. And our radio deejays on some stations sometimes cross the bounds of what others would consider good taste.

So we should not think that no-censorship is some communication nirvana we should be heading for. We should be aiming instead for a regulatory regime that more accurately reflects the interests of society. In some areas we should be loosening up, in other areas there is a case for tightening.

* Reported in "Adjusting to the realities of a globalising world" by Peh Shing Huei,
The Straits Times, 23 April 2007, p. H5