National Agenda : Censorship Is Relaxed in a 'Kinder, Gentler' Singapore : Adult-themed movies have arrived as have jukeboxes. Can the Asian Wall Street Journal be far behind?


Amy Yip is an actress from Hong Kong whose best-known contribution to the cinema world was a well-publicized effort to ensure her ample cleavage for $1 million.

But her brief appearance in the nude in a movie called "Erotic Ghost Story" has made history of sorts in Singapore, a place so ordered and well-scrubbed that it was once named by an international survey as one of the most boring cities in the world.

Since last month, the Singapore government has for the first time approved adult-themed films to be shown to people over 18 years of age. Films such as "Erotic Ghost Story," "Erotic Nights," and America's "Wild at Heart" have been packing patrons into movie theaters here ever since the change was adopted.

"Initially, it's been very successful for us. Attendance has absolutely shot up," said Harold Shaw, a director of the Shaw Brothers movie theater chain. "We don't know how long it will last--it's still in the novelty phase."

Relaxation of Singapore's traditionally tight censorship had been expected since Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong took over the reins of government from Lee Kuan Yew last November with a promise of a "kinder, gentler" Singapore that permits more diversity.

Minister of State George Yeo, sounding typically serious, had even officially urged his countrymen to enjoy themselves more. "We need more bubbles in the Singapore champagne," he said. "It is not just to have fun, it is also because fun products sell better. To create fun products, we need fun people, fun events and fun places."

Although the country is the economic pacesetter in Southeast Asia, the tight controls on what people read and see is frequently cited as one of the reasons for the high rate of emigration by Singapore's young professionals.

When rock musician Eric Clapton gave a concert here last year, he was forbidden to play his hit song "Cocaine" because of its drug theme. Cable News Network and other satellite broadcasts are banned here and the local radio is so bland that a large audience has developed for a radio station on the Indonesian island of Batam aimed at the Singapore audience.

Such Establishment journals as the Asian Wall Street Journal and the Far Eastern Economic Review are forbidden.

Even jukeboxes, the Western symbol of early rock 'n' roll, had been banned in the country since the 1960s because the government believed they were associated with moral decay.

Now, under the relaxation announced last month, Singapore's Hotel Asia draws crowds with a jukebox playing hits by such American rock 'n' roll stars of the 1950s and '60s as the Everly Brothers, Little Richard and Paul Anka. More jukeboxes are expected to be licensed shortly.

But most attention was focused on the Cabinet's decision to relax film censorship and adopt a new film-classification system to broaden the usual diet of bland family movies that have been the only available entertainment for 40 years.

In the past, nudity and even heavy necking was excised from films, as was most violence. Films considered serious offenders were banned outright.

Under the new system, family films will receive a G rating, while films with some violence will be rated PG for parental guidance. Films intended for adults only will be given an R rating, for "restricted."

"What we hope to achieve are what you call artistic films with occasional nudity, but that is part of art," Prime Minister Goh told a gathering last week.

Unlike the United States, where the film industry itself carries out the film-rating system, in Singapore it is the job of 14 individuals attached to the Board of Film Censors.

"It must be emphasized that the proposed censorship relaxation under the R category will be gradual," Rama Meyyappan, chairman of the censorship board, said in an interview. "Even under R category films, we will continue to disallow pornography, explicit sexual activity, sadistic and gratuitous violence, themes which promote drug culture or may cause racial and religious disharmony."

Meyyappan acknowledged that many of these decisions are subjective, but he said that in questions of nudity and violence, "we will have to consider the context." Films will be banned only when so many cuts are necessary as to ruin the film's continuity.

For example, he said, the Vietnam War film "Platoon" was previously banned because of what was considered excessive violence. "It would be allowed now because it shows the harsh realities of war," he said.

Similarly, the film "White Palace," which contains a steamy love scene between stars Susan Sarandon and James Spader, has been passed uncut whereas before it would have been heavily edited.

Despite the hopes of government leaders that the new system will usher in an era of mature art films, the first movies to benefit from the relaxation were primarily exploitation films from Hong Kong. Even Amy Yip's maiden appearance in "Erotic Ghost Story" was heavily trimmed to meet the new restrictions.

While the crowds of theatergoers were testimony to the popularity of the films, the experiment has not been without controversy.

Letters have flooded into newspapers complaining about the poor quality of the films and expressing alarm at what impact they might have on Singapore's puritanical society.

"These movies are undeniably soft porn movies which are of bad taste and offer nothing more than a flesh parade," said one outraged letter-writer. "The fact that film companies and Singaporeans alike are so receptive to these movies only shows that Singaporeans are not discerning enough to make good choices about the shows that they watch."

Another worried viewer wrote: "With the cinema operators flooding theaters with soft porn R-rated movies, there is the possibility that crimes in Singapore will rise disproportionately, as what is seen and heard in the theaters can be unwittingly acted out on innocent victims."

Even the prime minister felt constrained to issue a warning about the selection of new films, saying it was easy for them to "degenerate into soft porn."

"If parents think that the R-rated films are lowering the moral standards of Singapore society, then let us do away with these films," Goh said. "We can de-R society."

Meanwhile, film chains are limited to showing R-rated films in a maximum of half their theaters. Entrance to R-rated films is strictly monitored, with patrons required to produce proof of age to buy tickets. Police carefully watch the audiences, and theater owners face loss of their licenses if young people sneak in.

Meyyappan said the film censorship board is still not relaxing censorship of videotape movies because it is difficult to control who watches them. "It's a question of access," he said. Thus, the video version of "White Palace" will continue to be considerably shorter than the theatrical version.

With attention focused on soft porn, the government also announced that despite the recent relaxation, Playboy and Penthouse magazines are still too risque for the newsstands of Singapore.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World