The decision by the National Arts Council (NAC) to withdraw funding for the comic novel The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye is but one instance of how the authorities here control publications which are deemed offensive or not in the public interest.
Nothing is spared from its eager censoring eyes, be they books, films, songs, stage performances, pop concerts, magazines, newspapers, pamphlets and so on. Of late, the authorities have also ventured into regulating the online space, with more restrictions expected to be announced shortly.
What is interesting to note is that censorship is not only applied on non-fiction works, but also perhaps increasingly on fictional content as well. Through the years, and especially the last few ones, the censorship sword has fallen on cartoons and depictions of fictional characters in various forms.
For example, The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye, by artist Sonny Liew, is based on a fictional character, whose perspective of Singapore history makes up the book. The NAC withdrew funding for the book after having offered it, claiming that the book “potentially undermines the authority of the government.”
Let us take a quick look back on some other examples of how fictional works and cartoons have spooked the authorities.
1998: The work of Hong Kong satirical artist Zunzi Wang was removed from display at the Singapore Art Museum just half an hour before the event was to be opened to the public. Wang’s work was a computer-generated depiction of the then Singapore PM Goh Chok Tong, portrayed as a puppet of “Elder Statesman” Lee Kuan Yew. It was deemed as “offensive” and “culturally insensitive” by the authorities.
“It was reported that minutes before the official opening, this work on Singapore’s strict laws — which showed Mr Goh as a gardener spraying insecticide labelled “”Fines” and Mr Lee patting his back — was taken down.” (Source.)
Some photos of the exhibits being removed:
1999: “Austin Powers – The Spy Who Shagged me” was a very popular movie, loved by millions around the world.
But when it came to Singapore, the censors here were spooked by the word “shagged”, and wanted it changed to “shioked”. Thankfully, however, after some public outcry, the authorities decided to leave it be.
2007: Xbox Mass Effect was released and soon ran into problem with the censors. It was then promptly banned here – but later allowed.
“The scene that caused the initial ban was a kiss between the main character (who the player could choose to be female) and an alien character with a female appearance.” (Source.)
2008: Ultraman protest. What is perhaps the most bizarre display of paranoia by the authorities took place at the Youth Park in 2008. A group of 8 young anime fans had gathered at the park to protest Odex’s actions to curb file-sharing in S’pore. Odex is a distributor of Japanese anime.
The protest by the youths consisted of them placing action figures of cartoon characters, such as Ultraman, in the park.
“Their project, called the People’s Action Figures Party, was met by 4 “Ang Chia”, or riot buses, from the Special Operations Command,” blogger Mr Brown reported at the time. “Yes, a whole bunch of cops dropped by their party.”
Thankfully, nothing further happened to the protestors.
2013: Cartoonist Leslie Chew was arrested and subjected to 3 months’ of detention in Singapore (his passport was impounded) for two cartoons which the police deemed to be “seditious”. He was ordered to report to the police station every morning initially, and later changed to every week.
In the end, the Attorney General’s Chambers decided to drop the charges against him. Chew had also issued an apology for “scandalising the judiciary” with his cartoons.
2014: Penguin books. The controversy over three children’s books was sparked by complaints from members of the public about the “gay penguins” depicted in the book.
Initially, the NLB said the books would be pulped, but after the public uproar, it decided to move the books to the adult section of the library instead.
2014: The ban on the comic book, Archie The Married Life was uncovered by Sonny Liew when he enquired with bookstore Kinokuniya about its availability.
The Media Development Authority (MDA) said it had assessed the comic in March after receiving a complaint and found it breached the guidelines with “its depiction of the same-sex marriage of two characters”.
The MDA said: “The Publications Consultative Panel, which comprises a cross-section of (28 members from) Singapore society, was consulted. Its members advised that the theme of the comic was not in line with social norms and is in breach of existing content guidelines.”
The book remains banned.
2015: The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye by Sonny Liew – the NAC withdrew funding for the book because it said the book “potentially undermines the authority and legitimacy of the Government and our public institutions”.
The book went on to win local and global recognition for its creative brilliance.