In 2005, photographer and educator Ann Mansolino spent some time in Singapore teaching at Ngee Ann Polytechnic University. She experienced first hand the culture of censorship in the country. While researching in the university's library, she found several photography history books that had pages torn out, sections of pages cut out, text whited out, and images covered up. While there was not a specific policy on censoring the texts, it did seem to be common practice. She decided to document these in a series called "Revised Edition." She says:
"Newer books were just benign -- it was censorship through selection. Rather than having photography books on the shelf that might have significant historical images that involved nudity that they'd then have to remove, the library only ordered books that couldn't possibly been seen as objectionable -- like 'Extreme Sports Photography!' or 'Shooting Weddings with your Digital SLR'. The new books did not have substance or support the curriculum, but no one cared, because they were unobjectionable. When I asked if we could have more books on [black and white] photography, as that's what was taught, the librarian just got a really smug expression and said, 'we have NEW books now.' And that was the end of the discussion." (A. Mansolino, personal communication, October 7, 2009)Mansolino's experience with censored books is just part of a larger problem in Singapore today. The parliamentary republic is run by the People's Action Party (PAP), which has been in power since Singapore gained independence from Britain in 1959.
James Gomez's book, Self-Censorship:Singapore's Shame, explains how the PAP uses the people's self-censorship to their advantage and also help to continue cultivating the cycle of censorship. It is a complex system that works on many levels.
While the constitution allows for freedom of speech and assembly, it also gives Parliament the right to restrict those freedoms on the basis of national security, public order or morality. Something so broad as morality (whose morality?) leaves the door to restriction of freedoms wide open.
Some who have spoken out against the government or general policies have been persecuted. The government brings defamation lawsuits, bankruptcy and tax evasion suits against them, and the local news agencies (Singapore ranks 133rd out of 175 in the 2009 Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index), further damage the reputation and character of the individuals in the press (Gomez 17). Those images remain with Singaporeans and cultivate the strong fear of any opposition to the PAP.
Mansolino says, "People generally believe that the system overall is working -- they have the highest standard of living in the region, quality housing and health care, no crime, etc -- and are willing to put up with governmental restrictions as a result. They also fear opposing the system - it is a culture of fear...."
For the time being, there is little censorship on the Internet in Singapore (though there are still consequences for expressing personal opinions). Some Singaporeans are using that to their advantage. The Enquirer is all online, as well as sites like singapore-window.org.
Stay tuned for future articles on censorship in Singapore.
Gomez, J. (2000) Self-Censorship: Singapore's Shame. Singapore: Think Centre.
Photos by Ann Mansolino