Skip to main content Accessibility help

Freedom of Repression



Too programmatic an opposition to censorship fails to account for the nuanced justifications and popular support that underwrite some of the world's most refined censorship regimes. In this article, I argue that in order to do so, we need to place freedom, repression, regulation, expression and productivity in a more dynamic relationship than conventional critics of censorship are generally willing to entertain. By way of example, I examine theatre censorship in Singapore. The South East Asian city state inherited draconian colonial-era censorship regulations from the British, which it variously amends, rescinds and refines on a regular basis through a combination of negotiation, government review and, increasingly, public participation. I explore several examples, including an all-male production of Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest (1895), which triggered a range of local and international responses, thereby exemplifying the complex historical, political and aesthetic dynamics of censorship in a highly globalized environment.



Hide All


1 See Burt, Richard, ed., The Administration of Aesthetics: Censorship, Political Criticism, and the Public Sphere (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1994); Hylands, Paul and Sammells, Neil, eds., Writing and Censorship in Britain (London and New York: Routledge, 1992); and Post, Robert C., ed., Censorship and Silencing: Practices of Cultural Regulation (Los Angeles: Getty Research Institute for the History of Art and the Humanities, 1998).

2 See Kaur, Raminder and Mazzarella, William, eds., Censorship in South Asia: Cultural Regulation from Sedition to Seduction (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2009); Freshwater, Helen, Theatre Censorship in Britain: Silencing, Censure and Suppression (Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), pp. 115; and Reinelt, Janelle, ‘The Limits of Censorship’, Theatre Research International, 32, 1 (March 2007), pp. 315.

3 Seven hundred square kilometres in size, with a population of 5.08 million, Singapore is one of the world's most densely populated nations, with one of the highest per capita GDPs. Modern Singapore grew out of a trading post established on the island in 1819 by the British East India Company. It became independent in 1965. A general election in 1959 inaugurated the first fully elected government, and was won by the People's Action Party (PAP), led by Cambridge-educated lawyer Lee Kuan Yew. The PAP has governed ever since, currently holding eighty-two out of eighty-four seats in Parliament. Lee stepped down as prime minister in 1990, and remains in the Cabinet as Minister Mentor. Approximately 25 per cent of Singapore's inhabitants are foreign-born, and official figures use colonial-era racial classifications to describe the make-up of its resident population as Chinese (74.1 per cent), Malay (13.4 per cent), Indian (9.2 per cent) and Others (3.3 per cent).

4 For a comprehensive rehearsal of the debate, see the International Bar Association Human Rights Institute's 2008 report Prosperity versus Individual Rights? Human Rights, Democracy and the Rule of Law in Singapore, available at, accessed 5 January 2011, and the Ministry of Law's Detailed Reponse to IBAHRI's Report, available at, accessed 5 January 2011.

5 Foucault, Michel, The History of Sexuality Volume 1: An Introduction, trans. Hurley, Robert (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1979), p. 10.

6 Ibid., The History of Sexuality, p. 12.

7 Ministry of Culture, Report of the Review Committee on Censorship (Singapore: Ministry of Culture, 1982), p. 8.

8 Ibid., p. 1.

9 CRC 2003 Secretariat, Report of Censorship Review Committee 2003 (Singapore: Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts), pp. 1213.

10 Ibid., pp. 72–3.

11 CRC 2010 Secretariat, Report of Censorship Review Committee 2010 (Singapore: Ministry for Information, Communications and the Arts), p. 18.

12 Ibid., p. ii.

13 Singaporerebel, ‘Police investigates [sic] filmmaker over screening’, available at, accessed 11 July 2009.

14 Palay is one of a small group of political activists associated with the opposition Singapore Democratic Party (SDP), who have sought to bring civil liberties issues to light by holding small-scale illegal gatherings and protests, and then publicizing the Police response. How much popular support their actions enjoy is hard to gauge. YouTube views of such actions can run into the hundreds of thousands. However, the SDP has not held any seats in Parliament since 1996, with its share of the popular vote declining from approximately 10 per cent to 4 per cent over the course of subsequent general elections.

15 The company usually prints its name as W!LD RICE. In the interests of typographical decorum, I will be rendering it in lower case, except in image credits.

16 Ministry of Information and the Arts, Censorship Review Committee Report 1992 (Singapore: Ministry of Information and the Arts), p. 24.

17 The 2003 Censorship Review recommended ‘a more flexible and contextual approach when dealing with homosexual themes and scenes in content’ (CRC 2003 Secretariat, Report, p. 52). However, the MDA's ‘Classification Framework for Arts Performances’, an unpublished document circulated to arts groups, used a common euphemism for homosexuality to caution that ‘[a]rts performances that deal with alternative lifestyles . . . should not promote such behaviour and lifestyles’ (p. 1).

18 Amy Tsang, ‘Why Earnest Advisory’, Straits Times, 28 March 2009, p. E5.

19 Ivan Heng, personal email correspondence with author, 10 July 2009.

20 Tom Wright, ‘Singapore Lightens Up’, Wall Street Journal, 2 April 2009, available at, accessed 11 July 2009.

21 Sonia Kolesnikov-Jessop, ‘A Daring Take on a Wilde Play’, New York Times, 2 April 2009, p. 13.

22 Yew, Lee Kuan, From Third World to First: The Singapore Story 1965–2000 (New York: HarperCollins, 2000) p. 543.

23 Iyer, Pico, The Global Soul: Jet-Lag, Shopping Malls and the Search for Home (London: Bloomsbury, 2000), p. 145.

24 Kampfner, John, Freedom for Sale: How We Made Money and Lost Our Liberty (London: Pocket Books, 2009), p. 1.

25 Ibid., p. 6. Italics in the original.

26 For a succinct example of the Singapore government's response to such criticisms see ‘The Singapore Model’, a riposte to a Guardian article by Kampfner, written by Singapore's ambassador to the UK, at, accessed 5 January 2011.

27 The Theatres Ordinance 1895, in Straits Settlements Ordinances, Nos. 1–15 (1895), p. 26.

28 The Theatres Ordinance 1908. Ordinances Enacted by the Governor of the Straits Settlements with the Advice and Consent of the Legislative Council Theoreof during the Year 1908 (Singapore: Government Printer, 1909), pp. 4951.

29 Public Entertainments Ordinance (No. 40 of 1958), 1958 Supplement to the Laws of the State of Singapore (Singapore: Government Printer), p. 183.

30 For more on the Singapore Story see the National Education website at The Total Defence website is at, accessed 9 July 2009.

31 The artists are Tellervo Kalleinen and Oliver Kochta-Kalleinen. See for more (accessed 5 January 2011).

32 Cited in Li Xueying, ‘Policy on Complaints Choir an Exception: Boon Yang’, Straits Times, 1 March 2008, at, accessed 5 January 2011.

33 Senior Minister of State Balaji Sadasivan, cited in Li, ‘Policy on Complaints Choir’.

34 Wilde, Oscar, The Complete Plays (London: Methuen, 1988), p. 217.

35 ‘Satirical nonsense’ is the term used by H. Montgomery Hyde to describe the play in his 1988 introduction to the Methuen edition of Wilde's Complete Plays (p. 8). Glen Goei, the director of W!LD RICE's production, was quoted in Kolesnikov-Jessop's New York Times article as saying, ‘This play is all about being true to one's self’ (p. 13).

36 Cited by Hyde in his introduction to Wilde's Complete Plays, p. 8.

37 Reported in Adeline Chia, ‘NAC Cuts Wild Rice Funds’, Straits Times, 6 May 2010, p. C4.

38 In Adeline Chia, ‘Benson Reveals His Plans for the Arts’, Straits Times, 22 November 2010, p. C7.

39 Reinelt, ‘The Limits of Censorship’, p. 9.

Freedom of Repression



Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed