Time Out Singapore: Chetra Sinnathamby

With the Media Development Authority planning to launch a Term Licensing Scheme in July (with has been met by opposition from 45 local arts groups on the grounds that it promotes self-censorship), Gwen Pew speaks to Chetra Sinnathamby, the Director of Content and Standards for Films, Video Games and Arts at MDA, to get a bigger picture of what her department actually does and how they go about it.

Chetra Sinnathamby

26 Jun 2014:

What happens when the MDA receives a script from a theatre company? What are the stages to getting it approved (or not)?
Upon receipt of the complete application and relevant supporting materials such as scripts, MDA classifies the event according to their suitability for different audiences. This enables audiences to make informed choices about the content they or their young charges access. There are four categories of classification – General, Advisory, Advisory 16 and Restricted 18.

MDA will introduce a Term Licensing Scheme for the arts entertainment sector to encourage greater industry co-regulation. This scheme is an additional option to the current event based licensing. It will enable arts entertainment event organisers to stage multiple performances over the duration of the licence period and classify their own shows, with all licensing fees waived. MDA will conduct a pilot run of this scheme next quarter.

Is there a hard set of rules and guidelines that define whether certain content mentioned in a play is acceptable, or is it a more subjective process?
The content guidelines set out in the Arts Entertainment Classification Code provide an important frame to assess what the appropriate rating for a performance might be. It cannot be a hard set of rules as neither the content or presentation of any two performances will be identical. Thus, when classifying content, the overall theme, context and message of the work will need to be considered.

As the Director of Content and Standards for Films, Video Games and Arts, what is your role?
I would say that my role is to ensure that the content guidelines we adopt are a best effort at reflecting community standards, and that we apply these guidelines fairly and consistently across the applications we receive so the community is able to make informed choices with the information provided. This is where the Arts Consultative Panel plays an invaluable role in assisting us with their advice. It is also our role to ensure that the guidelines are regularly reviewed to keep pace with changing social values.

Since you’ve joined the department, roughly how many theatre scripts have you vetted, and roughly how many percent of them did you approve? How many people are involved in the decision process in whether or not to approve a theatre script?
Very often, the same performance can evoke different responses from different people. For that reason, each application has to be put through a process which requires more than one level of approval. For more complex applications, we would seek views from more stakeholders such as the Arts Consultative Panel (ACP). The current ACP comprises 40 volunteer members from various sectors including the arts, media, education, law and community services, and are of different age groups, races and religions. We also tap on members from other advisory panels if further views are still needed.

On average, in a year, MDA receives about 1,200 licence applications with almost all of them issued a rating. Most content is classifiable within our content guidelines, and instances where performances have needed to be disallowed have been few and far between – six in the past decade. This is out of the estimated 12,000 applications that were received in that time. [Ed: though the figure excludes the number of scripts that had to be reworked.]

Could you please tell us an example of a play (or theatrical work) that was rejected, and why?
Last year, a play which told the story of a Catholic priest who was defrocked over sex abuse charges was disallowed. MDA consulted the ACP who felt strongly that the play should be disallowed as the explicit sexual content juxtaposed with references to the Catholic faith had gone beyond our classification code. The ACP felt that the content desecrated religious symbols and distorted religious verses from the Bible by juxtaposing them against sexual acts and sexual abuse. As an example, the crucifix was depicted as a sexual object used by the protagonist for masturbation in the play.

Are there any misunderstanding about the role of the MDA (again, especially in the context of theatre) that you would like to clarify?
Perhaps one of the misunderstandings about MDA’s role is that the classification decisions we make are arrived at lightly, with insufficient awareness of either industry or community views. The reality is quite different – classification decisions are often arrived at after considerable consultation and consideration of multiple perspectives. As a regulator in this space, I think we are frequently faced with difficult choices and tensions. What is a form of artistic expression for one may be offensive to another, and vice versa, and we have to balance the interests of the arts groups while considering the wider community norms. We also walk a delicate balance of being consistent across applications, and providing flexibility where due.

MDA also actively consults our stakeholders when developing our policies and guidelines. For example, we conducted preliminary consultations with the arts groups when developing the Arts Term Licensing Scheme. We have also just launched a public consultation recently to seek broader views on the scheme as well as amendments to the Public Entertainments and Meetings Act (PEMA) to forge a co-regulatory partnership with the arts sectors. We hope that these amendments will also provide the arts entertainment groups with greater flexibility and cost savings.

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