Man at His Best

Opinion: The Vulgarisation Of Censorship

Neil Humphreys asks: when will Singapore censors trust their audience to do the right thing?

BY Neil Humphreys | Mar 3, 2016 | Culture

Singapore’s breeding crisis has been solved. Asian women no longer have vaginas. Joey from Friends told me on that other comedy where he plays an exaggerated version of Joey from Friends.

His voice denied the existence of female genitalia. Every time his character uttered the word “vagina”, his lips moved but there was no sound.

He had been silenced. Singapore’s censors had surpassed themselves. They had handed the moral high ground to Joey from Friends.

Matt LeBlanc’s TV comedy, Episodes, which airs on the cable networks in Singapore and across Asia, is frequently censored for the usual invective when the show goes out before the watershed.

As a father of a seven-year-old girl, I get that.

As a writer, I would hope that an uncensored version of Episodes went out post-watershed, but recognise that such a rational compromise might cause the heads of binary thinkers to explode.

As a child raised exclusively by women, however, I find the banning of the scientific name of a pretty essential female body part to be deeply distasteful, an archaic decision that hints at the vulgarisation of censorship in Singapore.

On a superficial level, it’s borderline farcical, a Monty Python skit where uptight, slightly deranged folks promise not to mention the unspoken body part in the way that superstitious actors refer to Macbeth only as “The Scottish Play”.

Presumably, any clumsy mentions of “vagina” are dealt with in a masonic ritual that involves being horsewhipped whilst reciting a naughty limerick in pink suspenders and a busty bra.

But the denial of a woman’s vagina hints at something darker and certainly uglier; that old Victorian hypocrisy that denies the existence of a woman’s “dirty” bits in a sanitised, “clean” environment, whilst simultaneously seeking them out in the backstreets of Geylang or on “business” trips.

Few countries obsess over reproductive organs quite like the country that appears to be making the least use of them. Singapore demands more babies whilst actively reinforcing sexual repression.

Even Matt LeBlanc can’t identify a vagina in Singapore and he used to track them down all the time in Friends.

But the increasingly desperate attempts to censor anything that might stop the island from being swamped by all that western decadence is as entertaining as it is misguided.

As someone who grew up in London, I spent much of puberty in search of this so-called hedonism I kept reading about. But the closest I ever came to the orgasmic pleasures of a Roman orgy was watching the Italian Paolo Di Canio score a great volley for West Ham.

State-sponsored censorship didn’t save me from a life of debauchery. My mother did. There was this quaint notion that parents mostly retained the ability to educate, advise and censor their own children when appropriate.

In other words, there was an element of trust that’s missing in Singapore.

Take the Toa Payoh viewing tower at the town’s park. It’s tall, green and bulbous and looks like a gangrenous penis. (In the interests of gender equality, I thought it only fair to give the other organ a brief mention.)

The viewing tower was renovated a few years ago, given a lick of paint and a few NParks-guided tours and then… it was padlocked. The message to the public was unequivocal. Look. Don’t touch. Or, to put it less benignly, you can’t be trusted to touch.

This museumification approach to the island’s management, where anything from a viewing tower to a void deck must be locked, fenced off or hidden beneath a glass case for its own protection, shows an inherent lack of trust that obviously extends to popular culture generally.

In essence, the individual cannot be fully trusted to behave appropriately.

If Madonna sings a trite pop song, they’ll be running for the exits of every house of worship in the country. If she wears something provocative on stage, the hypnotised audience will engage in the kind of hedonistic orgy that I spent years looking for in the Decadent West.

If slobbering men hear the word “vagina” on TV, then they’ll head off to the nearest coffee shop in search of one.

And, of course, if President Obama praises Ellen DeGeneres for her work as a gay rights advocate, we’ll all leave our wives, dress up as Native Americans and sing “YMCA” in Orchard Road (there are worse ways to spend a Tuesday night).

At the root of the problem remains a stubborn refusal to believe that most informed, educated people, when presented with alternative opinions, choices and lifestyles, will still do the “right thing”.

And the “right thing” warrants the inverted commas because Mediacorp, in justifying its decision to snip the gay rights discussion on Ellen DeGeneres’ show, highlighted that programmes unsuitable for family audiences were those with “mature content”.

According to the Free-To-Air TV Programme Code, “mature content” includes topics such as “drug use, prostitution or homosexuality”.

In the interests of full disclosure, I have a gay cousin and the idea that she poses a similar moral or social “threat” to my daughter as a TV scene depicting a junkie shooting heroin through a rusty syringe is utterly abhorrent.

That’s the kind of decision that a parent should make. Only it isn’t. The trust between state and citizen just isn’t quite there.

In a society where outsourcing is a way of life, there is a creeping tendency to even outsource parenthood to third parties. In such a climate of fastidious nannying, why shouldn’t scissors-wielding civil servants also decide—on my behalf—what my daughter should watch, read or hear?

Maybe, just maybe, it’s because it’s not their responsibility. It’s mine.

Censorship begins in the home, where TVs and laptops have “off” switches and parents have voices. 

If a political or religious third party needs to point out what is and isn’t appropriate family content in my home, then it doesn’t indicate a society under siege from sex-crazed, godless liberals.

It means that I failed as a father.

Obviously, my daughter cannot watch violent, visceral movies of men and women being massacred (available on free-to-air TV almost every day for our family viewing pleasure.) But she is allowed to know that women have vaginas and should be proud of—rather than embarrassed by—the female form.

You know. That sort of thing.

With the appropriate parental guidance, I trust the instincts of my daughter to do the “right thing”.

If only Singapore’s censors felt the same way about me.

The views and opinions expressed herein are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Esquire Singapore, Mongoose Publishing, its affiliates or its employees.