Opinion

The thin pink line: Singapore’s curious rules for covering ‘alternative lifestyles’

Pink Dot SGSingapore’s media regulator has some tough but fuzzy rules for reporting on what it describes as “alternative lifestyles”. With the annual Pink Dot SG gay pride rally around the corner, Robin Hicks wonders what publishers can and cannot report.

Next Saturday, a gay pride rally will take place in Singapore. In Hong Lim Park, where public demonstrations are allowed once you have a permit, the Pink Dot SG parade will draw thousands of people in a show of solidarity for the LGBT community living in the conservative city-state.

It is a story that every publication that reports on Singapore affairs would probably like to cover. Particularly, say, US tech-and-everything-else site Mashable, which is in the final stages of recruiting an editor for its new Singapore operation.

Kissing scene from Jolin Tsai video

Kissing scene from Jolin Tsai video

Happily for Mashable, websites do not seem to face the same restrictions on covering LGBT themes as traditional media. The Media Development Authority banned a music video that featured a lesbian kiss and wedding from TV and radio broadcasts just over a week ago, but ‘We’re all different, but the same’ by Taiwanese singer Jolin Tsai is still watchable on YouTube in Singapore.

The MDA’s rules for what is still a powerful medium in Singapore – print – are as vague as they are hard to swallow for readers who do not see homosexuality as a “lifestyle” or think that it is as bad for society as, according to Singapore lawmakers, drug use and devil worship.

In some ways, the Content Guidelines for Local Lifestyle Magazines, which apply to publishing permit holders under Singapore’s Newspaper and Printing Presses Act, are helpfully clear. For instance, the definition of what a teen magazine is. “Teen magazines are defined as magazines for teenagers,” it is explained in the introduction for its rules for teen magazine content.

They are also clear on some things that are not allowed because they “undermine family values”.

Mankind's Tinest

Pixellated pre-historic nipples

Nudity is a big no-no and the rules are pretty specific. “Depictions of models/persons which reveal pubic hair, genitalia, buttocks, or women’s nipples must not be featured,” the rules for general lifestyle magazines read. “Depictions of semi-nude models with breasts and/or genitals covered by hands, materials or objects, must not be featured.”

Even naked pre-historic man is not allowed. Science journal Asian Geographic magazine, in its second issue of the year, pixellated the nipples of an artist’s impression of what a small distant cousin of humankind might have looked like millions of years ago.

Swearing is also verboten. Even the use of asterisks in place of some letters in a swear word – “f**k” or “sh*t” for instance – is forbidden.

Unsuitable for the youngLifestyle mags can cover what is described as “mature content”, but only occasionally (more than four times a year for monthly magazines is regarded as excessive), and the magazine has to be shrink-wrapped or polybagged and the label “unsuitable for the young” slapped on the cover.

In other ways, the rules are not quite as clear. Such as what is meant by “promoting” sexualities it calls “alternative lifestyles”, which are defined in the MDA’s glossary as an “unconventional manner of living atypical of the concept of the traditional family”.

The ninth rule of 13 in the section on teen magazines, which also applies to lifestyle and adult interest magazines, reads:

Articles relating to alternative lifestyles must be handled with due care and caution and must not glamorise or promote the lifestyle. Magazines must not feature pictures or illustrations of alternative lifestyles.

Gay themed books removed from SingaporeTwo children’s books that featured a pair of gay penguins and a lesbian couple were seen to do just that in July last year. The books, Tango Makes Three and The White Swan Express, were removed from libraries after a complaint from a member of the public. Despite an angry response from LGBT rights groups, Singapore’s library board stuck to their statement that the books ran counter to family values. The books were pulped.

SG nowSG Magazine, known as I-S Magazine until a rebrand last year, might have flown close to the wind with a story in the magazine on why it is never a better time to be gay in Singapore headlined The Not-So Straight Story. But the MDA considered the article to be tastefully written.

Coconuts pieceCity digest Coconuts Singapore walked the line with an article in April headlined ‘20 fabulous signs you grew up gay in Singapore‘, although as an online publication they do not face the same restrictions as magazines.

The MDA was not so keen on SG Magazine’s request to list gay events – or rather a networking event for LGBT folk in the tech industry – in its print magazine. The publisher was advised not to.

SG Magazine’s managing editor Mrigaa Sethi tells Mumbrella: “Drawing the line between what is reporting and what is actively advocating “alternatively lifestyles” is difficult for us. The LGBT population in Singapore is obviously quite active and visible, and we hear about lots of events, big and small, that we’d like to cover. We view ourselves as a progressive publication, but the ambiguity in the guidelines prevents us from reflecting that in our content as much as we’d like.”

Pink Dot SG

Pink Dot SG sponsors

It is probably frustrating for local magazine publishers like SG that want to report on LGBT issues loudly and proudly but are not free to, while big corporate sponsors such as Twitter, Google, Bloomberg, Barclays, JP Morgan, Goldman Sachs and BP can bask in the PR glow of free expression and tolerance that comes with sponsoring Pink Dot SG.

It is more frustrating that print publishers do not really know where they stand when reporting on gay issues, and there is a sense that the MDA is happy to keep things vague.

One publisher that asked the MDA about reporting on Pink Dot this week was told that it was a matter for the Ministry of Home Affairs, as this ministry is responsible for events. But the MHA referred the magazine back to the MDA.

The MDA has not responded to Mumbrella’s questions about reporting on LGBT issues – specifically the difference between the rules for print and web publishers – at all.

Homosexuality is clearly a political hot potato that makes civil servants feel uncomfortable. The MDA can never really give a magazine the green light to publish anything about “alternative lifestyles”. If someone complains, they will get the blame. They would rather publishers did not ask at all, and – fingers crossed – a story on gay issues hits the shelves without much of a fuss.

Without clear guidelines the result is what Singapore’s government probably wants – publishers to err on the side of caution. But with vague rules and tough consequences, the result is the familiar antagonist of Singapore’s media scene: self censorship.

The citystate’s media will always be less colourful than it could be as a consequence.

Pink Dot SG

Pink Dot SG

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