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Monday, Sept. 18, 2006 - 2:21 a.m.

I was busy staging 'Light and Lines' from Jul 15 to 17 (photos) with Alfian, Jiesiang and Winnie (hence the dearth of entries this year). The exhibition took some of my and Alfian's writings and translated them into graphics or photographs - a writer uses a story to create a visual image in a reader's mind while the visual artist/photographer uses the image to tell a story.

It was my first time applying for a Public Entertainment License from the MDA, and there were numerous handphone conversations with the censors in the two days leading up to Jul 15. I still believe that censorship as a concept is absurd, though I'm not here to deride the censors (how do you apply for such a job, what qualifications do you need?). Rather, the focus of this recount is how the dialogue with the censor reveals questions about the nature of the submitted art itself.

The Chief Film Censor of Iran was for many years, a blind man, but I dealt mainly with- let's call her Miss X. Her questions that I have reproduced here are not necessarily verbatim, but they capture the spirit of her inquiry. I had expected Miss X to be a manifestation of a cruel primary school teacher, but if anything, she was merely bureaucratic - courteous, and always deferring final decisions to "her boss". Miss X was not intent on tearing apart the artist's work. I feel that until the day when censorship is revoked, the only thing to do as an artist is to advocate and explain one's work clearly to people like Miss X, convincing her of the artistic rationale behind the selection or placement of a sentence, a phrase, an image. She raised numerous concerns about the writing; but after careful explanation, not a single change had to be made to the writing.

Miss X: Are all these writings fictional?

This made me think for a while. Then I realized that Miss X wasn't really looking for an answer, but an accomplice - so I said yes. There is really no way to answer this question accurately, since (and I got this quote off Alfian) - all writing is to some degree autobiographical. The question was an indirect complement to the realism of the writing, but why did she ask it?

Because fictional things are not disturbing.

Really? Writers tread that line between the invention of the fantastical and the preservation of the pedestrian; too much of one or the other makes the writing either abstract and meaningless, or tiresome. George Orwell's 1984 sheds some light here. 1984 is set in a fictional, totalitarian England of the future, with fantastical institutions like the Thought Police. Yet the writing possesses terrible power; I remember the first time I read a description of Big Brother's 'iron voice' - I put down the book, turned around and looked over my shoulder. The dystopian future resonates with current reality. That is why 1984 continues to be a powerful book. That is why it is a mistake, to believe that fictional things do not have the power to disturb, to provoke, to agitate. Can you convince anyone that Erick Khoo's 12 Storeys is impotent because it is fictional?

Miss X: The manuscript looks fine, but I see an objectionable word in one of your stories.
Me: Oh really? Which story is it?
Miss X: It's the one with the two NS boys.
Me: I know the story you're talking about, but I don't what word you're referring to.
Miss X:
Me: Can you tell me what the vulgarity is?
Miss X: (makes sound of flipping pages, and then in an officious tone,) It's this word 'kaye-ni-nay-bu'.

Of course it was kaninabu. And despite Miss X being Malay, of course she knew what kaninabu means. I was somewhat amused that she attempted to ameliorate the vulgarity by deliberately pronouncing kaninabu, in the way an angmoh would have pronounced 'wah lau', or when Mediacorp's English newscasters pronounce Chinese names. Is the effect of an indigineous word (in this case, an insult) removed when deliberately and knowingly mispronounced?

I'm quite sure Singapore is the only country in the world where an ethnic Chinese writer, writing in English, can discuss with an ethnically Malay censor, the intricacies of a phonetically translated Hokkien vulgarity. Is the word even still vulgar when one comes up with a hanyupinyin version of Hokkien, if such a conversion is even kosher, or in our local parlance, halal. Here, a heavy responsibility is foisted upon the censor (if she has thought about this deeply enough), because she has to determine if kaninabu- Hokkien spelt in English letters, constitutes a word at all. Let's say she doesn't think about this issue - then she has the ultimately ridiculous task of censoring non-words.

If you read 'Three Ways of Talking', my exchange with Miss X might have been a continuation of that story. The story's theme/argument would remain the same - that we mistakenly debate the medium of exchange (in the case of the story, Singlish) - when our true poverty lies in having nothing to say. Likewise, she did not find fault with the story's theme, but with the presence of a single word in it. In the end, they let kaninabu pass.

Miss X: This short film that one of your co-exhibitors wants to screen has been passed NC16. This means that you can only screen it in a room. (Note: the short film is about a naked girl being used as a sushi platter)
Me: That's going to be difficult, since the exhibition is in two days.
Miss X: That is to prevent the general public from viewing it accidentally. Some might be under sixteen.
Me: Ok, how about if I made an enclosure around the tv that I'm showing it on?
Miss X: What will be the enclosure be made out of?
Me: Cloth.
Miss X: What colour will the cloth be?
Me: Does it matter?
Miss X: Can it be a black cloth? So that people can't see what's inside.
Me: How about a white cloth that is opaque?

A white cloth that is opaque.


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