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Ang Peng Hwa
Thursday, Jun 12, 2014

Singapore, Asian Opinions

Consider a panel to self-regulate arts

The Straits Times | Ang Peng Hwa | Thursday, Jun 12, 2014

Wild Rice's production of The Importance Of Being Earnest. The major obstacle to overcome in a self-regulatory regime is self-censorship. To separate the creative function from the regulatory function, self-classification could be done not by the individual groups themselves, but by a committee formed by representatives of the groups.

I read with some disappointment the news that Arts Engage, a network of arts practitioners from various disciplines, had rejected a proposal by the Media Development Authority (MDA) for arts groups to self-classify their productions.

I can understand the reason for the Arts Engage group's response. It would indeed be self-censorship, and of the worst kind, if arts groups were to have official classifications on their minds as they went about crafting their works.

On the other hand, the MDA is moving in the right direction in devolving some of its powers of content classification to the relevant community - in this case the arts group.

The issue then is to arrive at a solution that can address both concerns without compromise. This modest proposal is an attempt at such a solution.

Self-classification is a form of self-regulation, which is regulation of an industry by the industry. The minimal conditions for successful self-regulation are: a motivated industry, a small number of large players, and a regulatory backstop.

Because of the common misunderstanding that the "self" in self-regulation refers to the individual or the company (as opposed to the industry), the term co-regulation is sometimes used to refer to what had been known as late as the early 1990s as industry self-regulation.

Are the conditions met? Well, the regulatory backstop in this case is the MDA. The number of players is not very large in Singapore. This leaves the issue of motivation of the industry as the critical criterion for the success of such a self-regulatory regime.

The major obstacle to overcome is self-censorship. The answer is to separate the creative function from the regulatory (that is, classification) function.

I propose, therefore, that the self-classification be done not by the individual groups themselves, but by a committee formed by representatives of the groups. In other words, it is a self-classification committee that classifies.

Imposing the regulatory function on a creative person is very likely to lead to prior restraint. This is the worst possible form of censorship because the works do not even surface. At the superficial level there is no censorship because there is nothing to censor. The reality is that ideas are stifled.

A common criticism of self-regulation is that the regulated industry will act only in its own self-interest. That is, what is there to prevent this self-regulatory body from merely pretending to self-regulate?

Here is where the issue of motivation arises. The self-classification committee must take an objective view, appointing to the committee thoughtful members who do not merely rubber-stamp. Appointing cynical persons to a committee whose voting pattern is predictable is the surest path to self-destruction.

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