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Asia Buzz: Sex in the Lion City
Digital technology poses problems for countries like Singapore

November 23, 2000
Web posted at 3:40 p.m. Hong Kong time, 2:40 a.m. EDT

It wouldn't be Asia if we weren't regaled with the thoughts of Lee Kuan Yew. It's near impossible to pick up a paper or magazine and not encounter the aging "Father of Singapore," Asia's self-styled philosopher-king, polishing his crystal ball and holding forth authoritatively on some subject.

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I've seen him in action a dozen times, and read his ramblings countless more. About the only subject I've heard him admit he doesn't have much expertise on is information technology. After reading a long jargon-filled speech at the launch of the StarHub telephone service earlier this year, he confessed that he didn't have a clue what half the terms mentioned actually meant. It was refreshing candor from LKY about a sector that has disquieted his control-obsessed country when it comes to the spread of information and its inability to fully control it.


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The story behind today's news from the editors of Asiaweek

My wife and I got a taste of that dilemma this week as we kicked back to watch six episodes of the hit U.S. TV series, Sex and the City. As most people outside Singapore know, it can be seen via HBO's Asian service, which also beams into Singapore. But we can't watch Sex and the City because the authorities have deemed that particular program unacceptable fare for local eyes. HBO runs a different schedule when Sex and the City features elsewhere in the region.

The series examines the ups and downs of the sex lives of four female New Yorkers. It's witty, hip and frank and it has won myriad awards. So if it's banned, what we were doing watching it in Singapore?

We had ordered a DVD online from Amazon in the U.S., and it arrived courtesy of the government mail service in our postbox. We felt naughty watching it, like minor dissidents. Living in Singapore, and mindful of the legal treatment meted to those who have been deemed to break it, one is always watchful -- lest someone else is also being watchful. If authorities aren't tapping phones here, they might want to undertake a campaign to assure residents they aren't because the conventional wisdom -- rightly or wrongly --is that Singaporeans' conversations are being monitored.

Strictly speaking, examples like our illicit viewing of Sex and the City shouldn't happen. If we were good, law-abiding residents, we would've taken the DVD to the censor for examination. He might have been shocked at the sex scenes and the amusing promiscuity of the series' heroines. Chances are, we wouldn't have been allowed to watch it. He might've wanted to cut it. But digital technology can't be cut -- at least not by censors.

Digital technology such as that of a DVD poses a problem for countries such as Singapore. The republic is about the most frustrating place in Asia to watch a movie, considering the cuts made to films shown here. Jim Carrey's harmless Me, Myself and Irene was cut almost beyond recognition. Many directors also won't show in Singapore because their art is often butchered.

Movies traditionally come in tape, the famous celluloid. So do videos. And it's easy for censors to take the scissors to a video, excise the offending bits and patch the tape back together. But not for much longer. Digital technology can't be cut because it's digital; there is no tape. Soon, tape will be as yesterday as typewriters. The only people with access to the digitizing tend to be the people who made the movie. And directors tend to take a dim view of anybody who messes with their work.

Places like Singapore have a problem. If films like Titanic are so mainstream that everyone the world over flocks to it, what happens if there's a scene that offends the censor? Does Singapore not show Titanic? And do they do this at a time it wants to develop a profile as a liberalizing arts "renaissance" city? Studios won't make films designed just for Singapore because it's not economical to do so. And if Singapore takes the hard-edged approach and bans otherwise innocent films, its efforts at liberalization will come to nothing.

In the meantime, my wife and I will continue to order banned DVDs and movies via the Internet. And, if they are true to form, perhaps await word from the authorities.

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