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Last Updated: Saturday, 3 July, 2004, 12:32 GMT 13:32 UK
Singapore slings a little caution to the wind
Andrew Harding
BBC correspondent, Singapore

Singapore skyline
High rise, low tolerance
The people of Singapore are used to doing exactly what they are told. But the reins of the nanny state are relaxing... ever so slightly.

The man on stage was singing a song about hamsters.

It was, shall we say, a bawdy song. The animal welfare officers would not have approved.

Nor, you might have thought, would the government of Singapore.

After all, this is the great nanny state, the place where Playboy is banned, jay-walking is almost unthinkable... and where nanny is not known for her risqué sense of humour.

And yet, the songs continued.

There was one about a sheep and another about Jesus - neither exactly tasteful.

The audience in the beautiful, government-funded theatre, roared with laughter.

I looked around me in the dark - a well-dressed couple were still giggling about the sheep.

Could it be that Singapore is starting to loosen up?

Western influence

Tiger Lillies - the group singing the songs - was British, not local. But that is not the point. In the past, the state has sought to shield Singapore from all potentially corrupting influences like chewing gum, and Cosmopolitan magazine, and Sex and the City.

But today, the authorities are beginning to invite them in.

Singaporean pharmacist works behind her counter where Impress chewing gum is for sale
Gum, outlawed 12 years ago, can only be sold by pharmacists

Five minutes walk from where I am sitting now, the walls of the Singapore Art Museum are plastered with pictures of glistening flesh, apparently sprayed with every imaginable bodily fluid.

The exhibition, by the high-camp French duo, Pierre and Gilles, was even opened by a government minister.

Then there is the chewing gum ban - the one fact everyone seems to know about this small, immaculate country. It is still in force and you can go to jail for importing it illegally.

But if you are determined to chew, you can now register and get medicinal gum at a pharmacy.

It is not exactly revolutionary, but in a cautious way the authorities are experimenting with change - cultural change, not political.

Like clockwork

It is a strange feeling for me, coming to such a meticulously governed country after 13 years in the former Soviet Union and Africa.

A small notice from the proprietors of the restaurant warned customers that they will be fined if they are greedy

I have just moved here from Kenya, where rules and regulations are usually treated like casual suggestions, or obstacles to be avoided.

In Singapore everything just works. My rubbish gets collected from the house every morning and the plumber calls to apologise if he is running 15 minutes late. A pothole would probably make the evening news.

And then there are the rules...

The other night I sat in a restaurant on Orchard Road, picking plates of sushi off the miniature carousels winding round the room.

On the wall in front of me, there was a small notice from the proprietors warning customers that they would be fined if they were greedy and took more plates than they could actually eat.

Singaporeans are used to being told what to do... and obeying. It is part of the deal.


In the course of a few brisk decades, the ruling party has built them a clean, air-conditioned consumer paradise out of a tiny patch of jungle.

In return, the population is expected to forgo a few personal freedoms like gum, and true multi-party democracy.

Most people are happy with the deal, and why not? It has brought them one of the highest standards of living in the world.

But a few are starting to grumble... politely.

Pop group Abba
Thank you to the censor... the scenes you're chopping

Royston Tan has been doing his grumbling in a big white rabbit suit to the sound of Abba songs.

He is an award-winning film-maker; a 28-year-old, whose recent gangster movie - 15 - sought to show that there is a seamier side to life here.

The authorities were not amused. The censorship board insisted on substantial cuts to the film and its sound track.

I met up with Royston a few days ago. He was wearing a big smile and a T-shirt with the words "disco sucks". He chuckled as he explained how he had hit back against the censors.

His chosen weapon - a musical.

He and some of Singapore's best-known artists joined together to produce Cut, a blast of manic satire about a film-buff bumping into the chief censor in a supermarket, and raving enthusiastically about her work.

The chorus joins in Abba-style, with songs like "Thank you to the censor.. the scenes you're chopping."

Royston makes his cameo appearance in the rabbit suit, singing along to a George Michael tune.

So, I asked, did the Singapore authorities appreciate Cut?

Royston smiles again and shakes his head. "But things are changing fast here," he says. "Not long ago, no-one would have dared to have made a film like this."

What is more, the censors approved it... uncut.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 3 July, 2004 at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

Singapore loosens film censorship
25 Mar 04  |  Entertainment

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