COMMENT: Singapore maintains ban on 1970s soft porn

Neil Humphreys
COMMENT: Singapore maintains ban on 1970s soft porn

SEVENTEEN surreal publications are still prohibited under the Undesirable Publications Act in Singapore.

A routine review by the Media Development Authority (MDA) Wednesday concluded that titles such as PlayGirl, Mayfair, Hustler and Penthouse should not be sold or distributed.

That’s not a list of illicit material. That’s a magazine collection from the 1970s. Who are on these magazine covers? Burt Reynolds? Farrah Fawcett?

Perhaps next week, the relevant authority will uphold the bans on flared trousers, roller-skates, glam rock and alarming levels of luminous eye liner.

But the MDA insisted that the prohibited publications, which included hip, contemporary titles such as Fiesta and Knave, were “hardcore pornographic” titles that are still in print and “remain contrary to public interest”.

Now I had no idea that the likes of Fiesta, Knave, Velvet and Hustler were still in print, presumably because I could no longer ask my dead grandfather about his racy, reading choices between episodes of Kojak and Charlie’s Angels.

Reading through the 17 titles on the list, it’s hard not to conclude that the Internet has yet to be installed in MDA offices, or the internal definition of “hardcore pornographic” material might need to be updated, or someone on the staff has a disturbing fetish with glamour models from the 1970s.

The banned titles read like the magazines on the shelf of Hugh Hefner, the owner of Playboy magazine.

There’s an underlying need here to perhaps get a firmer grasp on contemporary culture and the options available to curious readers beyond excitable retirees at the coffee shop still infatuated with Cleopatra Wong in her yellow, leather jumpsuit (that’s a pop culture reference for older readers. Look her up.)

To perhaps underline the MDA’s newfound hipness, reports were keen to point out that the last review of restricted publications was in 2004, the very year that Facebook was invented and a year before YouTube was created, so no one could accuse media officials of not moving with the times.

The same reports trumpet the fact that Cosmopolitan was allowed into Singapore in 2004, after a 22-year ban, with that particular review concluding that Singaporeans were ready for articles on improving sex lives.

More than a decade later, the declining fertility rates suggest the magazine had no impact.

Once again, the issue of cultural relevance and an inability to see the wood for the trees comes to the fore with such archaic, heavy-handed censorship.

The myopic, rather literal approach to the censoring of illicit material reminds me of that great story of American director Peter Bogdanovich arriving in Singapore to film Saint Jack, the infamous cinematic depiction of the island’s sex trade in the 1970s.

Customs officials asked if he was carrying any issues of Playboy in his luggage. He wasn’t.

He was in Singapore to secretly make a movie, without permission from the relevant authorities, about prostitution that was being partially financed by Hefner.

Customs officials were oblivious to all of the above.  But he didn’t have any copies of Playboy in his hand luggage, so that was OK. Bogdanovich was allowed in the country, to make a movie with Playboy money that was subsequently banned.

Singapore’s censors, it would seem, have retained an unhealthy obsession with saucy publications from the Sixties and Seventies, utterly determined to protect the pioneer generation from itself.

These hardy, resolute citizens survived Japanese occupation, the race riots and separation from Malaysia, but a soft focus shot of a woman’s nipple will surely be their downfall.

The prohibited publications must be about protecting the nation’s elderly from a cheeky night in with magazines called “Cheri” and “Swank” because any teenager with access to wifi can conjure more graphic images than Cheri or Swank.

Still, the MDA review hinted at its progressive side, proudly acknowledging that Fanny Hill was being taken off the banned list.

Fanny Hill is an erotic novel set in London. Fanny Hill was published in 1748.

So, about 250 years from now, we can look forward to Playboy being taken off the banned list.

Until then, Singapore is no country for old men with a fetish for softcore seventies publications. The message from MDA is unequivocal. If you want to spend your days staring at illicit material, you should consider leaving Singapore.

Or apply for a job at the MDA.

Neil Humphreys is a best-selling author and football and humour columnist. His works on Singapore - from Notes from an Even Smaller Island (2001) to Saving a Sexier Island (2015) are among the most popular local titles in the past decade. His latest novel Marina Bay Sins is out now. The views expressed here are his own.