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Singaporeans Can Now Legally Own and Read ‘Fanny Hill’, but Playboy Is Still Banned

Bishan library in Singapore. Photo from Flickr page of  Ellen Forsyth, CC License

Bishan library in Singapore. Photo from Flickr page of Ellen Forsyth, CC License

Singapore’s Media Development Authority (MDA) has lifted the ban on 240 books and magazines but maintained its prohibition on the importation, selling, and distribution of 17 publications which it deems contrary to public interest.

The order was released on November 25 and posted on the government’s web portal. The MDA said the lifting of the ban was made after it conducted a routine review of previous classification decisions “to keep pace with societal norms”.

In de-gazetting these items, the Government has considered the prevailing content and community standards in Singapore. MDA assessed that a number of these de-gazetted publications are out-of-print or are permissible under today’s content standards.

Some of the previously banned titles include communist plays, Malay nationalist pamphlets, and erotic novels. For example, the anti-colonial periodical ‘Dravida Nadu’ was banned in 1949, the communist play ‘The Long March’ was declared illegal in 1959, and adult novel ‘Fanny Hill’ was included in the list of prohibited books in 1966.

Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, popularly known as Fanny Hill, is an erotic novel by John Cleland first published in 1748. Image from Wikipedia

Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, popularly known as Fanny Hill, is an erotic novel by John Cleland first published in 1748. Image from Wikipedia

Tamil periodical Dravida Nadu. Image from Wikipedia

Tamil periodical Dravida Nadu. Image from Wikipedia

Singapore enacted the Undesirable Publications Act in 1967, which criminalizes the possession or ownership of publication that are deemed obscene and dangerous by the government.

The last time the government lifted a ban on a publication was in 2004 when it allowed the printing and distribution of women's magazine Cosmopolitan after a 22-year prohibition.

Some of the ‘undesirable publications’ that can now be imported and sold in Singapore following the recent order of the MDA also include Henry Miller's ‘The World Of Sex’, World Student News magazine, Malay nationalist periodical ‘Nusa Dan Bangsa Melaju’, and Chinese-language erotica ‘Loose Women Of Wealthy Families’.

On the other hand, the MDA order affirmed the ban on 17 publications for being contrary to public morals and national interest. Most are ‘hardcore pornographic’ magazines such as Penthouse, Hustler, and Playboy. But the government also included all publications of Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society and the International Bible Students Association, which are part of the Jehovah's Witnesses, a group that refuses members to undergo national service. The ban on the publications of Jehovah's Witnesses was first issued in 1994.

The MDA order will have little impact on the publishing industry since many of the previously banned titles are no longer in print or have become unpopular already. Nevertheless, it’s a reminder that Singapore enforces a strict regulation of media which many believe undermines the people’s right to free expression.

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