When RAdm(NS) Lui Tuck Yew was appointed Acting Minister for Information, Communications and the Arts in April this year, News Radio 938 interviewed me to ask for my views on his appointment. I recall telling the journalist that I hoped Mr Lui would have the boldness to do things differently from his predecessor, Dr Lee Boon Yang, particularly in the area of political expression.
I am therefore very disappointed to learn that Mr Lui, who is also an MP for Tanjong Pagar together with MM Lee Kuan Yew, has upheld his uptight predecessor’s ban on Martyn See‘s film, Zahari’s 17 Years. The film is a documentary interview with former journalist Said Zahari, who was accused by the government of then-Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew of being a communist, a violent revolutionary and a foreign agent, and detained without trial under the Internal Security Act for 17 years.
This ban, which was first ordered in 2007, is unique among all other film bans in that it is the first and only film to have been banned under Section 35 of the Films Act, which gives the Minister absolute discretion to prohibit the possession and distribution of a film. All other films banned in Singapore have been banned by the Board of Film Censors (BFC), which consists of a panel of civil servants. Under the law, BFC bans can be appealed against and the Films Appeal Committee (FAC) is obliged to review it and decide if they want to uphold or overturn the ban. The Minister cannot overturn the FAC’s decision. Films banned under Section 35 have no such recourse.
The reason given by the Minister’s press secretary for upholding the ban was almost a word for word copy and paste from the original statement in 2007: “(T)he film gives a distorted and misleading portrayal of Said Zahari’s arrest and detention under the Internal Security Act (ISA) and is an attempt to exculpate him from his past involvement in communist united front activities against the interests of Singapore.”
This suggests that there was no attempt made by the civil servants in the Ministry to recommend anything different when Martyn See made the appeal directly to the Minister, and the onus was on the Minister to act with a bit of courage and demonstrate that he is a fair-minded person. Unfortunately he chose to maintain the status quo. What a disappointment! It turns out he is of the same ilk as his hardline colleagues in the Cabinet.
I didn’t bother watching the film when it was first banned, but now that the news of this re-ban hit the headlines, I decided to watch it. I found it very enlightening from a historical and political perspective, but thoroughly benign — all 49 minutes of it.
Contrary to what MICA accused Zahari of doing, I did not think the film gave any “distorted portrayal”. The entire film consisted of Zahari talking into the camera, with Martyn See occasionally asking questions in the background. There were no animations, slick edits, or emotional scenes. I can’t see how a testimony of one person talking about himself could be a “distorted portrayal”.
Zahari also spent very little time in the film “exculpating” himself from his alleged past involvement in communist activities. He simply stated plainly in one part of the interview that he wasn’t involved in what to him was a “phantom” organisation known as the Communist United Front, and maintained that the main reason for his arrest was because he was elected chairman of a minor opposition party, Parti Rakyat Singapura.
Even if the Minister did not want to rock the boat too much, the minimum he could have done was to refer the film to the newly established Political Films Consultative Committee (PFCC) for them to assess and give their recommendations. Unfortunately he didn’t. He probably concluded that the PFCC — which recently recommended overturning the previous BFC ban on See’s other film, Singapore Rebel — would similarly recommend an un-banning of Zahari’s 17 Years. (Actually come to think of it, that would make it easier for the Acting Minister to reverse the ban without offending his predecessor, if he was fair-minded.)
Fortunately for Singaporeans and history buffs, the Internet provides an even better platform for screening such films than a theatre (which people like me never go to, especially for screenings of niche documentaries like this). Over 14,000 people have watched the film on YouTube so far. See the trailer here and the full documentary here.
Zahari has also written several books, which are sold in Singapore at Select Books. I guess the Singapore government still thinks the reel is mightier than the pen.