Political Films and the Ruling Party

During yesterday’s Seminar on Internet Regulatory Reform, the subject of “party political” films was discussed and debated.

For readers who are not already aware, films which promote any political party in Singapore are banned. The relevant legislation is Section 33 of the Films Act. Section 35 of the Films Act is an omnibus law that gives the Minister absolute discretion to ban any film that, in his opinion, is “not in the public interest”.

The 13 bloggers who submitted the proposal on Internet freedom unanimously agreed that both these pieces of legislation should be repealed.

Cheong Yip Seng, chairman of the government-appointed Advisory Council on the Impact of New Media on Society, yesterday appeared to be in favour of keeping this law. Citing a recent conference he attended in Canada, he argued that since films tend to have a strong emotive appeal, they could easily be used to “distort the truth”. His words were covered well by The Sunday Times today.

I’m glad Tan Tarn How, a researcher from the Institute of Policy Studies, debunked this false dichotomy. He said that voting is an emotional exercise and there is nothing wrong with appealing to the emotions.

I also gave my views to the panel and the audience after Tan:

When we were drafting the section on the regulation of political content on the Internet, we were well aware that the removal of Sections 33 and 35 of the Films Act will benefit the ruling party more than the opposition. This is because the PAP, with its vast resources, will be able to put out much slicker and emotive videos than the opposition could.

In fact, even if the opposition were to put out a video that “distorts the truth”, with its easy access to the mass media, the PAP could easily debunk it and reveal the opposition’s lie.

But what the PAP perhaps fears, is if on Day 6 of the nine day election campaign period, an opposition party puts out a truthful video that uncovers a real misdeed on the part of the ruling party (eg, a top lawyer fixing judicial appointments or a Health Minister committing adultery in a hotel room), then the whole tide of the electorate could suddenly turn against the government and vote them out of power.

Perhaps this is why they want to continue to keep that law.

But come to think of it, this law at the end of the day might not even protect them.

As Cherian George pointed out, laws like this only serve to deter law-abiding citizens. It cannot stop someone from uploading such a video to YouTube.

So either way, they can’t protect themselves and cover up wrongdoing. Might as well open up and let a hundred films bloom.


Malaysian Opposition video that would be illegal in Singapore

A friend sent me this video produced by Malaysian opposition party, the Democratic Action Party (DAP). Save the minor typo in one of the captions, I thought it was a pretty meaningful video, telling Malaysians that the DAP will speak out for those without a voice.

My friend informed me that the tall building that the little girl is running towards is the Dewan Rakyat — Malaysia’s Parliament. The man in the suit receiving the baton from the girl is the Leader of the Opposition, Lim Kit Siang. With him are fellow DAP MPs Kula Segaran, Chong Eng (the lady with the streaked white hair) and Teresa Kok (lady with the red skirt).

But folks, don’t try making this at home. A video like this if made in Singapore would be illegal — yes illegal! It would be considered a “party political video” under Section 33 of the Films Act, which states:

Making, distribution and exhibition of party political films

Any person who —

(a) imports any party political film;
(b) makes or reproduces any party political film;
(c) distributes, or has in his possession for the purposes of distributing, to any other person any party political film; or
(d) exhibits, or has in his possession for the purposes of exhibiting, to any other person any party political film,

knowing or having reasonable cause to believe the film to be a party political film shall be guilty of an offence and shall be liable on conviction to a fine not exceeding $100,000 or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 2 years.

Isn’t it good to know that our friends up north have more freedoms than we do in this respect?

But there is still hope. Foreign Minister George Yeo, who was Minister for Information and the Arts when Section 33 of the Films Act was enacted, explained on Channel NewsAsia on 9 January 2007 about the purpose behind this piece of legislation. He said that it was to prevent politics in Singapore from becoming “so commercial where it all depends on packaging and how much money you are able to put into producing a programme.”

He added that the Government at that time “did not reckon this new media which allows you to produce the programmes quite cheaply” and felt that the Government has “got to adjust that position”.

Even MM Lee Kuan Yew, when asked by TIME magazine in 2005 about a documentary made by filmmaker Martyn See about opposition politician Chee Soon Juan, which was banned, had this to say:

“Well, if you had asked me, I would have said, to hell with it. But the censor, the enforcer, he will continue until he is told the law has changed. And it will change…”

PM Lee is set to announce a Cabinet reshuffle soon. Dr Vivian Balakrishnan is expected to be appointed the new Minister for Information, Communications and the Arts. I hope one of the changes he makes as he takes up his new position is to repeal the laughable Section 33 of the Films Act from our statute books soon, and save our country from further embarrassment.


Now S’pore copies M’sia: Bans another film

It seems that the Singaporean and Malaysian governments have taken on a whole new meaning to “bilateral cooperation” by aping each others’ moves in banning political films.

Just 3 weeks ago, the Malaysian government turned down the appeal by filmmaker Amir Muhammad against the ban on his film about Malay communists, Apa Khabar Orang Kampung (The Village People Road Show). The Malaysian government cited, among other things, that the film “blatantly” criticises the Malaysian government and it “shows the opinions and stories only of the communists”. This came barely a year after the Malaysian Home Affairs Ministry banned the film, Lelaki Komunis Terahkir (The Last Communist), a film about former Malayan Communist Party chief Chin Peng, under their Film Censorship Act. Interestingly, that film was passed without any cuts by the National Film Censorship board in March 2006 but the Home Ministry retracted the approval ten days before film was scheduled to start screening.

In an almost copycat move, the Singapore Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts (MICA) has just banned local filmmaker Martyn See’s film, Zahari’s 17 Years. The scenarios couldn’t have been more similar. See’s film was about a former Malay newspaper journalist and opposition party president’s arrest and detention under the Internal Security Act on suspicion of “involvement in communist united front activities against the interest of Singapore”.

It is surprisingly coincidental that, just as in the case in Malaysia, See’s film was passed by the Board of Film Censors as “PG” for the Singapore International Film Festival, and now MICA has decided to backtrack and ban the film 3 weeks after the Malaysians banned Amir Muhammad’s film. The reason given by MICA is that it will “undermine public confidence in the Government”. The full text of MICA’s statement can be found on its press release yesterday.

While I hold no sympathy for the communist cause, I believe these alleged communists have served their time in jail (albeit without the benefit of an open trial) and they have lost their war. The harsh actions of the Government back then could in some ways be justified as we were facing an almost insurmountable threat to our nation’s security and survival. But now that the war on communism is over, the truth should be allowed to surface — including the stories from the other side of the fence. It is in the interest of Singapore that young Singaporeans be educated on what went on during those turbulent times in our nation’s history, and arrive at their own judgments.

To ban or not to ban

The Government’s moves and statements on political films appear to be inconsistent at best. In 2005, Martyn See was hauled up by the police for making a documentary about democracy activist Chee Soon Juan, Singapore Rebel. The film was banned on the basis that it was a “party political film” in contravention of the Films Act (Section 33). In an interview with Time magazine in December that year, Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew said in reference to Singapore Rebel: “Well, if you had asked me, I would have said, to hell with it. But the censor, the enforcer, he will continue until he is told the law has changed. And it will change…”. Not surprisingly, eight months later, the police completed their investigations on See and let him off with just a “stern warning”.

In January this year, in an interview on Channel NewsAsia’s BlogTV, Foreign Minister George Yeo, in response to a question by blogger Gayle Goh, said that he was “responsible for that peace of legislation” when he was Information Minister not to allow political videos and films. He said, “We did not want politics in Singapore to be trivialised and so commercial where it all depends on packaging and how much money you are able to put into producing a programme. So we decided keep it simple, keep it cheap.” However, he added that the Government “did not reckon this new media (the Internet) which allows you to produce the programmes quite cheaply. So I think we’ve got to adjust that position.” (Emphasis mine.)

Almost a year-and-a-half has passed since MM Lee’s “to hell with it” remarks and four months since George Yeo’s comment that “we’ve got to adjust that position” on political films. Yet there is still no news from MICA that the Section 33 of the Films Act will be repealed. Instead, this time MICA banned Zahari’s 17 Years using a different section of the Films Act — Section 35 (1) — for the first time. This section of the Act allows the MICA Minister to prohibit the possession or distribution of any film contrary to public interest. With effect from tomorrow, anyone who possesses or distributes the film could be fined up to $10,000 or jailed for a maximum of two years, or both. This sets an unsettling precedent on how MICA intends to regulate political films, even if Section 33 is repealed.

Will “Light touch” still hold?

Martyn See has said he will upload his film onto YouTube if the ban remains. It is unclear whether the government will act against citizens who view the film on YouTube. Does viewing YouTube video streams count as being “in possession” of the film, and will Martyn See be charged for “distribution” of the film? After all, YouTube clips cannot be saved on one’s hard disks, and lawyers might be able to argue over whether the act of uploading a film on YouTube counts as “distribution”, when in effect it is YouTube which is distributing the film via its website. In any case, just like See’s other film, Singapore Rebel, any one of his hundreds of fans overseas can easily upload their copy of the film onto YouTube, and there’s nothing the Government can do about it.

My hunch is that it is unlikely that the Government will want to follow the Thai government in banning YouTube or take any action against people who watch the YouTube clip (if it does get uploaded) in the privacy of their own homes, in light of their pledge to regulate the Internet with a “light touch”. But given the nature of Singapore’s legislation on the media, whereby “the Minister” is given wide-ranging discretionary powers to ban films, it could go either way.


From TODAY, 11 April 2007

Film on ex-detainee banned

It may undermine public’s confidence in Govt: Mica

Loh Chee Kong

A FILM about a former journalist detained under the Internal Security Act has been deemed “against public interest” and banned by the Government.

Shot, directed and edited by local film-maker Martyn See, the 50-minute interview-based film, Zahari’s 17 years, centres around the February 1963 arrest and subsequent detention of Mr Said Zahari, a former editor of the Malay-language newspaper Utusan Melayu and president of Parti Rakyat Singapura. Mr Said, then 34, was arrested during Operation Cold Store — a Government security operation against subversive activities — and released in August 1979.

In a statement yesterday, the Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts (Mica) said the film gives “a distorted and misleading portrayal” of Mr Said’s arrest and detention and was “an attempt (by Mr Said) to exculpate himself from his past involvement in communist united front activities against the interest of Singapore”.

The ministry said Mr See had submitted the film to the Board of Film Censors for classification for screening.

Explaining its decision to use, for the first time, section 35 (1) of the Films Act, Mica added: “The Government will not allow people who had posed a security threat to the country in the past, to exploit the use of films to purvey a false and distorted portrayal of their past actions and detention by the Government. This could undermine public confidence in the Government.”

Section 35 (1) allows the Mica Minister to prohibit the possession or distribution of any film contrary to public interest. With effect from tomorrow, anyone who possesses or distributes the film could be fined up to $10,000 or jailed for a maximum of two years, or both.

When contacted, Mr See, 38, said he found the decision “very strange”.

He said: “I had wanted to screen the film here, but I haven’t decided when and where yet … I need to find out on what basis they are banning it.”

This is the second time in as many years that a film which Mr See had directed has run afoul of the Films Act, which prohibits films with political themes. Last year, after 15 months of investigation, the police gave him a “stern warning” over his documentary about opposition politician Chee Soon Juan, which was banned under a different section of the Films Act.

Last year, Zahari’s 17 years was submitted for the Singapore International Film Festival. At that time, the Board of Film Censors passed the film with a PG rating — traditionally, films at the festival attract a smaller audience than at a general release. But despite the rating, the festival organisers decided not to screen the movie. It has, however, been shown at film festivals in Malaysia and Toronto.

“(The Board of Film Censors) has to explain why they had passed it under “PG” in the first place. If I’m not satisfied with the explanation, I will have to put it up on YouTube,” Mr See said.