“Submit your boldest work to the censors.” – Martyn See

TOC speaks to filmmaker Martyn See about the Media Development Authority (MDA) granting a NC16 rating for his film “Speakers Cornered”.

Martyn gives his views in this email interview with theonlinecitizen (TOC).

TOC: Did you expect the MDA to give your film a rating instead of disapproving it altogether?

Martyn See: I was pretty confident that it wouldn’t be banned as the film was a straighforward recording of an event. There are equal amount of screen time for the police and the protesters so it would be a stretch to call it a biased party political film. I put MDA between a rock and hard place with my submission. To ban it would certainly attract more bad press, especially after four films were already barred from SIFF last week, so I reckon they decided to relent this time around although it took them more than four months to make that call.

TOC: Are you disappointed with the NC 16 rating for Speakers Cornered?

Martyn: No, the under-16s may get traumatised when they see our friendly neighbourhood police harassing peaceful activists! But seriously, I think the NC16 rating was a smart move as that would require me to file another application for a public screening and there is no guarantee that may be approved, as it happened to Zahari’s 17 Years and Royston Tan’s short film 15.

TOC: In the Straits Times report, “Leading and lightening up in the YouTube age” (April 16), Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said:

“We have to renew regulations to meet the needs of the new age. We will review whether we should relax some of the regulations.”

Do you see MDA’s approval of your film as a step in this direction of “relaxing some of the regulations” as far as political films are concerned? Or do you see this contradicting the current law on “party political films”?

Martyn: It looks like a step in the right direction but remember that they just banned four films last week. To borrow an oft-used phrase from Temasek Holdings – I would be “cautiously optimistic.” As Amy Chua said in their press statement, the laws are still there so depending on how the political wind blows the authorities will react accordingly. The MDA is a very capricious creature.

I’ll wait for two signals – one, that Speakers Cornered eventually do get a public screening, and two, that there are serious moves within this year to overhaul the entire Films Act. But while we wait, I ask that filmmakers in Singapore do not engage in self-censorship, and better yet, submit potentially controversial material to the censors just to keep the process alive.

TOC: What consequences or significance do you think this landmark decision will have for Singapore censorship in general, and political films in particular?

Martyn: The Singapore censors are a capricious lot and they blow with the political wind all the time. Speakers Cornered may be cleared this time around but that does not necessarily mean they are opening up the Pandora’s Box.

One has to keep this in mind – the PAP Government will only relax laws governing political expression if they are absolutely certain that it will not threaten their power. Apart from the waiving of police permits for indoor forums in 2004 after PM Lee took office, I can’t think of any concrete liberalisation of laws in the sphere of political expression in the last decade. In fact, the recent amendments to the Penal Code has more provisions to clamp down on political and civil activities.

The significance of this Speakers Cornered decision lies in the follow up action. I like to see more socio-political and even campaign films such as the repeal 377A videos being made and submitted to the censors. It can’t be just Martyn See versus the censors all the time. Besides, I think it’s the concerned citizens’ duty to keep the civil service folks at MDA busy for now until a time when we can tear down the entire Films Act.

TOC: What made you think of shooting this film? What do you hope to achieve by screening it?

Martyn: Speakers Cornered was a straightforward, stark documentation of a historical event not just in the Singaporean context but also in the tradition of anti-IMF-World Bank activism. The work is typical of what broadcast journalists do all over the world.

A local TV journalist from Channel News Asia won an award recently for her documentary of the Burmese monks protest. I would like to see her win an award for covering local protest but she probably wouldn’t dare, or care. Since the local mainstream media are too afraid to cover political dissent, then it’s up to citizen journalists like TOC and the rest of us to fill that vacuum. There is a rash (sic) of videos now on Youtube, shot by mostly anonymous activists and bloggers, which documents recent local protests. Speakers Cornered is but one of those. The only difference is that I put my name to the video and I submitted it to the authorities.

TOC: Could you give us an account of the events that transpired the day you shot the film, and what was it like being behind the lens and shooting this particular event?

Martyn: It was fun documenting the three-day standoff in Hong Lim Park. There were dozens of cameras there and I reckon everyone behind the lenses knew they were shooting a rather unique and historical episode. I structured the film like a drama – it begins with the protagonist’s motivation, then the introduction of his opponents, then the build-up of tension, the open tussle, a sustaining of the dramatic tension, some light-hearted interludes, and finally ends with a resolution.

TOC: Speakers Cornered has been screened in Malaysia, Taiwan and Toronto. What were the reactions of those who saw it?

Martyn: No idea, really. These screenings were small – no more than 50 people and not everyone is interested in Singapore anyway. It won the Audience Choice at the Toronto-Singapore festival so I guess people were entertained, which is good enough for me. To think that the Singapore censors are so worried about public screenings such when it’s already generating thousands of hits on Youtube is just a sad reflection of how outdated the folks at MDA have become.

TOC: In the production of any creative work, the creator also exercises “censorship”, or editorial discretion, in what he/she chooses to reveal, and what he/she chooses to leave out. How did you make this film, i.e. how did you decide which events to show, and why those particular events?

Martyn: For Speakers Cornered, I started by laying down the basic motives of the protesters and police, and then try to unfold the story in an entertaining and dramatic way. I simply went about it with the motivation to sustain the audience for 28 minutes, so I would chuck out anything I deem too boring. And since it was a recording of an actual event, there’s no worry about political sensitivities.

TOC: PM Lee, in the same ST interview mentioned above, voiced his concern that “Singapore politics will turn bad if political campaigning costs a lot of money”. He was referring to political advertisements and YouTube clips. What’re your views on PM’s words?

Martyn: A most undemocratic remark. First, his statement contradicts an earlier one by George Yeo who said that videos can now be made on the cheap. Secondly, as blogger Mr Wang pointed out, offline campaigning requires a lot more resources and funds. Thirdly, if he is serious about money politics, then lower the $13K election deposit for candidates. Most importantly, who is he to say if one party or another is spending too much resources in propaganda campaign? Let the people discern all the information available and be the final arbiter. That’s why we have general elections in the first place.

TOC: Do you hope that the MDA will now also give your other “banned” films, Zahari 17 Years and Singapore Rebel, similar ratings? Or will you be re-submitting the two films for ratings?

Martyn: It would be no more than symbolic victory over censorship should the ban on Singapore Rebel and Zahari’s 17 Years be lifted. Anyone who wishes to watch thee two films can access them online anyway. Only when the Films Act is amended can these two films be re-submitted as the mere possession of the material is now a criminal offence.

TOC: Your previous film, Singapore Rebel, not only got banned by the government, but you were subject to a long police investigation for contravention of the Films Act. In contrast, some would say that Speakers Cornered puts the government in an even worse light than Singapore Rebel. Why do you think Singapore Rebel got banned while Speakers Cornered was allowed?

Martyn: The censors are more tolerant of the government being placed in a negative light, as long as it does not denigrate Lee Kuan Yew or Lee Hsien Loong. This is the reason why Singapore Rebel and Zahari’s 17 Years – where both Chee Soon Juan and Said Zahari made critical remarks about LKY – are banned while Speakers Cornered is not.

There is a passing remark about LKY in Speakers Cornered in the scene when the police is asking about Gandhi Ambalam’s t-shirt but I reckon the censors decided to grit their teeth and pass it. So here’s my tip – if you want to make a political film and don’t want to get into trouble, minimise or avoid any negative mention of Lee Kuan Yew or Lee Hsien Loong.

TOC: Can you describe your experience dealing with the censorship board. Did they lean more towards being openly hostile towards you or quietly supportive?

Martyn: My only contact with the censors were the clerks at the front desk when I submitted and collected Speakers Cornered. They are friendly and efficient. Other than that, I get a feeling that the decision makers in MDA wish I didn’t exist.

TOC: You have spoken out on many occasions against the section of the Films Act which bans political films. The Prime Minister has recently signaled that some of the laws governing new media may be changed soon. What do you think are the chances of this piece of legislation being repealed?

Martyn: I’m not holding my breath. At best, it’ll probably be tweaked, not repealed. The additional restrictions in the amended penal code is a good indication that this government still carries that authoritarian streak. Meanwhile, artists and filmmakers alike should avoid all kinds of self-censorship. Submit your boldest work to the censors. Let them do the dirty. It’s their job to censor, not yours.

TOC: What is the next step now for you? Are you planning to screen Speakers Cornered to the general public?

Martyn: I have no plans at the moment. There are only two Singaporeans that I ultimately like to interview – Chia Thye Poh and Lee Kuan Yew. Very little chance of either of one happening soon so I’ll bide my time. I welcome anyone who wishes to hold a public screening of Speakers Cornered to contact me as I have no plans to organise one myself.

TOC: Finally, what does the protagonist in your film, Dr Chee Soon Juan, think of your film about him?

Martyn: Not much. I remember him saying how much he enjoyed watching the policemen froze (sic) up when I probed them. But I should ask Ms Chee Siok Chin since she has more screen time.

You can read more about Speakers Cornered in Martyn’s blog here: Singapore Rebel.

Martyn See can be contacted at [email protected]

Pictures courtesy of Martyn See.

NOTE: A group of bloggers will be submitting a paper to the Government, detailing the changes they would like to see made to our laws and regulations of the Internet. This paper is into its final revisions and will be out in a matter of days. Stay tuned for more information on The Bloggers’ Feedback to the Government.


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