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Terence Lee looks at one crucial element which was left out in the recommendations by AIMs - media literacy in our schools.

Liberalising the Films Act? Teach Media Literacy too

Terence Lee / Youth Editor

Can a film - or a blog post - spark a revolution?

That must be the question on the minds of some PAP politicians, even as Aims released its recommendations for the Government on how to manage the new media's influence on Singapore politics.

Four broad recommendations have been put forth: that the Government should be more active in engaging netizens; that Section 33 should be liberalised; that children should be better protected against cyber dangers; and that content hosts should be spared from defamation suits.

While Aims has rightly emphasised that education rather than censorship should be the long-term solution when it comes to consuming new media, this notion currently applies only to protecting children against the likes of pornography or cyber-bullying.

One crucial element has been left out: the implementation of media education in schools and in public. Part of the requirements of a functioning democracy is a well-educated populace that is media literate and well-equipped to discern between balanced and fallacious content.

When citizens become media literate, fears that unsavoury films and dissenting blogs will cause unrest among the populace can be minimised.

While it is highly unlikely we will see a revolt anytime soon in peace-loving Singapore, there is no doubt that powerful films can be a medium of influence. Most media researchers agree that there is a correlation between violence as played out in film and the aggression displayed by its viewers.

The government recognises that what is portrayed on film can have powerful repercussions in society. That is why we still see a certain amount of tentativeness within the three recommendations put forth by Aims to tackle Section 33 of the Films Act.

Consider the most liberal recommendation that was expounded in the report: instead of an immediate and total removal of Section 33; a gradual repeal was preferred, and with constant monitoring from an independent advisory council. Liberalisation is indeed uncharted territory for the government, and as PM Lee said during the National Day Rally: “We are feeling our way forward step by step... looking for one stone at a time as [we] cross the river.”

The Media Development Authority (MDA) does recognise the important of media literacy here, and it has a set of guidelines for educators teaching them on how to implement media literacy into the school curriculum. While media literacy is taught in certain tertiary institutions here like Singapore Polytechnic, it is still not enough.

The Internet has made it easy for any kind of content to reach the masses. While many of these are no doubt gems, along with the wide-open floodgates of information comes the flotsam and jetsam as well. With YouTube, anyone can make a political film – all the person needs is a video camera and some political views. This creates a 'long tail' of political films, which means that along with an increase in the quantity of content available online will come a drop in quality – all readily accessible with no quality control whatsoever.

Therefore, the Ministry of Education should consider working with the MDA to introduce media literacy courses into all secondary schools, junior colleges, and tertiary institutions. This is important as youths are the most prolific users of the Internet. Also, free public seminars on media literacy should be conducted as well, in order to cater to adults who are interested in becoming more media-savvy.

Singapore will not be the first nation to implement such a policy. In several developed countries, media education has a rather long history, even before the advent of the Internet. For example, Finland has been introducing media education into its schools since the 1950s. In Canada, media education is mandatory from Grade 1 onwards, right up to the end of secondary school.

With Singapore being one of the most wired nations on the planet and possessing an excellent education system, it is exceedingly strange that media literacy is not something that is taught much here. While this surely has to do with the fact that the Government has long eliminated the need for media literacy with its culture of censorship, the liberalisation of the Films Act will bring media education to the fore once again.

While the Aims Council has done well in recommending a slew of measures that have been long overdue, it will engage only the participation of a minority group: the politically active, the vocal ones, the bureaucracy, and the government. The majority of us – those who only have a passing interest in this issue – can only hope for the best.

With media education, citizens can feel more confident being part of the political process without being overwhelmed by new media. Furthermore, if media literacy is taught in an interesting manner in schools, making use of actual political films and even blogs, it could generate a greater interest in public affairs among students.

It is hoped that as they become more discerning in interpreting media messages, they will be able to provide better feedback to the Government in the future. And when their turn finally comes to vote in the General Elections, they will be ready.

Media literacy empowers the average citizen – and that is a hallmark of a true democracy.

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