Andrew Loh / with contribution from Farquhar
The changes to the Films Act, announced yesterday by the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP), is a vintage example of PAP doublespeak. In introducing the amendments Senior Minister of State for Information, Communications and the Arts, Rear Admiral (NS) Lui Tuck Yew, called it “a significant step” to “liberalise and expand the space for political discourse”. What it actually does is to codify rules where there were previously none, impose restrictions on existing laws to ensure government control over content and introduce enough ambiguity to deter common use of the medium of film in political discourse.
It also undermines the very spirit of the PAP’s promises to liberalise political discourse. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said in 2004 that Singaporeans should “feel free to express diverse views” and to have the “confidence to engage in robust debate”. Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong said in 2003 that more political space was needed as “it will no longer make sense for the Government to always control and regulate every activity”. In fact, it was Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew himself who set the tone for loosening up rules on political films when commenting on the ban on Martyn See’s 2005 film “Singapore Rebel” about opposition politician Chee Soon Juan:
“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." (Source)
Four years on, however, Mr Lee’s promises have instead led nowhere. What seems to have changed in the intervening period is the government’s loss of appetite for liberalization after its less then overwhelming victory in the 2006 general elections. The opposition made inroads in eroding the government-controlled mainstream media’s monopoly over campaign coverage through films released over the Internet, which might have contributed to the significant protest vote against the incumbents. Subsequently, the tenacious Dr Chee also took advantage of the new medium to release periodic political messages.
But it is genuinely difficult to see how the proposed amendments will improve things. Politicians, activists and bloggers, currently working in the grey and unregulated area defined by the present Films Act, have so far had an admirable track record in producing videos that are relatively objective if critical of the government. The avoidance of sensitive racial or religious issues – always the government’s prime reason for keeping a tight rein over free speech – in these films is testament to the success of this self-regulating environment.
Such films are hardly the histrionic, incendiary or blatantly partisan pieces that the government purports to want to regulate: explaining the motivations behind his Bill, RAdm Lui claimed that Singapore’s democracy would be “debased” if it was “reduced to sleek commercials, clever editing, sharp sound bites and political spin”. Perhaps he is neglecting the fact that it was the PAP who tried (somewhat hysterically) to turn the 2006 elections into a single-issue referendum over an opposition candidate’s forgetfulness about filling in a form.
A law of ambiguity
What the amendments will probably do is to provide the government’s legal authority to ensure that films are “politically correct”. Nominated MP Siew Kum Hong and Opposition Non-Constituency MP Sylvia Lim have also pointed out that there is a great deal of ambiguity in the proposed amendments, which is likely to deter most folk from using film for political expression or even trying to capture events on film. Even PAP MP Penny Low had expressed worry that the Bill contained “a catch-all clause to contain even the film producer, the videographer and free speech” and questioned whether it was “a step backwards to contain certain political parties”.
One is led to the conclusion that the government seems driven by short-term politicking. That is deeply unfortunate, because its Bill is likely to have far-reaching longer-term effects on society. The restrictions would have an impact on how future generations perceive our recorded political history. And this is what truly matters in this debate about the amendments to the Films Act – everyone has a role to play in keeping a collective record of what takes place in Singapore.
Our history is made up of legal and illegal events, of the beautiful and the ugly, the peaceful and the not-so-peaceful. Our political history is not the exclusive and privileged domain of what the PAP has defined it to be, to be filled only with tales of the PAP’s deeds and its inevitable political spin. The history of Singapore belongs to its people and they are the ones who have a right to keep records of it – in whatever form it takes.
Preserving history or abiding a ridiculous law?
What does the present Bill mean for the individual Singaporean? I am aghast, to say the least, that such a piece of ridiculous legislation could even be contemplated. But now that it has become law, what does one do? Abide by it? Or ignore it and be willing to accept the punishment? Is abiding this particular law more important than preserving a part of our history?
I, like many others, am just an ordinary Singaporean. When I record an event, including illegal protests, I do not have intentions to show up the evils of the government at the back of my mind. That would be such a tiring thing to do. No, my intention is to preserve what happens and keep a record of it for Singaporeans not yet born. For this is how they will know what took place years ago and how their forebears created Singapore, whether through obeisance or not.
Perhaps, we can all take heart that even within the government, at least one minister had, in the past, ignored rules. In a speech on 25 January 2005, to students at a youth and media conference, Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam urged students to “make a difference”. Referring to himself, he said:
“And I did something about it, with friends, with groups of people, writing articles, selling them, sometimes surreptitiously..”
Going further, he “assured the more than 1,000 youths present that nothing will happen even if one breaches an OB marker. One simply learns to steel oneself and be more adroit.” Indeed, he went on to say, “One does not develop a conviction and commitment to a society without first questioning and pushing the boundaries.”
Finally, Mr Tharman “warned that social and political apathy among the young posed long-term risks to community cohesion. (link)
When a government legislates not against the person conducting an illegal activity but against the one witnessing it, and does so for clearly political purposes, one should know that the government has stepped beyond its moral responsibilities of safeguarding society and has abused its conferred privilege to enact laws.
Indeed, the Films Act amendments show that the government has overstepped the OB markers which society has prescribed for it and is an affront to the preservation of Singapore’s recorded history.