Friday, 22 September 2023

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WP: Political films “an expression of diverse opinion in a healthy democracy”

The following is the Parliamentary speech by NCMP and Workers’ Party Chairman, Ms Sylvia Lim, on changes to the Films Act.

Sir, it is 10 years since the Films Act was amended to ban political films. The 1998 amendment, carrying heavy penalties, was termed by some MPs then as harsh, vague, and detrimental to our goal of becoming a First World country.

Last year, the Advisory Council on the Impact of New Media on Society (or AIMS) recommended that we should work towards eventual repeal of S 33 of the Films Act altogether. As an interim measure, it recommended that step 1 be to prohibit only those political films which were intentionally misleading.

To be fair, the Bill has its merits, but is far from what the AIMS committee had proposed.

The current amendment will still leave many film-makers, civic-minded citizens and political parties confused and bewildered over the many strange limitations imposed on permissible political films. The Bill suggests that the government is still somewhat paranoid when it comes to opening up the political landscape.

For instance, in the amendment to Section 2(2)(a) and (b), the issue on whether a political film is biased or partisan is now clearly dependant only on the opinion of the Board of Film Censors. By contrast, the AIMS committee had recommended that the Board should not exercise the function which should be passed to a group of independent adjudicators comprising of citizens of high standing with public respect. Instead, Section 4A allows the Government to appoint ‘Advisory Committees’ (the PFCC) to advise the Board on such matters; however, the section makes it clear that the Board can override the views of the Advisory Committee.

To begin with, most films, political or not, carry the values of the maker or author, which may not be shared by others. Miss Tan Pin Pin, an award winning director, wrote on behalf of 10 other film-makers to the Straits Times in 2005 questioning what constitutes ‘bias’ in making films on political issues. She said, ‘all works of art are the expression of the artiste’s opinion, which may favour a particular viewpoint or argument over another’. (2)

This means that the ambit of what is permissible will be ambiguous and uncertain. If we are sincere about promoting diversity of opinion, why have the restriction? There is no need to treat Singaporeans like children. They can assess for themselves whether the views or messages in a film are reasonable or not.

However, if the ban on biased and partisan films remains, film-makers and the public should have a clear understanding of how the Board and Advisory Committees evaluate films. To add transparency to this assessment process, can it be mandated that for each film that is banned, the opinions of both the Advisory Committee and the Board be made public?

Clause 2(c) expands the list of permissible films, which is a small step forward. However, the unnecessary limitation placed on some of these films is a giant step backwards for political engagement, artistic freedom, and active citizenry.

For instance, the proposed subsection 3(c) allows only the recording of events that are held in accordance with the law. Therefore, any unrelated bystander caught filming a protest could be prosecuted. To me, this does not make sense. Citizen journalism is a useful counterpoint to the official mass media. Singaporeans should be informed of what is going on within our borders, whether legal or not. The Government has stated that it wants to seriously engage the online community. If that is so, it must allow the recording of events, whether held in accordance with the law or not, because such recordings are essential to the growth of the blogging community and independent news portals. Furthermore, these are mostly recordings of events that the mainstream media is not interested to cover.

Next, the ban on the use of animation and dramatic elements is another strange restriction imposed on political films that should be discarded.

First, animation aids story telling. Second, dramatization is the essence of story telling for any serious and creative film-maker.

It is somewhat ironic that the theme for the 2007/08 Media Development Authority’s Annual Report was ‘The Digital Way Forward: An Animation Special’. The MDA report identified animation as a key growth area for development. So what kind of catastrophic harm can a promising technology inflict on the public when applied to a political film?

Is animated text permissible? Are special effects allowed? If nothing can be animated in a political production, why call it a film?

Besides, how can we celebrate the use of dramatization in some films and at the same time censure the use of it in others? If the government is worried about viewers being carried away, the government can simply require all films to carry a mandatory disclaimer urging viewers of political films or documentaries to draw their own conclusions.

I urge the Minister to seriously consider removing this incomprehensible restriction on the use of animation and dramatic elements on political films completely.

The 1998 Amendment fixed the penalty for those who make or exhibit political films at a maximum of $100,000 fine or 2 years jail or both. These are heavy penalties. With the easing of the ban on political films, and the uncertain boundaries mentioned, shouldn’t the penalties for political films be lowered?

The Senior Minister of State mentioned during his second reading speech that the Election Advertising Regulations would be changed to allow films. He also said there would be no ‘blackout’ period i.e. political parties and activists can produce new films during the campaign. Due to the tight time lines of the campaign, will the requirement for submission of films to the PFCC be done away with during the campaign, since the delay caused by the submission (and approval) may make the film ineffective?

A final point to note. We have allowed controversial political documentaries like Fahrenheit 911 to air here. Fahrenheit 911 was made by American Michael Moore, heavily critical of the then incumbent Present George W Bush and the 2003 invasion of Iraq. By allowing the film in cinemas here, can we then infer that the Government will allow something similar with local content to be produced and aired here as well? If not, is this Government saying that it is alright to laugh at other leaders in the world but not at our own?

In my view, the ability to take criticism and laugh at one self is a sign of society’s maturity, humility and magnanimity. I urge this Government to cultivate such qualities and accept political films as nothing more than an expression of diverse opinion in a healthy democracy.

Singapore has a high literacy rate and high Internet connectivity. Singaporeans have many channels to obtain official and unofficial information. There are also many other laws in place such as the defamation laws, Penal Code and Sedition Act to catch content which is objectionable. Our society should be ready for and work toward a removal of the ban on political films altogether, ie repealing S33 of the Act.


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