When a member of the SG50 committee, speaking about the nation's 50th anniversary bash, said in July that Singapore also belonged to “exiles”, it was a surprise.
One would never have thought that the exiles, presumably the political exiles, would have any role in the nation’s big bash in 2015.
And so it is puzzling that the Media Development Authority (MDA) and the Minister of Communication and Information (MCI) have banned the film by Ms Tan Pin Pin.
The film, titled, “To Singapore, With Love”, depicts the lives of several political exiles who had left Singapore some decades ago, some as long as 50 years ago.
Ms Tan, in a statement on Wednesday, after the ban was announced, said:
“The focus [of the film] is on their everyday lives. These exiles all have different ideological positions and are of different ages; some are communists, others are activists from the Christian Left, yet others are socialist politicians or former student activists. But their feelings for Singapore is intense and heartfelt, albeit sometimes ambivalent, even after so long away. Those feelings (more than the circumstances of their exile, or even the historical "truth" that led to such exile) are what my film predominantly focuses on, because I feel that many viewers might relate to those feelings.”
But this apparently is deemed to be too severe for a public audience, according to the MDA and Dr Yaacob.
The MDA said it has “assessed that the contents of the film undermine national security because legitimate actions of the security agencies to protect the national security and stability of Singapore are presented in a distorted way as acts that victimised innocent individuals.”
And it added that “films that are assessed to undermine national security will be given an NAR rating.”
NAR stands for: Not Allowed for All Ratings.
Imagine that – a film about people who were involved in events 50 years ago are said to “undermine national security”.
What then of history? Who shall we be able to talk to, hear from, see, to learn from?
Be that as it may, what the MDA and Dr Yaacob have done runs contrary to the promise made by a member of the SG50 committee.
Mr Philip Jeyaretnam, co-chairman of the SG50 committee driving the culture and community events for the celebrations next year, said in an interview with the Straits Times in July that “even the cynics and dissenters have a role to play as Singapore reflects on its ever-changing sense of identity amid preparations for the country’s 50th birthday next year.”
Mr Jeyaretnam, who was the former president of the Law Society and an author himself, was asked why he thought it was important to engage the “cynics” in the celebrations.
He replied [emphasis mine]:
“Singapore belongs to everybody. It belongs to the cynics, the critics, the dissenters and the exiles just as much as it belongs to the businessmen or the people in Government.
“So it is very important the celebrations engage people as a whole. For example, when writers take part in next year’s Singapore Writer’s Festival in the context of SG50, I’m sure it will spark conversations which are not only celebratory but also questioning.
“It won’t be all rah-rah and ‘how wonderful we are’. It will also look at what it means to be Singaporean, whether we’re headed in the right direction or not. I think we’ve grown up and are mature enough for that to be part of our celebrations.”
It is quite significant that a member of the organising committee mentioned the “exiles” specifically.
Indeed, some Singaporeans were wondering if there would be a place for those who have left here for various reasons, imposing exile on themselves, or were forced to go abroad to spend the better part of their lives.
So, one would ask why then is the Government now banning a film like To Singapore, With Love.
Is the SG50 committee only going to include “exiles” it picks and include them in pro-government narratives, much like what Channel Newsasia did in a series on the Hock Lee bus riot and was slammed by historians for distorting the truth and misleading with dubious accounts?
Or will Singaporeans like Ms Tan be given a place to tell the stories of the exiles away from government-sanctioned platforms and through independent narratives?
What in fact did Mr Jeyaretnam mean when he said there is a place for exiles in our 50th year anniversary reflection?
“MDA is taking away an opportunity for us Singaporeans to see it and to have a conversation about it and our past that this film could have started or contributed to,” Ms Tan said in her statement. “It is vital for us to have that conversation on our own terms, especially on the eve of our 50th birthday. We need to be trusted to be able to find the answers about ourselves, for ourselves.”
Singaporeans are indeed mature enough to handle such conversations, such questioning, as Mr Jeyaretnam put it.
The real question is: are those like the MDA and Dr Yaacob mature enough to have that conversation and to allow Singaporeans to have that dialogue? Or will they hide behind highly suspect and dubious excuses like “national security” to ban what the government finds objectionable?
“It is my deepest regret that we cannot have such a conversation here today,” Ms Tan said. “Now, the irony that a film about Singapore exiles is now exiled from Singapore as well - this is not something I ever wanted or hoped for.”
One would, however, still hope that the SG50 committee will honour what its member said – and will let our exiles have a place to tell their story – which is a part of our collective story – on their own terms, and not one dictated by the government.