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Trying to understand the authorities’ decisions and actions

MDA questions

In February 2013, independent filmmaker Lynn Lee was hauled in by the police for making a film of an interview with two former SMRT drivers who were being charged for going on a strike.

Ms Lee was paid a visit by the police at her home, had her computer and the hard drive which contained the interviews confiscated, and was “interviewed” by the police for seven hours at the police station.

In the words of the Attorney General then, the film:

... amounted to contempt of court by creating a real risk of prejudice to the Criminal Proceedings which were then-pending (also known as sub judice contempt). The publication of the allegations made by He and Liu gave rise to a real risk that parties connected with the criminal proceedings, namely the witnesses, co-accused persons, and He and Liu themselves, would be improperly influenced in the giving of evidence on the admissibility of any confessions made by He and Liu. The publication also gave rise to a real risk that the judge hearing the trial in relation to the Criminal Proceedings would also be improperly influenced in reaching relevant findings of fact.”

It was only four months later, in June, that Ms Lee was given a warning by the police – for alleged contempt of court for the film which was uploaded online while the two drivers’ cases were before the court.

Ms Lee rejected the warning. (See here.)

Now, another filmmaker, Tan Pin Pin, is in the spotlight for another film – and this time the authorities are accusing the film of a rather more serious offence, that it “undermine[s] national security.”

In a statement regarding an application by the National University of Singapore Museum in May to have the film, “To Singapore, With Love”, classified before it was to be screened at the end of September, the Media Development Authority (MDA) said it had “assessed that the contents of the film undermine national security.”

That is a very serious charge indeed.

Undermining national security means, one would think, the film is a threat to the nation and its people, and to the peace and security of the country.

The MDA said this was “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.”

The chief executive officer of the MDA, Ms Koh Lin-Net, confirmed the reason for rating the film, “Not Allowed For All Ratings.”

Ms Koh said the MDA has “determined that the film has to be disallowed because of national security concerns.”

The Minister for Communications and Information Yaacob Ibrahim said he supports the MDA’s assessment.

But how exactly do the actions of security agencies presented in “a distorted way” undermine national security is not explained.

So, here are some observations, comparing the two films mentioned here.

Both films are of interviews with certain protagonists about an event or an incident.

The contents of both films were described as untruthful by the authorities - the SMRT drivers’ claims in Ms Lee’s film that they were abused were “baseless”, according to the AGC; in Ms Tan’s film, the MDA said the “individuals in the film have given distorted and untruthful accounts of how they came to leave Singapore and remain outside Singapore.”

Both films were made public – the first was published online, the second made available overseas.

Both films were charged for allegedly very serious offences – the first for contempt of court; the second for undermining national security.

Yet, the treatment of the two filmmakers is entirely different.

Unlike Ms Lee, Ms Tan, on the other hand, whose film arguably faced a more serious accusation of undermining Singapore’s national security, has not met with the same treatment.

In fact, there doesn’t seem to even be any investigation into her or her film, as Ms Lee faced. Neither has Ms Tan’s computer or the film itself been confiscated. Ms Tan has also apparently not been hauled up by the police for questioning.

The government too has not protested with the countries where the film has been screened, where the film was also met with acclaim, winning several awards in the process.

Instead, the MDA told the press that “a ‘purely private’ screening [of the film] is allowed”.

Now, doesn’t that seem odd – that a film which can “undermine national security”, a very serious charge and offence, is allowed to be screened, even if it is “a purely private” screening?

It truly begs the question: if a film about terrorists is made and is then judged to undermine our national security, will it be allowed to be shown, even in “a purely private” screening?

One would think not. In fact, one would hope not.

So, what is this inconsistency about?

How do Singaporeans understand how and why the authorities ban films when they are seemingly given different treatments?

This is not a call for the authorities to do to Ms Tan what they did to Ms Lee.

If the authorities did, it would be most unfortunate, for Ms Tan was doing nothing more than just wanting to shine a light on a part – one would argue an important part – of our history, of our collective story, as we celebrate our momentous 50th birthday next year.

In the same way, Ms Lee gave a voice to the SMRT drivers who were exploited and had felt that they had no  one to turn to when they chose to go on a strike.

So, the authorities should help Singaporeans understand how someone who was accused of contempt of court was put through apparently a more onerous investigation than someone who is accused of undermining our national security.

And incidentally, shouldn’t questions or issues about national security be addressed by the security agencies or ministry, rather than a media regulatory authority?

Ultimately, the Government should accept that filmmakers should be allowed to tell the stories that they want, and to provoke debate and discussions.

Ms Lee and Ms Tan – and indeed all filmmakers and artists and content creators - should not be subject to intimidation by the authorities.

If the Government feels that it needs to rebut such stories or the content of such works, then it should also present its side of the issue, and not make accusations which are then followed by inconsistent and seemingly arbitrary actions which will lead to distrust of the system.

That indeed would be a real threat to our security as a nation and as a people – when Singaporeans no longer trust the government to make rational and well considered decisions.