No censorship is enough to pretend that nothing has happened

By Aloysius  Chia

When the MDA announced recently that it had decided to ban the movie, ‘To Singapore, With Love’,about some dissidents from Singapore’s contentious early history, a tiresome ring seems to descend all over again upon what is all too familiar.

Given the subject material of the film, it seems that this is almost expected.

In banning films, there seems to reside the notion that such films (and others like it) will cause a breakdown in society. It will radicalize some people, it is claimed, or it will give those who have radical dreams a renewed sense of pride about themselves. It is afraid that a new generation will be enthralled once again to a movement that has come to pass.

Many things seem to be going on all at once. Part of what goes on with the usual explanation is the idea that the ordinary viewer is unable to come to terms with history, the idea that a film will taint the lens in which the viewer will see his or her own history.

Such premature views often rest upon a simplistic view of human behaviour that not only caricatures it to the point of being a mere receptacle, it seems eager to want to take such a point of view as well. Such a point of view, as viewed by the authorities.

But the ordinary viewer, if too young to have even experienced such events in early history or were of age but did not take part, knew or cared for these activities, can only reflect so much. What is there to reflect when there is nothing to remember, or there is too little remembered for one to have forgotten what has gone before?

Many of us were not taught  the real history of Singapore. In our Social Studies textbooks, a narrative of early economic development is given full treatment, overshadowing the contentious aspects of social and political history.

When learning about the phenomenal strides that early Singapore had made in pursuit of development, many of the trade-offs and difficulties that had to deliberated, in economic choices, race relations, cultural choices, as a result of geopolitical influences, were artificially smoothed out.

As a result of a bureaucratic view of human relations, the colours of history were made monochrome, memory turned singular, all in a desperate search for the one restricted teleology and nothing else. Because history had to fit into this instrumental purpose, all the more had it to be forced and maintained in public order.

But nothing seems to prove more precisely the fear, hesitation and inhibitions of the politicians and bureaucrats than those who choose this manner of restricting information. Contrary opinions and content are taken literally, as though screening or allowing them to be sold will itself cause upheaval.

Perturbed by the possibility that people can think and critique through works of interpretation, they act drastically. Crippled that their own views could be undermined in the face of more acute and nuanced understanding, they become anxious. Afraid for their own traditions, they take the radical step of purging material.

In other words, the censors are as radical as those they claim to be dealing with. They are a different form of radicalism.

There is nothing more tragic to those who hold on to the view that censorship will resolve historical truths than the fact that this method is never stable in the first place. Like race that is used to identify individuals in their Identity Cards, they are but a temporary impression. They do nothing but give a superficial understanding of what is a surface view.

Questions will emerge; curiosity will continue to take hold for future generations that are not satisfied with an incomplete knowledge, a linear stipulation of pure simplified history, a beatification of economic progress at the expense of social and political history.

For those who look back and think, there will be many questions that arise as a result of all the gaps in history that have been taught (at least during secondary school). All the opportunities that have resulted from the films and books that have been denied a general audience will stand in good stead as exactly the area to fill those gaps.

That is why censorship is self-defeating: it reveals exactly what is most important to it by censoring it. There must be something about this aspect of history that is so crucial, contentious and edifying that needs to be discovered, that it had to be censored.

But perhaps the real problem lies with those who believe in censorship as a tool. Their fear comes from themselves. They are beset by irrational notions of other people’s interpretations. They delude themselves that just because they have censored, those interpretations can be forgotten and everything else conformed.

Fortunately, history is permanent. People will continue to want to discover their own past for a different age. They will want a stronger account as the past diminishes further into the horizon. In this instance, no amount of censorship will ever suppress this desire. No amount of censorship can pretend that nothing has happened.