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Censorship is for the ignorant, not us

Yaccob Ibrahim FSWL reason

By Howard Lee

I will not mince words here. The government’s decision not to allow “To Singapore With Love” to be screened in its home country is not a “film classification”. It is censorship, plain and simple.

It is also worthy to note that reports of the latest statement made by Minister for Communications and Information Dr Yaacob Ibrahim made no use of the word “ban”. This was painfully prevalent whether you read AsiaOne, The Straits Times, TODAY or Channel NewsAsia.

What media reports did do was to give full berth to Dr Yaacob’s statement, made in response to Parliamentary questions on why the film was banned. An examination on Dr Yaacob’s statement would reveal that it centred on two key points – discrediting the film as a “one-sided portrayal” that contains “untruths about history”; and discrediting the people featured in the film for their allegedly criminal behaviour.

One really wonders where Dr Yaacob is trying to head with these two assertions, because the logical flow of his argument baffles even the least questioning among us, and can only be taken as a thinly veiled attempt to treat us as ignorant.

Dr Yaacob’s continual insistence that the accounts given by the exiles featured in the film to be “distorted and untruthful” suggests that there is a particular model of truth about those times of pre-Independence.

What exactly is that truth? What we read in secondary school history textbooks, vetted by the Ministry of Education? What is written in similarly one-sided accounts, such as the books by former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew? Or the evidence, or lack thereof, that has been produced by the ruling People’s Action Party to substantiate the “true” account of Singapore’s history?

Oddly, Dr Yaacob did not elaborate. We assume by PM Lee Hsien Loong’s earlier assertion that this could be in the form of his father’s radio narratives, “The Battle for Merger” – again, another single narrative of the story.

The only way that such narratives can be more accurate or truthful than what is presented in Tan Pin Pin’s film is if we completely trust the narrator.

And Dr Yaacob must surely be aware that he is in small change territory if he thinks that citizens have complete faith in the PAP, to be able to assert the outright ban of a film without giving ample proof. The unprecedented crisis of trust that has dogged the party even before the last General Elections has barely subsided. If Dr Yaacob is unfazed with coffeeshop talk, then at least take a look at what the Edelman Trust Barometer says about us.

What, then, would make the people trust the PAP’s account of the history of Singapore? In today’s political climate, we are back at the age-old arbiter of trust: The need to show proof.

For sure, the individuals in Ms Tan’s film have little more than their personal accounts of life in exile – that much has been well-covered in TOC’s review of “To Singapore With Love”. However, their story have also been scrutinised and validated by historians such as Dr Thum Ping Tjin, recorded by TOC in a presentation as well as published in his paper. This is not personal account, but a researched, academically evaluated and published position.

If the PAP is indeed concerned that Ms Tan’s film contains so much untruth that it will “erode public confidence in the Government on security matters”, what is to prevent the government from publishing their own counter-narrative with “objective”, non-personal accounts?

In fact, what is wrong with personal accounts? Nothing, as history is often written by the perspectives of a few. But if Dr Yaacob wishes to suggests that the personal standing of the film’s featured interviewees are in doubt, then it is only justifiable that the PAP debunk their accusations directly, rather than focus on their “crimes” that could very well be a perpetuation of the very crisis that turned them into exiles.

As it is, the discrediting of “To Singapore With Love” and justifying banning it was based solely on “take our word for it, we know best, and you should not believe in people who have committed crimes and were prone to violence”. Is there any credit in that line of argument?

For better or worse, Singaporeans are no longer living in the times of the communist threat. The fear that held sway in the trailing days of pre-Independence was possibly very real for our pioneers, and the intrinsic trust in people of authority would have been a given. But we are no longer held by those fears, even if other concerns, security related or otherwise, occupy our minds.

We can discern, and we are not ignorant to proof and facts. Censorship can only perpetuate suspicion, not provide clarity. We do not need the government to tell us what is the right and wrong thing to read and watch, not only because such assertions are ultimately ineffective, but because we are able to decide objectively for ourselves.

Discrediting the narrative of others is not going to work, and the dogged insistence that you are the sole arbiter of truth will fall flat. Citizens will ask of the PAP what we would also ask of the exiles – evidence to back up their accounts. And to date, the PAP has been found wanting, rather than the exiles.