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Why we need the arts and open dialogue on public issues

Freedom Film Fest 2014 4By Howard Lee
“A movie is different from a book. You write a book, I can write a counter book, the book you can read together with a counter book. You watch the movie, you think it’s a documentary, it may be like Fahrenheit 9/11 – very convincing, but it’s not a documentary. And I think we have to understand this in order to understand how to deal with these issues.” – Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, on the ban of To Singapore With Love, 3 October 2014
Oddly, that kind of discursive practice was precisely what precipitated during the Freedom Film Fest 2014 last weekend, where Tan Pin Pin’s banned film, To Singapore With Love, would have been screened to its home audience.
I attended the discussion session of two films and one book reading, over the weekend of the festival, and there was hardly a moment where the ideas proposed by the material were not examined, discussed and challenged by the audience.
Even more oddly, while some might be inclined to believe that films, with moving images and sound, would receive less scrutiny and more emotional consensus, it was clearly not the case. In fact, the book reading I attended received more agreement than the diversity of opinions that poured out after the film screening.
Freedom Film Fest 2014 1To cap it, these were not staid documentaries. 3.50 touched on the sex trade and human trafficking, while Tales From The Organ Trade discussed issues of poverty and bioethics while juxtaposing diverse lifestyles. These were emotive issues that dealt with very human emotions. Yet the positions offered were robustly challenged, and film-makers and activists were actively tested.
It makes me wonder if PM Lee might have grossly misrepresented what the creative community is capable of. PM Lee’s statement perpetuated the popular perception that a reading of a film, as compared to a book, is necessarily one sided.
That perception, however, denies the fact that readers are not homogeneous, and would not read the same text in the same way. Within the same film, different viewers will find both points of agreement and disagreement, and it is in the exchange of views that we are able to strengthen or change our perception of the matter being discussed.
What reason do we have to believe that To Singapore With Love would be treated any different? For that matter, why would Singaporeans blindly accept that The Battle For Merger is the gospel truth?
Films are by nature social narratives – they tell us about the world around us. (Even fictional work bears the context of its time, but we need not get into that for the time being.) This world is a lived experience, and how each of us live it would colour the way we view the world.
Freedom Film Fest 2014 2Tales From The Organ Trade, for instance, presented the perspectives of the donor as much as the recipient. It also presented the views of the doctors and legal professionals caught up in the middle of the struggle between life and economics. We gravitate towards one or the other, at times feeling sympathy or anger towards one or the other perspective.
Yet if we were to seek some form of coherence or central narrative from such diversity, then a discussion needs to take place.
Censorship, hence, is a bane to such discussions. When we are not able to view a text and its alternative positions, there is no discussion. Hence, without To Singapore With Love – or any other alternative perspective, for that matter – The Battle For Merger will forever remain in its own silo of believability, because it has never been tested in deliberation and discussion.
Will Singaporeans accept it as the only affirmative story, if there are no other alternative views? Only if you are at the centre of it all. Former PM Lee Kuan Yew would be one such candidate. The Battle For Merger is his narrative, and it is natural for him to wholeheartedly believe it to be the only “truth”.
For anyone else who is not part of the story, belief does not come that easily. As the third party to the story, we would apply the same discursive practice that we use on any text, to challenge the alternative and make sense of it for ourselves. In the lack of an alternative, the default reaction of the third party is not to believe, but to suspend our belief, until we have the chance to challenge it.
Freedom Film Fest 2014 3Therein lies the problem with the history of Singapore. For many of us, it has always been a one-sided story, told by the victor. It is by no means a complete story, but compelling nevertheless, because of the lack of alternatives. However, a persuasive narrative is not necessarily affirmative. It is only when it has been adequately challenged, and not found wanting, would it be believable.
The People’s Action Party, as the custodian of that 50 year-old one-sided narrative, has demonstrated a severe inability to put said narrative to the challenge. Even PM Lee’s example of Fahrenheit 9/11 ignores that fact that Fahrenhype 9/11, effectively the film’s “counter-film”, was produced to challenge the narrative.
It is sad, because the challenge currently comes for the creative community, a group that can do no worse than present an alternative view, providing the vehicle that will lead to discussion and the organic growth of the “dominant” narrative. The arts can help to ease in the alternative, allow it to be contemplated subjectively by its audience, who can then be encouraged to affirm or reject their beliefs based on their interpretation of the text.
The established narrative, in actuality, would benefit from an actual “trial by fire”. The arts, in the way that it can present narratives in a non-confrontational environment, can only do it a favour, rather than a disservice.

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