Iryna Rasko /

Laws made worse for Singaporeans after 1966 – Films Act 1981

by Teo Soh Lung

My respect for Brigade General [NS] George Yeo, former Minister for Information and the Arts for his contributions to the Arts and being a liberal People’s Action Party (PAP) minister diminished when in trying to understand the reason for the proposed Films (Amendment) Bill 2018.

I discovered that he was the one who was responsible for the Films (Amendment) Act 1998. That amendment act outlawed “Party political films” (section 33) and prohibit the possession or distribution of any film contrary to the “public interest” (section 35). BG Yeo was proud to claim authorship in his answer to criticisms raised by his opponents who included the late Mr J B Jeyaretnam.

He said:

“I was under no pressure from the opposition, or from anybody for that matter, to enact this amendment.” (Parliamentary Debates 27 Feb 1998).

Historically, we inherited the Cinematograph Films Act from the British. All films made locally or for distribution or exhibition had to go through the Board of Film Censors. Failure to obtain clearance from the Board before exhibition or distribution entailed a penalty.

It was a straight forward piece of legislation and the film industry flourished in the 1950s and 60s. Cathay Keris produced Malay films and Yung Hwa Studios made Chinese movies. Shaw Brothers produced the Kungfu series in competition with Cathay. As a kid and teenager, I thoroughly enjoyed the open air cinemas and films produced by Cathay and Shaw.

In 1981, the Films Act was enacted which largely incorporated the old law. This act has since been amended five times – 1987, 1997, 1998, 2009 and 2016. The proposed Bill 2018 which the government is seeking feedback today, if passed, will be the sixth amendment.

While there is a need to make good laws and keep up with changing times, frequent tinkering of laws to deal with specific cases and ensure a depoliticised population is not the path to progress and the making of a great nation. Regrettably, the PAP government is rather reactionary when it comes to making laws. Time and again, amendments and new laws are tabled just to deal with a particular situation. The amendment to the Films Act in 1998 is largely a reaction to an incident involving the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP). It took the pretext of controlling crimes – the distribution and sale of obscene videos and films.

The advent and popularity of video recordings in the 1990s encouraged the SDP to produce a video. It submitted the video for clearance by the censors in 1996. Not only did the censors disallowed its sale, it led to the government tabling a drastic amendment to the Films Act in 1998. The amendment outlawed “Party Political Films” (section 33) and banned films against “public interest” (section 35). The decision to classify films into these two categories lies with the film censors, which is not an independent body.

The aim was obvious. The government was determined to ensure that the population remain depoliticised and ignorant of its past history. No film about Lim Chin Seong or Dr Lim Hock Siew will get through the censors.

In enacting the 1998 amendment, BG Yeo further damaged his reputation when he set $100,000 or 2 years imprisonment for the distribution and exhibition of “party political films” a penalty that is $20,000 more than the $80,000 set for obscene and pornographic films. In his view therefore, a political film can cause more damage to society than an obscene or pornographic film. He also ignored our constitutional right to free speech and assembly.

As an immediate consequence of the amendment, Martyn See’s documentary, “Zahari’s 17 Years” was banned under section 35 of the Act as being contrary to “public interest.”

Senior Minister of State for Information, Communication and the Arts, Rear Admiral [NS] Lui Tuck Yew in moving another amendment to the Films Act in 2009 (supposedly to liberalise the law) explained that Martyn See’s film was a “revisionist attempt to have a distorted and misleading portrayal of Zahari’s arrest and detention. It was an attempt to exculpate himself from his involvement in communist activities against the interest of Singapore. He had posed a security threat for which he was detained under the ISA, and he now wanted to exploit the use of film to project false and distorted picture of his past actions, and that is why the ban was made.” (Parliamentary debates 29 Mar 2009).

It was a false and totally unjust allegation against Zahari. Zahari did not hire Martyn See to make the film and the minister should get his facts right before making such serious allegations in parliament where Zahari had no opportunity to respond. The government should know and I believe it knew that Martyn See is a documentary filmmaker. He has documented many important historical personalities who are no longer alive today. Had it not been for his effort, Singaporeans would still be living in ignorance and will never know about remarkable people who stood up against injustice and who lost their freedom because they wanted to make Singapore a better country.

The Films (Amendment) Act 2009 did not liberalise anything for Singaporeans. Martyn See’s re-submission of Zahari’s 17 Years remain banned though available on youtube. Another filmmaker, Tan Pin Pin who submitted “To Singapore With Love” a documentary about the lives of Singapore’s political exiles failed in her appeal before the Films Appeal Committee (FAC) in 2014. It remains in the category of “Not allowed all Ratings” today.

Minister for Communications and Information Yaacob Ibrahim said in his Facebook post:

“As the FAC pointed out, the film presents a one-sided account of the interviewees … Even though the film is not banned, allowing it to be screened publicly would effectively mean condoning the use of subversion in Singapore. More importantly, it will be a great injustice and dishonour those who bravely stood up to the Communists in a fight to secure a democratic, non-Communist Singapore.”

Before the 2009 amendment, Tan Pin Pin’s film would have been classified as banned under section 35 of the BG Yeo’s Amendment Act.

Filmmaker Jason Soo was a little more fortunate, probably because of the severe criticisms the films board received for Tan Pin Pin’s film. His film “Untracing the Conspiracy” was rated R21 in 2016. None of the interviewees in the film was involved in violence even though they were accused of intending to use violence. Instead it was the police officers who mercilessly used violence against them.

The proposed Films (Amendment) Bill 2018 is 75 pages long with an Explanatory Note of 18 pages. It has amended, repealed, substituted and inserted new provisions to every section of the existing Act. It has even changed the long title of the Act. If the draughtsman’s purpose is to confuse and render the law incomprehensible to the lay person, he has succeeded with flying colours.

Some critics are angered by the wide ranging powers given to classification and licensing officers. Indeed, under the proposed bill, such officers are free to seize everything and detain and summon anyone for interrogation. They even have the power given to police officers under the Criminal Procedure Code to record statements. And if they seize properties wrongfully, they are immune from prosecution. The owner’s remedy, if he has fully recovered from the trauma of having his premises raided and properties seized is to lodge a complaint with the magistrate within 48 hours. After this short period of time, he would probably lose his right to complain and will have to suffer losses without compensation.

I do not know why the government is relieving the police of its power of search and seizure under the Films Act. Why are film licensing officers required to be police officers? Why does the director of the Films Board or cinema owners and entrepreneurs remain silent? If there is a shortage of police officers, isn’t it the duty of the government to recruit more? Turning film officials into police officers are certainly not the ideal solution to the problem.

If the lives of people involved in the film industry are being messed up by the Films Act, we Singaporeans stand to lose and lose a great deal. We will not be able to watch Singapore-made political films. Our knowledge of history and historical figures will be confined to the PAP, Lee Kuan Yew and the likes.

The deluge of incomprehensible, lengthy laws are on its way to drown us all. Either we wake up to reality or we die in silence. Today, parliament can pass any law it wishes, within a day if necessary. Our Constitution can also likewise be amended within a day.