Tuesday, April 10, 2007
Zahari's 17 Years - rated PG by censors, banned by Minister
The above documents were delivered to my home this afternoon. One is a public statement while the other is a letter specifically addressed to me.
Both documents basically dictated the same message - that as of April 12 2007, the film 'Zahari's 17 Years' will attain the same illicit status in Singapore as a copy of Playboy or FEER. Anyone caught in possession or distribution of the material will be liable on conviction to a fine or imprisonment. The public statement did not spell out the penalties but the letter to me most certainly hit home the point.
The public statement also made no mention of the fact that the Minister himself has banned the film under Section 35(1) of the Films Act, which basically accords absolute discretionary powers to one person to decide if a film is suitable for public viewing. This is unlike the case of 'Singapore Rebel', which was deemed to have violated Section 33 which bans political films with "biased references". I was told by a Straits Times reporter earlier that this marks the first time that Section 35 has been evoked to ban a film.
Further, in the public statement, it said that I had submitted the film for classification, as if it was the first submission. Indeed, I had gone to the Board of Film Censors on January 11 this year, but it wasn't for the purpose of classification. I was there to make an application to obtain an exhibition licence to screen the film. I was made to understand that a film passed by the censors does not entail a licence to screen it publicly. A separate permit is required.
Here it gets a little screwy.
'Zahari's 17 Years' was first submitted to the Board of Film Censors by the Singapore International Film Festival around March of 2006. Information obtained from MDA by journalists at Today and ZaoBao indicated that the film had been passed clean with a Parental Guidance (PG) rating. Yet, the SIFF did not screen it, and has refused to disclose any reason for the no-show.
Then the Asian Film Archive decided to make another application to screen the film as part of the Substation's 6th Asian Film Symposium in September. Again the film was passed clean with a PG rating (see document on the left). But again the festival organisers withdrew the film with no official explanation.
It was on the premise that the film had already been cleared twice by the censors that I decided to apply for an exhibition licence on January 11, only to be slapped, three months later, with yet another ban.
The Government has shown itself incapable of engaging in any kind of open dialogue on its dark history of detentions without trial. It has refused to acknowlege the fact that the ISA has been used in many instances to achieve its political ends. And interestingly, despite its regurgitation of Said Zahari as a former security threat, the international press continues to tag him a former "political detainee".
Singapore bans documentary about former political prisoner
Published: Tuesday, April 10, 2007
SINGAPORE (AP) - Singapore said Tuesday it would ban a documentary about the 17-year detention of a former leftist activist because its "distorted and misleading" portrayal of the events could undermine confidence in the government.
"Zahari's 17 Years" is a 49-minute interview with Said Zahari, who was arrested in 1963 on suspicion of plotting violent acts and detained without trial for 17 years. Said, 78, now lives in Malaysia.
The Ministry of Information, Communication and the Arts, which vets all films before release, said in a statement that the film was an attempt to clear Said of his involvement in activities against Singapore.
"The government will not allow people who had posed a security threat to the country in the past, to exploit the use of films to purvey a false and distorted portrayal of their past actions and detention by the government. This could undermine public confidence in the government."
Filmmaker Martyn See, who was under investigation last year for a documentary about an opposition leader, said he was surprised by the ban. He said the film, produced at the end of 2005, had been approved twice last year with a PG rating. When it was not shown at the 2006 Singapore International Film Festival, as he expected, See applied for an exhibition licence to screen it publicly.
"I don't know what changed. Maybe different people with different views watched it this time," See told The Associated Press. "I based my questions to Said on his first book, which is sold in Singapore. So what is in the film is not something the government didn't know."
He said he had been ordered by the censorship board to surrender all copies of the film by Wednesday afternoon.
Said, contacted by telephone at his home in Malaysia, was shocked to hear of the ban. He said he had already accepted an invitation to come to Singapore next month to give a speech at the film's screening by a university film institute.
"This is very funny. I don't understand why they would ban it at all. What I said in the movie I have already said in my book, and much, much more," he told AP. "That was 40 years ago. Is the government still afraid?"
"I feel sorry for Singaporeans who have not been given a chance to see the other side of Singapore history, particularly the 1960s and '70s. It's not fair," he said.
Said's detention came in the early years after British colonizers gave self-government to Singapore in 1959. In the early 1960s, authorities arrested left-wing politicians, trade unionists and Chinese students involved in strikes and rallies, accusing them of being violent subversives planning a communist state.
Said was detained on Feb. 2, 1963, hours after he was appointed president of a left-wing party.
Singapore, which was planning a merger with what later became Malaysia, said the swoop was aimed at individuals threatening to use violence to sabotage the proposed amalgamation. The detainees were jailed under the colonial-era Internal Security Act, which allows for arrest without charge and indefinite detention without trial.
Said, who denied the accusations, was held for years, sometimes in solitary confinement, after the merger failed in 1965 and Singapore became independent.
He was released in 1979, at age 51. A stroke in 1992 left him reliant on a walking stick and prompted his move to Malaysia, where his children had relocated.
The banning of "Zahari's 17 Years" under the Film Act prohibits exhibition, possession and distribution of the film.
The film's director, See, was investigated by police last year concerning a documentary he made about an opposition leader. He was given a "stern warning" but could have faced prison time or a fine if convicted of knowingly producing and distributing a "party political film."
That film, "Singapore Rebel," was screened at film festivals in New Zealand and the United States, but not in Singapore.
Amnesty International criticized Singapore for that case against See, saying the city-state was stifling artistic freedom and preventing citizens from expressing dissenting views.
Singapore authorities tightly restrict media and political speech, moves that regularly draw criticism from international human rights groups. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has acknowledged tensions over the regulations but defended them as necessary to maintain order.
Singapore bans film about ex-political detainee
Tuesday, April 10, 2007; 9:05 AM
SINGAPORE (Reuters) - Singapore is banning a film about a former political detainee who was held for 17 years without trial to protect public interests, the government said.
The film "Zahari's 17 Years" about former journalist Said Zahari -- arrested in 1963 for suspected subversive activities, including communist sympathies -- will be banned because it is "against public interests," the Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts said on Tuesday.
"The film gives a distorted and misleading portrayal of Said Zahari's arrest and detention under the Internal Security Act," the Ministry said in a statement.
"Zahari's 17 Years" is directed by local film director Martyn See, who was investigated by the Singapore police for a year after he produced a documentary about opposition leader Chee Soon Juan in 2005.
Singapore, which is frequently criticized by human rights groups for its restrictions on the opposition and media, bans political films that contain "biased references to or comments on any political matter."
See said he has been asked to turn over all copies of the banned film on Tuesday by Singapore's Media Development Authority, which has also rejected his application to screen it in the city-state.
"Zahari's 17 Years" is a 50-minute long interview with Zahari about his 17-year detention -- one of the longest in Singapore -- and the fear among former political detainees to talk about their experience, See said.
"The government is clearly not allowing history to be heard. It does not want to acknowledge the history of detention because it is an acute embarrassment," See said.
The film has been screened in film festivals in Malaysia and Canada, he said.
The Ministry said "Zahari's 17 Years" was an attempt by Zahari "to exculpate himself from his past involvement in communist united front activities against the interests of Singapore."
"The government will not allow people who had posed a security threat to the country in the past to exploit the use of films to purvey a false and distorted portrayal of their past actions and detention by the government," the ministry said, adding that this may "undermine public confidence in the government."