PM Lee filming the audience in the auditorium with a mobile phone. The candid camera moment held a serious point - anyone can now be an amateur film-maker. -- ST
'The overall thrust of all these changes is to liberalise our society, to widen the space for expression and participation. We encourage more citizens to engage in debate, to participate in building our shared future. And we will progressively open up our system even more.'
- PM Lee Hsien Loong, National Day Rally speech 2008
In his annual National Day rally speech last night, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced a triad of policy changes aimed at loosening up political space in Singapore. Firstly, public demonstrations and protests will be allowed at Speakers' Corner in Hong Lim Park. Secondly, political podcasts and videocasts will be allowed during General Elections. Thirdly, the law banning political films will be partially lifted. For political films, he outlined it like this - "partisan stuff" and "slanted" videos remain outlawed, while "factual footage, documentaries and recordings of live events" will be allowed. In other words, videos such as this may still be illegal while this may get the green light. Others such as this, this and this will fall in the grey zones.
In anticipation of the PM's announcements, the Straits Times rang me up yesterday to seek my views. I told them that I fully welcome the changes, that it was the biggest stride taken by the Government to loosen up political expression in the last 20 years (including the opening up of Speakers' Corner in 1999 and the waiving of police permits for indoor functions in 2004), that it was step in the right direction in meeting my dual objectives - lessening the climate of fear and a total review of the Films Act, and that the changes were brought about by the recent actions of activists and filmmakers who had pushed the envelope.
The ST journalist also told me that some of those interviewed before me remained skeptical about such promises. I assume that many will adopt a wait-and-see attitude, and that others will speculate about the hidden traps. I shall not waste time mulling over either. Since the debate over the Films Act began with my film Singapore Rebel, I will seek to end it by re-submitting Rebel and Zahari's 17 Years, both officially banned, to the censors for re-appraisal. If it is not sheer stupidity to continue enforcing bans on these films when they are viewable at a click of a mouse, I don't know what is.
Yes to factual footage
By Sue-Ann Chia & Jeremy Au Yong
MIDWAY through his National Day Rally address, the Prime Minister fished out a mobile phone and proceeded to film the audience before him in the auditorium.
Behind him, on a giant screen, the audience saw themselves featured on the web page of the Prime Minister's Office - live.
'There you are, simple as that. I've just made our first non-political video,' he said to laughter from the audience.
Mr Lee's candid camera moment held a serious point. Anyone can now be an amateur film-maker, capturing politics on film, and people will do so.
'So, we've got to allow political videos but with some safeguards,' he said. 'An outright ban is no longer sensible.'
Thanks to new media technologies, people can easily make videos and upload them on the Internet.
'This is how people communicate on the Web in daily life. They make videos, they pass clips around,' Mr Lee said in his National Day Rally speech on Sunday.
What will now make the cut with the censors: factual footage, documentaries and recordings of live events.
But some things still won't pass. 'If you make a political commercial so that it's purely made-up material, partisan stuff, footage distorted to create a slanted impression, I think those should still be off-limits,' he said.
'In between what is ok and what is not ok, there will be grey areas. But I think we can deal with this.'
Political films will be dealt with in ways similar to non-political films, with censorship and film classification standards, he said, with a panel to decide whether or not a political film would pass.
'The overriding consideration is to preserve the integrity, quality, and honesty of our political discourse,' he said.
Political films were banned 10 years ago, two years after Singapore Democratic Party chief Chee Soon Juan applied for a licence to sell a video-tape on the SDP.
Section 33 of the Films Act disallows the making, reproduction, distribution and screening of 'party political films'. Such films are defined as those favouring a political party or pushing a political end.
Mr Lee said political films were banned for a reason.
'Politics is a serious affair. We want voters to consider issues rationally, coolly...and think through decisions which affect your future and make a considered judgement,' he said.
'And our worry is that films are an emotive medium. The impact of seeing something on a film is quite different from reading something in cold print.
'It hits you viscerally. It engages your emotions before your thinking processes can kick in, and if you are watching it in a crowd, (it is) even more powerful.
'Then, passions can get stirred up and people can get carried away.'
The promise of some political films being allowed was cheered by film-maker Martyn See, who had two of his films banned in recent years.
'This is by far the most obvious relaxation of political space in Singapore in the past 20 years. It will lessen the climate of fear,' he said.
But Senior Research Fellow Tan Tarn How from the Institute of Policy Studies preferred there to be no conditions imposed.
'It doesn't make sense to assume that most people are most of the time not smart enough to tell the good from the bad, and truth from falsehood,' he said.
Still, film-maker Tan Pin Pin is happy with the progress.
'A gesture has been made, and I guess it's a positive thing. This is the start of a long journey, towards less frenetic governance,' she said.
'PAP welcomes the liberalisation announced by the Prime Minister. This will increase the opportunities for Singaporeans to give their views and allow political parties to better engage cyber-citizens. PAP will operate responsibly within the new and expanded boundaries to inform, educate and reach out to younger voters through various platforms. Overall, our goal is to create a conducive environment, whether online or within the general public, for political issues to be discussed seriously and productively, to help find solutions for challenges that Singapore faces.'
- Education Minister Ng Eng Hen, PAP organising secretary (special duties and new media)
NO FAVOUR GRANTED, JUST A RIGHT
'The Prime Minister is hoping that Singaporeans will go on their bended knees to thank him for these concessions. He seems to forget that the right to make political films or the right to hold demonstrations are part and parcel of human rights.'
- JB Jeyaretnam, Reform Party
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