Saturday, December 09, 2006

The revolution will not be televised

We have currently a built-in allergy to unpleasant or disturbing information. Our mass media reflect this...Television in the main is being used to distract, delude, amuse, and insulate us...This instrument can teach, it can illuminate; yes, and it can even inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise it is merely wires and lights in a box. Good night, and good luck.

- Edward R. Murrow

The availability of cellular phone cameras and video uploading facilities like YouTube are literally pulling the rug from under the controls that authoritarian governments and media corporations are exerting on the broadcast media. For example, rare images of North Korean poverty and public execution are now made watchable at the click of a mouse.

Likewise, you won't see the following images on Singapore's televison. Originally posted on Sg Review, with the video uploaded on, this clip of the Singapore riot police descending on four silent protesters is worth another look, now made more accessible on YouTube.

AFP report of the silent protest

Judge V.K. Rajah's ruling that the protesters' T-shirts and placards were "more incendiary than an ordinary affront or a localised breach of peace."

New wave of rebellion strikes China

In China, when the officially-sanctioned method of protest - filing a petition - becomes ineffective, protesters take to the streets. In 2004 alone, there were 74,000 incidents of social unrest across the country, from about 58,000 the previous year. It looks like the Chinese Communist Party may be buckling under its own weight of unrelenting capitalism and a growing class divide. In this 5 minute video report, Sky News produced a gripping testimony of how a prying media can unnerve State oppressors who, when they think that the outside world is oblivious, are at their brutal best.

In China, stresses spill over into riots
Beijing responds with a new campaign after at least eight recent violent incidents.

By Robert Marquand Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

BEIJING – In an effort to address recent unrest fed by disparate rural, ethnic, and economic tensions, China's leadership has embarked on a "harmonious society" campaign that emphasizes awareness of the country's rich-poor gap, and even tacitly suggests the nation is at a social "crossroads."
At least eight major incidents of violence and rioting have erupted in recent weeks, against a backdrop of thousands of minor incidents in recent years.

A number of the most recent mass blow ups were triggered by minor events, such as a fight or a traffic accident between haves and have-nots, before quickly escalating to involve thousands of people. The prevalence of such cases, where crowd numbers range from 500 to 10,000, suggest a reservoir of anger existing just below China's social surface, as well as a growing "consciousness of rights," say experts like Nicolas Becquelin of Human Rights in China.

"The unrest has been deeper and more longstanding than we've been led to believe," says Mr. Becquelin. "The problem has been keeping track of all the incidents."

The Chinese magazine Outlook put the 2003 figure of local disturbances about 58,000, involving an estimated 3 million persons.

Read the rest

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Speakers Cornered teaser

When the Singapore Government refused to lift its long-standing ban on public protests during the 2006 IMF-World Bank meetings, a small group of local activists initiated a face-off with the police by attempting to stage a pro-democracy march from Speakers' Corner, a government-designated free-speech zone.

The culture of elite governance in Lee Hsien Loong's Singapore

In light of the current debate on elitism in Singapore, ignited by a blog post by student Wee Shu Min, I post excerpts from a paper by academic Micheal D. Barr, Beyond Technocracy: The culture of elite governance in Lee Hsien Loong’s Singapore.

Barr is also the author of the following
The Charade Of Meritocracy,
Lee Kuan Yew: Race, Culture and Genes and
Lee Kuan Yew: The Beliefs Behind the Man

Personnel: The “elite”

This concept of “the elite” is central to the operation of the Singapore system. It grew in the mind of Lee Kuan Yew into a self-conscious, self-righteous class of talented and brilliant people with strong character, who are imbued with a collective sense of purpose and a consciously collective understanding of the thinking of the group.

Its apex and core lie in the political and administrative leadership, but its outer circles include the talented among all walks of society. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong recently described the elite as “a core group of people who occupy key positions of power and influence, and set the direction for the whole
society and country”.

Lee Kuan Yew described this elite many times, but this sense of selfconsciousness as an elite is perhaps best conveyed in a speech he gave in August 1966:

It is essential to rear a generation at the very top of society that has all the qualities needed to lead and give the people the inspiration and the drive to make it succeed. In short, the elite...

Every society tries to produce this type. The British have special schools for them: the gifted and talented are sent to Eton and Harrow and a few very exclusive private schools which they call “public schools”; after that they go to Oxford and Cambridge. And they have legends which say that the Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton.

In this speech Lee also directly linked his elitism and his progressivism:

True, not every boy is equal in his endowments in either physical stamina or mental capacity or character. But all those with the potential to blossom forth must do so. That is the spearhead in the society, on whom depends the pace of our progress.

Lee’s elite has many characteristics in common with the English concept of “class”, whereby members of the upper class can speak of someone being “one of us”, but in Singapore this has been mixed shamelessly with the Chinese concept of a scholarly “mandarinate” to produce a peculiarly Singaporean conception that has, in the minds of its members, the best of both worlds.


Patronage is a vitally important element in the rise of anyone in the Singapore political and administrative elite. “Talent” and paper qualifications are sufficient in themselves to attract the notice of those with patronage to disburse, but at some point one needs to plug into a patronage network. The earlier in life one is able to do this, the better. Ideally such links would come through one’s family, but networks forged at school, or through corporate, civil or military service can prove nearly as advantageous.

Although there are elements of favouritism and nepotism in this system, the key is not found in such considerations. The absence of “talent” is sufficient to disqualify one from rising very high in the political and administrative hierarchy, no matter who your father is, but once a young man or woman has demonstrated “talent” (initially through success in examinations at school and university) one needs to be socialised into the “elite”. A substantial part of the networking and patronage is directed at socialising young bloods into the mindset and skill set of the “elite” to ensure the perpetuation of the system.

Lubricant: Personal power

Despite the genuinely meritocratic elements of the system, the oil that lubricates the Singapore system is the exercise of personal power, a feature that is common to both class systems and the traditional Chinese mandarinate. The personal character of power is demonstrated without much effort in the person of Lee Kuan Yew, who remains in Cabinet 15 years and two Prime Ministers after his retirement from the premiership, with the unlikely title of “Minister Mentor”. He was previously “Senior Minister” for the duration of Goh Chok Tong’s premiership, but now Goh holds that title. His presence in Cabinet must be most uncomfortable for Lee Hsien Loong. Not only does he have to work in the shadow of the founding father of modern Singapore, as did his predecessor, but in his case the man in question is his father. Even if Hsien Loong is really his “own man”, who is going to believe it?

Hsien Loong did not even get to announce the new line up. It was Lee Senior who announced that he would continue in Cabinet for as long as he was fit and able to serve, and it was Lee Senior who announced the new hierarchy (for protocol purposes) within the Prime Minister’s Office, whereby he would be third in line behind Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong. An anonymous “government official” was left to confirm Lee Senior’s announcement six days later.

Why does Lee Hsien Loong not simply remove him from Cabinet as is his constitutional right? Why did not Goh Chok Tong do so when he was Prime Minister? Regardless of the power they notionally possess or possessed by virtue of their institutional positions, they both understand that in or out of Cabinet, Lee Kuan Yew retains his personal networks and his personal power. He needs a seat in Cabinet only so that he can legally have open access to Cabinet and other official papers and legally retain his privileged links to the Internal Security Department. On balance Lee Hsien Loong may not even want to see him gone yet because his own power networks are still underpinned by his father. In the case of Goh Chok Tong, his efforts as Prime Minister to build a personal and independent power base were thwarted by both Lees – father as Senior Minister and son as Deputy Prime Minister. In the end, after being outflanked by father and son during a property scandal involving the Lee family in 1996, Goh gave up trying to exercise real power and handed the reins of domestic government over to Deputy Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. In any case, Goh’s efforts were never going to be very complete because he had no relatives in government, or in the elite. It was probably this characteristic more than any other that made him an ideal stop gap between father and son.

PM Lee Hsien Loong

The new Prime Minister’s curriculum vitae reads as an exemplary case study of the way that personal power, personal connections and related social advantages lubricate the meritocratic system. Lee Hsien Loong was born in 1952 as the eldest son of two brilliant solicitors, one of whom was to become Prime Minister. His economic position was comfortable without being wealthy (at least not in his early life), but more importantly he had the immense advantage of being born into an English-speaking Chinese household. Even without other considerations, this made him part of a small privileged elite in the Singapore of the 1950s because the Chinese were the dominant ethnic group and English was the language of the colonial elite.
After independence in 1965, his father successfully set out to make English – his own family’s first language – the dominant language of the Republic and the prime language of education.

Lee, however, was not content with his children being just monolingual. Even at this early stage Lee Senior had developed a fixation with what he would later call the “cultural ballast” provided by one’s “mother tongue”, and he sent Hsien Loong to top Chinese-medium schools (Nanyang Primary School and Catholic High School) so he could also master Mandarin.

Yet despite this immersion in a Chinese-language environment, Hsien Loong was failing his Mandarin, so his parents arranged for private tuition. This enabled him to barely pass his A Levels.

His relative mastery of Mandarin was to put him in good stead since, unbeknownst to anyone else, his father was later going to place bilingual Chinese (English and Mandarin-speaking) at the apex of the political and administrative elite.

As if this was not enough of an advantage, just as Hsien Loong finished his senior years of school, as if on cue the first of the Junior Colleges (JCs) opened to offer elite students a specialist study and tuition environment to prepare for university. It is barely conceivable that this is a coincidence, but it remains a fact that Hsien Loong was in the first intake of the first JC, National Junior College (NJC), where against all common practice he was allowed to sit for the Cambridge A-levels in two stages. He matriculated with A1s in pure and applied maths and an A2 in physics in 1969, and then returned as a part-time student to sit for the full set of examinations and improve his matriculation results, presumably to get a head start in Cambridge.

On the strength of his 1969 results alone he was one of eight winners of the prestigious President’s Scholarship in 1970, and also won a Public Service Commission scholarship to Cambridge to study mathematics.

After attending NJC, he also voluntarily began his National Service while waiting to depart for Cambridge, even though, as a scholarship winner, he could have deferred.

As “luck” would have it, his decision to start his National Service early served him well. While doing his National Service the Ministry of Defence initiated a system of SAF Overseas Merit scholarships and Lee was in the inaugural group of five men to win one for his study in Cambridge.

Upon his return to Singapore in 1974 the SAF initiated a scholarship and leadership programme for serving officers. Unsurprisingly, Lee Hsien Loong was in the first intake.

All in all, Lee made good use of his study opportunities while he was in the SAF. From 1971 to 1974 he studied at Cambridge, where he graduated with Double First Class Honours in Mathematical Statistics and Mathematical Economics and a distinction in a Diploma in Computer Science. After a mere three years working as a regular officer in the SAF, he was posted to Fort Leavenworth, USA, where he studied at the US Army Command and General Staff College from 1978 to 1979. Upon completion of these studies he stayed in the US for another year as a Mason Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, graduating in 1980 with a Masters in Public Administration. By this stage he had risen to the rank of Major in the SAF, despite having only served for about three years on operational duty. Despite his inexperience he was made Director, Joint Operations Planning Directorate from 1981 to 1982, and then became Chief of Staff (General Staff) from 1982 to 1984, by this time having risen to the rank of Brigadier-General.

The SAF did not get very good value out of their investment, however, for Lee Hsien Loong left the SAF to run for parliament in 1984.

I have no precise knowledge of the operation of favouritism during his military career, so we can only speculate about the importance of his family name in his rapid and comfortable rise through the ranks, risking not much more injury than paper cut.

On his entry into politics, however, there is less need to speculate. Many months before the announcement of his entry into politics, civil servants in the Housing and Development Board (HDB) were told that their job was to prepare the ground in Ang Mo Kio constituency for an Army officer who was going to retire soon and enter politics at the upcoming election. In this case the business of “preparing the ground” involved ensuring that the creation of the first Town Council (another first for Lee Hsien Loong) went smoothly.

Zulkifli Baharudin, an officer in the HDB, was put in charge, and apart from the administrative work of setting up a new municipal authority, he oversaw and engaged personally in door knocking, talking to hawkers and shop owners, making sure everyone was happy. Zulkifli says that this was his first political education and his first “real contact with the constituency”. He said in interview that even without knowing that it was Lee Hsien Loong who was being parachuted into the electorate, the work was given a high priority because the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) “was going to fight the election on the basis that it is best able to manage and lead a new municipal entity”. A few months before the election he was told that the new Member of Parliament was “the son of Mr Lee”. After that, the work intensified, and he remembers it as the hardest working period of his life.

Lest anyone is left with lingering doubts that the selection of Lee Hsien Loong’s constituency for the first Town Council might have been an arbitrary selection, it is worth noting that the next assignment given to Zulkifli was setting up the second Town Council in Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew’s electorate, Tanjong Pagar.

It is doubly significant to this study of personal power, patronage and special opportunities that having proved his worth and – it was assumed – political reliability, Zulkifli was later invited to stand for Parliament as a PAP candidate.

The unofficial secondment of a team of civil servants into working for the re election of the PAP government in an election is not extraordinary in itself. Entire ministries routinely devote their resources to the PAP during General Elections. I have interviewed two other civil servants who have worked in two different ministries who each took part in election work on behalf of the PAP during the 1991 election. One (in the Ministry of Information and the Arts) was involved in a ministry-wide exercise of monitoring and managing the press on behalf of the PAP. The other (in the Prime Minister’s Office) was part of a team of civil servants who attended political rallies and reported on mood and responses among the crowds. This was a comprehensive exercise that involved overtime, scheduled shift work, taxi vouchers and full use of the civil service infrastructure. Another interviewee who was campaigning for an opposition candidate (Chee Soon Juan) during the 1996 elections was followed during his waking hours by two people he presumed to be ISD agents (from the Ministry of Home Affairs). The exercise was carried out without any serious effort at subterfuge, so the primary purpose of the exercise was presumably intimidation rather than surveillance.

The dedication of civil service resources on behalf of the PAP is therefore considered routine within the civil service, but the significant feature of Zulkifli’s story is the special treatment accorded “the son of Mr Lee”, even by the standards of PAP candidates. And make no mistake. At that stage of his career, Lee Junior’s handling of his constituency was so clumsy that he would have been in trouble without this help. He tried to approach his early “walkabouts” like a military inspection, allocating a set time to each floor in each block and expecting his constituents to fit in to his schedule.

Not that you would have known that from reading the press reports at the time. The press at the time brimmed with adulatory reports about the PAP’s new candidate for Ang Mo Kio, beginning with reporting the occasional political speech that he was allowed to make while he was still a serving officer in the army.

From there Lee was catapulted into test after test set by his father, all of which he “aced”, riding on his energy, intelligence and problem-solving ability. At this point it is worth noting that he really is intelligent and hard working. His path through life was cleared by family connections, but family connections are not sufficient to win a double first from Cambridge University, or to hold down very senior positions in a highly professional army. He did these things and then went on to do more as a Minister. His first test was to tackle the recession of the mid-1980s as the Chairman of the Economic Review Committee. From there he went from strength to strength. He had a dream run through the sensitive and powerful Trade and Industry and Finance ministries and became a Deputy Prime Minister in 1990. His progression was interrupted only by a cancer scare that set back his succession to the premiership by a few years. Without belittling the scale of his achievements, it is important to note that he had an immense advantage over and above his innate “talent” in that he had much greater freedom to act than any other member of Cabinet apart from his father. Whereas his more experienced and more senior Cabinet colleagues had to take tiny, incremental steps to unwind any of Lee Kuan Yew’s initiatives, from the start Lee Hsien Loong was fearless in striking down sacred cows, beginning with the Central Provident Fund.

He could afford to be. He could live up to the mantra, “change it, improve it and build on it” with a freedom enjoyed by almost no one else in the country. As Prime Minister (and even as a disproportionately powerful Deputy Prime Minister) he was also able to invite others into his aura of autonomy, though their autonomy is heavily circumscribed because it is dependent on his patronage. Current beneficiaries of Lee’s largess include the “rising stars” he has been nurturing in Cabinet – especially Tharman Shanmugaratnam and Khaw Boon Wan. Thus Lee’s mantra is a circumlocutious cry of self-legitimation that is personified in Lee Hsien Loong himself and his father. Others may share in it only insofar as their education and
“talent” allows, and insofar as they have been socialised into the world of the elite.


The Singapore system of elite governance is truly a remarkable beast. Under the legitimating ideology of meritocratic elitism it delivers an effective and thoroughly modern style of technocratic governance that is nevertheless riddled with distortions and failings that threaten to make a mockery of the basic principles of its legitimacy. Worse, some of these distortions – notably the exercise of personal power and the operation of privilege and connections – are intrinsic to the operation of the system to the point where the legitimating ideology starts to look like a threadbare cover for the perpetuation of a dynasty. And yet the system works.

There is enough talent in the dynasty and enough truth in the myths of meritocracy, elite governance and pragmatism to ensure that the city-state is in safe hands, and that it is likely to stay that way for the foreseeable future. If the reality were allowed to stray too far from these ideals then the whole system would degenerate into crony politics – and that is not going to be allowed to happen. The imperfections and distortions create some insecurity and tension, but these are not fatal to the system. The ruling elite clearly believes that they are an acceptable price for peace, prosperity and a smooth, if imperfect system of elite regeneration.

Read the complete article (on pdf format) here

Monday, October 09, 2006

Speech Acts – Censorship and Documentary Filmmaking in Singapore

Feature by: Vinita Ramani

“In reality of course, there is no such thing as unfettered press freedom. Even the most liberal-minded person would acknowledge the necessity of some form of regulation or code to ensure responsible reporting…By this, I mean that our editors and journalists must be men and women who know what works for Singapore and how to advance our society’s collective interests.”
- Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong, at the 5th anniversary dinner of TODAY newspaper, 31 October 2005

“Censorship seeks to produce subjects according to explicit and implicit norms..the production of the subject has everything to do with the regulation of speech. The subject’s production takes place not only through the regulation of that subject’s speech, but through the regulation of the social domain of speakable discourse.”
– Judith Butler, ‘Excitable Speech – A Politics of the Performative’

Demarcating the Lines – Censorship and the State

Film director Martyn See has directed and produced a short-film entitled Singapore Rebel (“the Film”), which seeks to explore the political ambitions and journey of the Singapore Democratic Party’s Dr Chee Soon Juan and his tussles with the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP). Although it was submitted to be screened at last year’s Singapore International Film Festival, the film was ultimately withdrawn because the Media Development Authority’s Board of Film Censors (BFC) was of the view that it contravened certain provisions of the Films Act[1] .

Before I explore the relevant provisions of the Films Act and the actual content and significance of the Film, let me say that the BFC’s decision to withdraw the Film begs some important questions.

Namely, was this yet another instance of the BFC censoring a film it deemed politically sensitive, regardless of whether or not it could be so viewed from an objective stand-point? Was it yet another case in which an expression within civil society, an audio-visual attempt to explore Singapore’s political landscape had been prematurely curtailed by the State through its legal apparatus?[2] Or, more disturbingly, is the decision to withdraw the Film the result of Singapore’s socio-political climate where any expression which touches upon certain subject-matters is generally expected to create waves and be duly punished, no matter how expressly or impliedly the expression treats these subject-matters? In other words, has Singapore’s vigilance in regulating expression conditioned us to instinctively know, or at least believe that we know, when a film violates norms laid down by the State?

These questions form the basis of my analysis of the Film and BFC’s response to it.

The ‘Speech Act’ Theory

In “Excitable Speech – A Politics of the Performative”, Judith Butler, quoting comparative speech and rhetoric theorists, advances the theory that expression is intrinsically performative: it is not confined to the words we write or utter, but reflects an attitude or an intention to act upon that utterance or writing (or of the suggestion of multiple meanings within the utterance or writing).

This theory, which is referred to as the ‘Speech Act’ theory, postulates that “people do more things with words than convey information, and that when people do convey information, they often convey more than their words encode.”[3] Applied to our context, it may help explain why the BFC, and by extension the State, believe that it must intervene to regulate something like hate speech, or any other speech for that matter which could jeopardize national stability (“Offensive Speech”).[4]

Using concepts typically associated with international relations theory and practice, Butler takes the analysis one step further. She suggests that a State attributes an almost “sovereign power” to hate speech when it tells its citizens that it violates their civil rights and liberties and therefore must be regulated by the State’s legal apparatus. Butler goes on to observe that such a suggestion may be flawed. For starters, it is premised on the assumption that “non-state centred forms of agency and resistance” either do not exist or should not be encouraged – which is inaccurate. The existence and efficacy of alternative forms of societal progress is a topic for another essay to explore.

Butler also notes that Offensive Speech, ironically, may indeed be a State construct. It would not even exist as a category of speech in the first place without “State ratification”. In other words, “this power of the State's judicial language to establish and maintain the domain of what will be publicly speakable suggests that the State plays much more than a limiting function in such decisions; in fact, the State actively produces the domain of publicly acceptable speech, demarcating the line between the domains of the speakable and the unspeakable, and retaining the power to make and sustain that consequential line of demarcation.”[5]

This does not mean that we have no choice to determine for ourselves how we engage in speech acts. Rather, the real question is whether or not censorship has a far more significant pre-emptive role than we are aware of. In addition to setting the parameters for what is and is not permissible, it may also skewer our ability to independently review a film, for example, which has already been labelled as controversial. This ability is crucial to the philosophical concept of “agency” which asks that we undo the scene that has been set for us and critically examine the lines demarcating what is and is not permissible so that we can come to an unbiased conclusion of the art we perceive.

Does Singapore Rebel deconstruct the landscape that has been drawn for us, or does it merely fall into the dubious category of expression which the State has determined to be Offensive Speech?

Singapore Rebel – The Film

Singapore Rebel starts with a nearly 3-minute opening sequence of generic and rapidly -cut shots of Singapore’s central business district and shopping malls, which are ubiquitous in the island.

A voice-over narrates a series of stereotypical statistics about the nation. These cover the usual terrain that any news wire agency report about Singapore would: i.e. that Singapore, with a population of over 4 million, is an anomalous “little red dot” which has far outdone its Southeast Asian neighbours and yet, continues to be perceived with guarded cynicism by some outsiders and citizens alike, for its lack of political and social freedom.

The film then takes us to the apartment above an innocuous shop-house where Dr Chee Soon Juan works and takes care of his three children. An informal question-answer interview session allows for See to craft a vignette of the man and his forays into politics. Narrating his beginnings as a lecturer at the National University of Singapore’s (NUS) psychology department in 1990, Chee outlines his interest in politics and his involvement in the 1992 elections during which he says he sensed the “frustrations and anger” that many Singaporeans felt.

See then adopts a reportage-styled narrative, seeking to allow the key moments speak for themselves. These include the period when Chee went on a hunger strike after he was sacked from NUS; his forays into speaking openly about politics and civil society action in 1998 and 1999, which led to the first of two defamation suits (the second followed during the 2001 elections), as well as fines and a 5-week prison sentence.

Archival footage shot by See includes Chee’s attempts to get a ‘people against poverty’ May Day rally going outside the grounds of the Istana (office of the President of Singapore). The audience, like the numerous reporters at the scene of the event, witness the police descending on the small gathering where Chee was subsequently apprehended and driven away in a police van.

Interestingly, however, See’s voice as the interviewer, and as the audience’s representative on film, only emerges in the film once the tone has been set for how we should perceive Chee – that is, as an almost solitary man struggling against the odds to question a domineering and authoritarian state. Chee is packaged and presented to the audience as the archetypal Singapore rebel and then made to answer the following questions:

“Why do you get into trouble with the law all the time?”

“You are a politician, are you not concerned with losing popularity with the people?”

“If Singaporeans are materialistic, why fight for their rights?”

Legal Dimensions – The Films Act

One does not have to be an astute historian or political activist to know upon watching the Film that it was going to face problems with the censors. The ban was not unprecedented. Indeed, it follows in the footsteps of the ban against A Vision of Persistence, a 15-minute documentary on opposition politician J.B. Jeyaretnam made in 2001 by three Ngee Ann Polytechnic lecturers. A Vision of Persistence, just like Singapore Rebel, was withdrawn from the Singapore International Film Festival by the BFC for offending section 2 of the Act. Festival Director/Programmer, Mr Philip Cheah, notes that it was the first time a film had been specifically barred under the Films Act due to its “political content”.[6]

Section 2 of the Films Act is designed to prohibit “party-political” films, which expressly deal with such political content. In particular, subsections 2(a) and 2(b) of the Act enumerate circumstances in which a film would contravene the Act for “contain(ing) wholly or partly either partisan or biased references to or comments on any political matter”.[7] Section 2b(vi) of the Act, for instance, states that a film is objectionable if it touches on a “current policy of the Government or any issue of public controversy in Singapore” (emphasis mine). Given that See’s 26-minute film is more a summation of the most controversial periods in Chee’s political career and, in my view, far less an exploration of Chee’s ethos, ideology and political vision with regards to Singapore, it is unsurprising that it triggered alarm bells and was ultimately thought by the BFC to fall foul of Section 2 of the Act.

Not only was the Film withdrawn, but it elicited a series of other responses from the authorities, reaffirming the popular belief that free expression in Singapore may be greeted by a slap on the wrist rather than applause. According to reports in news wires such as Associated Press and the Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA), See was told he would be fined up to $100,000 and could face a possible jail term if he went ahead and screened the Film without authorisation[8]. Copies of the Film and camera equipment were also seized by the authorities[9]. Subsequently, See’s friends, social activist Jacob George and filmmaker Tan Pin Pin, were questioned by the police about See and the Film in the course of an apparently routine investigation.[10]

Does this cautionary and somewhat punitive response on the part of the State’s quasi-judicial and legal apparatus reflect the State’s abhorrence of the Film (and its political content) or was it an instinctive response to what the apparatus had assumed would be viewed by the State as being Offensive Speech that could threaten national and political stability? Significantly, as See points out in his blog, Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew had this to say about the ban in an interview with Time Magazine : “Well, if you had asked me, I would have said, to hell with it (the ban). But the censor, the enforcer, he will continue until he is told the law has changed. And it will change…”[11]

Ironically, the Film continues to live and breathe in the virtual landscape, where it can be seen in its entirety, giving it a heightened poignancy that it might not have had had the BFC and other relevant authorities decided to permit its screening.[12] Even before we can begin a critique of the film, this fact hits us, a discerning audience, as being rather ironic.

Of Subjects and Cinematic Expression – A Critique of the Film

The most important question for the audience is whether some of us walked away from the Film with a more nuanced picture of a man so riddled with controversy and so persistently labelled in mainstream media that some believe he has become a caricature rather than a political visionary.

In the context of short films like Singapore Rebel or A Vision of Persistence, the audience is simply not given the opportunity to judge the film on its own merits. The censorship authorities have operated on two levels. First, in setting the very terms of what is speakable and what is not, they put such films beyond our reach even before they make it to the screens at small film festivals. Second, and more tangibly, the censors shut the films down at inception by imposing a ban.

Interestingly, and with the greatest respect to See, it appears that the Film has itself, consciously or subconsciously, undergone some self-censorship.

One cannot help but feel that if See had wanted the Film to focus on Chee Soon Juan rather than tangible instances of civil society presence in Singapore, the Film should have yielded a more layered vignette in its 26 minutes.[13] Instead, the questions that See poses to Chee operate on our stock impressions of Chee and paint a caricature, without penetrating the rhetoric to reveal the portrait of Chee the man.

For example, See allows Chee to briefly share his recollections about going on a hunger strike, but we never find out why (or whether) Chee was inspired by India’s father-figure Mahatma Gandhi to undertake this form of passive resistance. We are similarly not given an insight into whether political struggles in other parts of the world influence Chee’s own ideology or attitude towards life.

At one crucial point in the Film, See asks how Chee feels about being labelled a “congenital liar” and a “political gangster”, to which Chee responds, with considerable self-restraint, that the truth will speak for itself. Although Chee’s response is, in the circumstances, quite remarkable, See never includes footage of instances where Chee might have reiterated what he is and stands for. Instead, we are again left with a caricature of a man asserting what he isn’t, believing that the elusive “truth” (another category that could have been explored in the film) will redeem him.

As a whole, the film, by reaffirming many assumptions we may already have of Singapore’s political scene, leaves a discerning audience with little to work with. On the one hand, Singaporeans who are familiar with Chee’s political struggles will learn little that is new here. On the other hand, Western political activists and mainstream or independent media who generally only pay attention to Singapore when faced with reports that it has an authoritative regime will have these ideas reinforced by the Film.[14] Neither Singaporeans nor their counterparts abroad discover anything that challenges established stereotypes of Chee or Singapore.


The subject of a film, and sometimes its author, may be transformed or tainted by censorship from within or without. As Butler writes, “the subject emerges as the result of the bar itself… barring is an action that is not exactly performed on a pregiven subject, but performed in such a way that the subject him/herself is performatively produced as a result of this primary cut,” (Butler, 1997: 138).

Borrowing Butler’s language, See’s film and Chee Soon Juan (or more accurately the caricature of Chee presented in the Film) strike us as a product of this “primary cut”, the pre-emptive and “normative” exercise of power which – according to Butler – set the very “conditions of intelligibility”. Chee has almost been driven to poverty by defamation suits which still labours on. See is the filmmaker who has been censored by the State. Amidst the surrounding controversy, they are reduced almost to clichés rather than the men they are.

An opportunity to be able to think outside the binary of the ruling party versus its often diminished and beleaguered opposition is rarely presented to us. A film that would really push the envelope would therefore have to be the “unperformable in all performativity” (ibid). Applied to the Film, this means that both Singaporeans and foreign press or NGOs may have appreciated a film dedicated to letting Chee articulate where his desire to enter politics came from, how he understands the very idea of being “politicised”, how he sees civil society, and what he thinks it takes to build a nation, assuming he thinks that is a critical question for someone venturing into the political arena. It is unfortunate that the Film does not sufficiently grapple with these questions.

Even so, there is no logic in imposing a ban, or preventing a wider audience from watching the Film. By banning the Film the State is forced to re-visit, re-condemn and re-stage what it ironically claims to have absolute power over. In this regard, the “censored speech it seeks to regulate is introduced into public discourse” (ibid: 130). Put differently, law suits and mainstream media coverage condemning Chee Soon Juan forces the State to admit in the public arena that it is a contingent entity. More commonly, politicians have to return to the site of the impermissible when foreign journalists question them about the very issues they would rather not touch on – be it Singapore’s human rights record, its lack of press freedom or its tendency to exercise heavy-handed censorship.

In the case of Singapore Rebel, it was the censors doing what they believe the law says, and this, apparently, will change. Both Singaporeans and people who see cinema as a critical and powerful tool of expression are hoping that this change will come soon.

Friday, October 06, 2006

Banned, but not broken

Singapore filmmaker Martyn See did the unthinkable - he made a political documentary. He shows that film and premiere's his latest "subversive" documentary today at the Assignment Theatre

By Ron Brownlow
Taipei Times
Friday, Oct 06, 2006, Page 17

Director Martyn See is all about questioning the political process.

When Martyn See (施忠明) made his first film he thought it would be censored. He didn't realize he would be investigated, his tapes and video camera confiscated, and he would ultimately be warned never to do it again.

The offense: making Singapore Rebel,which chronicles the political journey of the island-state's most outspoken opposition politician, Chee Soon Juan (徐順全). See's 26-minute documentary was withdrawn from the Singapore International Film Festival last yearafter censors found it to be a political film, banned under the country's Films Act.

“If it was passed by the censor it would have been shown to a room of no more than 100 people,” said See, a 37-year-old video editor who is in Taipei this week for screenings of Rebel at the Assignment Theatre (差事劇團). His new film, Speaker's Cornered, premieres at the Assignment Theatre tonight. “Now 10 times, maybe 100 times that many people have seen it.”Singapore's Films Act bans the making, showing or distribution of “party political films,” or films “directed towards any political end in Singapore.” Those prosecuted under the act face two years in prison or fines of up to S$100,000, or roughly US$59,000.

The idea is that film manipulates audiences and leads them to make poor voting choices. Singapore's government argues tight media controls and restrictions on public assembly are needed to preserve public order.

Critics point out that political content favorable to the ruling People's Action Party, which has ruled Singapore since independence from Malaysia, has been allowed to air on national television. This includes a recent Hong Kong-produced program on former head of state Lee Kuan Yew (李光耀), the father of Singapore's current prime minister.

In its annual report on press freedom last year, Reporters Without Borders ranked Singapore 144th out of 166 countries. A Singaporean student in the US was recently threatened with a defamation lawsuit for criticizing the government on his blog.

See said he made Singapore Rebel to examine why the political opposition is marginalized by the country's media, which is state-owned, and society. He also wanted to “politicize younger Singaporeans” who are “totally apathetic towards political issues.”

He used roughly 70 percent of his footage, which he shot with a Samsung mini DV camera and edited on a Macintosh laptop computer. The entire project cost about US$400 to make. The film is essentially an interview with Chee, the secretary-general of the Singapore Democratic Party, mixed with footage showing Chee's home life and a protest near the prime minister's house. References to Chee's party were deliberately omitted.

“I had a very vague idea about the films act,” See said. “However, I took my chances because the new prime minister had just been inaugurated and he promised an open and inclusive society.”

Indeed, the film opens with a quote attributed to current Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong (李顯龍) in 2004: “We are an open, multiracial and cosmopolitan society. We enjoy a good reputation in the world… . Our people should feel free to express diverse views, pursue unconventional ideas, or simply to be different.”

Two months after Singapore Rebel was withdrawn from the Singapore International Film Festival, police called See in for what he describes as a “friendly question and answer session.”

There was a second interview several months later was “amicable” until the end, when the and a third time this May, just before the general elections. Acquaintances, including a filmmaker and a political blogger, Jacob George, also received calls from police.

Ultimately See's video camera, but not his tapes, were returned and he was let off with a warning.

Chee, who has been bankrupted by defamation lawsuits brought by ruling party leaders and jailed three times for speaking without a permit, saw the news as a victory.

“My first thought was that they didn't want to make Martyn a cause celebre,” he said in a phone interview Tuesday. “I think it was a sign that this government knew where its boundaries are, that if it pushed beyond those boundaries their actions would backfire and be counterproductive.”

But See, who maintains he was never told exactly how Singapore Rebel violated the Films Act, is not so sure. “The roadblocks can be put in place at the whim and fancy of the government,” he said. “If you think that you're making some headway they always close it down.”

George agreed. “I don't see (Singapore Rebel) having a major impact,” he said in a phone interview Wednesday. Filmmakers “know they had better not make this kind of movie.”

Still, he thinks people in Taiwan should watch See's film. “It gives another side of Singapore politically which is rarely ever seen,” he said.

See hopes Singapore Rebel will remind viewers that they should not take Taiwan's democracy for granted. “Just watching programs on television (here) openly criticizing the president … for me it's like a breath of fresh air,” he said. “I'm actually envious of Taiwan,” he added. “Taiwanese are interested in their political system.”

Film notes:

Singapore Rebel plays today at 12:30pm at the Assignment Theatre (差事劇團), one of three films from that country at this weekend's Left Side Film Festival. At 8pm, director Martyn See (施忠明) will discuss Singapore Rebel in a forum, also at the Assignment Theatre. Following the discussion, there will be the world premier of his new film Speaker's Cornered, a 27-minute documentary on Chee Soon Juan's attempt to protest in front of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund's recent annual meeting in Singapore. For more information, call (02) 2364-5124. Assignment Theatre is located at 9-10, Ln 18, Heping E Rd, Sec 2, Taipei (台北市和平東路二段18巷9-10號B1).

Saturday, September 23, 2006

'Zahari's 17 Years' to premiere in Malaysia

Three Singapore films have been selected for screening at the 2006 Freedom Film Festival in Malaysia. Martyn See's 'Zahari's 17 Years', Tan Pin Pin's 'Singapore Gaga' and 'Moving House' will feature among an international slate of films dedicated to raising the consciousness of socio-political issues.

Following Martyn See's participation in last year's festival, local documentary filmmaker Tan Pin Pin has been invited by this year's organisers to present her work. She will be attending the screenings at Taylor's College in Subang Jaya.

The festval will run over two weekends in two venues.

29 Sept to 1 Oct
KLANG VALLEY : Taylor’s College, 1, Jalan SS15/8, 47500, Subang Jaya,
For invite in Klang Valley, call Effa Desa 03-79685415

6 Oct to 8 Oct
PENANG : The Actors Studio Greenhall, Ground Floor, Zhong Zheng School Memorial Centre, 32, Lebuh Light, 10200 Penang
For invite in Penang, call Wee Ching 012-2755438 Or Chon Kai 019-5669518

Showtimes for 'Zahari's 17 Years'
Klang Valley on Oct 1, 2.30pm
Penang on Oct 8, 2.30pm

The full schedule of the festival here.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

'Singapore Rebel' goes Taipei

If you happened to be in Taiwan or are planning to visit in the next couple of weeks, you might want to include some movie watching in your itinerary. 'Singapore Rebel' and Royston's Tan '15' (the movie version) and 'Cut' will be screened as a triple-bill.

2006 Asian Workers’ Works
Cross Border Cultural and Educational Foundation
September 27–6 October 2006

Shooting Left Asia Film Festival - Taipei, Taiwan

Venues and showtimes.

30 Sept - Guling Street Avant-garde Theatre

AM10:00-12:00 / The Big Durian(75’)+ Romantik ISA(43’)
PM12:30-2:30 / Hitting Two Birds With One Stone(5’)+ Surviving Beijing(125’)
PM3:00-5:00 / Labor Arts Conversation 1
PM5:30-7:30 / Singapore Rebel(26’)+CUT(13’)+15(90’)
PM8:00-10:00 / Labor Arts Conversation 2


3 Oct -
Guling Street Avant-garde Theatre

AM10:00-12:00 / Hitting Two Birds With One Stone(5’)+ Surviving Beijing(125’)
PM12:30-2:30 / Singapore Rebel(26’)+CUT(13’)+15(90’)
PM3:00-5:00 / The Burnt Theater(105’)
PM5:30-7:30 / The Moon Hunter(107’)+ Don’t Forget Me(15’)
PM8:00-10:00 / Garuda's Deadly Upgrade(50’)+Mass Grave(26’)+ Faces of Everyday Corruption in Indonesia(40’)


6 Oct - Assignment Theatre

PM12:30-2:30 / Singapore Rebel(26’)+ CUT(13’)+ 15(90’)
PM3:00-5:00 / The Burnt Theater(105’)
PM5:30-7:30 / The Moon Hunter(107’)+ Don’t Forget Me(15’)

If you need further details, email me at

'Singapore Rebel' previously premiered in Taiwan at the Urban Nomad Film Festival.

Link to Taipei Times report

Monday, August 07, 2006

'Singapore Rebel' saga ends after police issues 'stern warning'

After 16 months of investigation, three interrogation sessions, 120 questions, and not discounting a covert round of interviews with some friends and associates, the police has finally decided to close their case against me.

It all ended under 10 minutes at noon today at the Cantonment Police Complex. Seated at the interview room where I had expected yet another round of questioning, I was instead informed by Assistant Superintendent Chan Peng Kuang that upon the conclusion of their investigation, the police has decided to issue a warning in lieu of a prosecution. The camera, seized in August last year, will be returned to me. The tapes, however, will remain in police custody unless I should make a formal claim. After two minutes of wrangling a deal, which included my suggestion that the police donate the footages to the National Archives, I decided not to make a claim for the tapes, considering that it would be subjected to an undertaking whereby should any of the footages be distributed, I would be called in for investigation once more. The police now reserves the right to destroy the tapes, as they do, I suppose, for seized pornographic material.

I was then ushered to a "warning" room where another officer arrived to read out the warning letter. I stood like a schoolboy in front of the principal's desk, only that the officer's delivery was more perfunctory than stern.

This whole episode has been rather surreal, but no less worrying (I still haven't told my mother about it). It would have been out-of-whack in any First World nation, but it actually did happened in modern-day Singapore - the production of one short video featuring an opposition figure sparked off a ban, a police inquiry and much undue publicity for everyone involved. If the censors had cleared the film, it would have been screened to an audience of no more than 80 people, and not all of them would be interested or much less impressed with its content. It would have died a natural death not long afterwards. But by banning it and subjecting its filmmaker to police investigations, the Media Development Authority has created a publicity monster for themselves, precipitating a seemingly amenable remark from the Minister Mentor himself.

And it gets even more surreal, if one considers the fact that amid all the questioning from the police, I still haven't been told exactly how 'Singapore Rebel' had breached the Films Act.

Where do I go from here? I've obviously crossed the OB (out-of-bounds) markers of expression in Singapore. As much as I like to find my way back to stay within its limits, it's mightily difficult when these boundaries, already amorphous as they are, are constantly shifting back and forth, catching off-guard just about anybody with an opinion deemed contrary to "national interest."

Finally, just a note of irony - I'm finishing up an edit for Jack Neo's new comedy, slated for a Chinese New Year release, entitled "Just Follow Law!"

And may all the wishes of anyone who had generated a single moment of kind thought toward this whole saga be fulfilled.

Yours sincerely,
Martyn See

A Happy 41st Birthday to Singapore.

Dissent is not disloyalty.

A summary of the Singapore Rebel saga

Jan 12 2005 - Martyn See submits 26 minute video 'Singapore Rebel' to the Singapore International Film Festival Short Film Competition.

March 11 2005 - Martyn See withdraws video after a warning by Film Festival director Lesley Ho that the censors has deemed the film to be "objectionable" under the Films Act. An email a week later from Ho noted that the authorities will consider the "matter dropped" if film is withdrawn.

April 2005 : 'Singapore Rebel' is sent to human rights film festivals in USA, New Zealand and Malaysia.

April 11 2005 : The Media Development Authority lodges a police report against Martyn See. (This was first made known to See in the police interview on March 16)

May 16 2005 : First police interview at the Cantonment Police Complex.

August 25 2005 : 2nd police interview at the Cantonment Police Complex.

August 29 2005 : Camera and all tapes relating to the production of 'Singapore Rebel' are surrendered to the police.

Sept 20 2005 : Filmmaker Tan Pin Pin and blogger Jacob George is called in for questioning by the police over their association with Martyn See. Two other associates of See were also called up during this period.

Oct 15 2005 : In response to a letter in the Straits Times asking if a recently-aired TV series profiling PAP ministers had contravened the Films Act, a spokeswoman from the ministry replied that "the series clearly did not breach the Films Act as the discussions were conducted in a non-partisan manner and were aired by MediaCorp for the purpose of reporting current affairs."

Dec 6 2005 : When asked by Time magazine on the ban on 'Singapore Rebel', Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew was quoted in saying,"Well, if you had asked me, I would have said, to hell with it. But the censor, the enforcer, he will continue until he is told the law has changed. And it will change."

Jan 6 2006 : Martyn See submits 'Zahari's 17 Years' to the Singapore International Film Festival.

Mar 20 2006 : 3rd police interview at the Tampines Neighbourhood Police Post.

Apr 13 2006 : 'Zahari's 17 Years' is passed by censors but film festival cancels screening. It has not been publicly shown locally or abroad.

Aug 7 2006 : Police issues warning to Martyn See and case is closed.


Singapore film maker gets police warning

SINGAPORE, Aug 7 (Reuters) - The Singapore police said on Monday it had issued a warning to a local film director who made a documentary about an opposition politician, but decided not to prosecute him, bringing a year-long investigation to a close.

While Singapore has been trying to encourage a homegrown film and media industry, the city-state's Films Act bars the making and distribution of "party political films" -- an offence punishable with a maximum fine of S$100,000 ($63,690) or up to two years in prison.

Martyn See, 37, whose film about the Singapore Democratic Party's leader Chee Soon Juan was rejected by a local film festival last year, has been questioned by police several times since May 2005.

In the notice sent to See and seen by Reuters, police told See to refrain from "such conduct or other criminal conduct" adding that the "same leniency" may not be shown in future.

"The police said they have decided to let me off with a warning and told me not to do it again. But until today, I have not been told why the video was deemed as a party political film," See told Reuters.

See's 26-minute film, "Singapore Rebel", chronicled Chee's civil disobedience campaign and showed footage of his arrest for speaking in public without a permit.

Under Singapore law, local films that "contain wholly or partly either partisan or biased references to or comments on any political matter" are banned, according to the Films Act.

Singapore is frequently criticised by human rights groups for its restrictions on the opposition and media.

A public gathering of more than four people requires a police permit. Several opposition politicians have been sued by the country's leaders for defamation.

The government says such action is necessary to maintain law and order.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

No laughter in politics please, we're Singaporeans

"It is good to have a sense of humour but we must take care not to allow humour or satire to mask the key issues. The bottomline is that a sense of humour is necessary but more importantly, we must remember that elections and choice of leaders for the country are serious matters. Elections are certainly not laughing matters."
- Dr Lee Boon Yang, Minister of Information, Communications and the Arts, June 1 2006

Members of the PAP team of Jurong GRC unveiling themselves to the electorate in a costume parade, New Paper Apr 17, 2006. Jurong GRC was uncontested.

Mr Brown vs Ms Bhavani

Landmines everywhere

Mr Brown, the de facto spokesperson for responsible blogging in Singapore, whose slogan to bloggers during the recent elections was "Prison got no broadband," has found himself tripping on a landmine beyond the boundaries of the invisible OB markers (out-of-bound markers) of political expression.

He pens satires, makes fresh and astute observations of social and political life in Singapore, publishes pictures of himself and his family, and receives no salary or official commendation for his labour of love.

She writes in official-speak, makes hackneyed and cookie-cutter arguments on the government's role in Singapore, issues veiled threats under the covers of political office, and for which she gets paid, more than handsomely one suspect, to preserve the status-quo of her employers.

She is now accusing him of being partisan, of hiding behind the covers of anonymity and of encouraging cynicism.

Read Mr Brown's article

and Ms Bhavani's response

Cherian George, accused of being "partisan" by the Prime Minister's Office just earlier this year, chips in on Bhavani's reply.

Others weigh in.

Wednesday, May 31, 2006

In Singapore, a censor's cuts and sensibilities

By Sara Webb | May 31, 2006

SINGAPORE (Reuters) - Singapore's chief censor, Amy Chua, says she loves human interest films -- the kind where the humble protagonist succeeds against all odds.

"Erin Brockovich," "Billy Elliot" and "Million Dollar Baby" are among her favorites. "Cut," in which Singapore director Royston Tan settled a score with the censors for mutilating one of his films, is not.

In "Cut," a film buff chases a frumpy censor as she wheels her cart down a supermarket aisle, and reels off a string of films which the bureaucrat had snipped -- from "Lost in Translation" to "Titanic." "Cut" itself, first shown in 2004, was not censored.

"This film misrepresents the Board of Film Censors (BFC) because we are portrayed as being "scissors-happy" when this is far from the truth," Chua, the BFC's chairwoman, told Reuters. "I'd prefer if we are viewed as classifiers rather than censors.

The film won a following among cineastes in the city-state, where an outing to the cinema often used to be memorable not so much for the film itself as for the jerky edits excising bare breasts, sex scenes and obscenities.

"'Cut' is a plea from the Singapore film industry," said Tan.

However, Singapore's long-standing stranglehold over content is being eroded thanks to technology, now that many films can be downloaded for free over the Internet.

Two years ago, following a review of censorship practices, Singapore revised its classification of films and videos, giving a wider range of ratings. Now there is a category for viewers over 18 years old, in addition to existing ones for 16-plus and 21-plus. Now there is less need to cut "adult" scenes as a film can be rated for a mature audience.


"Censorship is a reflection of a country's social norms and values," said Chua, a demure woman in her 50s who is in charge of content for film, video, broadcast and publications at the information ministry's Media Development Authority (MDA).

"In Scandinavia full nudity (on screen) might not be a problem, but if we had full nudity, parents would complain."

The censors' vetting of videos brought into the country for personal use may be eliminated next, Chua said.

The addition of the category for over 18s gave viewers more choice while protecting younger audiences, she said. As a result, films that deal with controversial issues -- at least for Singapore -- can be seen in cinemas.

The city-state officially outlaws gay sex.

Wong Kar-Wai's gay love story "Happy Together" was shown first at a film festival but was not allowed for commercial distribution under the old rating system.

But award-winning "Brokeback Mountain," based on Annie Proulx's story about two gay cowboys, was shown uncut this year.

"It didn't really glorify homosexuality as a lifestyle, and scenes were tastefully shot," said Chua who, as head of the BFC, reviews controversial films such as "Brokeback Mountain" and "Kinsey," which is based on the life of sex researcher Alfred Kinsey.

But Tan, the Singaporean director, ran afoul of censors with his film about local youth gangs: "15" had 27 cuts for offensive language, violence and gang chants which the authorities feared might incite violence and glorify gang culture.


Singapore's sensitivities extend beyond sex, violence and swear words to political, racial and religious issues, reflecting more than four decades of one-party rule and a population mix of ethnic Chinese, Malays and Indians.

The People's Action Party, which has dominated politics since independence in 1965, has repeatedly used defamation lawsuits against opposition politicians. In the run-up to the May 6 general election, the government warned Singaporeans against posting political commentary in blogs and podcasts.

Last year, Singaporean film director Martyn See had to withdraw his documentary on opposition politician Chee Soon Juan from a film festival. See was then questioned by police, who confiscated copies of the film as well as his film equipment.

"Political subjects can be treated in a film. It's how you treat it, whether it's balanced," said Chua who spent most of her career at Singapore's state broadcaster making documentaries and managing programing.

The Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts (MICA) said last year that "party political films are disallowed because they are an undesirable medium for political debate in Singapore." MICA said "the ban here is only on films which deal with political issues in a partisan manner."

The See saga prompted a member of the public, Kelvin Lau Jit Hwee, to write to a local newspaper pointing out that the state-owned broadcaster had screened a series about government leaders: Could they also have violated regulations and face investigation by police, he asked.

The government said the series did not breach the Films Act "as the discussions were conducted in a non-partisan manner."

"Things have improved, but it's often a case of two steps forward, one step back," said poet and writer Felix Cheong.

Friday, May 12, 2006

Exiled dissident Tan Wah Piow on Singapore elections

Singapore: New regime, old authority?
Yong Kai Ping and Kuek Ser Kuang Keng
May 6, 06

Is Singapore opening up under the new administration of Lee Hsien Loong? Are the new casinos a sign of greater freedom? Will the Singapore elections promise any breakthrough for democracy in Singapore?

For one of Singapore's most renowned dissident, Tan Wah Piow, the new regime under Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong is experimenting with a slightly more liberal agenda to counter the cynicism among the young, but party politics is still very much under strict control.

According to Tan, the whole political process in Singapore is so "sterile" that nobody will challenge the state's authority unless the state feels there is a need to loosen up a bit for their own interest.

"In Singapore, they will give you the basic rights if only when they feel is good for them," Tan told malaysiakini while visiting friends in Kuala Lumpur last week.

Tan's 'infamy' stems from his student activism heydays at the National University of Singapore (NUS) during the 70s where he was jailed eight months for "inciting riots".

Fearing for his safety, Tan fled Singapore in 1975 and sought asylum in United Kingdom. Later he was admitted to Oxford and studied law. Currently holding a UK passport, Tan is a leading human rights lawyer in London.

Tan spoke extensively on Singapore's coming general election which takes place today. The People's Action Party (PAP) was denied a walk-over victory as in previous elections and now having to contest for 47 out of 84 parliamentary seats, an unprecedented event since 1988.

Q: How do you view the new administration under Lee Hsien Loong?

A: I don't see anything new in terms of mindset. They have made it illegal to campaign via blogging and text messaging during the elections.

Lee Hsien Loong tries to look as though he is giving the opposition a fighting chance. But why they need to take that kind of action against Chee Soon Juan (who was bankrupted for defamation by the government and thus not eligible to contest) if they want to show themselves as being democratic?

The message that you sent to the population is "don't mess around with us." That is the most serious consequence to Singapore's political culture.

It is reported that Lee Hsien Loong wants to wipe out all the opposition in the coming elections to gain a stronger mandate.

Goh Chok Tong's lost four seats when he first led PAP into an election. The second time, he lost two. It is not a question of losing the elections, but the percentage of votes obtained. The benchmark Hsien Loong will be judged on is probably Goh's first elections.

I think he will have to win with less than four opposition seats. However people say that the PAP is now fielding more professionals and they have also implemented the group representation constituencies (GRC) system. To win one (constituency) is already very difficult for the opposition, let alone a GRC.

Probably what they are most afraid of will be the active cynicism, the attitude of "I don't care, you will get in but I will dissociate with you" among the younger generation.

You can praise your own regime by whatever way, people just 'switch-off'. It means the justification for nation building is difficult for them. They won't identify with the party and the state, if I have to leave, I will leave (through migration).

So you think the PAP can't capture the people's attention? But there have been efforts since the 80's to get the people to be involved.

What they are doing appears to be extremely progressive in getting more public participation. There are a lot of those institutions for the old and young but the underlying motive behind is still the hegemony of one party, which is what distorts the whole process.

If you challenge the decision of the state, you will be accused of all kinds of things. They will undermine you before you start. The moment they smell that you have the opposition tendency, they will mark you and if you are really an oppositionist, then you will get into serious problems. If you exist as an individual, they can tolerate you as a eccentric, tolerate in the sense that they won't put you in jail. The moment they sense (you are) organising, then you are in deep trouble.

You don't think the regime is more open now? They are allowing gambling.

That is the neo-liberal economic philosophy, which needs not necessary involve political liberalism. I hope people are not misinterpreting this.

They are experimenting a bit of this and that, but that absolute control is undeniable.

Do you think they are experimenting with political liberalism?

I can't say they are exactly the same as the Lee Kuan Yew's regime, they are experimenting a slightly more liberal agenda but the party politics is still under very much direct control and monitoring.

They will never cease using the Internal Security Department (ISD) to monitor the opposition. I think once an instrument of the state is used to monitor the opposition to serve the ruling party, and not for national security, you can't call such a system democratic.

But why?

They need to respond to the demand of the younger generation, to address the perception that they (PAP) are intolerant and so on. They need to demonstrate that the government is open-minded and tolerant of dissent.

I suppose that is why the senior Lee (Kuan Yew) wanted to test the younger generation's disappointment. The (televised) debate among Kuan Yew and the youths ended up as (a debate) on whether it is right to be disrespectful (to Kuan Yew), but that is not the issue.

So do you still pin the hope on the younger generation?

I think in every political process, they still need new ideas. The youths seem more distracted and show more concern for materialism than political ideals. Singapore wanted to use, although not overtly, Israel as a model to harden national consensus and the sense of national survival.

But I think that is a different context because Israel is very different from Singapore in terms of ethnicity, religion and so on. You can't copy the whole model, the idealism and the sense of nationalism, The urgency is not there.

The whole justification that Singapore can't have democratic space is that you are surrounded, and thus adopting a kind of 'under siege' mentality. You might get some support in the early period but not in this age. I can always pack up and go, then come back to Singapore as a visitor.

There is definitely a close political culture and historical link between Singapore and Malaysia. It is better for us to emphasise on our common destiny instead of differences. Is it by coincidence that the younger generation did not feel any affinity for Malaysia or is it the consequences of the way the Singapore state handles the relationship. I think Singaporeans will know more about Europe or Australia or those places where the culture is alien compared to Malaysia. We have to ask ourselves, is this healthy? Can Singapore's long term destiny be completely independent from Malaysia?

You think Malaysians have the same misunderstanding towards Singaporeans?

If you study in Britain, then you will know how people in the campus look at Singaporeans. There is the impression that they are arrogant, does not have that kind of maturity to understand the differences and disparity; and that they always think they are more sophisticated. In UK campuses, the 'kiasu' mentality is alive and kicking.

Malaysian Chinese may see Singapore as a heaven for career, and really, Singapore, I must say, is very well managed. (But) that cannot be a justification for the restraints in giving political rights. I think Singapore is effective because it has a powerful state intervention apparatus which is far better than any industrialised country.

Someone told me that the government is giving more publicity to the opposition. Apparently Lee Hsien Long is trying to appear to have a clean fight so that they can enjoy a more convincing win. And PAP will win convincingly again.

The whole political process in Singapore is so sterile that nobody will challenge the state's authority unless the state feels there is the need to relax a bit for their interest. In Singapore, they will give you the basic rights if only when they feel is good for them. That's why I can never agree with them.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Censors say Zahari's 17 Years rated PG, but film fest cancelled screening

A new development has suddenly clouded yesterday's cancellation of the scheduled screening of Zahari's 17 Years as a non-finalist short film entry at the Singapore International Film Festival.

According to a local journalist, the censors confirmed today that Zahari's 17 Years was passed with a PG rating last week. Yet, when I spoke to a festival staff yesterday, he said the screening was cancelled as the censors has yet to authorise the screening.

Somebody bungled. You go figure.

All public screenings of films and videos in Singapore require a permit from the Board of Film Censors. According to its website, exceptions are made for "educational videos, documentaries, programmes for children and pre-1966 movies."

Zahari's 17 Years is my second self-directed film - after Singapore Rebel, for which I am still undergoing police investigations for violating section 33 of the Films Act which prohibits films which contain "either partisan or biased references to or comments on any political matter."

Recently, we have seen a run of documentaries and events highlighting Singapore's political past.
In December, government-linked companies sponsored the "History of Singapore", a three-hour extravaganza on Discovery Channel which had included interviews with former political detainee Fong Swee Suan and veteran opposition leader JB Jeyaretnam.

The recent demise of PAP old guard S. Rajaratnam also precipitated a telethon of tributes on ChannelNewsAsia, sparking a renewed interest in Singapore's post-independence history.

On February 26, a forum entitled Detention-Writing-Healing was held at the Esplanade. Speaking for the first time in public, ex-political detainees Tan Jing Quee and Michael Fernandez described to a packed audience on their experiences under detention without trial. Said Zahari was invited to speak at the same forum but he did not travel due to health concerns.

S'pore International Film Festival hosts political films

The following films will be screened in this year's program, except the last (which due an unsolved gaffe, was not screened).

The Last Communist
Director: Amir Muhammad
Country: Malaysia
Loosely based on the autobiography of Chin Peng, the legendary Malayan communist guerrilla leader, the film tells of the little-known role of the Communist Party of Malaya towards the dissolution of British rule in the country. It features lives of people in present-day Sitiawan, Chin Peng's birthplace in Perak, Malaysia and interviews with Malaysian communists currently living in exile in southern Thailand. Filled with songs and dance routines, the film is an unusual pop cultural document of Malaysian history.

Director: Riri Riza
Country: Indonesia
Idealist, teacher, writer, rebel and a central yet unknown political activist in the 60s, the darkest era of Indonesian history - that is who Chinese-Indonesian Soe Hok-Gie is. Even as the people around him adjust to Suharto's new regime, he continues to fight. His uncompromising idealism drives those close to him away - his friends and the woman he loves. Awarded the Hubert Bals Fund of the International Film Festival Rotterdam for its content and artistic value and winner of the Best Movie at the 2005 Indonesian Film.

Garuda's Deadly Upgrade
Director: Lexy Rambadeta/David O'Shea
Country: Australia / Indonesia
The death and murder of Munir Said Thalib, Indonesia's leading human rights activist convulsed Indonesian society leading to allegations of military and intelligence involvement. In Garuda's Deadly Upgrade, employing interviews with Suciwati, Munir's wife, and colleagues, Lexy Rambadeta and David O'Shea give an eerie but at times haunting account of the activist's last moments before he boarded Garuda Airlines, Indonesia's national carrier, bound for the Netherlands, and who died on board of arsenic poisoning.

Bush's Brain
Director: Joseph Mealey / Michael Shoob
Country: USA
The explosive documentary Bush's Brain suggests that George W. Bush would never have been president without Karl Rove, the President's closest advisor. Rove is the man known as "Bush's Brain", the most powerful political figure America has never heard of, the Wizard of Oz behind the curtain of today's Presidential politics. Based on the best-selling book by journalists James Moore and Wayne Slater, Bush's Brain chronicles Rove's history of political chicanery and dirty tricks.

Chinese Villagers' DV Documentaries On Village-Level Democracy
Director: Various
Country: China
This film is a collection of 10 short documentary films made by amateur filmmakers from around China. The film explores the experience of democracy by giving a rare glimpse of lives in rural China and the changing dynamics of village structure and governance. The effort is a project under the EU-China Training Programme on Village Governance and the first of its kind to be produced in China.

Waking Up The Nation
Director: Agostino Imondi
Country: Australia / Germany
A group of Australians concerned about the constant media reports of human rights violations against asylum seekers in Australia's immigration detention centres decides to embark on a two-month /12,000 kilometre journey around the country to visit as many detainees as possible, to raise awareness as well as to expose some of the mistreatments.

To Die For
Director: Andibachtiar Yusuf
Country: Indonesia
In Indonesia, in political elections, most people don't know what they should vote for. But there are some people who really know what they should vote for and die for it.

Terlena - Breaking of a Nation
Director: Andre Vltchek
Country: Indonesia
Documentary about a nation that still believes the propaganda created by one general and his army. This film gives voice to those silenced during the dictatorship of Soeharto, and takes an in-depth look both on a cultural and personal level.

Migrant Workers Are Not Terrorists!
Director: Jouni Hokkanen/Simojukka Ruippo
Country: Finland
Christian was a member of the communist party in Germany, but was kicked out because he was too radical. Now the veteran agitator tries to start a revolution in Seoul. During the day he protests outdoors for migrant rights, in the night he sleeps in a tent at Myeong-dong, the Korean equivalent of Times Square.

The Russell Tribunal
Director: Staffan Lamm
Country: Sweden
Stockholm, 1967: With participants including Jean-Paul Sartre, the Russell Tribunal investigates US war crimes in Vietnam. Victims of the war are called to witness. Today, from a distance of more than 35 years, the director reflects on his old footage from the tribunal, as well as some never been seen before.

Zahari's 17 Years
Director: Martyn See
Country: Singapore
In the early hours of 2nd February 1963, security police in Singapore launched Operation Coldstore - the mass arrests and detention of more than a hundred leaders and activists of political parties, trade unions and student movements, for their alleged involvement in "leftist" or "communist" activities. One of those arrested was former newspaper editor Said Zahari, who had been appointed the leader of an opposition party just three hours earlier.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Zahari's 17 Years awaiting approval from censors

Zahari's 17 Years is now before the Board of Film Censorhip, awaiting clearance for screening as a non-finalist entry of the Singapore International Film Festival short film competition. It is one of two short film entries yet to be given a rating by the authorities.

Subject to clearance, Zahari's 17 Years is scheduled to be screened at the following.

4pm, April 16 Sunday
163 Penang Road, #05-01
Winsland House 2

I am optmistic it will pass the cut. Reason is here.

Said Zahari, a former leftist activist, shows his latest memoir in front of his books collection at his home in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Saturday, March 25, 2006. Said Zahari, who was arrested in 1963 and detained without trial by Singaporean authorities for 17 years has written a memoir detailing his experiences as a political prisoner and hopes the book will provide a different perspective of the political events that shaped Singapore's road to independence in 1965 and its first decades of nationhood. (AP Photo/Andy Wong)

Former political prisoner says he's not bitter despite 17 years in
Singaporean detention

Associated Press Writer

Apr 8, 2006

SINGAPORE (AP) - In the twilight of his life, a former leftist activist who was arrested in 1963 on suspicion of plotting violent acts and detained without trial for 17 years says he bears no ill will toward Singapore.

"I don't have this sense of vengeance, or feel bitter about what happened to me. Singapore is my country, I love it," said Said Zahari, an ailing 78-year-old who lives in Malaysia. "I only wish that it will become a more open society."

Said also wants young Singaporeans to get another perspective on the often tumultuous events that shaped the road to independence in 1965 and Singapore's first decades of nationhood under the ruling People's Action Party.

The party, gearing up for parliamentary elections soon, still dominates. Lee Kuan Yew, the man who led the party at the time of Said's arrest, remains a powerful force in politics. He transformed Singapore into a regional center for finance and manufacturing, while maintaining a tight grip on society and politics.

Said has written a memoir about life as a political prisoner. A Malaysian publisher will launch the English-language version of the book in Malaysia next month.

Said wants his book to be distributed in Singapore, and a previous political memoir by him is available in at least one Singaporean bookstore and the national library. In a statement, A.R. Madeei, assistant director of publications at the state Media Development Authority, said Said's book, like all imported publications, would be "subject to the laws of the land."

Such laws include prohibitions on publications deemed objectionable on moral, racial or religious grounds, or detrimental to Singapore's national interests.

"The book deals mostly with our lives in prison, those political detainees arrested together with me, and others following that," Said said in a telephone interview from Malaysia.

He said some detainees were beaten and deprived of sleep for days, and that he and other inmates held a three-month hunger strike.

"I wanted the younger generation of Singapore to know the other side of history," he said.

Singapore's longest-serving political prisoner, Chia Thye Poh, was jailed without trial for 23 years from 1966 for alleged communist activities. International human rights groups often protested the detention.

The Home Affairs Ministry had no comment about Said.

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 a colonial-era law allowing 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.

"In solitary confinement, you're deprived of everything. You don't know if it's morning or noon or night, and you've no one to talk to for days, weeks and months," he said.

"So I talked to myself, as if I was dictating to a tape recorder, about my life, about what I did. By doing so, I had relief of the tension in my mind."

He also missed the birth of his youngest daughter and when his wife had breast cancer.

"Those were the days when I felt so horrible to see things happening outside, things happening to my wife that I couldn't do anything about," said Said, his voice low and gravelly.

Said 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.

There, he began his memoirs. The new book, entitled "The Long Nightmare: My 17 Years in Lee Kuan Yew's Prison," is the second installment of a planned trilogy he is writing in the book-lined study of his home in Subang Jaya, near Kuala Lumpur.

"In some ways it is sad that young Singaporeans don't know who he is, largely because of the way the history of Singapore post-1965 has been a history of the victors," said Chua Beng Huat, a sociologist at the National University of Singapore.

Young S'poreans need to know more about post-1965 history: PM Lee

By Joanne Leow, Channel NewsAsia

SINGAPORE : More needs to be done to educate young Singaporeans about Singapore's founding fathers and its post-independence history, says Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

Speaking at the 25th anniversary of Raffles Junior College and the official opening of its new campus in Bishan, he said this was one way to help young Singaporeans stay committed to Singapore.

One of the top junior colleges in Singapore, RJC has produced many top students and high flyers.

And with its spanking new premises and independent status, it wants to create more opportunities for its students..

PM Lee said: "But RJC's mission is not just to produce brilliant students who can compete with the best in the world. More importantly, RJC must also nurture a leadership team for Singapore - students who are committed to Singapore and their fellow Singaporeans, because they have benefited from the system, and have a genuine desire to give back to society and make a difference in the lives of others."

The Prime Minister says he hopes all young Singaporeans will get a better sense of their country's history.

In fact, the syllabi in History and Social Studies is being updated to teach the younger generation more about Singapore's founding fathers and its tumultuous post-independence past.

Mr Lee said: "We now have a lacuna, a gap, in the generation of Singaporeans who were too young to know our pioneering leaders first-hand and, at the same time, too old to have learnt the modern syllabus. Hence when Mr Rajaratnam passed away recently, many Singaporeans in their 30s and younger admitted they knew little about who he was and what he had done."

In fact, it was only in the last 6 years that more post-independence history was taught.

This was because the government felt that more time need to have passed to allow for an objective, historical perspective of the events which happened. - CNA/ch