Saturday, April 28, 2007

Film ban "ineffective and counter-productive"

Censorship: What's the way forward?

By Loh Chee Kong,
TODAY Posted: 27 April 2007

SINGAPORE: The decision by the Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts — and its use, for the first time, of the Minister's discretionary powers — to ban a film based on the arrest and detention of a former journalist and politician throws up a number of questions.

Why ban the film, Zahari's 17 Years, when it was passed with a PG rating not once but twice last year, to be screened at the Singapore International Film Festival and the Substation's Asian Film Symposium?

Neither organiser screened the film and it was reported that the Media Development Authority had told the Substation that the film may include defamatory content.

Why ban the film when the memoirs of Mr Said Zahari, a former editor of the Malay language newspaper Utusan Melayu and president of Parti Rakyat Singapura, are available in bookshops here?

As the 77-year-old told AFP: "What I said in the movie I have already said in my book, and much, much more."

Why create unnecessary curiosity and drive people online to watch the film, which has already found its way on to the Internet?

In today's wired world, it is more likely than not, the ban will be ineffective and counter-productive. Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew said as much recently: Censorship in the Internet age "makes no sense".

Indeed, a movie has a wider and more evocative reach than a book, since voice, motion, drama and images do tend to have a bigger impact on shaping the minds of audiences — which is why different rules must apply to different media, especially on issues that could get the viewers worked up.

I saw the film before the ban. It gave an account of Mr Said's arrest and detention days — including his recollection of taking Chinese lessons from a fellow detainee. He said he was not a foreign agent, nor a communist sympathiser. He also spoke critically about Mr Lee, when asked for his take on why he was detained.

Mica said that the film gives a "distorted and misleading" portrayal of Mr Said's arrest and detention and "could undermine public confidence in the Government". The film, it added, was "an attempt (by Mr Said) to "exculpate himself from his past involvement in communist front activities against the interests of Singapore".

Most Singaporeans recognise a good government — and a flat lie for that matter — when they see one. If the authorities were worried about whether the audience would be discerning enough to separate the wheat from the chaff, they could have given the film a higher classification rating.

If the intention was to send an unequivocal message, there are better ways to do so, including a rebuttal of the false accusations.

The Government has every right to take a stand against what it feels is a distorted account. If it felt that an open rebuttal would raise the film's profile unnecessarily — which it has inadvertently already done with the ban — the authorities could impose, as a condition for screening, a "government advisory" at the start or end of the film, to refute any misleading statements.

Actually, this was a great opportunity for the Government to engage Singaporeans on an important part of the country's history.

The tumultuous period from the '50s right through the '70s, with its backdrop of riots and demonstrations, can arguably be described as the defining period of nationhood.

These events, which were openly documented by newspapers, shaped the Republic's relatively short but no less rich history.

Yet, our school children do not get a good grasp of these events from our history textbooks — the same sources that described the '50s Hock Lee bus riots as having been primarily fuelled by dissatisfaction with long work hours and low pay.

Some researchers and historians have offered other possible reasons for the riots, such as anti-colonial sentiments and instigation by pro-communist quarters.

It is not that these accounts are not available here. One can go to the Internet, visit libraries and bookshops, attend forums — like the one held last year by former political detainees Messrs Tan Jing Quee and Michael Fernandez — or even get second-hand accounts from their parents or grandparents, to piece together this important chapter of the Singapore story.

Censorship is a double-edged sword, especially in today's YouTube world, where privacy is constantly under threat.

Allow anything and everything and you are likely to have an uncontrollable situation on your hands. Cut and censor and you will have a population hungry for the forbidden fruit.

So, how do we move forward?

Engage Singaporeans, let contrarian views find their voice and challenge the views of those who have different accounts.

The Government took a rare and bold move to debate ministerial salaries openly in Parliament, although it was not duty-bound to do so. Singaporeans wrote in to newspapers to give their views, not all of them agreeing with the Government.

Censorship deserves a similar airing. I can't think of a better way forward. - TODAY


Further readings

Digging into foundations is mischief
Defending the national scripture
Now S'pore copies M'sia: Bans another film

1 comment:

Fabien said...

That proves the Singapore government and the board of censorship are operating a decade behind the digital age. Out of touch! And a laughing stock!