Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Zahari's 17 Years - rated PG by censors, banned by Minister

The above documents were delivered to my home this afternoon. One is a public statement while the other is a letter specifically addressed to me.

Both documents basically dictated the same message - that as of April 12 2007, the film 'Zahari's 17 Years' will attain the same illicit status in Singapore as a copy of Playboy or FEER. Anyone caught in possession or distribution of the material will be liable on conviction to a fine or imprisonment. The public statement did not spell out the penalties but the letter to me most certainly hit home the point.

The public statement also made no mention of the fact that the Minister himself has banned the film under Section 35(1) of the Films Act, which basically accords absolute discretionary powers to one person to decide if a film is suitable for public viewing. This is unlike the case of 'Singapore Rebel', which was deemed to have violated Section 33 which bans political films with "biased references". I was told by a Straits Times reporter earlier that this marks the first time that Section 35 has been evoked to ban a film.

Further, in the public statement, it said that I had submitted the film for classification, as if it was the first submission. Indeed, I had gone to the Board of Film Censors on January 11 this year, but it wasn't for the purpose of classification. I was there to make an application to obtain an exhibition licence to screen the film. I was made to understand that a film passed by the censors does not entail a licence to screen it publicly. A separate permit is required.

Here it gets a little screwy.

'Zahari's 17 Years' was first submitted to the Board of Film Censors by the Singapore International Film Festival around March of 2006. Information obtained from MDA by journalists at Today and ZaoBao indicated that the film had been passed clean with a Parental Guidance (PG) rating. Yet, the SIFF did not screen it, and has refused to disclose any reason for the no-show.

Then the Asian Film Archive decided to make another application to screen the film as part of the Substation's 6th Asian Film Symposium in September. Again the film was passed clean with a PG rating (see document on the left). But again the festival organisers withdrew the film with no official explanation.

It was on the premise that the film had already been cleared twice by the censors that I decided to apply for an exhibition licence on January 11, only to be slapped, three months later, with yet another ban.

The Government has shown itself incapable of engaging in any kind of open dialogue on its dark history of detentions without trial. It has refused to acknowlege the fact that the ISA has been used in many instances to achieve its political ends. And interestingly, despite its regurgitation of Said Zahari as a former security threat, the international press continues to tag him a former "political detainee".


Singapore bans documentary about former political prisoner
Tanalee Smith
Published: Tuesday, April 10, 2007

SINGAPORE (AP) - Singapore said Tuesday it would ban a documentary about the 17-year detention of a former leftist activist because its "distorted and misleading" portrayal of the events could undermine confidence in the government.

"Zahari's 17 Years" is a 49-minute interview with Said Zahari, who was arrested in 1963 on suspicion of plotting violent acts and detained without trial for 17 years. Said, 78, now lives in Malaysia.

The Ministry of Information, Communication and the Arts, which vets all films before release, said in a statement that the film was an attempt to clear Said of his involvement in activities against Singapore.

"The government will not allow people who had posed a security threat to the country in the past, to exploit the use of films to purvey a false and distorted portrayal of their past actions and detention by the government. This could undermine public confidence in the government."

Filmmaker Martyn See, who was under investigation last year for a documentary about an opposition leader, said he was surprised by the ban. He said the film, produced at the end of 2005, had been approved twice last year with a PG rating. When it was not shown at the 2006 Singapore International Film Festival, as he expected, See applied for an exhibition licence to screen it publicly.

"I don't know what changed. Maybe different people with different views watched it this time," See told The Associated Press. "I based my questions to Said on his first book, which is sold in Singapore. So what is in the film is not something the government didn't know."

He said he had been ordered by the censorship board to surrender all copies of the film by Wednesday afternoon.

Said, contacted by telephone at his home in Malaysia, was shocked to hear of the ban. He said he had already accepted an invitation to come to Singapore next month to give a speech at the film's screening by a university film institute.

"This is very funny. I don't understand why they would ban it at all. What I said in the movie I have already said in my book, and much, much more," he told AP. "That was 40 years ago. Is the government still afraid?"

"I feel sorry for Singaporeans who have not been given a chance to see the other side of Singapore history, particularly the 1960s and '70s. It's not fair," he said.

Said's detention came in the early years after British colonizers gave self-government to Singapore in 1959. In the early 1960s, authorities arrested left-wing politicians, trade unionists and Chinese students involved in strikes and rallies, accusing them of being violent subversives planning a communist state.

Said was detained on Feb. 2, 1963, hours after he was appointed president of a left-wing party.

Singapore, which was planning a merger with what later became Malaysia, said the swoop was aimed at individuals threatening to use violence to sabotage the proposed amalgamation. The detainees were jailed under the colonial-era Internal Security Act, which allows for arrest without charge and indefinite detention without trial.

Said, who denied the accusations, was held for years, sometimes in solitary confinement, after the merger failed in 1965 and Singapore became independent.

He was released in 1979, at age 51. A stroke in 1992 left him reliant on a walking stick and prompted his move to Malaysia, where his children had relocated.

The banning of "Zahari's 17 Years" under the Film Act prohibits exhibition, possession and distribution of the film.

The film's director, See, was investigated by police last year concerning a documentary he made about an opposition leader. He was given a "stern warning" but could have faced prison time or a fine if convicted of knowingly producing and distributing a "party political film."

That film, "Singapore Rebel," was screened at film festivals in New Zealand and the United States, but not in Singapore.

Amnesty International criticized Singapore for that case against See, saying the city-state was stifling artistic freedom and preventing citizens from expressing dissenting views.

Singapore authorities tightly restrict media and political speech, moves that regularly draw criticism from international human rights groups. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has acknowledged tensions over the regulations but defended them as necessary to maintain order.

Singapore bans film about ex-political detainee
Tuesday, April 10, 2007; 9:05 AM

SINGAPORE (Reuters) - Singapore is banning a film about a former political detainee who was held for 17 years without trial to protect public interests, the government said.

The film "Zahari's 17 Years" about former journalist Said Zahari -- arrested in 1963 for suspected subversive activities, including communist sympathies -- will be banned because it is "against public interests," the Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts said on Tuesday.

"The film gives a distorted and misleading portrayal of Said Zahari's arrest and detention under the Internal Security Act," the Ministry said in a statement.

"Zahari's 17 Years" is directed by local film director Martyn See, who was investigated by the Singapore police for a year after he produced a documentary about opposition leader Chee Soon Juan in 2005.

Singapore, which is frequently criticized by human rights groups for its restrictions on the opposition and media, bans political films that contain "biased references to or comments on any political matter."

See said he has been asked to turn over all copies of the banned film on Tuesday by Singapore's Media Development Authority, which has also rejected his application to screen it in the city-state.

"Zahari's 17 Years" is a 50-minute long interview with Zahari about his 17-year detention -- one of the longest in Singapore -- and the fear among former political detainees to talk about their experience, See said.

"The government is clearly not allowing history to be heard. It does not want to acknowledge the history of detention because it is an acute embarrassment," See said.

The film has been screened in film festivals in Malaysia and Canada, he said.

The Ministry said "Zahari's 17 Years" was an attempt by Zahari "to exculpate himself from his past involvement in communist united front activities against the interests of Singapore."

"The government will not allow people who had posed a security threat to the country in the past to exploit the use of films to purvey a false and distorted portrayal of their past actions and detention by the government," the ministry said, adding that this may "undermine public confidence in the government."


Joe90 said...

Just what makes them think they have the right to arbitrarily deem what is in or against the public's interest, I really don't understand.

Those overpaid wankers in charge are just full of shit.

Anonymous said...

Put it on youtube man! This is the age of the new media. The fuck they can do about it.

Anonymous said...

Oh my god! i just came across this blog today and whatever i have been hearing so far in bits and pieces is all up here in a nutshell.

Anonymous said...

I don't think it's justifiable for them to demand you turn over copies of the film. Ban it for all they want but the copies is your property.

Anonymous said...

they don't deserve a pay increase at all.
They don't have the ability and courage to engage things publicly but underhandedly.
This is an act of a scumbag and scumbag don't deserve millions!

Anonymous said...

Martyn, if you do have the financial means, I really suggest you get the fuck out of this country and pursue whatever it is you want to pursue.

Even now, we are nothing more than still a fishing village that's trying to adapt to the world.

Looks like we'll have to wait for Lee Kuan Yew to pass on.

Anonymous said...

Put it on youtube. The more they want to banned, the more we should show it to the world.

Anonymous said...

so truth equals porn in singapore now huh? but yes, we can still view pron online which means that we can view Said Zahari online too. better still, put it on google video instead if you don't mind people downloading it and redistributing the message.

k said...

Why should we even stand for this?

This is a hindrance to a fair exchange of ideas. We are taught since young to balance both sides of the argument, and one segment here has decided that it's jolly good to play the arbiter of what is a fair outcome.

It's frankly making things worse. A rational ministry would simply allow it to be shown, with the yada-yada of a press release stating their side of the story and life goes on.

Leon said...

I am shocked to find out that it is possible for the Information Minister to ban a film if he/she deems it to be not of "public interest". How does one define public interest? If you ask me, the public is certainly interested in watching "Zahari's 17 Years" for its historical and controversial value. When are they going to realise that when something is restricted, people are more than interested to see it?

Anonymous said...

view the entire documentary here


Anonymous said...

Make the best of your situation. Treat this as free publicity. :)

Anonymous said...

youtube would be great approach, unfortunately the film maker will face punishment under Singapore law. He is forbidden distribution under singapore law.

The only way would be to have someone that can prove they already had a copy of the film prior to the ban and that the film maker had no involvement in putting the film up on youtube.

i have seen the film overseas, and i'm also familiar with the process and policy around the Internal Security Act (ISA). this layer of law overrides other laws or protections the law is supposed to provide to its citizens in the first place.

i know how it is to be visited in the evening by plain clothes individuals from the SG gov't and be ask lots of things and "gently" reminded that its time to leave SG and seek a life elsewhere.

i know the audience enjoyed the screening in Canada. regardless if the story was historically correct or not, it was the story told by a single person, and merely recorded by the film maker. its an important part of the overall record, and if SG gov't could embrace its past and make peace with it, it could enter a phase of its mission to build and strengthen the country. Software (Heartware) PAP boys . PM Lee knows what i mean.

its not that SG people would loose confidence in their gov't. SG people give gov't credit for the progress. Its the gov't that doesn't trust its people and is a afraid what would happen if people saw the movie. PAP boys, we wouldn't topple you, but be uniquely singapore, enjpy the freedom, go for kopi after the film and discuss, and afterwards go home to our HDBs, watch your tv program and think: ok lah, got house, got wife, kids, CPF... casino also come, so i happy already. PM lee get my vote again.



Anonymous said...

It looks like it is more in the interest of LKY than the public's interest. LKY is indeed a coward. I am glad I saw this film. I never knew this part of Singapore's history. How can we go about this to ensure that many more Singaporeans get to see the video?

The Cocoon Man 天蚕人 said...

Hi Martyn and all,

The reason for the ban is very simple:
It does not undermine the government but it UNDERMINES the authority and stature of Lee Kuan Yew.

I saw the film in its entirety on YouTube and I must mention that Zahari hasn't gotten any kind words for LKY except he doesn't bear a grudge against him.

Any Pro-PAP person would not be happy with it. Period!