Sunday, September 30, 2007

Martyn See speaks out on police probe, foreign "interference" and Burma

Cambodia Prime Minister Hun Sen's opening address

Speech at ASEM seminar on human rights

At the invitation of ASEF, I attended the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) Informal Seminar on Human Rights in Siem Reap, Cambodia from the 26th to 28th September, 2007. Billed as a "non-confrontational debate" on freedom of expression, the event was officially opened by Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen. Needless to say, the human rights abuses in Cambodia received short shrift in the forum, although the military crackdown in Burma was put forward as an agenda from the outset. In attendance were over a hundred representatives from governments and civil societies of Asia and Europe, including human rights officials from the United Nations.

The other Singaporean participants were
- Ms Vanessa Chan, the Counsellor-Designate for the Singapore Embassy in Yangon.
- Mr Tan Yew Soon, the Director of Public Communications at the Ministry of Communications, Information and the Arts
- Dr Cherian George, an assistant professor of journalism at the Nanyang Technological University.

At the closing session on the 'Future of Freedom of Expression', I was asked to relate my Singapore experience.

Here's the full transcript.


By no means am I an expert so I thought I'll regale you with my own personal Uniquely Singaporean experience of having been subjected to a law that restricts freedom of expression.

3 years ago, I made a documentary about a local opposition politician. I was rewarded with a double whammy. Not only did the censors banned the film, they went for the filmmaker. They filed a police complaint against me for alleged violation of section 33 of the Films Act - which basically prohibits the import, production, distribution and exhibition of any film which makes biased references to political matters. The offence carries a maximum penalty of 2 years imprisonment or a S$100,000 fine. So for the next 15 months, I was placed under police investigation. I was not arrested or detained. I merely had to present myself at the police station on a number of occasions for interrogation sessions. Some of my friends were also called in by the police over their relationship with me. In Singapore, the police are legally empowered to obtain phone records from telecommunications companies to assist their investigations.

I was born, educated and have lived all my life in Singapore. Over four decades, Mr Lee Kuan Yew, the Cambridge-educated founding father who now goes by the title of Minister Mentor, repeatedly tells his people that human rights and democracy are ideals invented by Western liberals that bear no relevance to Asian Values. Such notions, he added, does not put a roof over my head or food on my table. Only good governance can provide these things. By that decree, Singaporeans have by-and-large traded our political and civil liberties for economic growth, although not everyone has benefited from increased GDP gains.

There are General Elections but the opposition are unable to put up enough candidates to contest all 84 seats in Parliament. Many Singaporeans live out their entire lives without the opportunity to cast a single ballot. Freedom House says, "Citizens in Singapore are unable to change their governments democratically."

The domestic media is State-owned or State-controlled. Committee to Protect Journalists says, "State control of the media in Singapore is so complete that few dare to challenge the system and there is no longer much need to arrest or even harass journalists. Even foreign correspondents have learned to be cautious when reporting on Singapore, since the government has frequently hauled the international press into court to face lengthy and expensive libel suits. "

Singapore is ranked at number 154th in press freedom rankings by Reporters Without Borders.

The US State Department says, "In practice the government significantly restricted freedom of speech and freedom of the press. Government leaders historically have used court proceedings, in particular defamation suits, against political opponents and critics. Some judicial officials, especially supreme court judges, have ties to the ruling party and its leaders. It was widely believed that the authorities routinely conducted surveillance on some opposition politicians and other government critics."

Amnesty International says that Singapore executes more people on a per capita basis than any other country in the world. The death penalty and corporal punishment are legacies of British colonial rule.

It is a criminal offence for 5 or more persons to assemble in public for a cause without first obtaining a police permit. Again, this is a law that originated from British colonial masters. During the IMF-World Bank meetings in Singapore last year, the police threatened shoot-to-kill measures against violent protesters. Last month, a small group of Burmese nationals attempted to stage a march on Orchard Road, a downtown shopping belt. They were reportedly investigated by the police.

Now, coming back to my case. After 15 months, the police decided to drop all investigations by issuing me a "stern warning" in lieu of prosecution. In those 15 months, no lawyer in Singapore contacted me to offer legal assistance. (Although I did seek and received assistance from human rights lawyer Mr M. Ravi) The only public statement issued locally came from the opposition Singapore Democratic Party, of which its leader was the subject of my banned documentary.

Under this climate of fear and self-censorship, the only tool available to me by way of publicising my story was the internet. So I posted updates of the police investigation on my blog, and immediately it was picked up by news wire agencies based in Singapore. In the ensuing days and weeks, statements were issued by AI, RSF, CPJ and SEAPA. I believe then and now that international attention on my case was a key factor that led to the eventual withdrawal of charges against me.

In the letter of warning issued to me by the police, it stated that if I were to commit the same offence again, "the same leniency will not be shown." Well, since then I've made three more documentaries, all of which deals with political themes. The second of which - an extended interview with a former journalist detained without trial for 17 years in Singapore - has also been banned by the authorities. This time around, however, no police complaint has been filed.

The final twist to this almost farcical saga is that I had earlier sent out copies of my films to international human rights film festivals. Days after the ban was enforced, both the offending films appeared on youtube and google video. As we speak, the banned videos have generated a total of some 190,000 hits.

I'm not sure what the future holds for freedom of expression, especially in countries such as Singapore, but of this I'm certain - even as autocratic leaders accuse the west of interfering in their domestic politics, they DO listen to international opinions because their self-inflated egos demand that they do.

With regards to the situation in Burma, where each passing day of inaction from the international community will lead to more bloodshed, I reiterate this appeal made by Aung San Suu Kyi, whom the Burmese junta has labelled a traitor and foreign stooge. She had said, "Please use your liberty to promote ours."


After I spoke, MICA's Tan Yew Soon arose to assure the audience that laws in Singapore are applied equally. (Can somebody please file a police complaint against this DVD for possible violation of the Films Act pertaining to political films?)

Vanessa Chan of the Foreign Affairs Ministry also took to the floor. She reiterated her earlier statements that Singapore does not claim to be a model for anyone and that all rights should be judged by its results. She said that she would never be caught using the term "Asian Values". (Instead, she spelt out "A-s-i-a-n-V-a-l-u-e-s" alphabet by alphabet). She also said that fear is sometimes necessary to avoid worse-case scenarios. Finally, she rounded off her reply by deriding an earlier criticism of Singapore made by a Filipino/Thai participant by saying that "he does not even live in Singapore."

In the spirit of ASEM's promotion of non-confrontational dialogue, I later announced to the audience that the Singapore Government has issued a strong statement condemining the use of force by the Burma's military junta. I said that I fully support the statement and pointed out that it was issued by the Ms Chan's employers, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Ms Chan is due to take up her appointment at the Singapore Embassy in Burma next week. I wish her well.


Anonymous said...

Hi Martyn, I've featured your post in The Singapore Daily. Keep blogging!

The Singapore Daily

FeedMeToTheFish said...

Dear Martyn,

Thank you for going out there and tell it like is. Their shameless audacity has got to stop. The ripples you have created with your movies will light out truth! Truth hurt liars and truth shall prevail!

I salute your courage and I hope they won't mess you up again.

Feed Me To The Fish