January 12, 2009
The response of the Ministry of Communication, Information and the Arts (MICA) to the AIMS Report is distinctly underwhelming. One may argue that accepting 17 of the 26 recommendations is a glass-half-full moment but it really demonstrates with clarity the illusion of liberalization that this government is so apt at raising.
Let’s take things from the start. Ever since PM Lee announced at the National Day Rally Speech in 2008 that regulations over political party films, podcasting and vodcasting would be relaxed, it has been taken for granted that this was a done deal. After all, he also announced that public demonstrations at Speakers Corner would be allowed and that came to past almost immediately on 1 September.
As such, MICA’s statement on 9 Jan that “factual” and “objective” political party films would be permitted is an anti-climax. Singaporeans were not expecting anything less. Any other announcement would be to contradict the PM’s earlier proclamation. So what other recommendations were accepted?
Among the 17 was the decision to set up an independent advisory panel to decide on whether a party political film was “factual” and “objective”. The term ‘independence” in Singapore has different meaning from other societies. In the latter we can expect dissenting voices and alternative viewpoints manifested in the decision-making process. In Singapore we can expect established individuals dedicated to a version of nation-building identical to that of the ruling party.
Another seemingly enlightened move from MICA was accepting that the government should only target films that mislead viewers. Instead of a blanket ban on political films, we now have the judicial targeting of films that deliberately contain falsehoods. Unfortunately this is more complex on reel. Factual statements can be made in a film but may be coloured by the properties of sound, image juxtaposition or voice-over. Take this for example: a hypothetical film flashes on screen the statement that under the PAP, unemployment is only at an admirable 2.3% (a fact; 2008 Q2 figure). The next scene is five minute flashes of old people sleeping on the streets in Chinatown and Outram or people seeking financial help from their Meet-the-People sessions (again, factual visual images). The effect is profound. At best, the viewer may have the impression that things are worse than the government lets on or, at worse, the viewer may think that the government figures are not accurate. All the figures and images are “factual” and “real” but the message is politically charged. What then?
At the heart of the matter lies the one principle that the government abides by, whether consciously or not: Citizens are dangerous and ignorant until proven otherwise. This is why MICA rejected the following two recommendations:
- remove registration need for individuals, groups and political parties that provide online political content;
- decriminalize the making of party political films;
Meanwhile, the state’s power continues to be centralized and very opaque at that. This is why the following two recommendations were rejected:
- spelling out clearly why a film is banned (under Section 35);
- obliging a Minister to give reasons for the ban.
In other words, for all the talk about liberalization and opening up, the fact is that the government can still ban a movie and need not tell you why. When asked why these recommendations were rejected, Lee Boon Yang noted that Section 35 was needed to deal with films like Fitna, the anti-Islam documentary made by Theo Van Gogh. Which of course begs the point: all the Minister needs to do is cite religious sensitivities and racial harmony as reasons for the ban. Most Singaporeans will accept this (I won’t but most will). There is no need for secrecy.
The government’s refusal to explain itself suggests two things. Firstly, an utter disregard for citizens’ right to know (dangerous and ignorant until proven otherwise). Secondly, it wants to save itself from sensitive explanations. One can deduce this from the only film to be banned by a Minister (not by the censorship board) – Zahari’s 17 Years. To explain why this film is banned, the Minister would have to delve into ethnic politics, allegations of death threats received by Zahari whilst under detention without trial, and the possible involvement of Malaysian agitators. Instead of waddling through this political landmine, the more convenient way would be to ban the film without telling us why. Problem solved. National Interests 1, Singaporeans 0.
Amidst the euphoric headlines and self-congratulatory media fanfare, the fact is MICA’s response was a demonstration in fire-fighting – it accepted recommendations for practices that were already happening and that it has absolutely no control over. Party political films? We’ve already watched Martyn See’s Singapore Rebel and Speakers Cornered on Youtube. And you can add One Nation Under Lee to the list. Who gives two hoots whether or not MICA now allows “factual” and “objective” films? Allow or not, Singaporeans have already familiar with these films.
The Internet has shown that government sanctions do not amount to a can of beans and all MICA is trying to do is show some semblance of control. A bit like a father telling his son he can get the big-ass dragon tattoo only after the son has it sprawled all over his back.