Singapore bans film about ex-political prisoner

Tanalee Smith
Associated Press
11 Apr 07

Banned: Zahari's 17 YearsSingapore said Tuesday, April 10, 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 license 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.

For more information about Martyn See’s works, please go to:

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