S’pore filmmakers seek to clarify boundaries

May 12, 2005
Singapore Democrats

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Reuters
11 May 2005

Singapore came under pressure from filmmakers on Wednesday to clarify laws on political films after police called in for questioning the director of a film on an opposition leader.

In a letter published in Singapore’s Straits Times newspaper, filmmaker Tan Pin Pin, on behalf of 10 colleagues, sought clarification on the Films Act, which says it is an offence to produce, distribute or exhibit “party political films”.

“We ask because, as filmmakers, we feel that almost anything could be construed as a comment on a political matter,” Tan’s letter said.

Under provisions introduced to the Films Act in 1998, anyone involved in producing or distributing “party political films” — including those containing commentaries on government policies — can be fined up to S$100,000 ($60,860) or jailed up to two years.

“How do we assess whether something is a political matter?” Tan added.

“Any subject, no matter how innocuous, could become a political matter depending on the circumstances, and we could easily find ourselves contravening the Act inadvertently.”

The letter was published after Martyn See, a 36-year-old Singapore filmmaker, was asked by police this week to come in for questioning on May 16 regarding his film “Singapore Rebel” on prominent opposition leader Chee Soon Juan.

See withdrew the documentary from the city-state’s annual film festival in March under pressure from government censors, who told festival organisers the work violated the Films Act.

In 2002, a documentary about veteran opposition politician J.B. Jeyaretnam was pulled out from the film festival after its filmmakers were told it breached the act.

Opposition politicians have said the Films Act stifles political debate in the city-state, which has been ruled by the People’s Action Party since independence in 1965. Its 84-member Parliament has only two opposition members.

International free-press advocates have repeatedly criticised Singapore for its tight media control.

The government bans non-commercial private ownership of satellite dishes. Films and TV shows are routinely censored for sex and violence.

The government says a high degree of control over public debate and the media is needed to maintain law and order.

The film at the heart of the controversy focuses on the life of Chee Soon Juan, who lost in January a three-year legal battle against defamation charges brought by Singapore’s founding prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew, and his successor.

The U.S. State Department, in its February annual report, sharply criticised Singapore for using libel suits to intimidate the opposition, saying the threat inhibits opposition politics and has led to a culture of self-censorship in the media.

Statement by Film-makers

WE ARE a group of Singaporean film-makers who would like to seek clarification from the authorities regarding the Films Act and, in particular, the 1998 amendment regarding ‘party political films’.

It is our understanding that the 1998 amendment to the Films Act deems it an offence to make, distribute or exhibit ‘party political films’.

Such films are defined as any film that ‘contains wholly or partly any matter which is intended or likely to affect voting in any election or national referendum in Singapore’, or one that ‘contains wholly or partly either partisan or biased references to or comments on any political matter’.

Under this Act, it appears that there is a ban on work in which we intend to state or imply a stand on current government policy, regardless of what that stand is.

So far, two locally made films featuring opposition politicians, namely Singapore Rebel (2005) and Vision Of Persistence (2001), have been caused to be withdrawn from the Singapore International Film Festival or the film-makers would have risked a fine of up to $100,000 or two years in prison.

Were these films asked to be withdrawn because they were deemed to contain ‘partisan or biased references’ or because they contained comments ‘on any political matter’?

We ask because, as filmmakers, we feel that almost anything could be construed as a comment on a political matter.

Further, how do we assess whether something is a political matter? Any subject, no matter how innocuous, could become a political matter depending on the circumstances, and we could easily find
ourselves contravening the Act inadvertently.

Similarly, we require some guidance on what constitutes ‘bias’; after all, all works of art arethe expression of the artiste’s opinion, which may favour a particular viewpoint or argument over another.

Are film-makers expected not to render any opinion at all to be considered neutral?

For instance, it is open to interpretation whether Jack Neo’s film, I Not Stupid, which is clearly a critique of the Singapore education system, and Tan Pin Pin’s Moving House, which appears to be a critique of the grave-exhumation policy in Singapore, have run afoul of the Act.

The current state of the legislation poses unintended dangers for sincere film-makers, and we would be grateful if the authorities could issue a formal explanation clarifying the application of this law.

It would be a waste to spend resources making a film, only to find out that it is unlawful because it has inadvertently run afoul of the Films Act.

Tan Pin Pin (Ms)
on behalf of 10 other film-makers