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story | Yip Jia Qi, Editor and Toh Wei Yang, Guest Writer
photo | Yip Jia Qi
While Yale-NUS College students went home for the December break, a rather short one-month public consultation was held on changes to Singapore’s Films Act. This Act and the proposed changes to it affect anyone who holds dearly their freedom to consume all forms of media.
In Singapore, the Films Act governs the censorship of films. It was first enacted in 1981, and was largely based on former British Law. It has since been amended multiple times, most notably in 1998 and 2009.
The amendment in 1998 was controversial because it made the production and distribution of “party political films” illegal. Officially, the reason for the amendment, as noted by then Minister for Information and the Arts George Yeo, was that “political issues can be sensationalized or presented in a manner calculated to evoke emotional rather than rational reactions”, and banning such films will “keep political debates in Singapore serious”. However, this amendment came immediately after the Singapore Democratic Party, one of Singapore’s major opposition parties, made a film about themselves that was subsequently banned. Given the coincidental timing, one can see why some people might have viewed the amendment as a move by the ruling party to stifle political competition.
This definition was subsequently amended in 2009, allowing for political films that are “without animation and dramatic elements composed wholly of a political party’s manifesto or declaration of policies or ideology”, amongst other amendments. While the 2009 Amendments allowed political films of certain nature, and was seen as a positive step towards greater political and press freedoms, some argued that the Films Act remained too vague and too broad.
In December 2017, the Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA) released its proposed amendments to the Films Act to seek public consultation. The new amendments allow IMDA officers “to enter and search, without warrant, the premises, and to search any equipment, vehicle or other thing at the premises” for contraband films. Currently, the Act only allows for a “Deputy or an Assistant Commissioner of Police or an Assistant Superintendent of Police” to search without warrant, and even then, this can only be allowed under two spelled-out conditions. Both conditions are absent in the proposed amendments.
These amendments have alarmed many Singaporeans, especially filmmakers, who worry about giving any IMDA officer such broad powers to censor the media. 50 filmmakers, including famous directors Jack Neo and Tan Pin Pin, have signed a position paper to ask IMDA to reconsider its recommendations, seeking for more accountability and transparency in the censorship process.
Films allow us to express ourselves, and they appeal to our emotions. Events that get enshrined in a film also become a part of our history. Politics can benefit a lot from being rendered in film. Viewers should be trusted to discern a film on its own merits, and filmmakers should similarly be held accountable for their work—after we get to watch it.
Martyn See, a local filmmaker who has had two of his films, Zahari’s 17 Years and Singapore Rebel banned by the IMDA under the Films Act has been invited to Yale-NUS College by the Dean of Faculty as part of the “Singapore In Focus” lecture series. The event will be held on Feb. 8, 6pm to 7:30pm at the Tan Chin Tuan Lecture Theater.
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