Yawning Bread. 28 November 2008

The government wants active citizens so that they can harass them




Readers may have noticed that I haven't been putting up articles as frequently as expected. That's because I have been attending a number of conferences the past week, including a recent 2-day conference on The State and Secularism, organised by the East Asia Institute of the National University of Singapore.

It was really interesting, especially as papers discussing the experience of India and Pakistan were among those presented. What with attacks this very week in Mumbai being carried out by a group claiming to be the Deccan Mujahideen -– 120 people killed and 300 wounded, according to reports so far -– and the silly business of Malaysian fatwas against yoga, it was certainly topical.

I need to digest what I have heard before I write about this subject.

Home Affairs' mission: fight human rights

The coming week will also be busy for me. I am helping out with the short film showcase, one of a series of "U60" events marking the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. What we hope to do through our events is to ask how these translate into the Singapore experience.

Busy as the organisers are with tying up loose ends, the Singapore government has made things three times more difficult. We are completely stressed out.

Things are still evolving at the moment, and different organisers are facing different (unreasonable) demands by the government, so I doubt if I have the full picture, but basically it is like this:

A number of events will take place at the National Library, including a public exhibition on the subject of human rights. Negotiations for space and available dates had been held months earlier and agreed, in return for which, the National Library Board would be listed as a Venue Partner on publicity materials.

Then this week, from what I heard, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) got involved. Probably aghast at the idea that a state agency -- the National Library -- was not doing its bit to demonise human rights, but instead lending support to them -- rights being seen as a threat to the "nation" -– the MHA leaned on the Ministry for Information, Communication and the Arts (MICA) to bring the library and other agencies into line.

The National Library than asked that all publicity materials be withdrawn and reprinted leaving out their logo. They also asked for the exhibition panels to be trashed and remanufactured. All this with just days to go.

Naturally, it was too late. The flyers had been printed and distributed. Only the panels could be redone, but it would involve expense. The Library agreed to bear the cost, which I would take as an admission of responsibility for causing the problem.

Meanwhile, other events in the U60 series were being harassed. A forum organised by InteresThink for 12 December received a demand for a complete list of speakers and full scripts for what they are going to say. This is impossible. Not only is it the nature of forums that speakers should have leeway in the views they wish to present, but generally, they will not finalise anything till the last minute; they may even speak ex tempore.

How this absurd demand is going to be resolved, we shall see, but what you can do is to register at InteresThink's website for their event and attend it as a show of support at the very least.


My U60 event too

My short film showcase was also being harassed. The Media Development Authority (MDA) -– an Orwellian name for what is really the state censors -– issued what amounted to a warning to the venue The Substation. Make sure that all licences were in order and that the films had the necessary censorship certificates, they were told.

There's a bewildering array of licences one must get to screen films. Regulation of civic activities in Singapore stand in stark contrast to the streamlined way by which businesses are registered. Not only is the system for civic activities confusing, there is seldom any way of obtaining clear answers regarding the whole picture or how decisions are made. (I couldn't even get a clear answer as to how much it would cost to get a film rated.)

In brief, there seems to be at least two critical things needed for a public film event. One would be censorship certificates for each and every film to be shown and the other is a screening licence, which is venue-specific. Yet even this was confusing. The MDA website said no licence is needed for venues showing G and PG films. Yet, when I was at the MDA, the clerk spoke about a screening licence when my films were already rated PG, and wanted to charge me for it.

The venue, The Substation, also told me that they have a standing licence for screening PG-rated films, which contradicts the MDA's website about there being no need for a licence. 

(If we had wanted to screen N16 or M18 films, a new licence would be necessary and a punitive performance bond of S$10,000 would have to be paid. Our government's philosophy is that you should pay your fines upfront before you commit any offence of violating licence conditions.)

Anyway, the U60 film event will only be showing PG-rated films, and we confirmed that through a check with the MDA's own website which has a searchable database of films. However, the MDA warned that the DVDs we use on the day itself must be the very ones that they had rated/censored, as indicated by a sticker of some sort, the implied threat being that they would carry out a check on that evening and haul people off for prosecution for the slightest infringement.

So we have to run around to get the stickered versions of the DVDs. This is so absurd, but alas, this is the state of Singapore. Here we are trying to promote a higher sense of civic awareness about rights and the human condition, and the government does everything it can to thwart, threaten and discourage us. Meanwhile they keep on saying that Singaporeans must engage -- remember the campaign a few years back with the slogan "active citizens"?. We must have a sense of rootedness and belonging, they say; we must care for each other and so on and so on.

Don't these words sound like cattle farting?





Can't wait for the day

Tech-savvy readers may realise that this censorship system is really anachronistic. It assumes that a film is a physical thing, whose use and movement can be controlled.

I myself can't wait for the day when films essentially exist as bytes in cyberspace, and when we can do a public screening by organising a mass event where people log on while sitting at home, and the film comes as streaming. We can charge, if necessary, through paypal.

At the end of the session, we can even have Q and A as a form of chat.

No doubt, the government will try to write new laws to criminalise any Singaporeans organising such an event, but then the natural response will be to set up small companies in Australia or wherever as the "organiser".


Come to "Right through the lens"

The film evening will comprise six shorts made by Singaporean and regional filmmakers. Details are in the box at right. 

Part 1, before the interval, will comprise 3 films dealing with aspects of social categorisation and marginalisation -– race, success (and the pressure for it) and disability.

"Kassim" by Danial Haris (14 min) is set amidst Singapore's 1964 racial riots and based on a true story. A Chinese girl is caught out during a curfew, runs into a Malay home for refuge, but the family there does not want her in the house. The son, Kassim, agrees to take her home through a route that would avoid police and rioters' blockades. At the same time, the girl's father is out looking for her and when he finds her in the company of a Malay boy, trouble ensures.

"Crammed" by Ellery Ngiam (11 min) looks at a middle class family with two sons. The mother has to juggle work and family responsibilities. The father is away for work too. The sons are expected to outperform their peers in school, for how else are they ever to succeed in Singapore?

"Lata at Tsinelas" (translated: Can and Slippers) by Khavn de la Cruz (2 min) is from the Philippines. A young boy from the Manila slums plays football with a can of Coke as his soccer ball and a pair of slippers as his soccer shoes. He finishes by shooting a goal at a rubbish dump. The film may be just 2 minutes' long, but it raises a huge number of questions.

These 3 films will be followed by an audience discussion moderated by myself and Wee Yeong Wei.

After the break, there will be 3 more films, these touching on poverty and the human rights implications of poverty.

"Innocence for Sale" by Chua Puay Hoe and Joey Chiang (26 min) explores Singapore’s influence in Batam's sex industry. A documentary giving a first-hand account of the child sex tourism on the nearby Indonesian island, it reveals layers of the problem from demand to supply, through interviews with a pimp, underaged prostitutes, and activists.

"Our Daily Bread" also by Khavn de la Cruz (5 min) follows a family in the Philippines as they go through the same routine of collecting, selling and eating garbage every night. One man's trash is literally transformed into this family’s treasure. But is this the human condition we can in good conscience permit to persist?

Finally, "The Call Home" by Han Yew Kwang (30 minutes) is a rich and well-made film that dramatises the life of a foreign worker in Singapore, Kasi arrives from India to toil in the construction industry. We see him go through his first month here, culminating in his first phone call home to his wife. What should he say to her? How much truth? How much glossing over the truth? A poignant enquiry not only into the way we treat foreign workers, but also into hope, expectations, and the burden of culture and tradition.

Again, they will be followed by an audience discussion.

Do come to this event. You'll be surprised how thought-provoking these films are. I previewed them during the selection process and I was happy to have found these little gems.

© Yawning Bread 




Right through the lens
A U60 short films showcase

Date: Thursday, 4 December 2008

Time: 7 – 10 pm

Venue: The Substation Theatre, Armenian Street

Admission: Free; no age restriction.





1. 29 Nov 2008. Wendy Neo submitted a video in the comments section of this article. I think it's worth putting it up on the page itself, so here it is:

I would however dissociate myself from the "Yong Pung Sai" that she used in the subtitles. It does not meet Yawning Bread's editorial standards.

2. 29 Nov 2008. Yawning Bread is also coming under some pressure to remove or delay this article, pressure which no doubt I am resisting. I think the above is a story that needs to be told. Too often things happen under the insistence of government authorities and everybody else, including victims of such demands, submit to a complicity of silence.