Yawning Bread. 12 November 2009

Fogged lens




Sometimes, I am a child again. Without telling anyone in Maruah Singapore, a human rights group I was part of, I ran off to Thailand in March this year, armed with nothing but a couple of names I got from a Burmese emigre I had met some years earlier.

I contacted those named persons, dropping the name of the guy I had met, in the hope that they would lead me to getting my hands on some underground films about the Burmese resistance. Nobody responded with anything more than courteous delays.

At the same time, I also asked a number of journalist friends I knew in Bangkok for leads to Burma VJ, a film that had just been shown at the Foreign Correspondents' Club in the Thai capital to good reviews. Everybody said it was a great film and one that should be shown in Singapore, but nobody knew who could help me in my quest.

I persisted. One contact finally led me to a Japanese filmmaker who knew somebody who knew somebody else. She eventually collected for me eight short films. She also knew the producer of Burma VJ and promised to put in a word for me.

Along the way, I also discovered the reason why I wasn't getting much help from the Burmese underground. The name that I was dropping was not fully trusted by them. I can understand that they have to be very careful, so I can't blame anyone for initially avoiding me. It took a non-Burmese, namely the Japanese woman, to take the risk of meeting me and listening to my naive, idealistic plan, and to believe in me.

A fortnight later, a courier package from Denmark arrived with a copy of Burma VJ and permission by the producer to screen it on a non-commercial basis, with screening fees waived.

* * * * *

Through the two months of organising what the folks in Maruah called the "Burma Film Festival" -- a name that I didn't much like -- none of us had complete confidence that it would really happen. We were going into uncharted territory with our plan to screen highly political films in a very public way. Would the censors ban the films? Would whichever venue we pick get cold feet and not want to deal with us? Would the police find ways to obstruct? Would Singaporeans be too apathetic to attend?

At least we didn't have to worry about funding. The British High Commission was happy to support the event. Later, the Royal Danish Embassy came in too, sponsoring a visit by filmmaker and scriptwriter for Burma VJ, Jan Krogsgaard. The visit was tied in with a talk Krogsgaard had been asked to give at the Puttnam School of Film, LaSalle College of the Arts, but it was easy to schedule an appearance by Krogsgaard at the public screening too. The college also agreed to collaborate with Maruah in organising the public screenings.


The films were submitted to the Board of Film Censors on 15 September 2009. Requesting for quick action, Braema told them that our event was scheduled for 23 October 2009 and we needed time to publicise the event. She also pointed out that one of the films, Burma VJ, had been rated just a few months prior, for the Singapore Film Society's screening in July, and classed NC16. This little fact gave us some hope. If they had reviewed it earlier then it shouldn't be difficult to give us the same rating, right? And if Burma VJ was NC16, then the other films should be that as well, without too much angst, right?

Wrong. Much angst evidently followed. For weeks, despite repeated phone calls and emails, no decision was forthcoming. About halfway into that frustrating wait, it was finally revealed that the authorities were concerned because the films were about human rights -- yah, like human rights is such a terrible thing that might pollute people's minds - and might also impact Singapore's diplomatic relations. After all, how would our Foreign Ministry explain to the Naypyidaw generals should these good friends of our government lodge a complaint?

It became obvious to me that the civil servants were paralysed with fear on seeing the content of the films and had passed the buck up to higher-ups in the Ministry of Information, Communication and the Arts. In fact, I wonder whether our submission made its way onto the agenda of a cabinet meeting.

We didn't get the green light until 28 October 2009, about six weeks after submission, and five days after the intended screening date. All came back with NC16 ratings, except one film, Cross Border, which was given PG (Parental Guidance). Cross Border is a relatively talky documentary with no scenes of combat or violence, though some of the talk is about forced prostitution inflicted on Burmese refugees by Thai pimps. But I guess that's all right. Prostitution does not affect young minds as much as human rights, while the Thais have this terrible habit of believing in democracy. Offending democrats does not pose a diplomatic problem like offending dictators.

(Actually, another documentary, Voices from the Salween Valley, is likewise a string of interviews with no scenes of violence. Yet it was rated NC16. Maybe because it criticised the Burmese government's plans for dam-building. Criticising supposed economic development is also a dangerous idea for young minds, perhaps?)

Venue problems

I can't recall how two venues were shortlisted for consideration -- Jubilee Hall at Raffles Hotel and the cinema at Alliance Francaise. My personal preference was Alliance Francaise, for two reasons:

1. They had in possession a Film Exhibition Licence which allowed them to screen films with ratings like NC16, M18 and R21.

2. I had more confidence that they had the technical experience in handling film, since they screen films regularly.

Unfortunately, when we told Alliance Francaise that our films were about the Burmese situation, the manager said "oops", explaining that their policy was not to get involved with certain topics, one of which was Burma.

The alternative, Jubilee Hall, came with a complication I didn't like. Unlike Alliance Francaise, Jubilee Hall does not have a Film Exhibition Licence. This meant that it could only screen G and PG-rated films. But we were expecting our films to come back with NC16.



Earlier this week, on Tuesday and Wednesday, (10 and 11 November 2009), Maruah Singapore held free screenings of the documentary Burma VJ (34 awards so far, and counting) together with a number of short films. All of them touched on human rights abuses in that country -- in the cities, in the hills and even spilling across the border into Thailand where refugees have fled..

The team organising it comprised Braema Mathi, Stephan Chan, Wee Yeong Wei and myself, plus many young volunteers on or close to the dates.

In the lead up to the event, we received more interest than we had seats. On the first night however, no-shows resulted in about 20 percent of the seats unfilled. The second night was full house, particularly as the Straits Times ran a story about Burma VJ in that morning's edition.

This here is the story of how the event came about and some of the hurdles we had to go through. There were difficulties on many fronts, including a spam attack on the email address that Stephan was using to receive seat registrations.

There were technical hiccups at the cinema on the Tuesday night screening, which made me go nearly ballistic, but I should also say that the way the cinema management responded when I complained was admirable. They focussed on solving the organisational issues that gave rise to the problems and the second night went off without a hitch.

However, this story will deal largely with the instances when we had to interface with government agencies -- for these are the issues of public interest.

I should add that this is my telling of the story from my perspective; it is not written on behalf of Maruah, which may or may not agree with my views.


The solution would be to get a Temporary Film Exhibition Licence. Jubilee Hall would not do it and we would have to do it ourselves. After some struggling with the website of the Media Development Authority, it was discovered that private citizens cannot apply for one. Only corporations can do that. I guess this gives new meaning to the term "Corporatist state".

It was also clear from the website that even if we could get around the problem of having a corporation submit the application, and even if our application had the good fortune to be approved, we'd still have a third hurdle. A banker's guarantee for S$10,000 was demanded, the amount to be forfeited if one breached any licence condition. This is Singapore's favourite way of ensuring docile compliance: Get people to put up their fines in advance, before they have a chance to commit any offence.

Although we had funding from the diplomatic missions, we didn't have that kind of money, so in the end we had to look elsewhere for a venue.

We went to Orchard Cineleisure, and after a whirlwind of negotiations, technical testing and other last minute work, that was where the event was eventually held.

Professional Visit Pass

We anticipated possible problems with the Immigration and Customs Authority (ICA). What have they got to do with film screenings, you might ask? It's got to do with the filmmaker's visit. We wanted him to field questions after the screenings of his film Burma VJ.

Now, the rule in Singapore is that foreigners are not allowed to speak in public if they enter Singapore on a tourist pass. The moment they open their mouths, they will have violated the conditions of their entry. The rules say that they should apply in advance for a Professional or Business Visit Pass, and enter Singapore on that basis. So I dug out the form (all three pages of it) from ICA's website and emailed it to Jan Krogsgaard. I don't know how long it took him to fill up the form, and I am slightly amazed that he didn't seem annoyed by the ridiculous questions it asked, like what have been your various addresses for the past five years.

I also noticed that any application for Professional or Business Visit Passes have to be supported by a registered corporation. Individuals apparently cannot invite professionals to visit and conduct business, including giving a talk.

Fortunately, we didn't have to test this stupid rule when we realised that since LaSalle was a partner with Maruah in organising the public screenings, the college's invitation to Jan Krogsgaard to visit Singapore applied for both his talk to the film school's students and to the public. As an educational institution, LaSalle was exempted from having to apply for Visit Passes each time they wanted a foreigner to teach or talk at their events.

Police Permit

Once the censors gave their reply (five days after the original event date) and the venue arrangements fixed, we launched publicity. We had just ten days to spare before the revised dates of 10 and 11 November.

As surely as the sun rises in the East, the police took notice. What are you guys up to, they asked?

We explained to them that the event was exactly what our publicity said: some films and a little bit of question time. So what do they want of us? No reply. 

Finally, on the last Friday (6 November) before the scheduled screenings, and after reminding them that they had not replied, they came back to say, oh, you have to apply for a licence.

Once more, I went online to search for a form. After filling the details in the necessary fields and clicking "submit", the system returned a "Cannot accept". The reason given was that our event was less than four working days away. It was too late to submit an application.

I rang up the officer from Tanglin Police Division who had called us earlier (and fell into silence). What do I do now, I asked?

Put in false dates, he said. When I receive your application, I will change the dates for you, he added. With that encouraging advice, I filled in the form with false dates, and signed it as "true and correct".

It struck me that he was ready with an answer the moment I described the problem to him. I couldn't have been the first person with that kind of problem. Are people asked to do this all the time -- declare false dates on online applications to get around the inflexible system that programmers designed?

Monday evening, the officer rang Braema to tell her that the permit was approved. He didn't ring me, nor did I get an email. Braema rang me Tuesday morning -- it was already 10 November, the date of our first screening -- to discuss who would be going to collect the Police Permit. I said I didn't think there was any choice about it. As the person who applied for it, I would have to go personally to collect it. I called up the officer.

Is my permit approved?


Why didn't you tell me?

I told your colleague.

Does this mean you want her to be the one collecting it?

No, she cannot. You have to come personally.

Then why did you choose to tell her and not tell me?

So I rushed down to Tanglin Divisional Headquarters, and another conversation ensued.

Why is this a Public Assembly Permit when what we're having is a talk?

Because you have an assembly.

But nobody's moving. The audience is just sitting there in a cinema. It's not as if they need an Assembly Permit to sit in a cinema to watch a film, so if they continue sitting there immobile after the film, why is an Assembly Permit suddenly needed? Why isn't a Public Talk permit good enough?

An Assembly Permit covers both talking and assembling.

But a Public Talk permit is $20 per day and $40 for two days. The Public Assembly Permit is $50. You're charging more $10 more than I really need.

Needless to say, I didn't succeed in getting the $10 difference back.

In any case, if any talk must necessarily include an audience, then when do you ever give out a Public Talk permit? Why is there an option for applying for the Public Talk permit on your online system if even talking to a thoroughly static, already seated audience triggers a Public Assembly permit?

I don't think I got an answer for that one.

On the way out of the police station, I looked closely at the Permit and was aghast to see this:

I went back into the building and all the way up to the third floor.

The timing stated on the Permit is absolute rubbish, I said to them. You go look at my original application. What does it say?

I was absolutely sure that on the online form, I had said our event would start at 19:00h and end at 23:00h. I used the 24-hour clock notation because the online form required me to do so. Quite obviously, the clerk in the police station had no idea about 24-hour clocks, and interpreted my entries as "1923".

That it made no sense -- how can an event start at exactly the same time as it was supposed to end? - didn't trouble her. Nor whichever officer it was who signed off the Permit before issuance.

What answer did I get from the Police?

Oh don't worry about it. So long as your application is correct, it's OK.

I loved it. It was rich. On the question of starting time and ending time, if the Permit contradicts the application, refer to the application. On the question of event dates, if the Permit contradicts the application, which should we refer to?

On the one hand, you appreciate the air of easy-going flexibility the police displayed. On the other hand, if there is some political reason to go after somebody after such rickety permits are issued, it is all too easy to pick on a technicality and get him.

This is Singapore not as the carefully cultivated image goes, but the Singapore as experienced.

Yawning Bread 



The same problem was encountered when the films were submitted for rating.

You ring the Media Development Authority (MDA) to enquire and they say you have to do it online. You then go online and you discover that the online system refuses to accept any submission from private citizens. Only companies can submit films for rating. You ring them up once more; once more they say you must do it online.

You give up, cancel one or two appointments and make your way to MDA, which is now located in Ayer Rajah Industrial Estate, instead of being in the city centre. Dumping the films on the counter, you say: I want these rated.

They then protest, telling you that you should not have come before first lodging your application online. You tell them the wretched computer program does not accept private citizen submissions.

So, in the name of excellent customer service, the officer at the counter will struggle with the same online program and lodge your application for you while you drum your fingers on the counter top.