Speech Acts – Censorship and Documentary Filmmaking in Singapore
Feature by: Vinita Ramani
“In reality of course, there is no such thing as unfettered press freedom. Even the most liberal-minded person would acknowledge the necessity of some form of regulation or code to ensure responsible reporting…By this, I mean that our editors and journalists must be men and women who know what works for Singapore and how to advance our society’s collective interests.”
- Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong, at the 5th anniversary dinner of TODAY newspaper, 31 October 2005
“Censorship seeks to produce subjects according to explicit and implicit norms..the production of the subject has everything to do with the regulation of speech. The subject’s production takes place not only through the regulation of that subject’s speech, but through the regulation of the social domain of speakable discourse.”
– Judith Butler, ‘Excitable Speech – A Politics of the Performative’
Demarcating the Lines – Censorship and the State
Film director Martyn See has directed and produced a short-film entitled Singapore Rebel (“the Film”), which seeks to explore the political ambitions and journey of the Singapore Democratic Party’s Dr Chee Soon Juan and his tussles with the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP). Although it was submitted to be screened at last year’s Singapore International Film Festival, the film was ultimately withdrawn because the Media Development Authority’s Board of Film Censors (BFC) was of the view that it contravened certain provisions of the Films Act .
Before I explore the relevant provisions of the Films Act and the actual content and significance of the Film, let me say that the BFC’s decision to withdraw the Film begs some important questions.
Namely, was this yet another instance of the BFC censoring a film it deemed politically sensitive, regardless of whether or not it could be so viewed from an objective stand-point? Was it yet another case in which an expression within civil society, an audio-visual attempt to explore Singapore’s political landscape had been prematurely curtailed by the State through its legal apparatus? Or, more disturbingly, is the decision to withdraw the Film the result of Singapore’s socio-political climate where any expression which touches upon certain subject-matters is generally expected to create waves and be duly punished, no matter how expressly or impliedly the expression treats these subject-matters? In other words, has Singapore’s vigilance in regulating expression conditioned us to instinctively know, or at least believe that we know, when a film violates norms laid down by the State?
These questions form the basis of my analysis of the Film and BFC’s response to it.
The ‘Speech Act’ Theory
In “Excitable Speech – A Politics of the Performative”, Judith Butler, quoting comparative speech and rhetoric theorists, advances the theory that expression is intrinsically performative: it is not confined to the words we write or utter, but reflects an attitude or an intention to act upon that utterance or writing (or of the suggestion of multiple meanings within the utterance or writing).
This theory, which is referred to as the ‘Speech Act’ theory, postulates that “people do more things with words than convey information, and that when people do convey information, they often convey more than their words encode.” Applied to our context, it may help explain why the BFC, and by extension the State, believe that it must intervene to regulate something like hate speech, or any other speech for that matter which could jeopardize national stability (“Offensive Speech”).
Using concepts typically associated with international relations theory and practice, Butler takes the analysis one step further. She suggests that a State attributes an almost “sovereign power” to hate speech when it tells its citizens that it violates their civil rights and liberties and therefore must be regulated by the State’s legal apparatus. Butler goes on to observe that such a suggestion may be flawed. For starters, it is premised on the assumption that “non-state centred forms of agency and resistance” either do not exist or should not be encouraged – which is inaccurate. The existence and efficacy of alternative forms of societal progress is a topic for another essay to explore.
Butler also notes that Offensive Speech, ironically, may indeed be a State construct. It would not even exist as a category of speech in the first place without “State ratification”. In other words, “this power of the State's judicial language to establish and maintain the domain of what will be publicly speakable suggests that the State plays much more than a limiting function in such decisions; in fact, the State actively produces the domain of publicly acceptable speech, demarcating the line between the domains of the speakable and the unspeakable, and retaining the power to make and sustain that consequential line of demarcation.”
This does not mean that we have no choice to determine for ourselves how we engage in speech acts. Rather, the real question is whether or not censorship has a far more significant pre-emptive role than we are aware of. In addition to setting the parameters for what is and is not permissible, it may also skewer our ability to independently review a film, for example, which has already been labelled as controversial. This ability is crucial to the philosophical concept of “agency” which asks that we undo the scene that has been set for us and critically examine the lines demarcating what is and is not permissible so that we can come to an unbiased conclusion of the art we perceive.
Does Singapore Rebel deconstruct the landscape that has been drawn for us, or does it merely fall into the dubious category of expression which the State has determined to be Offensive Speech?
Singapore Rebel – The Film
Singapore Rebel starts with a nearly 3-minute opening sequence of generic and rapidly -cut shots of Singapore’s central business district and shopping malls, which are ubiquitous in the island.
A voice-over narrates a series of stereotypical statistics about the nation. These cover the usual terrain that any news wire agency report about Singapore would: i.e. that Singapore, with a population of over 4 million, is an anomalous “little red dot” which has far outdone its Southeast Asian neighbours and yet, continues to be perceived with guarded cynicism by some outsiders and citizens alike, for its lack of political and social freedom.
The film then takes us to the apartment above an innocuous shop-house where Dr Chee Soon Juan works and takes care of his three children. An informal question-answer interview session allows for See to craft a vignette of the man and his forays into politics. Narrating his beginnings as a lecturer at the National University of Singapore’s (NUS) psychology department in 1990, Chee outlines his interest in politics and his involvement in the 1992 elections during which he says he sensed the “frustrations and anger” that many Singaporeans felt.
See then adopts a reportage-styled narrative, seeking to allow the key moments speak for themselves. These include the period when Chee went on a hunger strike after he was sacked from NUS; his forays into speaking openly about politics and civil society action in 1998 and 1999, which led to the first of two defamation suits (the second followed during the 2001 elections), as well as fines and a 5-week prison sentence.
Archival footage shot by See includes Chee’s attempts to get a ‘people against poverty’ May Day rally going outside the grounds of the Istana (office of the President of Singapore). The audience, like the numerous reporters at the scene of the event, witness the police descending on the small gathering where Chee was subsequently apprehended and driven away in a police van.
Interestingly, however, See’s voice as the interviewer, and as the audience’s representative on film, only emerges in the film once the tone has been set for how we should perceive Chee – that is, as an almost solitary man struggling against the odds to question a domineering and authoritarian state. Chee is packaged and presented to the audience as the archetypal Singapore rebel and then made to answer the following questions:
“Why do you get into trouble with the law all the time?”
“You are a politician, are you not concerned with losing popularity with the people?”
“If Singaporeans are materialistic, why fight for their rights?”
Legal Dimensions – The Films Act
One does not have to be an astute historian or political activist to know upon watching the Film that it was going to face problems with the censors. The ban was not unprecedented. Indeed, it follows in the footsteps of the ban against A Vision of Persistence, a 15-minute documentary on opposition politician J.B. Jeyaretnam made in 2001 by three Ngee Ann Polytechnic lecturers. A Vision of Persistence, just like Singapore Rebel, was withdrawn from the Singapore International Film Festival by the BFC for offending section 2 of the Act. Festival Director/Programmer, Mr Philip Cheah, notes that it was the first time a film had been specifically barred under the Films Act due to its “political content”.
Section 2 of the Films Act is designed to prohibit “party-political” films, which expressly deal with such political content. In particular, subsections 2(a) and 2(b) of the Act enumerate circumstances in which a film would contravene the Act for “contain(ing) wholly or partly either partisan or biased references to or comments on any political matter”. Section 2b(vi) of the Act, for instance, states that a film is objectionable if it touches on a “current policy of the Government or any issue of public controversy in Singapore” (emphasis mine). Given that See’s 26-minute film is more a summation of the most controversial periods in Chee’s political career and, in my view, far less an exploration of Chee’s ethos, ideology and political vision with regards to Singapore, it is unsurprising that it triggered alarm bells and was ultimately thought by the BFC to fall foul of Section 2 of the Act.
Not only was the Film withdrawn, but it elicited a series of other responses from the authorities, reaffirming the popular belief that free expression in Singapore may be greeted by a slap on the wrist rather than applause. According to reports in news wires such as Associated Press and the Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA), See was told he would be fined up to $100,000 and could face a possible jail term if he went ahead and screened the Film without authorisation. Copies of the Film and camera equipment were also seized by the authorities. Subsequently, See’s friends, social activist Jacob George and filmmaker Tan Pin Pin, were questioned by the police about See and the Film in the course of an apparently routine investigation.
Does this cautionary and somewhat punitive response on the part of the State’s quasi-judicial and legal apparatus reflect the State’s abhorrence of the Film (and its political content) or was it an instinctive response to what the apparatus had assumed would be viewed by the State as being Offensive Speech that could threaten national and political stability? Significantly, as See points out in his blog, Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew had this to say about the ban in an interview with Time Magazine : “Well, if you had asked me, I would have said, to hell with it (the ban). But the censor, the enforcer, he will continue until he is told the law has changed. And it will change…”
Ironically, the Film continues to live and breathe in the virtual landscape, where it can be seen in its entirety, giving it a heightened poignancy that it might not have had had the BFC and other relevant authorities decided to permit its screening. Even before we can begin a critique of the film, this fact hits us, a discerning audience, as being rather ironic.
Of Subjects and Cinematic Expression – A Critique of the Film
The most important question for the audience is whether some of us walked away from the Film with a more nuanced picture of a man so riddled with controversy and so persistently labelled in mainstream media that some believe he has become a caricature rather than a political visionary.
In the context of short films like Singapore Rebel or A Vision of Persistence, the audience is simply not given the opportunity to judge the film on its own merits. The censorship authorities have operated on two levels. First, in setting the very terms of what is speakable and what is not, they put such films beyond our reach even before they make it to the screens at small film festivals. Second, and more tangibly, the censors shut the films down at inception by imposing a ban.
Interestingly, and with the greatest respect to See, it appears that the Film has itself, consciously or subconsciously, undergone some self-censorship.
One cannot help but feel that if See had wanted the Film to focus on Chee Soon Juan rather than tangible instances of civil society presence in Singapore, the Film should have yielded a more layered vignette in its 26 minutes. Instead, the questions that See poses to Chee operate on our stock impressions of Chee and paint a caricature, without penetrating the rhetoric to reveal the portrait of Chee the man.
For example, See allows Chee to briefly share his recollections about going on a hunger strike, but we never find out why (or whether) Chee was inspired by India’s father-figure Mahatma Gandhi to undertake this form of passive resistance. We are similarly not given an insight into whether political struggles in other parts of the world influence Chee’s own ideology or attitude towards life.
At one crucial point in the Film, See asks how Chee feels about being labelled a “congenital liar” and a “political gangster”, to which Chee responds, with considerable self-restraint, that the truth will speak for itself. Although Chee’s response is, in the circumstances, quite remarkable, See never includes footage of instances where Chee might have reiterated what he is and stands for. Instead, we are again left with a caricature of a man asserting what he isn’t, believing that the elusive “truth” (another category that could have been explored in the film) will redeem him.
As a whole, the film, by reaffirming many assumptions we may already have of Singapore’s political scene, leaves a discerning audience with little to work with. On the one hand, Singaporeans who are familiar with Chee’s political struggles will learn little that is new here. On the other hand, Western political activists and mainstream or independent media who generally only pay attention to Singapore when faced with reports that it has an authoritative regime will have these ideas reinforced by the Film. Neither Singaporeans nor their counterparts abroad discover anything that challenges established stereotypes of Chee or Singapore.
The subject of a film, and sometimes its author, may be transformed or tainted by censorship from within or without. As Butler writes, “the subject emerges as the result of the bar itself… barring is an action that is not exactly performed on a pregiven subject, but performed in such a way that the subject him/herself is performatively produced as a result of this primary cut,” (Butler, 1997: 138).
Borrowing Butler’s language, See’s film and Chee Soon Juan (or more accurately the caricature of Chee presented in the Film) strike us as a product of this “primary cut”, the pre-emptive and “normative” exercise of power which – according to Butler – set the very “conditions of intelligibility”. Chee has almost been driven to poverty by defamation suits which still labours on. See is the filmmaker who has been censored by the State. Amidst the surrounding controversy, they are reduced almost to clichés rather than the men they are.
An opportunity to be able to think outside the binary of the ruling party versus its often diminished and beleaguered opposition is rarely presented to us. A film that would really push the envelope would therefore have to be the “unperformable in all performativity” (ibid). Applied to the Film, this means that both Singaporeans and foreign press or NGOs may have appreciated a film dedicated to letting Chee articulate where his desire to enter politics came from, how he understands the very idea of being “politicised”, how he sees civil society, and what he thinks it takes to build a nation, assuming he thinks that is a critical question for someone venturing into the political arena. It is unfortunate that the Film does not sufficiently grapple with these questions.
Even so, there is no logic in imposing a ban, or preventing a wider audience from watching the Film. By banning the Film the State is forced to re-visit, re-condemn and re-stage what it ironically claims to have absolute power over. In this regard, the “censored speech it seeks to regulate is introduced into public discourse” (ibid: 130). Put differently, law suits and mainstream media coverage condemning Chee Soon Juan forces the State to admit in the public arena that it is a contingent entity. More commonly, politicians have to return to the site of the impermissible when foreign journalists question them about the very issues they would rather not touch on – be it Singapore’s human rights record, its lack of press freedom or its tendency to exercise heavy-handed censorship.
In the case of Singapore Rebel, it was the censors doing what they believe the law says, and this, apparently, will change. Both Singaporeans and people who see cinema as a critical and powerful tool of expression are hoping that this change will come soon.
With thanks to Mahdev Mohan for advice and clarifications on the legal dimensions discussed in this paper.