MDA’s film ban is Rational to a Fault

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By Simon Vincent

The Sword of Damocles

When they are not playing film critics, it seems the people in MDA also fancy themselves as political analysts. They recently decided for all of us that Tan Pin Pin’s To Singapore, With Love would undermine national security.

This evaluation is, of course, preposterous. Kirsten Tan has rightly pointed out that “what is happening here is just a blatant act of censorship, pure and simple.”

In her article, she attests to the alternative accounts of historians like Dr Thum Pingtjin that cast doubts on the state’s narrative about Operation Coldstore, before concluding that the state’s attempt to control what Singaporeans consume is “futile.”

Is it really futile, though?

Sure, if you cast a political forecast deep enough into the future.

The government is not clueless about the opening up of civil society and the proliferation of alternative views, but has, over the years, quite successfully, controlled the momentum of this movement.

OB markers, news licensing schemes and various MDA regulations are like a Sword of Damocles hovering above agents of change, keeping them in line each step they take forward.

Go too far and you stand a chance to get cut!

State-mandated boundaries, of course, shift when people challenge them. Nevertheless, it is hard to deny that the government still wields considerable clout over the trajectory of our politics.

A Senseless Sword?

The banning of To Singapore, With Love is just the most recent expression of the government’s heavy-handed regulation of society. Is it, however, senseless as Ethan Guo suggests?

While he is right to point out that MDA’s action breeds “distrust between government and the artistic community,” I do not think it is entirely irrational. In fact, I think it is rational to a fault.

What is at stake in the censorship of To Singapore, With Love is not national security but PAP legitimacy.

Operation Coldstore, which led to the exile of the subjects featured in To Singapore, With Love, was a key event in the formation of our country. It has also always been a contentious historical subject.

Through numerous arrests, under the auspice of Operation Coldstore, Lee Kuan Yew effectively decimated the left-wing movement and diminished whatever political traction his opponents in the Barisan Sosialis had amassed. In the 1963 elections, after Operation Coldstore, the PAP won 37 seats, the Barisan Sosialis 13. This electoral swing would not have been possible without the arrests.

The arrests were justified as a necessary step to curb an apparent plan for a communist insurgency. As any halfway decent historian will tell you, though, the evidence for all the political prisoners being communists is hardly water-tight.

Tan Pin Pin, in a Facebook statement, said the exiles featured in her film “all have different ideological positions…some are communists, others are activists from the Christian Left, yet others socialist politicians or former student activists.” Their feelings for Singapore, though, are heartfelt and relatable, she says.

Why would some Singaporeans be able to relate to the exiles? I think it is because alternative histories like To Singapore, With Love pose two pertinent, though, troubling questions:

1.Whether the exiles were communists or not, did their crimes merit the punishment that was meted out to them?

2.Whether the exiles were communists or not, did they have a legitimate aspiration for Singapore society that people can even now relate to?

History is not simply about the good guys and the bad guys as the PAP, or any reigning government, would have you believe; history is messy. The PAP has to, however, if it insists on the impeccability of the arrests that underlined its assent to power.

It is in that sense, that the MDA’s action, as backed by Minister Yaacob Ibrahim, is rational – at the cost of an open political culture.

Rationality, however, does not dictate that there can only be one sensible path. Reconciliation with the questionable aspects of its history could very well benefit the PAP by avoiding the distrust Ethan Guo mentions.

This alternative would not only be rational but humane as well. Let us not think, however, that the path currently chosen by the government is senseless. We do ourselves a disservice by ignoring the political underpinnings of the ban.

MDA may have unintentionally created hype for To Singapore, With Love, urging Singaporeans to download it online. Without a public screening, however, debate over the film will be relegated to the online world, never given equal weight as the state’s media-monopolised narrative.

Orwell Again

Films thrive on currency. To Singapore, With Love has earned rave reviews and is now in the best position to stimulate debate, which is precisely what the government does not want.

It is vogue these days to invoke Orwell in any discussion that touches upon authoritarian practices. Yet, at the risk of evoking cliches, how can you not in the case of the Singapore government? MDA says To Singapore, With Love cannot be screened or distributed publicly, but insists this does not constitute a ban – doublespeak anyone?

I leave you with one last trite Orwellianism, which perfectly elucidates the logic behind MDA’s banning of To Singapore With Love:

“Who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past.”