When Martyn See (施忠明) made his first film he thought it would be censored. He didn't realize he would be investigated, his tapes and video camera confiscated, and he would ultimately be warned never to do it again.
The offense: making Singapore Rebel,which chronicles the political journey of the island-state's most outspoken opposition politician, Chee Soon Juan (徐順全). See's 26-minute documentary was withdrawn from the Singapore International Film Festival last yearafter censors found it to be a political film, banned under the country's Films Act.
“If it was passed by the censor it would have been shown to a room of no more than 100 people,” said See, a 37-year-old video editor who is in Taipei this week for screenings of Rebel at the Assignment Theatre (差事劇團). His new film, Speaker's Cornered, premieres at the Assignment Theatre tonight. “Now 10 times, maybe 100 times that many people have seen it.”Singapore's Films Act bans the making, showing or distribution of “party political films,” or films “directed towards any political end in Singapore.” Those prosecuted under the act face two years in prison or fines of up to S$100,000, or roughly US$59,000.
The idea is that film manipulates audiences and leads them to make poor voting choices. Singapore's government argues tight media controls and restrictions on public assembly are needed to preserve public order.
Critics point out that political content favorable to the ruling People's Action Party, which has ruled Singapore since independence from Malaysia, has been allowed to air on national television. This includes a recent Hong Kong-produced program on former head of state Lee Kuan Yew (李光耀), the father of Singapore's current prime minister.
In its annual report on press freedom last year, Reporters Without Borders ranked Singapore 144th out of 166 countries. A Singaporean student in the US was recently threatened with a defamation lawsuit for criticizing the government on his blog.
See said he made Singapore Rebel to examine why the political opposition is marginalized by the country's media, which is state-owned, and society. He also wanted to “politicize younger Singaporeans” who are “totally apathetic towards political issues.”
He used roughly 70 percent of his footage, which he shot with a Samsung mini DV camera and edited on a Macintosh laptop computer. The entire project cost about US$400 to make. The film is essentially an interview with Chee, the secretary-general of the Singapore Democratic Party, mixed with footage showing Chee's home life and a protest near the prime minister's house. References to Chee's party were deliberately omitted.
“I had a very vague idea about the films act,” See said. “However, I took my chances because the new prime minister had just been inaugurated and he promised an open and inclusive society.”
Indeed, the film opens with a quote attributed to current Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong (李顯龍) in 2004: “We are an open, multiracial and cosmopolitan society. We enjoy a good reputation in the world… . Our people should feel free to express diverse views, pursue unconventional ideas, or simply to be different.”
Two months after Singapore Rebel was withdrawn from the Singapore International Film Festival, police called See in for what he describes as a “friendly question and answer session.”