I found Siew Kum Hong’s point spot on:
If there was anything in this film that could possibly be the subject of a ban
deserved to be banned, it would have to be the words used by Dr Lim. If his speech was somehow illegal or unlawful, then the authorities should go after him for having made that speech and used those words. Go to the source and address the root problem, so to speak. Instead, the Government has chosen to suppress the film, without prosecuting Dr Lim for the speech. If the speech itself was lawful, then how can the possession or distribution of the film be unlawful?
He was referring to the ban that the Media Development Authority (MDA) imposed on a video recording of a 20-minute speech by Lim Hock Siew, made last year by Martyn See.
As reported by the Straits Times:
The Government has banned a video recording of a speech made by former political detainee Lim Hock Siew, on the grounds that it is against public interest.
The video by filmmaker Martyn See, 41, gives a ‘distorted and misleading portrayal’ of Dr Lim’s detention under the Internal Security Act, said the Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts (Mica) in a statement yesterday.
Mica added: ‘The Singapore Government will not allow individuals who have posed a security threat to Singapore’s interests in the past to use media platforms such as films to make baseless accusations against the authorities, give a false portrayal of their previous activities in order to exculpate their guilt, and undermine public confidence in the Government in the process.’
— Straits Times, 13 July 2010, Ban on video recording of Lim Hock Siew speech
What jumped at me was the MDA’s use of the word “guilt”. The whole point of Lim’s speech was that he was never tried, yet imprisoned for 19 years. No court of law found him guilty. What hollow justification is that from the MDA?
In his speech, Lim reiterated his convictions as a socialist, pointing out that such ideals are still relevant today as capitalism wrecks more and more havoc. But mainly, he described the cruelty and ridiculousness of the process he was subjected to, including the time when the charge sheet he was called to answer contained numerous deletions (too sensitive to even let him know what he was accused of, he was told), and the periods of solitary confinement detainees like him suffered for daring to seek legal challenges to their detention.
However, as Siew pointed out, the words, the speech, are not the issue. So, what’s the difference between Lim standing at a rostrum and speaking to a gathering of people and a video of it?
I guess the difference is that one is more permanent than the other. The ban therefore is not a challenge to the opinions and facts as recounted by Lim. It is in essence a defence of the government’s monopoly to write history. They intend to do it not by contesting Lim’s points, but by erasing them from the record.
Of course a formal ban is the clumsiest way to do it. Promptly, the video, which had been available online for some 8 months, saw its viewership spike; plenty of copies were made and virally distributed (source: Martyn See’s blog). It also gave legitimacy to Lim’s account as Singaporeans asked themselves: Now, why is the government so determined to prevent us from hearing what he said?
In other words, there’s something really strange about the decision-making process within the government that led to this.
Firstly, did nobody anticipate that further publicity, distribution and legitimisation would be the consequences of a formal ban? Did no civil servant advise his minister this is how the new media age works? (And here I assume that the ban decision was not made by a civil servant but by the Minister for Information, Communication and the Arts, or the entire cabinet together).
Secondly, the minister is Lui Tuck Yew, who was only a child when Operation Cold Store, under which Lim and others were detained, took place. Why did he feel a personal stake in defending one version of history from another? Why did he make the decision that he did? The same question can be asked of all other cabinet ministers, save one. None of them were in politics when those events took place.
For analogy, when a tribunal under Lord Saville reported that the British Army was trigger-happy and should be held responsible for the 13 deaths on 30 January 1972 (“Bloody Sunday”) in Northern Ireland, current British Prime Minister David Cameron stood up in Parliament to say, “What happened on Bloody Sunday was both unjustified and unjustifiable. It was wrong.” He then went on to quote from the report: “The immediate responsibility for the deaths and injuries on Bloody Sunday lies with those members of Support Company whose unjustifiable firing was the cause of the those deaths and injuries” adding his view that “these are shocking conclusions to read and shocking words to have to say.
“But Mr Speaker, you do not defend the British Army by defending the indefensible.”
He concluded with these words: “The Government is ultimately responsible for the conduct of the Armed Forces. And for that, on behalf of the Government – and indeed our country – I am deeply sorry.”
Are the thought processes of this generation of cabinet ministers so stunted that taking a similar a position with respect to the use of detention without trial in the decades past never crossed their minds?
Even if they could not bring themselves to go so far, could they not have just let the video be? Did they never seriously consider this option?
The decision that they made therefore looks neither rational nor considered. Of the choices open to them, they picked the one that did themselves the most harm from the way it predictably boomeranged. It smacks of obsessive compulsive behaviour, in sharp contrast to the image of analytical competence they try to give themselves.
Some might argue that among of present cabinet ministers are not a few who have a personal stake in never allowing the political use of detention without trial to be questioned. While Lee Hsien Loong, Goh Chok Tong, Wong Kan Seng, Lim Boon Heng, for example, might not have been party to the 1962 arrest decision, they were party to the 1987 “Marxist Conspiracy” detentions. So, permitting the 1962 decision to be contested might open the floodgates to the 1987 case.
Yet, they must surely be aware that even with 1987, the battle is lost. No serious historian or intellectual in Singapore gives any credit to the government’s version of events. Under the circumstances, a smart politician would take whatever opportunities that arise to begin distancing himself from the indefensible. In other words, once again, the smart decision would be to let Martyn See’s video stand, so as not to call too much attention to it. The stupid decision would be to try (and fail) to ban it.
So once again, I’m back to my obsessive compulsive behaviour theory. Which is another way of saying: Our government is half mad. Like Hitler.