MDA hacks away at rule of law

This essay is a follow-up to Political videos pudding ready for the eating.

The Media Development Authority (MDA) — Singapore’s censors — “has generally . . . . not mandated that all Internet content providers (ICPs) send their uploaded films to MDA for classification,” wrote Amy Chua, the MDA’s Director of Media Content and Standards, in a letter published in the Straits Times, 16 Dec 2010. She was responding to a letter by filmmaker Martyn See, published a week earlier, wherein he queried why political parties’ videos uploaded to the internet did not have to be vetted.

Merrian Webster defines “mandate” when used as a transitive verb to mean “to officially require (something)”.

Yet that’s exactly what Section 14 of the Films Act does. Added in 1998, Section 14(1) of this law mandates: “Every film in the possession of any person shall be submitted to the Board without any alteration or excision for the purpose of censorship”. The Board referred to is the Board of Film Censors, a unit of the MDA.

The law hinges on possession, not on whether the film (which the law also defines as encompassing digital video) is on the internet or not. If one has been able to upload a video to the internet, the presumption should be that one must have had it in one’s possession in the first place.

Yet the MDA now says it will only act on complaints: “The MDA will, however, direct [internet content providers] to submit films – for which there may be content concerns – to it for classification, if such films are raised to its attention.”

But wasn’t that what Martyn See’s letter did — bring to the MDA’s attention the fact that political party websites contain video? Why is the MDA’s response so much at variance with the spirit and the letter of the law?

It is damaging to the fundamentals of good administration when bureaucrats reserve to themselves the discretion when to do their mandated jobs.

Imagine if tomorrow the Buidling Control Authority decided that it would only verify and approve such building plans as are “raised to its attention”. People will no doubt take advantage of this close-one-eye policy and start putting up all sorts of unsound structures with serious risk of lethal collapses.

Or if our anti-corruption body decided it would pick and choose which cases to pursue. That body itself can easily be corrupted to serve a nefarious agenda in the way it picks the cases to investigate.

Although you might say it’s better (in the interest of liberty) for the MDA to not do its job than to do it, there is a price to be paid: Loss of respect for rules, and creating a generalised culture of bureaucrats picking and choosing which parts of their jobs they would do, with no accountability whatsoever.

It can only be damaging to good public administration and the rule of law.

* * * * *

With the Films Act, the root of the problem lies in the hegemonic impulses of the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP). Over the years, we can observe how its behaviour fits a certain pattern — that of arming itself with sweeping laws so that it will always have something at hand to bludgeon dissenters with whenever it feels a need to.

As the PAP government realised in the last 20 years that it was possible for the medium of film to sell a political message, they felt they had to equip themselves with a pair of scissors to snip off the penis before it got hard. Thus Section 33 of the Films Act, added in 1998, that makes the making, importing, reproduction, distribution or exhibition of a party political film a crime with penalties of up to two years’ imprisonment or a fine of S$100,000. This strengthens Section 14 that requires all films to be submitted for vetting.

The same hegemonic impulse lies behind the catch-all provisions of the Public Order Act that even bans a one-man protest, the retention of the Internal Security Act providing for detention without trial, and the parts of the Broadcasting Act (and its subsidiary legislation) that imposes “licence requirements” on all political websites.

But as everyone knows, there are moral, practical and technological limits to how such legislation can be used. The government acknowledges these limits and their response is: Trust us, we will know when to be heavy-handed and when to be light-handed; when to bring down the full force of the law, when to close one eye.

Yet by their specific actions, they show that they cannot be trusted.

In its attempt to justify when it applies the law, it often cites law and order concerns, for example when banning one-man political protests or the distribution of fliers to mark International Migrants Day. Many of these justifications, e.g. that handing out fliers could not be approved for “law and order considerations” (Straits Times, 15 December 2010, Police say ‘no’ to procession, fliers) are just rubbish. Lots of people stand about in public spaces distributing fliers promoting commercial interests, and I’m pretty sure that anyone touting timeshare or minibonds (in these post-Lehman Brothers times) would be more likely to attract controversy. Yet we feel no impulse (and rightly) to regulate distribution of commercial fliers.

I have argued before: there’s a hint of a Shakespearean tragedy unfolding in Singapore. We have a government that knows what the future requires, but the exigencies of the present (often warped by its own paranoia about challenges to its rule) lead it to do the exact opposite, thereby undermining the future.

It knows that we will not again have a leader like Lee Kuan Yew who can command the trust and devotion of a large number of people; in any case, relying on the Rule of Man is never safe. We need to entrench the Rule of Law, we need respected institutions, and we need a culture of a trusted and accountable public administration.

But every so often, as the current example of Amy Chua’s letter in the Straits Times indicates, arbitrariness is shown to be the order of the day. In this particular case they had a law that sought to prevent political parties from using film and video to spread its message, put in when opposition parties were contemplating doing so, but now that the ruling party itself is beginning to exploit this medium, it has become inconvenient to exercise the law. When pressed by Martyn See, Chua grants to herself the discretion when to do her job and when to ignore it. It cannot be otherwise, as it would displease her minister.

The legacy of institution-building and a culture of good public administration that Lee Kuan Yew, his son the present prime minister, and the PAP government generally, want so badly to creditted with, is chipped and hacked away on a daily basis because ultimately they just cannot avoid serving themselves and their interests first.

For the record, here is Amy Chua’s reply as published in the Straits Times, 16 December 2010:

Online videos: When MDA will use classification

We refer to Mr Martyn See’s letter, (‘Can political parties directly upload videos online?; Dec 9).

The Media Development Authority (MDA) has generally taken a ‘light- touch’ approach with regard to the Internet and not mandated that all Internet content providers (ICPs) send their uploaded films to MDA for classification.

This is also the case with Mr See, whose blog has several films that have not been submitted to MDA.

The MDA will, however, direct ICPs to submit films – for which there may be content concerns – to it for classification, if such films are raised to its attention. ICPs who are unsure should similarly submit their films to MDA.

In the case of Mr See’s film, Lim Hock Siew, it was submitted to MDA for classification and subsequently gazetted as a prohibited film. Consequently, MDA asked Mr See to surrender all copies of the film in his possession and to take down all digital copies of the film that he had uploaded onto the Internet.

Amy Chua (Ms)
Director, Media Content & Standards,
Media Development Authority

21 Responses to “MDA hacks away at rule of law”

  1. 1 yuen 17 December 2010 at 15:44

    isnt the situation like the law against male homosexuality? it is on the books, but is not necessarily applied

    as for “brought to attention”, I assume it actually means “complain”; See pointed out campaign films on websites but did not object to them, so officials need not take a stand; in contrast, if those film makers submitted their products for approval, then the officials have to act, and you may not like the result

    I also assume that when the need arises, some suitable person will come forward to complain about something which someone wants banned, e.g., “a member of the public” complained about white elephants outside an unopened MRT station, the police investigated, and the “grassroots activist” responsible for them was duly warned

  2. 2 sgcynic 17 December 2010 at 17:13

    State of Singapore, corruption at its most insidious…

  3. 3 Desmond 17 December 2010 at 17:13

    Are we really surprised at the answer and attitude? The laws are obeyed if and when it suits them.

  4. 4 Kute Steiner 17 December 2010 at 17:44

    The Animal Farm (by George Orwell) anyone?

    Talk about fiction becoming the reality in the end.

  5. 5 thornofplenty 17 December 2010 at 22:01

    So are we all supposed to complain about videos on the PAP’s site now?

  6. 8 Strong Mandate 18 December 2010 at 09:48

    “It is damaging to the fundamentals of good administration when bureaucrats reserve to themselves the discretion when to do their mandated jobs.”

    If it is damaging, blame it on the voters for giving them the 66% mandate. Blame it on the opposition for giving them the walkovers and 98% seats.

    The voters make the choice, the opposition make the choice, they live with the consequences of their choice. But of course not all bad lah.

    • 9 KiWeTO 20 December 2010 at 10:11

      Don’t blame the opposition for not standing. Blame oneself for not standing in opposition.


      • 10 Anonymous 5 January 2011 at 06:18

        How about walkovers? Don’t they effectively take away a sizeable chunk of the votes?

      • 11 yuen 6 January 2011 at 09:03

        walkovers have two contributing causes (a) weak opposition parties not finding enough committed members to stand as candidates (b) high deposit discouraging potential candidates who know they have little chance but would like to try anyway; the government can change (b) if it wants, but of course it does not

  7. 12 George 18 December 2010 at 10:18


    It would be interesting to note somewhere all the rules and laws that the govt has introduced that have been quite plainly motivated by its own self-interest.

    Apart from the one in your post here, I can remember the occasion when Tharman the Finance Minister rushed through parliament the law regarding estate duties – the feeling on the ground then I believe was there was a major concern about Mdm Kwa’s condition. The law then would require/result in disclosure of the wealth and properties under her name. The amendment to the law ensures that such details remained secret.

  8. 13 Marcus 18 December 2010 at 11:27

    Can’t it be argued that this system of you-complain-I-investigate is suited for situations where consequences are social, as opposed to situations where immediate consequences are violent or life-threatening? Take public nudity for example; the police do not actively arrest any naked person walking the streets, unless there are complaints from the public. To enforce such a law vehemently would probably verge on absurd measures, such as having a camera around every corner, looking out for nude offenders.

    I would like to add that it seems a little hypocritical for Martyn See to pursue the matter, since, as Chua’s letter notes, he is far from the high-horse stance that he’s insinuating of himself.

  9. 14 domainsells 20 December 2010 at 09:49

    I find this more Orwellian than is comfortable.

  10. 15 Alan Wong 20 December 2010 at 13:11

    If Dr. Lim Hock Siew’s speech contains half-truths leading it to be prohibited, how come MDA never clarifies which part(s) of that particular speech is untrue ?

    If MDA does not clarify the half-truths, I can only conclude that MDA is actually lying especially since they see it fit to ban the political speech but makes no attempt to provide the substantiating proof that it isn’t true. Furthermore, they do not see it fit either to detain Dr. Lim for further questioning ?

    For a liar to first accuse someone else of lying without any proof, it is actually downright despicable, isn’t it ?

  11. 16 hahaha 21 December 2010 at 15:26

    what do you expect the salaried civil servant to say to her ultimate boss, govt. –> PAP?
    A good article for those who decided to go for stability in civil service but be a lap dog for the MIW, directly or indirectly.

  12. 17 Gazebo 22 January 2011 at 00:55

    have you been gazetted, YB? 🙂

  13. 18 wikigam 22 January 2011 at 23:59

    May be no only gazetted so easy…..

  14. 19 jellyfish07 23 January 2011 at 01:25

    where are u YB? we miss u here

  15. 20 shawn 5 February 2011 at 08:23

    So many newsworthy events like TOC being gazetted and MM Lee’s racist remarks, and not a peep from Alex? Has he been whisked away by the ISD in the middle of the night?

    • 21 yuen 5 February 2011 at 16:30

      last year there were a couple of periods of silence; during one I actually asked around his circle and was told by one of his associates that he was busy with domestic concerns; a couple of weeks later a new article appeared

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