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