Freedom of Expression: Interview with filmmaker Martyn See (Singapore)
Director: Namita A. Malhotra, Subasri Krishnan
Duration: 00:19:30; Aspect Ratio: 1.821:1; Hue: 13.166; Saturation: 0.123; Lightness: 0.438; Volume: 0.188; Cuts per Minute: 0.410; Words per Minute: 118.773
Summary: Martyn See is a filmmaker based in Singapore and an activist. He made two films whose circulation was ruthlessly repressed by the Singapore regime. Many of his films are a critique of the role played by long-term leader of Singapore Lee Kuan Yew. The films spoke about the leaders of the Singapore Democratic Party (only opposition to the ruling party) and about freedom, politics and repression in Singapore.
In this interview Martyn See speaks about his experience of censorship at the Singapore film festival and the subsequent popularity of his films that circulated on the internet. The two controversials films referred to are Zahari's 17 years and Singapore Rebel.
In the background of this interview is a restaurant at the corner of Little India in Singapore, that is mostly populated by Tamilians who have migrated to Singapore. Little India is one of the few lively segments in Singapore, and this restaurant that served non-vegetarian food was very unlike the usual ordered vision of daily life in Singapore.
Namita - Tell us about your name. Tell us about yourself and tell us about your film.
In the background of this interview is a restaurant at the corner of Little India in Singapore, that is mostly populated by Tamilians who have migrated to Singapore. Singapore has three primary ethnic identities - Chinese, Malay, Indians. Oddly all these three races are represented in the visual frame. Little India is one of the few localities in Singapore that has a vibrant cultural life and is populated by independent galleries as well.
Martyn - My name is Martyn See. I'm a film maker from Singapore, I made four short films all containing political content and the first two of which are banned by the Singapore government.
Martyn - The first one was titled 'Singapore Rebel'. It basically tracks the political career of Dr Chee Soon Juan who is a very vocal critic of the government here.
Martyn - And for that I was being investigated by the police for 15 months for the production of that film.
Martyn - The status of the film is that it is still illegal in Singapore, however the police investigations have stopped.
Martyn - The irony of it all was that Singapore Rebel was uploaded on YouTube while I was under police investigation and it has garnered over 200,000 hits.
Martyn - And my second film was entitled 'Zahari's 17 years' made while I was under police investigation for Singapore Rebel.
Martyn - And that one is also banned by the government but it was not a criminal case.
Martyn - So it was just a straight forward ban. Again, the irony is that Zahari's 17 years is on Google video and YouTube.
Martyn - So it's a very funny situation where films are banned here but are still available to watch on the internet in Singapore.
Namita: Could you tell me what the crux of the film 'Singapore Rebel' is?
Martyn - Singapore Rebel is a 26 min film which chronicles the political career of Dr Chee Soon Juan, he is an oppositional politician in Singapore and a very vocal critic of the government here.
Martyn - And the crux of the film is a ten min segment where he was arrested for trying to hold a open rally outside the presidential palace.
Martyn - That scene basically contained the police arresting him on the spot, even before he began his speech. And the rest of the film contains his interview. Yes.
Namita: Did you submit it for certification and how was it banned?
Martyn - After I made Singapore Rebel, I submitted it to the Singapore International Film Festival, which is a very renowned film festival in South East Asia.
Martyn - By law, they have to submit the film to the board of film censors, which they did.
Martyn - And then after a while, I got a call from the organisers of the festival, asking me to withdraw the film, which I did over the phone.
Martyn - So I thought the matter was closed. During that time, word got out about it and I submitted the film for overseas screenings.
Martyn - A month later I got a call on my mobile phone from the police, asking me about the film and asking me to go down to the police station for a formal interview, which I did.
Martyn - Over a period of 15 months, I went to the police station 4 times and during that time, they confiscated my tapes, all my tapes relating to Singapore Rebel, including the rushes.
Martyn - And they also for strange reason, took my camera! At the end of the 15 months when investigation was completed, they decided not to prosecute me, so I got my camera back but not my tapes.
Martyn - However during my 15 months, some how my tapes have been sent out overseas and during that time, someone uploaded on google video and YouTube, and till today it has got over 300,000 hits on both.
Namita - How does the being online thing work? How come the government doesn't target you online and could you also tell us something about your blog?
Martyn - One of the questions that the police asked me during my investigation of Singapore rebel was,'How did I start my blog? How much did it take to start my blog? And who uploaded the video on YouTube and all that'.
Martyn - I answered those questions in a very factual manner, that blogspot.com
is free and I don't know who uploaded it because I have sent out DVDs to many people overseas.
Martyn - Why doesn't the Singapore government ban or take down the video on YouTube or Google video? Frankly, I don't know.
Martyn - Probably, it is due to the fact that they don't want to embarrass themselves further, than investigating a film maker for making a short film.
Martyn - So I guess that's probably the reason why. And also I think I took a different track than most other people whose work is banned in Singapore.
Martyn - For most other artists and film makers who have censorship problems in Singapore, they tend to capitulate towards the authorities, they tend to apologies, they tend to withdraw their works, not talk about it, I took a different track.
Martyn - Immediately when the police called me, I put it up on my blog.
Martyn - And after I put it up on my blog, I got email messages coming from Amnesty International, from Committee to protect journalists, Reporters without Borders asking me about my case.
Martyn - In a strange way, that didn't get me into more trouble, it protected me because I think the government already felt that they were embarrassed by investigating me already.
Martyn - They don't want to embarrass themselves further by prosecuting me, so a lot of international attention over my case.
Martyn - So my blog actually helped to protect me from prosecution I think.
Namita - How is it that there is this climate of self censorship in Singapore?
Martyn - In Singapore we have this peculiar phenomenon called self censorship.
Martyn - Its very serious and I think it comes about due to a few factors, one of which is basically legislation.
Martyn - You see in Singapore, there are 2 tiers of censorship: one is legislation itself, which is the laws that restricts the freedom of expression.
Martyn - I can give you a few examples of such law, such as the defamation laws, the public entertainment and licensing act – which requires anyone who wants to hold a public rally to apply for a police permit.
Martyn - And then you've got the undesirable publications act, the films act, the sedition act.
Martyn - So these are laws that have been passed by Parliament that restricts political expression and these are transparent laws and most Singaporeans know about such laws, so they know how to avoid getting into trouble because of such laws.
Martyn - But the more problematic layer of censorship is the second layer, I have no name for it, they are basically guidelines drawn up by government boards.
Martyn - For example this is not written in the law books whatsoever but, it's a law, there is a guidelines against films that contain too much homosexuality, or films that "glamourises" homosexuality.
Martyn - This is not written in the law books but the media development authority here prescribes this guideline for all film makers here.
Martyn - And there are many such guidelines and they don't publish it. So this creates a climate where film makers and artists don't know where the boundaries are.
Martyn - So most Singaporean artists tend to play it safe.
Martyn - For example, if you want to make films that contain homosexuality, they will probably take out the whole scene completely and not get into trouble with the authorities because they don't know where the rules are.
Martyn - So I think this is one very big factor in fostering a climate of self censorship in Singapore.
Martyn - The second big factor why self censorship happens in Singapore is also because the government controls the people here economically.
Martyn - 80% of Singaporeans live in public housing owned by the government.
Martyn - So there's this fear that if I cross the line, I may lose my house. And also the govt is the biggest employer in Singapore.
Martyn - Not just the civil service, mind you but through companies affiliated with the government, so a lot of Singaporeans work either directly or indirectly for the government.
Martyn - So they maybe afraid of losing their jobs if they make a political film or do a political play whatsoever.
Martyn - So I think this also fosters a climate of self censorship in Singapore.
Namita - How does the funding for art and culture help the process of self censorship?
Martyn - The Singapore government wants to encourage arts and they pump in a lot of money every year for the arts.
Martyn - So in that sense a lot of artists in Singapore, film makers, artists, playwrights, authors, visual artists, they get grants from the government and very generous grants, I must say.
Martyn - And because of that, I think, that also becomes a factor in fostering self censorship among artists because since they're getting government money they don't want to do any work that may antagonize their funders.
Martyn - It's a factor here, that a lot of artists are enslaved by the funding mechanism here.
Namita - What sort of readership do you get from people who want to step out of self censorship ?
Martyn - As far as I know the people who visit political blogs in Singapore, their numbers are very low.
Martyn - The reason is because, there is a general culture of political apathy in Singapore. People are not interested in politics in Singapore.
Martyn - We have a few political bloggers here but generally I suspect that the hit rates to their sites are not very high.
Martyn - I must add that even though there are political bloggers here, most bloggers blog anonymously, they don't reveal their names for fear of defamation suits and all that.
Martyn - I don't know how political blogging can change the landscape here as far as political expression goes.
Martyn - But right now it provides an avenue for people like us to express ourselves online.
Martyn - Because offline you have to get a police permit for a public talk and all that. It is avenue for us but how it affects the political culture around here remains to be seen.
Namita - Have there been any flash mobs or rallies or any interesting ways in which the internet has been used for online activism?
Martyn - Online activism is starting to come up in the last couple of years, people are starting to use their blogs and websites to organize events.
Martyn - For example, there was a recent rally with the lesbian and gay community that attracted about 1000 people in a place called Speakers corner in Hong Lim Park in Singapore.
Martyn - It's a government gazetted area for free speech, you can make your political speeches there.
Martyn - Of course you have to apply for a police permit which is easily obtainable with the people who run the parks, not with the police anymore.
Martyn - So there have been quite a few events recently, held in the speakers corner, that was advertised through online.
Martyn - So it was a phenomenon that I hope to see grow in the next few years or so.
Namita - I think even the Burma protest happened which was a tribute to Aung San Suu Kyi.
Martyn - Two weeks ago again there was another event in speakers corner where a group of Singaporeans and the Burmese community here gathered to pay tribute to Aung San Suu Kyi.
Martyn - That too was advertised through the internet. So its something that the Singaporeans have picked up to use online medium to advertise for offline activities.
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Martyn - One big irony of banning of my films Singapore Rebel or Zahiri 17 years is that if the government didn't ban it it would have been shown in the Singapore International Film Festival to an audience of maybe less than a 100 people.
Martyn - And people would have seen it and walked out of the theater and not even remembered it a week or two later.
Martyn - But because the government banned it, it creates a sensation where people want to watch it because its banned.
Martyn - So when it was uploaded on YouTube, immediately thousands of hits within the week.
Martyn - I don't know if the government of Singapore has wisened up by now not to ban works because it will create even more attention through this particular banned works.
Martyn - It's a phenomena we have to grapple with in the future.
Namita - How do you financially look out for yourself?
Martyn - I make political films knowing that it will run into censorship problems but not to the extent where I have to face police investigation which I did for my first film.
Martyn - So with this in mind, I always keep my budget very low, less than 1000 sing dollars.
Martyn - And I will make it a point to shoot it myself and to do the editing myself, so I don't get other people involved in case we run into authorities or whatever.
Martyn - So financially, its not a big loss to me if the government bans it, in that sense I do get by.
Martyn - And I'm also a full time freelance video editor, I do a lot of work for TV, a lot of fluff! This pays the bills.
Martyn - And I'm not afraid to tell people that I'm wearing two hats, one hat I wear for commercial reasons, the other hat is for activism reasons.
Martyn - So the government has not stopped me from doing my commercial work so far, so I do get by in that sense.
Namita - The internet is for _____ and you have to complete the sentence.
Martyn - The internet is for Singaporeans to express themselves freely and fearlessly about all issues, not just political issues.
Martyn - What's the MTV questions for?
Namita - Because there is this cute video online which says the internet is for porn. Its just a lot of workout characters set to a song. So, it is very cute. you should check it out.
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