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Singapore Film Ban Creates Free Speech Issue


Filmmaker Tan Pin Pin poses during a 2007 photo shoot in Singapore. Her film, "To Singapore, with Love" was banned by the government in Singapore.

Filmmaker Tan Pin Pin poses during a 2007 photo shoot in Singapore. Her film, "To Singapore, with Love" was banned by the government in Singapore.

The documentary, “To Singapore, with Love,” has screenings planned this month from Britain to India to Malaysia. One place it won’t be playing: Singapore.

The government here banned the film, which presents vignettes of Singaporean dissidents who fled decades ago “to escape the prospect of detention without trial,” as the film’s website says.

The ban raises uncomfortable questions about free speech, for Singapore as a whole but also for a U.S. Ivy League university that was going to show the film at its local affiliate.

Yale-NUS College is a partnership between the Connecticut school and the National University of Singapore. Even before the campus opened in 2013, critics said Yale was tarnishing its reputation for academic freedom by lending its insignia to an authoritarian state run mostly by a single party. Now that Singapore has stopped Yale-NUS from screening “To Singapore, with Love,” some say those fears have been realized.

“The prime minister and his long-ruling People's Action Party have a long, well-documented record of using meticulous, Kafkaesque legalism to block freedoms of expression they want to block and to permit whatever they decide to permit in this rich little city-state,” Jim Sleeper, a political science lecturer at Yale, wrote on the Huffington Post in response to the censorship.

The film’s director, Tan Pin Pin, is asking the Media Development Authority to lift the ban.

“I have not agreed to any private screenings in Singapore, because the film is under appeal,” Pin Pin told VOA by email.

She also sent a link to a local blogger’s post that explains the decision not to hold private screenings, which the blogger said would “reduce the public pressure on MDA to revoke the ban -- if people can catch it at their school or at a friend’s place, they’ll be less invested in making sure it’s available to the public.”

Singapore is the envy of some autocratic countries because it successfully combined iron-fisted rule with economic growth, which has enabled living standards that are among the world’s highest. GDP per capita is $55,183 in this city-state of 5.4 million people. As a highly educated population, Singaporeans are far from brainwashed; rather, some accept censorship as part of the trade-off in a social contract that promises stability and prosperity.

“There’s a saying in Singapore,” Shane Teng, a data analyst, told VOA half-jokingly. “We are all busy making money. For people concerned with civil rights, they must have a lot of free time.”

Taking a late afternoon break downtown in the Marina Bay Financial Center courtyard, where many bankers gather for a smoke, Teng said he’s interested in watching “To Singapore, with Love” – but not enough to ruffle any feathers. “Most of us are pretty content with what we have,” he said.

The Media Development Authority seemed to go into painstaking detail when explaining its ban, refuting specific criticisms that political exiles made in the film and saying they “white-wash” their crimes. The authority said the film contents “undermine national security because legitimate actions of the security agencies” are depicted “in a distorted way.”

The censor added that the exiles are free to “return to Singapore if they agree to be interviewed by the authorities on their past activities to resolve their cases. Criminal offences will have to be accounted for in accordance with the law.”

Yale-NUS declined VOA’s interview request but emailed a statement saying it will not show the award-winning documentary until Pin Pin permits.

“We respect her decision and hope to have the opportunity to share the film with our students when it becomes available for such viewing,” public affairs director Fiona Soh said in the email.

The title, “To Singapore, with Love,” refers to the fact that the film is shot entirely outside of the island nation and is intended as a missive back to Singapore. Whether this cinematic dispatch will ever officially reach its intended recipient is an open question.

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