Parliament amended the Films Act to declare moving pictures to be an illegal medium for furthering any political objective. The Government’s justification for such a sweeping move was basically that video is an irrational and emotional medium, and should not be exploited for political competition. The additional impact is to control a medium that has become increasingly accessible to small producers, in terms of technology and cost.
The Act bans anyone from importing, making, reproducing, exhibiting, or possessing for the purpose of distributing, a “party political film”. If found guilty, the offender can be fined up to $100,000 or imprisoned up to two years.
If you think there’s a loophole in the “party political” label, think again. The law defines this genre to cover not only “an advertisement made by or on behalf of any political party in Singapore” but even any film “made by any person and directed towards any political end in Singapore”. A film is deemed "directed towards a political end" if it includes "any matter which is intended or likely to affect voting in any election or national referendum in Singapore" or "either partisan or biased references to or comments on any political matter".
Although the old-fashioned term “film” is used, the Act defines this medium broadly, to include not just celluloid, but also digital material that can be displayed “as wholly or partly visual moving pictures”. This seems to cover CD-ROMs with some video content, streaming video on the internet, and so on.
So, at its broadest, the Act bans anyone from having anything to do with showing any moving images intended to further any political cause.
The only apparent wiggle-room is in the intentions of the offenders. A person is said to commit an offence if he distributes or shows a film “knowing or having reasonable cause to believe” that the film is party-political.
Therefore, it looks as if the Act is not meant to catch the filmmaker who makes a political film by accident (which could happen if a film’s message is exploited for political ends after it is made – for example, Jack Neo’s “The Best Bet” could be screened to serve an anti-casino platform during an election, even if such use wasn’t Neo’s original intent; in such a scenario, Neo would probably be safe). In addition, distributors oblivious to the content of a film could plead ignorance.
It should also be pointed out that the Act does not appear to make it an offence to watch a party political film. Possession of any film without a valid certificate is a crime. However, since the Singapore authorities' broad approach to censorship is to tackle producers and distributors, rather than go after individual consumers, it may be safe to assume that the state will not prosecute individuals who possess a political film for personal consumption.
In a letter to the media in May 2005, the information ministry (MICA) clarified how it would interpret the Act’s provisions. MICA said that “it is not true that all films with political themes will be disallowed”.
“The ban here is only on films which deal with political issues in a partisan manner, such as a film aimed at furthering the cause of a political party or influencing the outcome of an election, or which presents a one-sided view of political issues of the day. Unbiased reporting of political issues on film would not be unlawful,” MICA’s letter said.
MICA also restated the official rationale for the ban: “ ‘Party political films' are disallowed because they are an undesirable medium for political debate in Singapore. They can present political issues in a sensational manner, evoking emotional rather than rational reactions, without affording the opportunity for a meaningful rebuttal or explanation to audience and viewers.”
In principle, the legislation applies equally to the ruling party and to the Opposition. However, it disadvantages the Opposition disproportionately, for two reasons.
First, with government-supervised mainstream media already biased towards the ruling party, the Opposition is more dependent than the PAP on alternative channels such as video (and the internet). Second, the PAP’s ideological dominance is such that much of its platform now sounds like “common sense” rather than patently “political”. Third, the Act does not apply to "any film sponsored by the Government". Being the government of the day allows it to couch its messages as ostensibly apolitical “national education”. Thus, while a video biography of JB Jeyaretnam would probably fall foul of the Films Act as furthering a “political end”, a video biography of Lee Kuan Yew would be regarded by regulators as part of the Singapore story; and if that documentary were sponsored by MDA, it would be automatically exempt from the Films Act.
[Thanks to Mr Wang Says So for correcting some of the details in an earlier version of this post.]