The government doesn’t ‘get’ the new normal

The PM’s justification seems to rest on two broad claims. The first:

1. “Why should we allow through a movie to present an account of themselves (that is) not objectively presented documentary history, but a self-serving personal account, conveniently inaccurate in places, glossing over inconvenient facts than others which will sully the honour and reputation of the security people and the brave men and women who fought the Communists all those many years in order to create today’s Singapore?”

This assumes that it is, in fact, part of the government’s mandate to determine what is or isn’t “objectively presented documentary history” and which facts are inconvenient or otherwise. It also assumes that the government should be arbiter of whose reputations get to be sullied or not, since in not allowing the reputation of “the security people…” et al to be sullied, he is, in fact, arguing that the reputations of the so-called Communists who have been exiled should remain sullied.

I find both these positions to be objectionable.

It is the role of the academy, not the government, to decide what is or is not factual. The conflicting narratives surrounding the political upheavals of the period and the various crackdowns that shattered opposition to PAP control of Singapore are certainly not as near consensus as PM Lee implies by suggesting that “they are not seriously disputed”. That such a film exists already stands as a serious disputation of the narrative propagated by the establishments: a dispute that the establishment is dismissing rather than addressing. Mary Turnbull, who disputes the veracity of claims that a Communist conspiracy threatened to overturn order in Singapore, was a well-recognised historian; an accolade that I’m not aware any sitting member of the Cabinet can claim to share.

As long as the actual facts of the matter remain murky, supported by press releases and unqualified claims rather than documentary evidence that the academic community can analyse, claiming that there is no serious contest to the main narrative and that alternatives should therefore be discarded is an approach that lacks both utility and integrity. Given that it is in the government’s full power to dispute such claims by unsealing records and winning over the marketplace of ideas, and yet that they have chosen not to do so, it would seem that dispute over the facts of the matter are still alive, and valid, and should be aired.

The suspicion that the thinking public bears against the instruments of established power is a political fact. Properly channeled and engaged, it can even be a boon, to a nation if not to a particular administration. On the other hand, when suppressed rather than debated-with, this suspicion becomes toxic, infecting unrelated issues and undermining policies and principles that would otherwise be laudable, save that they have their genesis in a political establishment that has lost mandate and credibility. The entire Edward Snowdon affair is not only proof of what happens when paternalistic authorities take it upon themselves to determine what is true and what isn’t, but also a warning of what happens when your intelligentsia (with whom advanced societies have always had a love-hate relationship) no longer feel that they can make meaningful contributions from within the system due to the lack of proper channels.

The new normal of sousveillance, of courting the public through image management rather than media blackout and propaganda, is one the Singaporean political establishment remains terrified of engaging-with. While some individuals, like Teo Ser Luck and Baey Yam Keng, seem to have developed a reasonable proficiency with managing their image without the overt mediation of a government media-machine, the vast majority of the political apparati seem uncomfortable straying beyond the bounds of rigorously-pruned Facebook pages and press statements released online. The belief that confidence can be maintained, not by debate, but by dominating the means of presenting a narrative, is one that rests on increasingly shaky foundations.

not the most resounding support of government initiatives

While the Media Development Authority tries to clamp down on online coverage of local politics, and the government tries to build an arts panopticon while simultaneously building Singapore up to be an “arts hub”, movements like Occupy Central and the Arab Spring demonstrate how feeble such measures are in the face of an educated and Internet-savvy population. The use of bans against media that poses no clear and present immediate danger to national security or public morality is a political throwback, the clumsy stroke of an establishment that has never learned the point of finesse in an information landscape that they have always dominated and controlled… until they suddenly didn’t. What happens when the film gets released via torrents? On YouTube? Is the Great Firewall of China going to suddenly envelop a certain southern promontory?

Ultimately, it is the thinking, reasoning public that must decide whose reputation remains intact, and whose is stained. Denying this to the public is the whole purpose of legislation like the ISA: in avoiding a trial, it is the government that benefits from hiding “inconvenient facts”.

2. “You watch the movie, you think it’s a documentary, it may be like Farenheit 9/11 – very convincing, but it’s not a documentary. And I think we have to understand this in order to understand how to deal with these issues.”

Apparently the other reason is that film is such a powerful form of media that the government has no answer to it.

The claim that only subversives possess the mystic secret to making films convincing, seductive, and persuasive, while the government is powerless in this new arena is… well, it might very well be true, but that doesn’t make it any less an admission of defeat in the face of an opponent that the government doesn’t actually understand. PM Lee claims they can write counter-books (which I doubt, since the PAP has as many good writers on staff as they do have respected historians) but they can’t make counter-films.

sad but true

I think it’s a terribly weak argument to say that this film ought to be banned, basically because it’s a film, and films are too dangerous because they’re capable of presenting things in an attractive way. Why aren’t all films banned? When the inevitable 50 Years of Independence film gets made, is anyone going to take a fine-toothed comb to it to check that it is “objectively presented documentary history”?

And if only certain films get banned, because they are some kind of abuse of an art form (presenting a different perspective in a compelling manner? how bold! how new! We have no answer to this!)… what were we saying about inconvenient facts again?


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