Films (Amendment) Bill – Speech by Daniel Goh

(Delivered in Parliament on 21 March 2018)

Deputy Speaker Sir, the review of the Films Act that started in September 2016 and ending with these proposed amendments was much needed. Market, societal and technological developments have changed videography and the consumption of films since the Films Act was last amended in 2009.

Several of the moves contained in these amendments should be welcomed for liberalising the media field and in effect encouraging the development of a vibrant media industry. Dissolving the Board of Film Censors and formalising the Co-Classification Scheme would help further shift the paradigm from knee-jerk censorship to age-appropriate classification. Amending the licensing framework to exclude private exhibition and the making and reproduction of films recognises the maturity of our society and the media industry. It recognises that our citizens are more than able to make value judgments on what they watch and are not simpletons prone to being brainwashed and losing their moral compass.

I would like to bring up three issues with the review and the bill. These are: one, keeping up to date with technology and social norms; two, the question of public interest; three, the regulatory risk of raids and seizures.

Keeping Up to Date with Technology and Social Norms

Let me begin with the first issue, keeping up to date with technology and social norms. The amendments contained in this bill seek to update definitions and regulations so that they match the current common uses of media technology. Even the word, “film”, has a new definition to keep up with the watching of films on mobile devices and through online streaming.

The problem is that the bill is still very focused on the term, “exhibit”, as the main activity that it seeks to heavily regulate. The expanded definition of “exhibit” in the bill means “to display, screen or project the contents contained in the film in order that another individual may see it (regardless of the manner of the film’s reception)”. The definition of “film” is very broad, referring not just to a cinematograph film, but any video recording or any form of recording with a moving visual image including computer-generated image.

This covers a whole range of activities that does not fit the common sense of the word, “exhibit”. In the explanatory statement of the bill, “exhibit” is said to include “showing to any other individual content comprising wholly or in part moving images received on a computer monitor, television screen, mobile device or similar medium equipment appropriate for receiving that content, and where the delivery of the content is by a broadcasting service, telecommunications or other electronic transmission”. It is also said, “But an individual will not be regarded as exhibiting a film if the individual is watching a film alone and in private”.

Given that a lot of people consume and share video recordings of one kind or another on their mobile devices on a daily basis, it would be good for the Minister to clarify the limits of “exhibit”. Would someone watching a film on his or her laptop or mobile device in a public place, where it is inevitable others standing or sitting close by would also watch the film, be exhibiting a film? Would someone who shares a video recording with friends through Whatsapp or Facebook be exhibiting a film?

This is important because such a wide definition can have a chilling effect on public discourse. In the Closing Note to the public consultation on the bill, MCI/IMDA said that three things are sensitive subject matters: race, religion, or politics. I strongly believe it is important to safeguard our racial and religious harmony and national security. However, to mark race, religion and politics as sensitive subject matters in themselves is to send mixed signals. Social norms have been evolving and Singaporeans seem prepared to discuss race, religion and politics more openly now in a responsible and civil manner.

For many decades, Singaporeans have been told that we should avoid discussions of issues related to race and religion because these are sensitive and explosive. Representations of race and religion in Singapore films tend to fall back on safe caricatures and common stereotypes. This does not help in encouraging mutual understanding and respect and may even reinforce racial and religious prejudices.

In fact, it is for this very reason that MCCY supported BRIDGE, partnering community groups in providing safe spaces to frankly discuss topics related to race and religion to strengthen our social fabric.

At the launch in March 2017, a documentary film titled “Jihad Selfie” was shown to over 120 religious and community leaders, who then discussed the complexities of extremist self-radicalisation.

This demonstrates that films and the exhibition of films have an important role to play in building and shoring up our multiracialism and multiculturalism. Difficult topics on race and religion should not be avoided by content producers, film makers, and civil society and community groups. It would be to our benefit that safe spaces such as those supported by BRIDGE could multiply through our society and without having to always depend on the government’s oversight. It is important that the government continue to safeguard racial and religious harmony, so there must be a balance. Would the Minister clarify how IMDA intends to achieve this balance in the new licensing and classification regime?

The Question of Public Interest

Let me move on now to the second issue, the question of public interest that is to be safeguarded by the government. In MCI’s Closing Note, it is stated that the Ministry seeks “to encourage the development of a vibrant media industry, while ensuring that the content does not undermine Singapore’s racial and religious harmony, national security or the public interest”. I think it is clear that it is crucial for racial and religious harmony and national security to be safeguarded by the government. But “public interest” is a vague term, much like “exhibit”, which when unlimited in meaning would give IMDA draconian powers to ban any film or video recording it deems as against “public interest”. If the term refers to social norms concerning sexuality and sexual identities, then it should be clearly stated as such. Would the Minister clarify what does “public interest” mainly refer to? Is it politics?

I am asking this because MCI/IMDA said in the Closing Note that politics is a sensitive subject matter on par with race and religion. I think this is a terribly outdated view, especially when the government has been trying to encourage a more engaged citizenry and greater public understanding of our political system and sense of history. The SG50 commemorations and the passing of Mr Lee Kuan Yew appear to be the watershed events in this regard, with a more politically conscious public interested in how the country could and should be run in the context of global trends and world events.

MCI/IMDA also said in the Closing Note that “social norms could evolve such that lower ratings become more appropriate”. I think our social norms regarding political discussion and expression have evolved.

The definition of Party Political Film was amended to allow for greater reasonable discussion of politics in 2009 after the PPF was first regulated in 1998. Almost ten years on from 2009, the absence of an update is conspicuous. I would like to ask the Minister did MCI/IMDA look into whether social norms regarding politics in films have further evolved since 2009? Because if it had, then the amendments in this bill should reflect it.

Other than politics, there have been greater interest in different interpretations of Singapore’s history in recent years. It would be good for the country if we could depoliticize history and open the history to multiple butfair interpretations of it. There is no doubt that the events in 1950s and 1960s are very important for understanding how we have become who we are. It is because they are very important that they should be divorced from the politics of today. The politics in the past should not be conflated with the politics of today. It was a different context with different actors then.

For our sense of history to be credible and our national identity to be deep and authentic, there is a need for society to discuss, debate and understand the different aspects and perspectives of this history. Only then can we truly appreciate why different actors did the things they did without excusing or glorifying them. A balanced view of history results not from monotonous stories reflecting some kind of officially sanctioned history, but from many fair and honest stories told from multiple perspectives.

The Regulatory Risk of Raids and Seizures

I come now to the third and last issue of IMDA having powers to do raids and seizures. When the amendment bill was first put out for public consultation last December, it raised concerns from the public that IMDA officers would have too much powers and that the exercise of these powers would erode public confidence in the regulation regime for films. It is good that MCI/IMDA responded to the public uproar by extending the public consultation period and refining the amendments to clarify the powers of entry and search without warrant.

The powers of IMDA officers to enter, search and seize without warrant are now made an exception in the new Section 34A. Officers can only exercise the exceptional powers to search and seize without warrant in two situations. The first situation is that they suspect on reasonable grounds that one of the more serious offences has been or is being committed. The secondsituation is that they have reasonable cause to believe that evidence of the offence can be found in the place and it is necessary to secure the evidence immediately.

Though now circumscribed, these powers are still very expansive and, if used in a heavy-handed manner and liberally, would erode public confidence in the regulation regime for films and thus negatively affect the development of the media industry. I would like to ask the Minister three questions in this regard.

First, would the Minister clarify that these powers would indeed be used in the spirit of exception, as a nuclear option of last resort when speed is the essence in securing evidence of the offence committed?

Second, would the Minister clarify if the reasonable grounds of suspicion of the commission of offence and the reasonable cause of belief that evidence can be found and need to be secured would be set out to the person or persons affected by the search and seizure so that they could challenge the seizure in court within 48 hours if they deem the seizure unreasonable?

Third, would the Minister clarify that all care would be taken to ensure that private data in the seized equipment and devices would be protected, secured and returned to the affected persons?

Mr Speaker Sir, several of the moves contained in these amendments should be welcomed for liberalising the media field and encouraging the development of the media industry. The government must however ensure that the enhanced regulation regime does not cause a chilling effect on the media field or erode public confidence in the regulation process. Clarifications are needed in this respect with regards to the definition of “exhibit” and the approach to regulating films containing the subject matters of race, religion and politics. There is also a need to exercise the powers to search and seize without warrant with extreme care, as these pose a major regulatory risk – one wrong move could backfire on the development of a vibrant media industry.

In closing, I would like to leave behind one word, “gingerly”, as I hope the government would regulate films “gingerly”. Today, “gingerly” means “extremely cautiously”, but I also like the old meanings of “delicately and elegantly” that are not altogether lost in the word. I hope IMDA would regulate films, especially films produced by our budding local directors, extremely cautiously and also delicately and elegantly. Thank you.