Banning Content Does Not Protect Us

Posted by Audrey Wong on Facebook, July 15, 2010

I was asked some time ago to write my thoughts on censorship in response to ArtsEngage's position paper, but I couldn't think of anything that hadn't already been said or written. 

Then, earlier this week, a message came from Martyn See saying that his film of a speech by Dr Lim Hock Siew had just been banned, and in fact instructions were also issued by theMinistry of Information, Communications and the Arts to remove all copies of the film uploaded on to the web. The government has now moved into proscribing content on the internet, surely an arcane and ultimately hopeless move in the face of exploding web technology (the video may be found here). However, with such a precedent being set, the spectre looms of the government demanding us to remove certain content from our respective websites, blogs and sharing sites. 

I grew up in the 1980s, and came of age during the 1987 "Marxist conspiracy". At that point I was just beginning to get interested in debates on social and political issues (inspired by General Paper reading and later, by taking Political Science at the university). Suddenly I realised that commenting on political developments in our nation could be a dangerous business. I well remember the climate of fear in those days. There were half-jokes about certain friends with a 'file at the ISD', and while a Masters student at NUS, it didn't seem very far-fetched for us to believe that the telephone in the Masters students' room was bugged. 

So, speaking of spectres, I've never been able to forget those days of the late 1980s. The feeling of being constrained was very real. Then in 1993, the performance art controversy over Josef Ng's performance at Fifth Passage Gallery erupted. When I started working at The Substation in 1996, every licence application for every theatre show or exhibition was taken seriously. I was very conscious if my name was on the licence. Taking calculated risks became part of life. Years after 1993, I heard that Josef was still not allowed to 'appear' in performance in public and realised that we are not a very forgiving society. Another few years later, there was an interview with Josef in The Straits Times and the arts people took it as a signal that he was finally 'rehabilitated'. It's funny to get this cue from the newspaper, and if that's so, then our national newspaper can't be a completely disinterested, objective organ of truth, can it? 

Banning content does not protect us. It keeps us in a state of infantilism and over-dependence on the powers-that-be to make decisions for us.

I believe that censorship reinforces our unforgiving side and makes us a more judgmental, frightened, and narrow-minded people - hardly enlightening qualities that can take Singapore into a brave new world of the future. After getting Martyn's message, I watched his video of Dr Lim Hock Siew on Youtube and I was puzzled about the reasons for its ban. For starters, it's clearly a recording of a speech delivered in front of an audience, in which Dr Lim recalled his  personal experiences of detention and jail. It was a highly personal account of an individual's memories and convictions. By disallowing this video, it seems to me that the authorities have discredited and devalued an individual's memories. That made me sad. History is made up of memories too, and if we believe in the value of each human life, then we should respect the individual's memories. As we all know, memories may or may not be factually inaccurate. Could Dr Lim be reasonably expected to deliver a completely objective narrative of his  experience? Could any participant in those events be expected to? I think not.

The funny thing is, if Martyn hadn't submitted the film as a "political film", but had simply posted it as a recording on Youtube, the government may not have intervened. That's a debate for another time.

Can we afford to allow only a single, official version of history? I believe not. Even official histories rely on accounts written by other people, and as every scholar knows, true objectivity is a myth. Certain incidents will be left out of historical accounts because of space concerns, or because the writer of that history takes a particular narrative track. We Singaporeans tend to see things in black-or-white terms, and prefer not to deal with grey areas even though real life is full of grey areas. We tend to be instrumentalists and even our relationship with the government is based on very pragmatic concerns. If Orchard Road floods, we blame the government for the inconvenience we suffered and say they have done something wrong, we don't blame 'the heavens' for pouring down more rain than usual. We like certainties and sure material outcomes; we avoid debates on ideological concerns and philosophies. 

And there's the rub. Dr Lim has political ideas and convictions born of a certain philosophy of ideas. An ideology. That word makes us uncomfortable. (Ideology does not equate to Marxism - really.) But it's crucial for us to face up to reality: every policy move, the decisions we make, are underpinned by certain systems of belief, and a system of belief can be challenged. At the  same time, a system of belief or ideology is upheld by those with the courage of their convictions. In the post-911 world dominated by the internet, where we are exposed to contrasting and opposite views expressed online, we need our individual powers of discernment more than ever. Banning content does not protect us. It keeps us in a state of infantilism and over-dependence on the powers-that-be to make decisions for us. 

One can argue that our particular political system has made us the pragmatic, materialistic people we are. Do we want to remain that way forever, worried about exposure to 'dangerous content' in a world where all kinds of content are already available and the floodgates can no longer be shut? It's time for us to take up the responsibility of being more discerning, confront the grey areas, and teach our children.