Singapore Censors Push Amendments to Films Act

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The Infocomm Media Development Authority of Singapore is seeking amendments to the Film Act. Among sundry amendments like classification of video games and clarification of films licensing, the IMDA wishes to ‘enhance’ its investigation and enforcement powers.

To quote from the relevant section:

Today, the Films Act provides IMDA and Police with powers to enter premises without warrant to search for and seize unlawful films. However, for other breaches of the Films Act, such as the distribution or public exhibition of unclassified films, such powers are vested with the Police who assist IMDA with enforcement and investigations. Going forward, the enforcement and investigation for breaches under the Films Act will be taken on by IMDA, and the Police will only be called on when necessary. Accordingly, the Films Act will need to be amended to empower IMDA with
the necessary enforcement and investigation powers to take on this role:

(a) Request any documents and information from any person to investigate a suspected breach of the Films Act or licence conditions.

(b) Enter and inspect, without warrant, any premises and examine any film or advertisement for a film found on the premises.

(c) Dispose of films, equipment or materials that have been seized during enforcement and is unclaimed, forfeited or has to be disposed without returning to the owner; and

(d) Provide for the composition of offences

Nothing good can come from this.

The IMDA develops the media through censorship. All broadcast media in Singapore must be scrutinised by the IMDA before they are allowed to be aired. The IMDA routinely demands cuts and edits from films and television shows that are deemed to be contrary to the public interest (positive depictions of homosexuality, stirring up religious tensions, over-use of dialects), and has banned films, books and TV shows that do not meet its guidelines.

The power to search a home and seize ‘unlawful’ films without warrant is a dangerous power. Section 33 of the Films Act bans the production, distribution and exhibition of ‘party political films’, which are films that cover any political party in Singapore or cover Singapore’s politics. The sole exception are documentaries deemed ‘factual and objective’ by the Political Films Consultative Committee. In practice, almost all films about Singaporean dissidents have been banned with the excuse of being ‘biased’ or ‘distortions of history’, such as Zahari’s 17 Years, To Singapore, With Love and Dr Lim Hock Siew.

Presently, with the police being required to participate in investigation and enforcement actions, citizens can expect a reasonable standard of professionalism, training and legal expertise from the police officers. Citizens will also have access to legal advice, and have the ability to file complaints to the Internal Affairs Office.

Should the amendment pass, the IMDA becomes the judge, jury and executioner. It will have the power to decide who broke the law, how to punish him, and how to dispose of the offending media. There is no Internal Affairs Board to complain to if the IMDA officers abuse their authority, no reasonable expectation that IMDA officers are properly trained to handle search and seizures, and no way to know if citizens will still be allowed legal representation and consultation.

Coupled with the power of warrantless search and seizure, the IMDA will be able to arbitrarily enter a filmmaker’s home, seize his films and dispose of them. From here, it’s a slippery slope towards allowing the IMDA to seize and destroy films that run afoul of its infamous ‘guidelines’, and then to the State being allowed to censor anyone for any reason at all.

This proposed amendment is a step away from rule of law and a step towards rule of bureaucrat. The civil service should not have the power to interpret and enforce the law; that is the province of the judiciary. I must oppose the amendment and suggest the following changes:

  1. Require the IMDA and the police to seek a warrant and justify their decisions before the court prior to embarking on search and seizures.
  2. Require the IMDA and the police to continue working hand-in-hand in investigations and enforcement.
  3. Investigation and enforcement actions shall be limited only to specific instances of criminal behaviour, such as breach of contract, breach of copyright and national security.
  4. Limit the powers of the IMDA to censor films, and by extension all Singaporean media, solely on the grounds of national security–which does not include Singaporean politics or political parties.
  5. Require the judiciary to pass sentences and levy punishments on people who breach the Films Act, instead of empowering the IMDA to impose fines and other penalties.
  6. Abolish Section 33 of the Films Act, enabling filmmakers to produce, distribute and exhibit films about Singaporean politics and politicians.

A healthy society requires the powers of the state to be carefully calibrated against the liberties of the individual to prevent abuses of power. While Singapore has enjoyed a stable, meritocratic and relatively benevolent government to date, we cannot assume that this will continue forever. There must be checks against the power of the government and the bureaucrats to prevent rule by fiat.

I urge all Singaporeans to write in the IMDA, oppose these amendments, and push for greater freedoms and checks on government power.

 

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Singapore Censors Push Amendments to Films Act
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