To JB, for a movie

Two Fridays ago, I took a day off work and drove into Johor Baru with a friend. There, we ended up at a simple hotel with about 350 others. Many had travelled from Singapore in three chartered buses.

The event was the Sept 19 screening of To Singapore, With Love, a documentary film by Singaporean film-maker Tan Pin Pin. The 70-minute film tells the stories of nine people who fled Singapore in the 1960s to the 1980s, and lived in exile overseas.

The state considers some of them fugitives from justice. They view themselves as exiles, or as activists fighting for democracy and freedom. Some downplayed but a few were upfront about their communist links.

The screening was a charged event, because the film is banned in Singapore. The Media Development Authority (MDA) gave it "Not Allowed for All (NAR)" rating, which effectively bans the film from public screening.

The MDA says "the contents of the film undermine national security because legitimate actions of the security agencies to protect the national security and stability of Singapore are presented in a distorted way as acts that victimised innocent individuals".

Like some of the dissidents in the film who made use of Malaysia and Johor as a safe haven, the film-goers were sensitive to the poignancy of having to travel out of Singapore to watch a film banned in Singapore, and one titled To Singapore, With Love.

For me personally, it was a hat-trick of JB jaunts in pursuit of political hot potatoes.

In January 1991, I joined The Straits Times as a rookie reporter. A book highly critical of Singapore came out around then.

Singapore: The Ultimate Island (Lee Kuan Yew's Untold Story) was written by Singaporean T.S. Selvan, who published the book in Melbourne. The book was not available in Singapore, but was in the stores in JB.

I decided to write about it. After many phone calls and a trip to JB to interview booksellers, the article finally made it to print on April 1. It was a single column story on Page 22, nestled almost unnoticed among Tat Lee Bank ads and a big article on new identity cards.

But I was inordinately proud of it. It was the first "story idea" which was my own, which I had managed to pitch to my bosses.

The book was controversial but was not banned outright - distributors did not want to bring it in for fear of being stuck with unsold copies, in case it was banned.

That was my first encounter with JB as a safe haven of what's out-of-bounds in Singapore.

Then, in 1993, I went up to JB again, this time to meet a teacher. He had taught me in junior college. Then he retired and went back to England, where he got involved with local politics and with Amnesty International.

He told me he had been turned away from entering Singapore on one visit. So this time, he planned to visit friends in Sarawak and to stop over in JB to see Singapore friends.

A group of former students went to have dinner with him at a hotel across the Causeway. I was among them. I wanted to catch up with this ageing, much-loved teacher who had taught a bunch of restless 17-year-olds how to think, probe, and assess things critically.

Of course as we grew up intellectually, we started to use those skills against him. I, for one, came to see that his world view was not mine and that his views on Singapore were not always fair.

I had visited him and his wife at their home in England, and decided I would make the effort to travel to see him in JB.

So when I read that Ms Tan's banned film was screening there, and on a day I had already arranged to take my day off, I decided to make my third sojourn to JB in search of political contraband.

I found the film extremely powerful, with strong but understated emotional undertows. The friend I went with said he could understand why the Government refused to let it be screened: It could incite strong reactions.

Ms Tan had interviewed the nine exiles in their homes in Malaysia, Thailand and Britain. In the way of documentaries based on first-person accounts, the film is a little one-sided in its portrayal of events. Ms Tan does try to add context with captions. But the film does not seek to verify their accounts, presenting them at face value, to be assessed by viewers.

It also does not gloss over the militant nature of the communist resistance. The profiles included a group of men and women who were members of the Communist Party of Malaya, who fled with their comrades to take up arms in the jungles of Thailand. They come across like sweet old men and women - until they take out their albums and proudly show off colour photographs of themselves in green army fatigues, carrying weapons. Then you know these mild-mannered folk are militants who would have used violence to overthrow the legitimately elected, non-communist regimes in Singapore and Malaysia if they had had a chance. A peace treaty in 1989 had them lay down arms, but many stayed on in their Thai jungle community.

To Singapore, With Love is certainly not the last word on Singapore history. It should be taken as archival source material for future explorations and analysis of political dissidence in Singapore, not a definitive, authoritative account.

Yes, the people featured clearly had issues with the Singapore state at some point. Some fled to evade arrest and justice. But does this make their stories threatening to national security? After watching the film, I did not think so.

Sure, some of the people in the film were enemies of the state at some point in Singapore's history. There is no gainsaying that.

I would go further and venture that some probably would put political ideology above country: So their objective is to turn Singapore and Malaysia into an entity I think many of us would hate.

Does this make them a national security threat today? The MDA in fact does not think so and has said they are not prevented from returning to Singapore, "if they agree to be interviewed by the authorities on their past activities to resolve their cases".

If the people are not national security threats, it is hard to see how a film featuring them talking about their lives can be considered one.

When there are diverging interpretations of events, like the arrests of leftist activists in the 1960s to 1980s, the best antidote is not a ban on some points of view, but more openness and access to information.

The Singapore Government can try to set the record straight. It can put out its version of the Singapore Story. It can do its own documentary to counter views of the exiles in the film. But it must realise it does not have a monopoly on Singapore's history.

Singapore and its history do not belong to the ruling party. People who lived through crucial episodes of the nation's history have their stories to tell too. If the versions do not match, let the people - and history - be the judge.

A ban on a film serves little purpose, except to whet people's appetite to watch it.

This article was first published on September 28, 2014.
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