Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Singapore Rebel

Martyn See, Singapore, 2004. 27 Minutes.
Google Video.

Since our election is finally over, I decided to write about a political short that has nothing to do with the United States. Instead, I chose something that many people (including myself) don't know too much about. Before I talk about Singapore Rebel and its subject, Chee Soon Juan, it is important to mention a few items. This film was originally part of the Singapore Film Festival until censors ordered it removed. The filmmaker, Martyn See, was put under investigation for the movie. He was also threatened with prosecution under the Films Act, which forbids any political party movies (meaning movies with any political slant). The official exception to this rule are foreign films. Despite this occurring 3 years ago, he still faces the threat of prosecution.

The film starts with some narration about Singapore. The national government thinks of Singapore as the "paragon of modern Asia" and as a generally modern society. However, it has been ruled by one party, the People's Action Party (PAP), since 1959. One tactic the PAP uses is to harass, jail, exile and literally bankrupt opposition members to keep it on top.

Enter Chee Soon Juan. He got his start in politics in the early '90s when public policy began to interest him. He ended up joining the opposition party and became the Secretary-General, but he was soon fired from his job, a teaching post. He went on a hunger strike to protest the general political conditions as well as his job loss and was sued for defamation when it was over. He was fined almost $300,000 for insulting his former employer during the strike. After a run for office, he was sued again for defamation by the Prime Minister for a comment he made. Chee was not allowed a lawyer and the case was decided behind closed doors against him. In another incident, he brought up the issue of headscarves in school. Since it is illegal to talk about religion in public policy in Singapore, he was again prosecuted and fined.

The centerpiece of the film is held on May Day, 2002. Chee is talking to a media crowd about a rally he is going to hold later to support worker's rights. A group of police come to arrest him in full view of the media without explaining what he is charged with. He is eventually charged with speaking without a permit and since he cannot pay the fine, he is sentenced to five weeks in jail. The film ends with a quote by Singapore's PM. "We should recognize many paths of success, and many ways to be Singaporean. We must give people a seconf chance. Ours must be an open and inclusive Singapore."

This documentary is a great exhibition of film as political protest. Chee is a person that is easily sympathized with. We see him first playing with his children in his office as See comes in to interview him. He is always very calm and collected. Even when he is arrested, it is other people that are making a big fuss while he is much more calm. We learn very little about his actual political views since they are not important if it is impossible to voice them. We do learn that he is committed to a democracy with actual dialogue, which the ruling party is not. An interesting aspect of this film is that the only way Singaporeans can see it is on the internet. Maybe this will help to open up Singapore's (and other oppressive regime's) government, but it is difficult to see that happening soon.

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