Friday, October 21, 2005

Rethinking Political Censorship in Singapore


Today, legal and media professionals will gather at the Supreme Court to debate the relationship between law and media. One can expect the issue of the Films Act to be brought up.

The Media Development Authority (MDA) recently noted that the MediaCorp television series Up Close did not breach the Films Act prohibition on party political films, as the episodes in question - which featured five ministers talking about their portfolios - were "non-partisan" and aired "for the purpose of reporting current affairs".

The Government had introduced the ban on party political films amid concerns that "political discourse in Singapore would degenerate into 30-second spots directed by image consultants", and that the quality of election campaigning would be compromised. As then Minister for Information and the Arts George Yeo emphasised, the Government desired "to keep political debate in Singapore serious".

According to the Films Act, "a party political film" is one "made by or on behalf of any political party in Singapore"; by any body whose objectives primarily concern Singapore politics; or by any person for "any political end".

A film has a political end if it contains material "intended or likely to affect voting in any election or national referendum in Singapore"; "partisan or biased references"; or comments on "any political matter". As is typical of most media legislation, the classification is worded broadly to capture diverse activities, even discussion on government policies. It allows for two situations in which a film is not a party-political film: If it is made to report current events, or to give general information on election "procedures and polling times". Offenders can be fined up to $100,000 or imprisoned for up to two years.

The MDA faces a daunting task in deciding what is - or isn't - a "party political film". How does it decide if something is "partisan" or if it merely "reports current events"? Is this best decided by an independent body of persons, or by a group of government employees?

Some, like me, feel a review of the Films Act is in order. For example, its process of assessment, investigation, enforcement and appeal can be codified separately.

Decisions should preferably be made by an independent body of people whose deliberations should be public and free from any perceived political pressure from the dominant party or the opposition parties. There should be opportunities for appeal and for judicial review. Yet even with such codification, any decision can be disputed as subjective, since it is based on interpretation. So, we need to ask if banning such party political films is the best way forward in the first place.

These films can be easily screened outside Singapore, and controversy is often the best crowd-drawer. Also, film bans are increasingly irrelevant in this age of broadband Internet access, which has made it possible to download films from websites that are hosted overseas, such as Martyn See's documentary on Singapore Democratic Party secretary-general Chee Soon Juan, Singapore Rebel.

Even if such websites are blocked - as they are in China - there are Internet entrepreneurs who will simply mirror the website and provide regulators like MDA with a bigger problem to manage. A better solution may be not to ban these films but to require them to include warnings or declarations, for instance.

If the film is deemed partisan, MDA, together with the Singapore Film Commission, can appoint another film-maker to introduce brief footage that will make it less partisan. For example, if the film makes fun of film censors, get a quick view from film censors, or request an academic to provide a brief analysis. Such clips can be screened at the end of the film to balance audience perspective, as a condition for the film being passed for screening in Singapore.

Conditions can also be imposed on where and how party political films can be screened. For example, like R21 (restricted) films, such films could be screened in specified cinemas only. Tickets could be subject to a minimum price of $20 - half of which could be donated to the film commission and the National Arts Council.

These moves would address the Government's concerns about the negative effect of party political films and its desire "to keep political debate in Singapore serious", while in the long run, also enrich our creative industries and make audiences more media savvy.

Dharmendra Yadav

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Friday, September 30, 2005

Let judiciary educate, not penalise


Recently, a Muslim friend made a remark about the 17-year-old boy who was charged for racist remarks on his blog.

He said that blogger had to be taught a lesson because "this is Singapore. Like it or not, people should be taught to respect other races".

In the last few weeks, two others have been charged for similar offences. Some people are calling for the arrest of a Government scholar who made racist remarks on his blog months ago.

While many feel it is right for the Government to send out a zero-tolerance message, it is, however, worrying when they agree that the judiciary should apply the full force of the Sedition Act to individuals who make racially-insensitive remarks.

They also find appealing the suggestion that, like in some other Commonwealth jurisdictions, the penalty for crimes with a racial element should automatically be increased.

But in the many commentaries and views expressed so far in the media, few have paused to ask: "Why did the youth write such things?"

The root of the problem may run deeper.

Some of my peers went through school and never had the opportunity to get to know an ethnic minority friend. I have met some people in their late 30s who have never visited Little India, Geylang or Arab Street.

From the time we get our birth certificate to our death, one word persists: Race.

Race matters when we seek partners, get married or search for housing.

Race is also an issue when you are in the workforce. Your race decides which self-help group your monthly donations go to and how others perceive you.

For example, I recently decided to stop the monthly contributions to my self-help group for several reasons.

I do not believe in having to be a member of a particular race to make a difference for that group. As a Singaporean, I prefer to make an annual donation and divide it among all the self-help groups.

When I stopped contributing, I was blamed by some of my friends from ethnic minorities for "selling out my own kind".

As long as race matters, we will have racists. We will also have individuals who find others racially insensitive or those who "sell out their own kind".

The solution lies not in penalising such persons, but rather in understanding their way of thinking and engaging these thoughts constructively.

By punishing racists, we risk aggravating racism. For fear of sanction, people may stop sharing their real thoughts on the issue of race. And these thoughts could gestate in such a way that they become ideologies with a cult following.

It cannot be denied that there are benefits in a zero-tolerance-to-racism policy. The legislature and modern Singapore's brief history have provided some very strong grounds to do so.

However, we cannot rule out alternative ways to deal with the issue. We should make the punishment fit the crime in more ways than one.

For example, why not empower our judiciary to get these youth to serve in the communities they make fun of. Such youth may then be in a better position to understand that community.

Perhaps, the current review of the laws will pave the way for such measures.

The show of brute force through the long arm of the law and the heavy hammer of the judiciary may provide a quick fix. But education and a culture of allowing people to learn from their mistakes can take us to greater heights.

Dharmendra Yadav

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Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Do Something Not Grumble

Many people I have met have a painful habit: grumbling.

They grumble about the state of things around them. They grumble about how the world appears to be against them. They end up making enemies of persons who could have been friends. And then they grumble even more!

Their situation reminds me of a story I read a few years ago. That of a dog sitting on a nail, and yelping in pain. When another dog asked him about his plight, he said it was because he was sitting on a nail.

The other dog then asked why he was not moving away from the nail. He replied, "It's not painful enough!"

The people who grumble too have a choice like the dog. They can do something about the things that make them grumble.

When something irks you enough, it is better to take action than just talk about it. The world around you can be a better place if you are willing to make the effort.

Dharmendra Yadav

Friday, July 29, 2005

The Straits Times: From Reporting To Advocacy

I have always said that The Straits Times, as the grandmother of newspapers in Singapore, has a role beyond just reporting the news. It has a secondary role as a national newspaper: to champion the plight of the helpless, the needy, the minorities, the victims of unjust deeds or - to put it simply - the underdog.

This role of advocacy is increasingly more important in Singapore today, as the recent National Kidney Foundation fiasco has shown. The questions and issues that The Straits Times raised in its pages were crucial in serving a public desire for accountability and transparency. (And I am glad that the Media Development Authority did not halt this process using its wide regulatory powers.)

It cannot be denied that the question and issues raised by The Straits Times were long overdue.

I am sure that The Straits Times did not have it easy, especially since, in doing so, it quite obviously ruffled some feathers powerful enough to drag it to Court.

And it is my hope that The Straits Times will not be intimidated and continue to raise such questions and issues in other contexts. The Media Development Authority should also encourage other local media to do the same.

For example, it is time societies, cooperative societies and companies, whether linked to the Government or otherwise, begin disclosing the salaries of their key officers. Likewise, the Government should also disclose the salaries earned by key officers in the various ministries, statutory bodies and other Government offices.

Nevertheless, in pursuing such a course of action, The Straits Times (and other media) should bear in mind that advocacy does have an ugly side, which can have the effect of sensationalising or exaggerating an issue, and thereby steer public sentiment in a particular direction.

Some of my fellow Singaporeans feel that, in reporting the NKF fiasco, The Straits Times may have inadvertently taken too aggressive an editorial stance.

Arguably, this has in turn caused the strong outpouring of public sentiment not just in words but in deeds.

It is also unfortunate that the brunt of the sentiment has been focused on one person: the former Chief Executive Officer of the NKF, T T Durai. His family - as is evidenced by a strong e-mail that Mr Durai's daughter wrote to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong - has also suffered. How could the public have so quickly forgotten the key contributions that Mr Durai made to our healthcare system?

To a certain extent, this shows the great steering power that lies in media advocacy. Advocacy by the media can only be effective if it is utilised responsibly. If not, we risk going down a slippery slope, which is likely to see us fall and leave us badly bruised.

The NKF fiasco amply highlights the relevance of media advocacy. The important work of The Straits Times has only just begun. And as The Straits Times begins to unearth more such lesser known realities, I hope it will use its great steering power in a constructive manner.

There is wisdom in the words of Health Minister Khaw Boon Wan, which he shared in Parliament on 21 July 2005. He said, "I scanned through the local media today. I could not help noticing the different spin The Straits Times put to the MPs' speeches yesterday, compared to all the other local media, like Today and ZaoBao. Let us hope arrogance has not also gone to the head of the victor in the Court case."

Dharmendra Yadav

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Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Surround Yourself With Positive People

Tonight, I had dinner with a friend, who overwhelmed me with his negative baggage. He shared with me his hatred for Yucks (not his real name).

He blames Yucks for ruining his life, and causing his family distress. He then asked me, "How can I get back at Yucks?"

I replied, "You can't. Why don't you just ignore Yucks, get him out of your system and get on with life?"

He responded, "Easier said than done."

My friend is deep in a sea of negativity. He cannot focus on anything else other than Yucks. He is obsessed by the idea of vengeance, which means he is likely to sink deeper into the sea of negativity.

The sea of negativity is an area where all of us can fall into. In order to stay out of it, we need a plank to stay afloat and see beyond the sea of negativity. And the plank can come in many forms. For example, the company of positive people.

My former boss used to meet one of his friends regularly. Every time he met this friend, the friend would tell him a whole list of negative things. After a while, he started getting negative.

My former boss explained to his friend how increasingly negative he was becoming. He decided to meet this friend less regularly and sought the company of more positive people. Slowly, the support from his more positive friends made my former boss more positive again.

Likewise, I told my friend to find his plank in the form of more positive friends, unless he wishes to continue sinking deeper into the sea of negativity and risk losing more of his positive friends.

When we surround ourselves with positive people and thoughts, we have a better chance of becoming more positive.

Dharmendra Yadav

Sunday, May 29, 2005

Confronting Difficulties

Two months ago, I met a 17 year-old-boy who is an inspiration to me.

The boy's father died about two years ago. The surviving members of the family - wife and 2 children (including the boy) - did not inherit much from the deceased. His mother was a housewife and, until recently, she was jobless.

Debts continued to mount and the family's situation went from bad to worse. A year later, at 16, the boy had to come to terms with reality and accept responsibility of taking the lead in his family.

He now works part-time. He also helped his mother find a job. With the help of community leaders, he worked out a comfortable debt repayment plan with the family's creditors. He now looks after his younger brother, and makes constructive contributions to the community.

The boy is an ordinary human being. Even though he is not well-educated, he has shown an extraordinary potential in the things he has achieved.

He would put me to shame when I was 17, as I am sure he would many others.

The boy's experience has 2 key lessons:

1. When faced with difficult problems, we can do 2 things: ignore it or take responsibility. Taking responsibilty can help reduce the difficulty. If you ignore the problem, it will only get worse.

2. In order to achieve difficult things, we must have a strong reason to do achieve such things. Thus, if you have a difficult objective, find a strong reason to achieve that objective. Sometimes, the reason is inevitably thrust upon you; in such a situation, we should consciously make the reason our strength rather than a weakness.

Dharmendra Yadav

Thursday, May 26, 2005

Focus On Yourself Not Others

Many years ago, I met the brother of one of my ex-classmates. When we met, he was very shy and reserved. I decided to attempt to speak to him, and he soon opened up.

I found out, through that brief chat, that he was 12 years old and, he was preparing for his annual school assessment.

I keenly asked him, "What do you aim to score for this assessment?"

He replied, "I have to score 90 per cent."

I probed, "You have to? Why?"

He added, "Because my parents said this is what the top student gets."

The boy's use of words struck me. He had to score 90 per cent, in accordance with the wishes of his parents.

I worried for the boy.

He would grow up living the dreams of others, and meeting targets that others set for him. What about his own dreams and targets? Who will achieve them?

In accepting the dreams and goals set by others, we often forget about ourselves. And even if we go on to achieve them, there is little sense of pride.

We feel no ownership over these dreams or goals, because, quite simply, they are not ours. This can grow to be an unhealthy source of emotions.

A friend recently shared with me, "I often fall back into bouts of negativity and mini depressions. And recently, it got me thinking WHY. I've realised that I get negative when I start comparing my life with [what] it could have been... I think we lead our lives through the lens and opinions of others."

He has found a way out of this problem; a solution which he wants me to share with others.

His solution:
1. First, we must learn to live by the standards we set for ourselves, and not compare ourselves with others.
2. In achieving the standards we set for ourselves, we should constantly remind ourselves about our achievements.
3. We should constantly take stock of we have, and be thankful for what we already have.

While it is acceptable to aim to be the best, it is also good to be realistic about our goals. Some of us need more time to reach where the best are.

After all, it was a small step on the moon that helped mankind achieve a giant leap!

Let's pursue greater heights by focusing on the things that we can achieve and do.

Dharmendra Yadav

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Why Love Happiness

Recently, a person shared with me her plans about the future. She is going to study dentistry.

Without the slightest hesitation, I jumped in and listed all the things she should not be doing about her future. She was rather taken aback by my response.

Later that evening, I reflected about this incident. I tried to put myself in her shoes.

If I were in her shoes, I'd probably tell myself, "How dare he tell me how to live my future?"

I realised that by sharing with me she had meant to share and celebrate her happiness. I had, unfortunately, spoilt her plans.

Such incidents are typical in world surrounded by negativity. I am sure, at some point, we have tried to tell others "what we think is right", even though it may not be "right" for them.

It is a plague that involves many: families, friends, colleagues and even strangers!

This space is my personal attempt to confront my own negativity, and hopefully find the happiness I seek.

In making this public, I hope to share this happiness with others. Love Happiness is therefore an attempt to find happiness, share happiness and celebrate happiness.

In the time that is yet to be, I hope to share positive thoughts that inspire other positive people so that, at least, the world around me can become a more positive world.

Yesterday, someone shared with me his plans for the future. It was something he has always wanted to do: become a lawyer. I replied, "Great! Let's have lunch and celebrate."

You too are invited to share and celebrate your happiness, in order to help me make this difference.

Dharmendra Yadav

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Consult Public On Films Act

The time for consulting the public (again!) on the Films Act is now due. The Media Development Authority should activate its Films Consultative Panel for a public consultation exercise jointly with the Feedback Unit.


Recently there has been much public criticism about s. 33 of the Films Act (Cap 107). It provides:

Making, distribution and exhibition of party political films

33. Any
person who —
(a) imports any party political film;
(b) makes or
reproduces any party political film;
(c) distributes, or has in his
possession for the purposes of distributing, to any other person any party
political film; or
(d) exhibits, or has in his possession for the purposes
of exhibiting, to any other person any party political film,
knowing or
having reasonable cause to believe the film to be a party political film shall
be guilty of an offence and shall be liable on conviction to a fine not
exceeding $100,000 or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 2 years.
The Films Act defines "party political film" as a film "(a) which is an advertisement made by or on behalf of any political party in Singapore or any body whose objects relate wholly or mainly to politics in Singapore, or any branch of such party or body; or (b) which is made by any person and directed towards any political end in Singapore".

The MDA has successfully applied this broadly; 'controversial' films have been banned.

However, the widely-publicised public criticism seems to indicate that MDA's position is not in synch with public norms/interest.


According to the MDA, the terms of the reference of the FCP are as follows: "The Panel is to provide for a more balanced and objective approach to film classification, in keeping with changing social mores. The Panel is consulted whenever a decision needs to be made on a controversial film."

As such, it would be within the FCP's mandate to conduct such a public consulation exercise to check if the position in s. 33 of the Films Act reflects current "social mores".

A public consultation exercise will not be new to the MDA. The MDA has often activated its panels in response to public criticism about the legislation under its purview. For example, in response to public criticism, the MDA recently conducted a public consultation exercise on its magazine content guidelines.

Such a public consultation exercise should be conducted by members of the FCP who are neither members nor donors of political parties in Singapore or overseas.

As the MDA did for its public consultation on the Code of Practice for Market Conduct in the Provision of Mass Media Services, the findings of the public consultation exercise on s. 33 of the Films Act should also be made available on the MDA website.

These measures will enable the public consultation exercise to be conducted in a neutral, fair and transparent manner.


Clearly, a public consultation exercise can help the MDA better decide on the way forward for s. 33 of the Films Act. And it should be done soon!

Dharmendra Yadav

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Thursday, April 28, 2005

Giving Racists Second Chances


Chua Cheng Zhan is a name that the people of Singapore, especially its ethnic minorities, will remember for a while to come.

He is a scholar of Singapore's prestigious public service, whose views have given a new lease of life to the spectre of racial insensitivity.

Chua, a 21-year-old mathematics student at Northwestern University in the United States, wrote recently in his online diary: "somehow, the singaporean association here in my school has become an Indian association. So gross. some more non-singaporean."

He continued: "ya. I discovered I'm so racist. at the club (under lighting in which everyone is supposed to look good), i still find indians and filipinos (dark ones) so repulsive n such a turn-off."

His derogatory remarks, and more, are now freely available on the Internet.

Something similar happened when Choo Wee Khiang, a member of Singapore's Parliament from the dominant party, took advantage of the privilege accorded to him by the House to make disparaging remarks about the same group of ethnic minorities.

He told his fellow legislators in 1992: "One evening, I drove to Little India and it was pitch dark but not because there was no light, but because there were too many Indians around."

At that time, not many dared to call for his removal from office.

Choo apologised for his racist remarks and the matter was swiftly brought to a close by Singapore's leaders, who said the apology had been accepted.

Unfortunately, the incident merely preceded the revelation of greater character flaw.

Soon after, Choo pleaded guilty to the charge of abetting his brother-in-law in using false invoices to cheat a finance company into granting loans of around $1 million.

He was sentenced to two weeks in jail, fined $10,000 and barred from contesting parliamentary elections for five years. He now keeps a low profile.

As such, it is no surprise that many in Singapore find it difficult to accept Chua's apology and the subsequent retraction of his remarks.

There have been calls for the Public Service Commission to revoke his scholarship and others have asked that he never be allowed to take a position of responsibility in Government.

As noted in the Tomorrow Bulletin of Singapore Bloggers:

"Calling for his head, or asking for his scholarship to be revoked, serves no purpose. If he is truly racist, doing those things would not change his views. What it would do, however, is to make him hide those views.

"From a broader perspective, making an example of him would also do nothing to change society in general.

"Racists will always be racists, and find reasons to be racists. Only they themselves can change their minds, not us."

The commentator then provides some wise words of caution: "What we have to be watchful for is whether his racist thoughts impact the way he acts if and when he ever attains public office."

Indeed, Chua's remarks raise some questions that Singaporeans must confront sooner or later.

Are his remarks a reflection of a younger generation that is less racially tolerant?

Or do they merely highlight a heightened state of racial consciousness?

To what extent does it reflect the psyche of the future leaders of Singapore?

While asking these questions, we must also find ways to deal with the likes of Chua Cheng Zhan.

Do we allow them to carry on with their lives after an apology or apply the iron hand?

Former Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong has said that we can be a more gracious and forgiving society. I prefer to give people a second chance.

As Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said at his swearing-in ceremony: "We must give people a second chance, for those who have tasted failure may be the wiser and stronger ones among us. Ours must be an open and inclusive Singapore."

Chua deserves a second opportunity to more constructively contribute to Singapore.

If he becomes another Choo Wee Khiang, it's his loss.

If he learns from this experience to become a better person, it is Singapore's gain.

Dharmendra Yadav

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