Tuesday, August 19, 2008

National Day Rally 2008: Political Liberalisation, really?

Expectedly, Prime Minister (PM) Lee Hsien Loong’s National Day Rally speech for this year touched upon various issues, ranging from the rising cost of living to new incentives aimed at encouraging local married couples to have more children to the issue of political liberalisation.

And, of course, the segment of PM Lee’s speech which got the most of my attention was the segment in which he talked about partially lifting the ban on party political films & outdoor demonstrations and easing the restrictions on the usage of new media tools during election periods.

Although these announcements by PM Lee somewhat evoked a sense of optimism in me that further political liberalisation may be in the pipeline, this sense of optimism is one of cautious optimism. This is considering that with the lack of details provided, it remains to be seen how exactly these announcements by PM Lee would be implemented.

I mean, while PM Lee has said that restrictions on the use of new media tools during election periods will be eased, he has, as he admitted himself, only broadly “sketched out” his views on the issue and actual details on the easing of restrictions would only be confirmed when the Advisory Council on the Impact of New Media on Society (AIMS), led by Mr. Cheong Yip Seng, release its report. Hence, it remains to be seen how exactly the restrictions will be eased.

As for the partial lifting of the ban on party political films, it should be noted that PM Lee has remarked that while films with “factual footage” and “recordings of live events” and “documentaries” would be allowed, films that contain “partisan material” and/or “footage distorted to create a slanted impression” would still remain off-limits.

The problem with this, as PM Lee himself admitted, is that there exists a large grey area on how to determine which of the above two categories a film should be classified into.

I mean, if a local filmmaker is to produce a “documentary film” along the lines of Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11” (but with criticism aimed against the PAP government, instead of the Bush administration), would such a film be allowed? (Let’s not forget that while Mr. Moore purports to use factual footage in his “documentary films”, there have been those who criticised him for using distorted footage “to create a slanted impression”; of course, that did not stop his films from winning awards or stop his films being screened in local cinemas)

As Mr. Choo Zheng Xi, from The Online Citizen, has noted, it is highly arbitrary and ambiguous whether a film contains distorted footage and/or creates a slanted impression or not.

Also, PM Lee has expectedly suggested that the decision on whether a particular political film should be allowed would be left to Singapore’s Board of Film Censors (BFC). In other words, it seems that the fate of political films would be decided by the authorities and although this is perhaps inevitable (seeing how all films have to go through BFC before being allowed locally), I cannot help but feel doubtful that political films critical of the local political establishment would be easily allowed.

Yet, that said, I look forward to the day when advertisements (that is, if they are allowed for political films) for films, such as “Speakers Cornered”, would appear and people can watch them in the comfort of local mainstream cinemas.

Moving on, it can be observed that there exists also the same dearth of details for the allowing of outdoors demonstrations at the Speakers’ Corner in Hong Lim Park.

I mean, just off the top of my head, I can already come up with quite a few questions with regards to this issue.

How many people can participate in the demonstration? Do all participants need to register beforehand or would registration by the organisers and/or registration of the demonstration as an event be sufficient? What sort of personal details would be necessary for registration? How many groups of demonstrators would be allowed simultaneously? For how long can the demonstration last? Can demonstrators stay overnight or are there “office hours” which they need to abide by? Would demonstrators be allowed to perhaps march around Hong Lim Park or would they be confined to only shout slogans from the spot officially designated as “Speakers’ Corner”? Would demonstrators be allowed to use banners, placards, speakers and/or other props? Would demonstrators be allowed to advertise about their event?

The answers to the questions above and other possible questions remain uncertain as so far, it is only known that the Speakers’ (cum Demonstrators’) Corner will be managed by the National Parks Board and with a “light touch” (whatever that means).

To conclude, although there is much promise in the announcements by PM Lee regarding political liberalisation, this promise remains yet to be actualised, considering how it remains uncertain how these moves would be implemented.


It came to my realisation that despite the pre-Rally speculation, there was, and have been none so far, no mention of changes being made to either the Group Representation Constituency system or to the Non-Constituency Member of Parliament scheme.

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