To Singapore, With Love: Does the MDA appreciate the Streisand Effect?

Here’s a thinking tool I’m trying out: Assume good faith. I’m going to assume that the MDA has good, smart people in charge and that they genuinely want what’s best for Singapore. You may disagree with the premise, but I think there’s enough “Wah, MDA damn stupid!” commentary out there. Also, it makes for more interesting, challenging thinking.

Let’s first assume that the MDA understands and appreciates the Streisand effect.

The Streisand effect is the idea that banning things makes them more popular. This is especially the case in the Internet age. When the State censors something, it’s the act of censorship that makes the work notable. [1]

So let’s assume that the MDA knows this, and they’re doing it anyway. They know that banning a film is going to make people talk about it more. Why do they do it, then?

The “simplest” explanation is that the MDA is just plain stupid, or selfish, and that they’re populated by old farts who don’t understand the modern media landscape, and that CEO Koh Lin-Net can afford a S$10m condo because corruption, nepotism and Evil Gahmen Forces.

Saying “MDA is Stupid And Evil!” is easy, but unhelpful and most likely inaccurate.

It’s simple and easy to express, but it raises a lot of other questions:

  • How and why such people get into such positions in the first place?
  • Why didn’t anybody else do anything about it?

To explain that, you’ll have to subsequently assume that the entire Government and Civil Service is in cahoots to screw over the populace. This is incredibly unlikely, in my opinion. Some of the most thoughtful criticism of Govt policy I’ve heard has come from people who work in the G themselves. [2]

Let’s analyse what the MDA has to say about the ban:

MDA has classified the film “To Singapore, With Love” as Not Allowed for All Ratings (NAR)

MDA has assessed that 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. Under the Film Classification Guidelines, films that are assessed to undermine national security will be given an NAR rating.

My questions:

  1. How do we determine whether or not an action is legitimate? Are we talking about what is legal, or what is right?
  2. Can we have a conversation about the legitimacy of such actions?
  3. Was it legitimate when Stamford Raffles installed Hussein Shah as the Sultan of Johore, effectively carrying out a coup? Serious question!
  4. Also, if the MDA says things like “distorted and untruthful”, what are we to measure the distortion against? What is the objective, canonical history of Singapore that these people are supposedly distorting?
  • “The individuals in the film have given distorted and untruthful accounts of how they came to leave Singapore and remain outside Singapore:
    • A number of these self-professed “exiles” were members of, or had provided support to, the proscribed Communist Party of Malaya (CPM). The CPM sought to overthrow the legitimate elected governments of Singapore and Malaysia through armed struggle and subversion, and replace them with a communist regime.
    • One of the interviewees in the film claimed that he had no choice but to join the CPM after he left Singapore when in fact, he was an active CPM member even before he left Singapore. Indeed, as another interviewee who left Singapore in similar circumstances admits, a number of Barisan Sosialis activists then were already members of the Malayan National Liberation League, the CPM’s political wing, before they fled Singapore with its help and subsequently joined the communist guerrilla forces.”

Okay, cool. These are genuinely interesting points worth raising in a discussion about Singapore’s history. These are points that should be raised perhaps even before any talk of censorship or national security.

  1. Could you be a little more specific, MDA? Which specific ‘self-professed “exiles”‘ (kinda snarky wording there, lol) are you talking about? Why not call out the specific interviewees? Clearly, you guys have watched the film.
  2. If “a number of” the interviewees were members of  the CPM, were others not?  If “a number of” Barisan Socialis activists were members of the CPM’s political wing, were others not?
  3. Is it possible that some interviewees may have been members of the CPM, or provided support to the CPM, without necessarily wanting to threaten the elected Government of Singapore?
  4. Could it be possible that “the elected Government of Singapore” didn’t have nearly as much legitimacy then as it does now? Could it be that things were messy and ugly then, and people could have legitimate reasons to believe that the elected Government at the time didn’t speak for them?
  5. Is it possible for us to have a legitimate conversation about communism as a way of self-organization in Singapore? I’m not personally a fan of communism, but I do think that banning a discussion has the unfortunate side-effect of inducing apathy.
  6. And I think an apathetic citizenry is the greatest long-term national security risk to Singapore. Could we have a conversation about that?
  • “In another attempt to white-wash their security histories, two of the individuals in the film conveniently omitted mentioning the criminal offences which they remain liable for, like tampering with their Singapore passports or absconding from National Service.”

Fair enough. My questions:

  1. Has the Government of Singapore every white-washed its own history, willingly or otherwise?
  2. Have there been any “convenient omissions” in Singapore’s history?
  3. Can we consider those things to be national security risks?
  • The individuals featured in the film gave the impression that they are being unfairly denied their right to return to Singapore. They were not forced to leave Singa­pore, nor are they being prevented from returning. The Government has made it clear that it would allow former CPM members to return to Singapore if they agree to be interviewed by the authorities on their past activities to resolve their cases. Criminal offences will have to be accounted for in accordance with the law.

“If they agree to be interviewed to resolve their cases… criminal offences.”

  1. Could we have a clearly ennumerated list of these criminal offences?
  2. Can the MDA say “gave the impression”, and then make statements about those impressions?
  3. What if we said that the MDA’s bans “give the impression” that Singapore is a stodgy, boring place to live, and that it’ll sabotage our sustainability as a knowledge economy in the long run?
  • These facts had been published at the time of these events, and are on public records, even though some Singaporeans today may be unfamiliar with these cases.”

This is all really a bland, politically correct way of saying that (some significant subset of) Singaporeans are misinformed and irresponsible, isn’t it?

That’s why they ban it, despite the Streisand Effect. To keep it out of the hands of the uninformed Singaporeans.

The Streisand Effect popularizes the film among the activists, slacktivists and ‘intelligentsia’, but it keeps it out of the hands of people who wouldn’t go through the trouble of obtaining the film. (The activists were going to watch the film anyway.) So there’s probably a certain realpolitik calculus that goes into these decisions.

One of the first reactions to such a statement would be “Wow, that is so bad. So horrible, MDA. So elitist-uncaring-face. Mocking us heartlanders from their $10m condos.”

But the more important question is- “Is it true?” If I search my heart, I have to say that yes, it probably is. Especially outside of the echo chambers of the activists, bloggers and ‘civil society’.

A large, significant subset of Singaporeans don’t know their own history. We don’t know what’s going on. And so we are subject to misinformation. This is a valid concern. And it needs addressing.

To achieve a superior outcome for Singapore, we need to spend less time bitching about the MDA for being draconian and more time making it impossible for them to say “Singaporeans are uninformed”.

1: We must recognize that a ban on films is a short-term, stop-gap solution that ignores the long-term problem. Merely objecting to such bans also ignores the long-term problem: uninformed Singaporeans.

I can sort-of accept the ban, much as I don’t like it when I contemplate it from my armchair. But I understand the rationale. Some Singaporeans are stupid and dangerous and must be kept away from subversive films, lest they steal their SAR-21s from their Army camps and try to overthrow the Government.

2: The long-term solution is to put these films in the spotlight and scrutinize them long and hard. We need to get better informed about our own history, if not now then at least in the long run.

It’s all in the public records, says MDA. Well, we ought to dig all of this stuff up and talk about it. This is what the National Conversation or Our Singapore Conversation should be about. About who we are. About where we come from.

Unless we do that, until we do that, our identities will remain fragmented and disparate, and Singaporean-ness will be reduced to some farcical, oversimplistic thing like HDB flats and Chicken Rice. And that’s not how we guarantee Singapore’s survival for the next 50 years. We need people with conviction. And you can’t have conviction if you don’t have a clear sense of identity and purpose.

Of course, the MDA won’t spearhead the “Search Your Soul, Singapore” movement. It’s not their problem. Is it anybody’s job description to give a damn about the state of public discourse in Singapore? The Government is responsible to prevent things from screwing up. Whose responsibility is it to make sure we don’t miss opportunities, that we don’t stagnate, and becoming boring and lobotomized?

Yours and mine.

So here’s my little proposal to thoughtful Singaporeans everywhere who don’t like the ban: Take the effort to read up about Singaporean history, and have conversations about it with others.

That’s the best act of rebellion against censorship. We have to become such a smart country that the MDA can no longer say “Singaporeans today may be unfamiliar with these cases.”

I think that’s in the long-term interests of the survival of our little sampan city-state. If we want to live into a future that is exciting and interesting, rather one that’s constantly defined by existential woes (which are completely legitimate, by the way!), we have to have passion and conviction about who we want to be. And that means knowing where we came from.


[1] For an interesting example of how advertisers and marketers can hijack the Streisand effect to their own advantage, consider how Sodastream purposefully got its Scarlett Johansson Superbowl ad banned.

[2] It’s just tragic that they’re usually afraid to air their views in case it affects their livelihoods. These are the most important voices in civil discourse, and they’re under-heard. Those of us who write are forced to attempt to represent them without actually walking in their shoes.