The elitism of “private screenings” and “academic freedom”

Two weeks ago, Singapore’s Media Development Authority announced that they had banned public screenings of Tan Pin Pin’s film “To Singapore, with Love.” The film brings together interviews from political exiles and dissidents who have chosen to leave Singapore because they face perceived or real threats of state persecution. The MDA banned it for undermining “national security,” and claimed that the exiles had lied about the circumstances under which they had left. But it also mentioned (seemingly as an afterthought) that private screenings were permissible, and later, that the ban didn’t apply to screenings of the film for purely educational purposes.

While it has become clear that more and more Singaporeans are going to watch the film at events overseas (including over 350 at a screening in Johor Bahru, just across the border in Malaysia), Tan Pin Pin hasn’t agreed to any Singapore screenings, educational or otherwise. She’s specifically come out to say that she was not consulted by Yale-NUS about including the film in one of their classes. Given that till now the film has not been released anywhere for commercial distribution, there aren’t any bootleg copies from which people can organise private screenings. In short, Ms Tan has ensured that as long as the public ban stands, “To Singapore, with Love,” will not be shown in Singapore in any context. In my view this restriction on her part is absolutely appropriate—something I’ll argue in the rest of the piece.

First of all, I’ll throw out the two obvious reasons. Filmmakers need to eat, and they need to make money off their work, which means they have to sell tickets to their films. Circulating copies of the film, while a great move in terms of pragmatic resistance, is clearly not in Ms Tan’s interest. Also, allowing people to organise private screenings would correspondingly reduce the public pressure on MDA to revoke the ban—if people can catch it at their school or at a friend’s place, they’ll be less invested in making sure it’s available to the public. As a corollary to that, MDA has bent over backwards to look accommodating about the ban. They’ve stressed how people can watch it, and how universities can screen it; it’s “just” public screenings that undermine national security. They too want to look reasonable and moderate. So I’m sure that these have factored in to Ms Tan’s decision, but to my mind these are not the primary reasons why I think it’s an appropriate move.

My own initial instinct was to hope that private screenings would start mushrooming, and that Ms Tan would encourage it. But I was thinking about what a consumer-activist would want; Ms Tan’s moves have made me pause and reconsider. Film is an inherently public, popular medium. It’s what you use to talk to ordinary people. It’s an easily digestible form of mass storytelling. Anyone else could have written books and academic articles about the exiles (indeed, some people have)—but not a film so far. This is a film that seeks to democratise history by putting into the hands of ordinary people both the motivation and the materials by which to find out more and make up their own minds about the exiles. Private screenings go against the nature of what a film—particular this film—sets out to do. Seen in this light, Ms Tan’s move is principled.

Moreover, private screenings are only available to those with contacts which somehow trace back to the filmmaker. In other words, an audience at a private screening assembles relationally—it’s about who you know. Yeah, Singapore is a small place and anyone who was interested enough could find a way to get invited to a private screening. But what about the ordinary person who might not know or care that much about some obscure historical footnotes? A public release is clearly on a different level of accessibility. Besides, the flipside of “it’s who you know” is the exclusion of those who don’t know “the right people.” Any sort of stratification of benefits that operates in that manner is elitist in some way. Here, it’s almost certain that the audience of “private screenings” roughly corresponds to the ‘elite’ who have enough leisure and interest to participate in any sort of political activism (the sort of activism that makes one write political blogs, or even follow The Online Citizen)—not quite the political or educational elite, but certainly a group which sees itself as participants in something bigger than themselves and their day-to-day struggles. And that’s already a step up from the ordinary concerns of ordinary people. I think it’s fair to say that distributing the film through private channels alone would be elitist in some way.

If private screenings are elite in some way, what more academic screenings at the universities? This is partly why I was dismayed that even as Yale-NUS announced and later had to backtrack on a screening of the film, Yale faculty members were planning to draw attention yet again to what they see as the lack of academic freedoms in Singapore. The fact that the government grants university students the “academic” freedom to watch a film that is otherwise banned says something about what it believes about university students: they are the “right sort” of people, who will not be “misled” or “misinformed” unlike the “impressionable” masses. (Let’s not kid ourselves about the academic value that’s going to be produced through a single film screening—I’ve been to college and I know what it’s like to churn out meaningless term papers whose content I forget the moment it’s off to the professor. The “academic” film exception is purely a sop to elite kids who make it to university.) So quite aside from whether there is or isn’t academic freedom in Singapore universities, campaigning to get a film screened at Yale-NUS ignores the broader picture in favour of the privileges that the elite enjoy. Moreover, the discourse of these Yale professors plays straight into the MDA’s hands—the MDA wants to minimise public pressure for public screenings, and is quite happy to grant insignificant concessions like these. Indeed, even before the Yale professors suggested (in private communications) contacting their counterparts at local universities to arrange screenings, the MDA had already highlighted that educational screenings were permissible. Thankfully, Ms Tan moved in to quash the Yale-NUS screening. This was the right move.

It was instructive to analyse this whole episode through a class lens rather than a Millian liberal lens, because they lead to two different conclusions. Let’s not be distracted by the possibility of organising private and educational screenings. Ms Tan is right to restrict these until MDA reverses its ban—a document for all Singaporeans should be seen by all Singaporeans. And Yale people must not step into this and make it about Yale-NUS or academic freedom, because that would be putting elite interests before the interests of all.

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