5th Singapore Short Cuts - Speakers Cornered by Martyn See

The burning question on the minds of many towards `Speakers Cornered' was how it passed the approval for the programme. Martyn See, the filmmaker once endured 15 hours of interrogation for making Singapore Rebel. If the authorities remember his record, surely, it might have been more difficult this time. Either they've got a new guy on the job or the rules have changed. Well, from the Q & A, none of the above. `Speakers Cornered' passed the cut because it was an objective, news reporting style coverage of an actual event, without the narrative manoeuvrings. So it seems, rather cleverly, Martyn has decided to let facts speak for themselves in this latest piece.

In 2006, Singapore hosted the IMF conference. For a period before, Singaporeans were told to smile. I think of their target of 4 million smiles, the achieved results were about 10,000 or less. That makes it 0.25% success rate. Singaporeans have wisened up to make choices in life. And I think an international body like IMF would be more impressed to know if we were a mature society able to think for ourselves than if we went around superficially flashing a smile at anyone in a business suit with a conference tag. A small group of people decided to take one step further than others to speak their minds out in hope that the international congregation in Singapore leaves with a more learned view of us. The group needs no introduction. They are Chee Soon Juan and gang, including his lady-of-steel ally, his own sister.

Donning T-shirts that screamed Democracy Now in big letters, they came, bravely rehashed their usual agenda and prepared to face some music. As the title suggests, the cornering of the speakers was the main focus of the documentary. To keep it like news-footage and yet still make a point was an exercise in choice of shots. Add a dash of storytelling and strategically crafted interview questions, the point becomes clear.

`We are a democracy and we have rights', exclaimed Dr Chee. His rather short-lived speech plodded into the meaning of our pledge. I don't remember a huge crowd of non-institutional listeners but only a mob of media reporters. I guess they have more clout and propagating potential. But as usual, the police were determined to outnumber the media. As kiasu as ever, they came in organised droves and even walked in different interesting formations, like in circles. Their singular mission was to dismantle the speakers and prevent a procession. While breaking them up was a excruciating process to watch, forming human barricades became something rather amusing to watch.

I will always remember the civil tussle between Ms Chee and the female police officer in charge. It was intense and blood-stirring. If either lost control in the verbal offensives, a lot of blood would have been shed through fingernail clawing and hair-pulling. But what really made me want to pull out my own hair out was the `stooge-like' behaviour of policemen and women. Because they were just doing their jobs, there was little choice for them. Very often, they were probed by the reporters and the SDP supporters for forming roadblocks and all they could do was remain silent and wait for instructions.

I could not help but begin to draw microcosmic parallels to the Singapore society at large. Like most of its working-class citizens, the policemen are helplessly silent and bound by their responsibilities, or perhaps working contracts. There is an absence of an authority figure in the video and all we see are only the actions of a police force executing orders. So in reality, are authorities as invisible as in the video? I would just put it as things are slowly changing. Incidentally, I was out of the country a few days following the screening. It gave me a chance to keep up with foreign news. Topping the headlines were the Anwar case and (yawn!) China's human rights records rehashed by Western dissidents of its governing actions. I began to ask if this was inherent in Asian culture or if this was `Uniquely Singaporean'. Apparently, a film like this may not draw as much attention overseas as it does here in Singapore, as my foreign friend shared. Police crackdowns are just too common!

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