LUNCHBOX 5 - Martyn See

Saturday 15 May 2010, 6pm
Furama Hotel, Room 2309

I raced all the way from Hong Lim Park to room 2309 of Furama Hotel to pass the editors the first completed tape from my video team. We were capturing live interviews at the Pink Dot event. Martyn's just got in to kick off the final leg of the Pink Dot video team's assembly line - the edit. There is no pay in this and he knows the job will probably end around 3 am. But for him, volunteering for a good social cause is as natural as how he does his job of editing.

For those who don’t know Martyn See, he is a Singaporean who survived 15 months of police investigation for the making of banned short film ‘Singapore Rebel’, deemed to be an illegal political film under the law. He has since followed up with ‘Zahari’s 17 Years’, a documentary on an ex-political detainee, and ‘Speakers Cornered’, a chronology of brief scenes from a street corner standoff between pro-democracy activists and the police. Otherwise, he is mostly a law-abiding Singaporean video editor. Feature editing credits include Mee Pok Man (1994, Eric Khoo) That One No Enough (2000, Jack Neo) I Do I Do (2005, Wen Hui, Jack Neo) Singapore Gaga (2005,Tan Pin Pin) Just Follow Law (2007, Jack Neo), Money No Enough 2 (2008, Jack Neo).

It seems to all fit into a nice complete picture now. Just slightly more than a month ago, I asked him out for an interview for our regular LUNCHBOX series. We spoke at lengths. There were plenty of rich anecdotes but nothing beats seeing him in action. So working with Martyn on the Pink Video is seeing those spoken views and fervent beliefs come to life. Here is what we spoke about in April:

I notice from the time you started yr blog till your latest post, it seems to have come full circle, in terms of dealing with the issue of being able to conduct political discourse in a public space.

Martyn: I started this blog in late 2004 primarily as a platform to promote ‘Singapore Rebel’ as a short film, that’s why it was called

J: I thought the blog was a reaction to being questioned by the police after you made the film.

M: No, I started the blog about the same that I made and the same time I submitted it to SIFF. And, yeah…. I wanted it to promote political films.

J: Were you the first person in Singapore to make political films?

M: No, I am not the first. The first people who made political films and were harassed by the police for it were Kai Sing, Mirabelle Ang and Christina Mok. They were all lecturers in Ngee Ann Polytechnic FSB in 2000. They made a film about J B Jeyeratnam and allegedly the police came and they confiscated equipment and they warned them not to do this. The news was buried for a year and at the end of 2001, their contracts were not renewed. Straits Times’ Tan Tarn How found out about it. So, basically he wrote about the incident. Until today, the 3 filmmakers have not spoken up about it. 9 years later, they are still traumatized. (pause) So ‘Singapore Rebel’ for me was an attempt to make everything transparent.

J: Did you make it after the incident or did you make it at the same time as the incident?

M: No, no. no. After the incident. In late 2001 after the general elections, I approached Chee Soon Juan and started gathering my materials to make the film. The blog was basically used to announce where and when ‘Singapore Rebel’ would be screened.

Jeremy: You ok with this camera? It was a bit faulty the last time I used it.
Martyn: Yeah, don't worry.
Jeremy: When do you estimate you guys will finish the edit?
Martyn: Don't know. Depends on the number of tapes.

Jeremy: I estimate about 6-7 tapes.

Martyn: .....

J: I guess the blog has gone a much longer journey since, covering other grounds.

M: Yeah, because it was banned and ran into censorship problems, so it became a blog about censorship. And since censorship is related to political decisions, so it became a political blog. Yeah, I sort of moved in that direction incidentally.

J: I meant the word ‘circular’ about your blog because the most recent post was on the anniversary celebration of the SDP and the press’ interview of Chee Soon Juan. It seems the press has softened their approach on him and they have achieved what you wanted to achieve…. And you mentioned you want to move on to find new grounds….

M: Ya. You are right. I avoided talking about Chee Soon Juan for 4 years and suddenly The Lianhe Zaobao (联合早报) decided to feature him in an article for the 30th anniversary of the SDP. I thought hey, this is exactly what I was trying to do with ‘Singapore Rebel’, basically to document this guy. Now it seems the mainstream press has softened their words. The good thing that came out of this is …. Well (laughs) perhaps I have been proven to be ahead of my time la!

J: Was it only Zaobao?

M: Straits Times ran a story on the anniversary as well but Zaobao did the in-depth interview.

J: Correct me if I am wrong. Is Zaobao more liberal?

M: I wouldn’t know.

J: I am saying this because I find that the Chinese media tends to be more democratic. One good example are some Chinese radio stations like FM100.3. They really speak their mind about sensitive issues and I don’t find this in any of the English stations.

M: However, you must also realize that the Wanbao (晚报)is very tabloidish and it carries a lot of weight in terms of influencing the heartlanders’ opinion. So the government knows that you can sway opinions with the Chinese press and therefore, they are still keeping a tight reign on it. So they may seem to be freer but come election time, They may not be. They may become as anal as the English press.

J: I initially wanted to do this interview chronologically… sort of starting from how you became interested in doing political films. But I saw several interesting developments on your side recently that were seem more interesting to address. I saw this video

linked in a letter (,36832.html) by Jean Francois Julliard to PM Lee Hsien Loong about the recent New York Times case. It is from the website ‘Reporters Without Borders – for Press Freedom’. In it, you were responding to the censorship board’s decision to ban your films. Given that this letter is addressed to the PM, are you afraid to be openly named in it?

M: Well, I am basically just stating the facts that the Films Act was not a liberalization. It was basically one step forward but 2 steps backwards. I just spoke matter-of-factly. So I don’t think it would be defamatory at all. So I am not too worried. I was actually quite happy I was able to help their letter a local angle. Otherwise, they might be totally accused of coming from a Western point of view, or trying to impose Western values on us.

J: Where were you speaking?

M: I was actually at a forum in South Korea and Jean-Francois was there. He pulled me out for a 5 minute interview there.

J: Do you think anything will come out of the letter?

M: Well, surprisingly, they have yet to respond. Normally, they will respond, through their private secretary. Perhaps the letter took them back.

J: I sometimes wonder where letters to the PM or President go? Do you need special channels to reach them? It feels a bit like a black hole to me cos you don’t know if your letter will make its way up to be heard.

M: Well, they do read it.

J: I read on your blog that some of the people in authority know your name.

M: I am sure they do and I don’t mind.

J: Have you met them in person before?

M: As far as I know, the only people who have met me are the police officers investigating my case. I have not spoken to any MDA officers. I have only spoken to the people at their front-desk for the purpose of submitting my films. And whenever they approve or ban my films, I get a letter from them. I have had no direct communication with MDA in the last 5 years.

J: I read a particular blog post in which MM Lee mentioned your name?

M: No, he didn’t mention my name. He basically told TIME magazine at the end of 2005 that if it was up to him, he would have allowed ‘Singapore Rebel’.

J: So he’s heard of your film.

M: Well, the question was posed to him by TIME magazine. So I can’t say at the time of the interview he had already heard of the film or not. So, perhaps that might have been the first time he heard of it. The irony is even though he said he would have allowed, the police investigation on my film was only resolved much later and the ban was lift a year later.

7.45 pm
The door creeks open and Martyn is combing through some rushes for good sound and visual bites. I arrive with the rest of the tapes meant to be digitised. Martyn turns around, slightly stunned by the number of tapes I had in the ziplog bag - 8 in total. We checked the clock, it was 8.15 by then. Having seen worse editing days, he took all 8 and laid them out like a professional. Feeling guilty, I promised him I will be back soon after I freshen up at home.

J: I am curious to know about your experience of the 15 months of investigation. Were you detained at all?

M: No. Basically, I went to the police station 4 times to give statements to answer questions. At the second interview, I had to surrender my camera and tapes.

J: So that was after you submitted to SIFF?

M: Yes, I submitted to SIFF, SIFF submitted to Board of Film Censors, Board of Film Censors warned SIFF to warn me to withdraw the film. And after I withdrew the film, I sent the film overseas. Two months later, MDA filed a police report saying that my film has violated section 33 of the Films Act. So that’s how the police investigations started.

During the 15 months, were you deterred from making other films?

During the 15 months, I was researching Said Zahari’s story and I made ‘Zahari’s 17 Years’ within that 15 months. And I submitted again to SIFF and SIFF for some reason again didn’t want to show it. It was about a year later that I decided to submit the film myself to the board of Film Censors and it was there that they told me they decided to ban it then.

J: Has anyone overseas contacted you about the films you made? I mean most of your films are on YouTube and being watched by many people.

M: No not much. Other than people, I don’t get that many comments.

J: I mean, I am sure they could be writers who might use your video for referencing purposes?

M: Once in a while…I get an email from some academic saying he wants to show this to his students either here or in Australia. Or some student wanting to interview me for his thesis. In fact, the first overseas contacts I had after making ‘Singapore Rebel’ were International Body for Human Rights, Amnesty International and Reporters Without Borders. This was because there was a possible threat of a 2 years imprisonment and up to $100,000 fine. So I became a mini celebrity in the eyes of the international human rights organizations. In terms of local people emailing me to know more about me, I got very few. I would say my blog is not very widely read as well.

J: Your blog? (unconvinced)

M: Because most people do not go on the net to read political stuff. Hits are very low.

J: Sadly, this is something very real. When I look at the blogs that garner the most visits, I realize people like to know more about what people are eating, wearing, doing, the latest colour of their hair and frivolous stuff like that.

M: I mean, look at Xia Xue and Mr Brown.

J: Before the incident of the 3 lecturers, did you always have the sense of wanting to speak up for the underdog? Where did that come from?

M: I was born with it. I mean I read Francis Seow’s ‘To Catch a Tartar’, which was quite a revelatory book to me. But a lot of people have read it as well but they don’t do the same thing as I do. (pause) A lot of people went through the same education as me. I have been educated only locally all my life. So I think it comes down to the fact that I was born with a conscience. I was born with a sense of…. Not being able to sleep peacefully if I see injustice and I don’t do anything about it.

J: This is really amazing. I mean I spent 3 years overseas studying and whenever I hear news like that overseas, it angers me and embarrases me a lot too. But less so when I am back home. But for you, you’ve always been here.

M: So, I would call myself a ‘freak’ of PAP’s education system. My first school was basically PAP kindergarten.

J: Did your parents influence you in anyway?

M: Not at all. (pause) If I were to trace back to the seed of this sense of discontent, I would say it goes back to my birth! So you can say I was born with it, though ‘To Catch a Tartar’ opened me to a darker side of political history and detention without trial.

J: So when you had these feelings back in those days, did you tell yourself when you grow up, you want to do something about it?

M; Well, it perturbs me everytime I see people being bullied. But, I didn’t tell myself I needed to do something about it. So, I held back. (beat) I think maybe it is due to the social climate here as well…. Not to provoke authorities, not to overstep OB markers. So I was quite a kiasu Singaporean in that sense, but issues still bugged me and cause me sleepless hours at night. (beat) So, as I got older, I became more likely to act upon my concerns. Hence, I made the little short film about Chee Soon Juan. And after it was banned and under police investigation, I took a very different path from the 3 lecturers. I decided to make everything public instead of hush hush. I think in that sense it protected me because it would make them look bad if they prosecuted me.

J: How do the people around you in your life feel about your sense of righteousness?

M: My mum doesn’t know. I would only let her know if they decided to prosecute me but they didn’t. She doesn’t read newspapers and she hardly watches news. I have 2 older brothers – they know and they are quietly sympathetic. They thought it was ridiculous to investigate me for such a minor issue. People in the industry know but I was still performing my job as a freelance editor. It did not affect my income, my ricebowl. I was kinda blessed in a sense. (Pause) Ironically, I still do editing for Mediacorp TV shows.

J: Does it seem like a double life to you?

M: Yeah, I always tell people I wear 2 hats very frankly. But 90% of my time, I am a freelance editor, the remaining 10% of my time, I spend thinking about politics and trying to make films that have a political message.

J: I feel it takes a lot of training to be able to wear 2 hats like this.

M: Actually a lot of people in their lives wear 3 hats, 4 hats. I don’t think it is that much of a skill to juggle such things. For me, it is quite natural. I don’t find it a chore, I don’t find it a task to do it. I quite enjoy it.

2.00 am
Jeremy: How's the edit going?
Martyn: Think maybe 3 plus can finish. (pause) By the way, Jeremy do your job... this translation doesn't seem right.
Jeremy: ...... (contemplating) How about 'This is God's gift to us.'
Martyn: Mmm... (typing it out) Thiiis eees gaawwwd's gift toooo uusss. (beat) Gift. Mmm...
Jeremy: Can you also replace Ivan's face with a more 'average' face when this line is said. Something's a bit wrong with that combination.
Martyn: I see your point.
Jeremy: One last comment. I find inserting the balloon view of the pink dot in between the time lapse bits very disorientating.
Martyn: Oh, that's the 'mind-fuck' bit.
Jeremy: Mind-fuck?
Martyn: Yeah. Hard to explain what is 'Mind-fuck' exactly.

J: So what are you like outside making political films?

M; I am probably one of two editors in Singapore who has worked with Jack Neo 4 times. This is stuff I do to pay my bills. I have edited with Eric Khoo, Jack Neo. I do a lot of stuff for government corporate videos. So I am very normal video editor.

J: Are you married?

M: No, I am not.

J: Would it have been more difficult if you were married?

M: It would be more difficult as a freelance person if you are married because the income is not stable and the cheques come in late. (beat) But as far as doing political stuff is concerned, it is an open-ended question. It is a good question. Err…. I don’t think many Singaporean women would want to be with a guy who provokes the authority out of the blue, makes it a point to provoke the authority and does not benefit him financially.

J: I was watching ‘Singapore Rebel’ and I saw the scenes with the kids… I mean for me, I still find it hard how he can bring his kids or wife along…

M: My respect for him comes from him being not afraid to let his family know of what he believes in. He gets his kids involved in what he does. A couple of his kids have gone to distribute political flyers with him. So he keeps them involved. (Beat) None of the PAP politicians I know currently involve their kids. So for him, he is unique.

J: Perhaps, If I were in an incumbent position, the drive to is less?

M: Well, if you are in a position to better people’s lives, you should get your kids involved. If you are in politics to better yourself, to lead a comfortable life, then it does not benefit them to get their kids involved.

J: If you were charged a result of making ‘Singapore Rebel’, do you think you would have entered politics?

M: No, I would not ever enter politics. I don’t like politicians. I don’t trust them. And my job as a filmmaker, as a citizen, as a blogger is basically to check on what is being said by politicians. Even if it is the opposition.

More on filmmaking now, do you have any plans to make films out of the political thread you’ve always been following?

M: Currently, I am too busy editing, mainly TV work, not much film. Honestly, the way I see it, we do not have a film industry yet. I define a film industry as something that can sustain a large pool of professionals who do nothing but make films. We don’t have that. We have a TV industry. The only 2 persons I know who can survive just by making feature films is Jack Neo and Kelvin Tong. The rest of the people – cameraman, gaffers, grips, editors, most of us do TV work or TV commercials. Once in a while, we do a film. But the budget for film… if you ask any freelancers out there… it is usually lower than TV work or TV commercials. (pause) So sad to say, we kid ourselves saying we have a film industry when we actually don’t. (beat) Compare us to a city like Jakarta, KL or Ho Chi Minh. I think they make more films than us.

J: I guess many things are working against us, like small market size.

M: I guess. However, I must say that despite my battles with MDA on film censorship, the Singapore Film Commission does give out a lot of money to support independent films. I don’t this happens in our neighbouring countries. So the money is there though somehow the good scripts are not there. (pause) This, I think is somehow related to the political climate that we live in. People are just afraid to step out of their boundaries, afraid to think out of the box. So we don’t make challenging works.

J: If you were to make a feature film, would it touch on politics as well?

M: It would definitely have politics as a background.

J: I mean you’ve watched a draft of ‘Sandcastle’ by Boo Junfeng. Would you say that it is something you would have liked to make?

M: Well I told Junfeng that I loved the story. Something I would have very much liked to direct.

J: Any other new topics on your mind right now?

M: I always wanted to interview Lee Kuan Yew and Chia Thye Poh (political prisoner).

J: Just a whim or do you have a concrete aim to do that?

M: I do. I hope I can interview him in the basement of his home, where PAP was supposedly born.

J: Finally, something I always ask in my other interviews. Would you starve for the sake of art?

M: That’s a good one man. (pause) No I will not starve because starving hurts the body and I will not do anything to hurt my body just for the sake of art. (beat) But, if I were to make art and if I were to be prosecuted for it, I would go on a hunger strike to protest against the injustice of my prosecution. But I will not starve myself just to make a film, or to finish a painting or to write a book. I don’t think it’s worth it. I think the human body is quite sacred. But when pushed to the limits by injustice, it might then be worth it to use your body to make that statement.


Though 'Singapore Rebel' started off as a blog to promote the film, it's become a treasure trove important socio-political news and views that Martyn's collected since 2004. All his films (vieweable online) are linked here too.

You can view his films directly from these links
Singapore Rebel - It's the story of opposition politician Chee Soon Juan, who has been imprisoned twice for championing democratic change in Singapore.

Nation Builders -A documentation of people left behind in Singapore's economic rise.

Speakers Cornered - A recording of the only public protest held in Singapore during the IMF-World Bank meeting in 2006.

Zahari's 17 years - An interview with Said Zahari, a staunch anti-colonial newspaper editor who was accused of involvement in pro-communist activities and subsequently detained without trial from 1963 to 1979.

3.30 am
Jeremy: Hey, they are wondering whether to leave the party or wait for me to deliver the video.
Martyn: Are they going to suggest changes after they watch?
Jeremy: No la. Don't worry. (pause) So how long more?
Martyn: Saving now already... So effectively, we only took half an hour more than last year, with so many more tapes this year.
Jeremy: That's why we chose you ma.
So here's Martyn's (with Natalie Soh) final cut. Till today, it's got 6690 views on YouTube.

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