This Channel News Asia article, ‘Singapore film-makers take documentaries to whole new level‘ tells the ‘story’ of Singapore coming of age as a documentary film-making nation.

It tells of recent news that Martyn See’s new documentary has been banned by Singapore’s Media Development Authority (MDA). The doco consists of an interview with former opposition leader Said Zahari, who was held for 17 years without trial for alleged subversive activities.

The incident raises an interesting dilemma of having the same statutory body that both regulates the media industry (including broadcast licenses and film classification) and is responsible for it’s promotion and development. Given, there are certain synergies in combining the two activities. But while the developmental arm of the MDA needs to be encouraging creativity, skills, and story-telling techniques that can sell, the regulatory arm appears to be sending a clear message about the limits of how ‘expressive’ filmmakers are able to be.

The article quickly jumps into the accomplishments of Singaporean filmmakers at international shows, and explains to readers that banning politically sensitive films does not necessarily curtail creativity. Quoting filmmaker Harry Chew (who made a doco for S$600 about skydivers promoting their sport in Singapore), the article reveals,

“I guess as film-makers, we can make calculated creative choices or compromise, like employing subtlety, irony, metaphors and humour in portraying sensitive or political topics”

And while Chew’s comments seem to be urging filmmakers to pursue more subtle and sophisiticated instruments to convey sensitive subjects, the article concluded with an all-too-neat summary for readers:

In other words: You don’t have to rant and rave to be heard. And that’s what growing up is all about.

As justified as the government’s attitude towards political freedom may have been in the past, Singapore runs into problems when trying to reconcile this approach with the new objective of developing and nurturing a vibrant creative industries sector. This link between freedom of expression and creativity remind me of the words of Tomo Sugiyama, Founding President of Digital Hollywood University in Tokyo.

At the launch of the International Anime Research Lab (国際アニメ研究所) in February this year, Dr Sugiyama suggested that Japan’s unparalleled strength in animation had come from an absence of political and religious taboos that gave animators complete freedom to not only criticise but also exploit religious and political institutions as a source of ideas. While Dr Sugiyama made these comments in comparison to Europe and North America, the environment during the development of Japan’s animation and creative industries stands in stark contrast to the situation in Singapore.

As for documentaries, Singaporean filmmakers in search of compelling subject-matter are destined to have to look outside Singapore, which ultimately is probably not such a bad thing.