Singapore


Despite its efforts to promote Singapore as a creative media content hub, a number of laws, including the banning of political films, has been a fly in the ointment of the government’s claims to creativity.

Yet moves appear afoot to amend the bill to ban political films, with Minister for Information Communications and the Arts Lee Boon Yang indicated he would table a bill to amend the Films Act early next year. (See AFP article for details)

PM Lee’s National Day Rally speech quoted in the Straits Times, however, indicates that the law will be softened rather than removed.

…we’ve got to allow political videos but with some safeguards.

According to the Straits Times article, factual footage, documentaries and recordings of live events will now be allowed, but ‘political commercials…of purely made-up material, partisan stuff, footage distorted to create a slanted impression’, should still be off-limits, thought the PM.

The PM’s speech also pointed to the ‘very restrictive’ laws that banned political blogging posting of political material on the internet during the 2006 election. Does this mean that opponents will be able to use the internet to distribute campaign material for the 2011 election as the Straits Times indicates?

Yet days after the rally speech, opposition leaders have been charged over a 2006 illegal procession or assembly without permit. See the International Herald Tribune article for details.

And PM Lee Hsien Loong himself to these ‘safeguards’ by taking a libel suit against the Far Eastern Economic Review further. The Singapore PM now charges that the 2006 article in the magazine implied he was corrupt, rather than that he simply condoned corruption by his father, former PM Lee Kuan Yew. The FEER story that motivated the Lees to file suit against the magazine and its author was entitled “Singapore’s Martyr: Chee Soon Juan”, and had quoted opposition politician Chee attacking the Lees. See Reuters article for more details.

The National Rally Day announcements by the Prime Minister and the tabling of the bill to amend the ban on political films is good news for the liberalising of society in Singapore, which will further encourage creativity and open critical analysis. But the big question is whether the Singapore government can deliver on these promises and not let the de jure amendments be undermined by de facto details and ‘safeguards’. To date, the actions by the courts and the PM himself have done little to ressure Singaporeans that change is on its way.

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News Release by the Media Development Authority on a joint agreement with the Australian Film Commission to explore a co-production agreement between Singapore and Australia.

It is a little hard to take the Mediacorp news stories ‘Surprise Singapore’ (in ChannelNewsAsia and TODAYonline) without the proverbial grain of salt.

The article reports the findings of a Media Development Authority (MDA)-commissioned international panel, which suggests that creativity in Singapore is alive and well.

Yet does its statement that creativity will ‘continue to flourish in spite of the political climate’ come from the panel being asked directly whether ‘restrictions on political expression would impede the development of a creative culture and Singapore’s aspirations to become a global media hub’?

The answer given skilfully yet obviously avoids answering that sensitive question: “Singapore will continue to be hard on itself and keep asking searching questions like: ‘Are we creative?’ Of course, you are.”

The answer, given by Stanford University professor Paul Saffo is right. Naturally there is significant evidence of creativity in Singapore, and a growing entrepreneurial innovativeness that is relying less on tried and tested business models, and less on would-be entrepreneurs wanting to ‘bring in’ or sell under license a product in Singapore they have seen overseas.

But to the answer of will restrictions on political expression impede the development of a creative culture, the answer may well equally be ‘of course it will.’

This is not to say it will stop creative or cultural development, but it will certainly impede it.

One key question is how much of the “renaissance” that has been taking place in the arts scene over the last five years according to MDA chairman Dr Tan, has been driven by government direction and public funds? Many nations around the world have (heavily?) subsidised arts sectors, but the combination of significant public funding and restrictions on political expression do not bode well for creative development. Perhaps if there was more private sector investment (or even philanthropy) then any lack of political freedom may not be such an issue?

Some of the insightful findings reported include:

Among the recommendations yesterday of the 10-member Media Development Authority (MDA) International Advisory Panel, was one which called for Singapore to “foster an ecosystem that breeds talent for the media industry”.

The panel suggested that Singapore leverage on its strength in education, medicine and technology by developing media content in these sectors. These products could tap on interactive digital media technologies, tools and applications to produce materials such as professional publications or training materials.

Channel NewsAsia has picked up the Professor Phillippe Lasserre of INSEAD speaking at a seminar discussing the management of regional change. Lassarre has suggested that Singapore needs less central planning in order to catalyse creativity:

The choice – to a certain extent – is to accept some kind of what I have called disorder to promote creativity. It’s extremely difficult to be creative in a very planned and orderly manner

An entry on discontents in April questioned how limits on political freedom and freedom of expression inhibited (or enhanced?) creativity. These comments however, add the other side to that equation – that too much structure, even in a positive sense can reduce the need to innovate and think creatively. How many Singaporeans and expats living in Singapore have you heard refer to the nation as being over-pampered, spoilt, or looked after – just a little too well?

In this vein, Singapore’s Education Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam has come out saying the nation needs to find it’s own ‘buzz’ to attract people in an Xinhua article. Tharman admitted that:

Singapore is referred to as a nanny-state, a “fine city”, with penalties for numerous offenses, and as lacking in creativity and an innovative culture…

…but also annouced ‘five key planks’ to ensure that the ‘Singapore Brand’ endures:

  1. Keeping the trust in the Singapore system
  2. being the most open city in Asia
  3. continuously remaking the country
  4. supporting individuals in breaking new ground
  5. strengthening a culture of excellence for all.

I wonder whether the ‘most open city in asia’ also includes non-economic openness? Singapore has thrived on its admirable efforts to provide one of the most open economies in the world, but if it wishes to capitalise on the creativity inherent in local and expat populations, it may need to look beyond economic freedom.

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The structure vs freedom dichotomy – and the need for both – is strikingly similar to the success of not just economies and political systems, but in the success of technological communications platforms. There has been some work that has suggested that the success of i-mode mobile internet in Japan for example, was due to NTT DoCoMo’s ability to strike a balance between open and closed systems to provide a platform that provided structure without restricting the activities of users. Perhaps policymakers in designing economic and political systems need to consider the need to allow people not to feel excessively restricted in their workplace, thinking space, and day to day lives.

A post regarding a piece of Australian federal budget news on film investment policy – which points to a whole set of questions about the political economy of investment attraction and (sustainable) industry development.

The following Sydney Morning Herald article indicates that the Australian Government is planning to increase the refundable tax rebate for local film and television production as part of a A$283 million package.

Domestic film productions will receive a 40 percent rebate, other productions (eg television) will receive 20, while international films will attract a 15 percent rebate (up from the current 12.5%).

On the one hand, providing tax concessions may be a necessity for Australia to continue attracting international productions if it wishes to stay competitive and attractive in the face of many other international locations. This is particularly so when considering the effort some nations in the region are expending to promote their local industries.

But on the other hand, the question needs to be asked: is promoting the use of Australia as a site for location shooting and other production the most sustainable way to grow the industry? How much of the foreign investment that is attracted in this way will be used on “fee-for-service” work that does not provide local industry players with ownership of copyrights? In theory, “service work” provides locals with income and international exposure (provided a local subsidiary is not being used for the work). Yet without owning any of the property’s rights, firms have little in the way of reusable assets.

Singapore’s Media Development Authority (MDA), for example, gives very little consideration for where the production of projects it supports, such as animated TV series, are taking place. The most important factor for the MDA is that Singaporean firms are engaged in the high-end creative work and are retaining at least part of the rights to the content that is being produced.

In contrast, the Australian Federal Government’s 2007-08 budget seems to suggest that Australian policymakers are still too interested in attracting foreign capital and creativity to utilise the services of Australian talent. Given, the production process of an animated TV series is different to a live-action feature. Yet on first glance the tax incentives appear somewhat short-sighted or parochial on the policymakers front by exacerbating an artificial division between supporting “Australian stories” and allowing international films to use local locations and talent.

The differential tax treatment between local and foreign productions if its aim is to encourage foreign investors to put their money into productions that classify as “Australian” by employing a certain number of key cast and crew. Still, the question remains whether productions that the government has classified as “Australian” will be saleable in the international market.

Why is the government keen to promote the industry? And just what is the notion with ‘bringing Hollywood home’ (was Hollywood ever in Australia to begin with)? Are we witnessing a case of government pandering to lobbying from the local film industry? Australian games developers, for example, are eager to gain access to these funds that are only available to film, television, and documentary properties. While the games developers, who predominantly develop games for overseas publishers, would naturally be eager to access such lucrative tax rebates, it begs the question why does the film industry and not other ‘content’ industries receive such government support?

Should support be provided to the local games industry for the creation of ‘original’ IP rather than service work for international publishers?

See also SMH article ‘Filmmakers get…’

Several sources (IndianTelevision, C21Media) picked up the story of Singaporean firms chalking up US$128 million in sales deals at the recent MIPTV market in Cannes (S$193 million according to ChannelNewsAsia).

Featuring in the news were Singaporean production firms Big Communications collaboration with Flying Bark (EMTV) and Thunderbird Films based on a HarperCollins series (worth $6.5 million), and Scrawl Studios who concluded distribution deals for their animated series Nanoboy (on MediaCorp’s Kids Central), and co-production based on childrens book series Milly Molly was sold to various broadcasters around the world. Other companies striking distribution deals were or signing production MoUs were Upside Down Productions, Mega Media, Six-Six-Eight, Character Farm, and Media Freaks.

MDA CEO Christopher Chia held the sales up as an indicator of Singapore’s success, given the doubling from last year’s MIPTV sales. The biggest contributor to this however, was a collaboration deal by Singapore Technologies Electronics with Canada’s Nelvana Studios to co-produce three animated TV series and 10 DVD movies, which accounted for about US$100 million of the $128 million.

It is important to in the very least disaggregate this deal from the other deals, given that ST Electronics is the subsidiary of Singapore Techonolgy Engineering, and not necessarily the small to medium sized local content firms that the MDA is providing assistance to in Singapore.

Some related articles:
Channel NewsAsia: Singapore-made documentaries on Asia in high demand
Hollywood Reporter: MIPTV buyers pay attention to new media
IndianTelevision: $5 million India-Singapore-Korean TV co-production

This article Japan looks to keep sun up on animation exportsis an old one from 2005, but the key issues are still relevant, and highlight some of the themes in a forthcoming chapter in a book to be published in 2007 by Asia Pacific Press.

But the question remains how successful it will be to treat animation as another Japanese industry like selling hard drives or motorcycles, as animation has thrived — artistically, at least — leaving artists to their own devices.

What is behind the push however, is the perceived lack of exploitability of Japanese ‘soft’ know-how, and a considerable deficit in the terms of trade in copyright goods. This is compounded by a competitive imperative to earn more revenue from intellectual property rather than straight manufactures, given that neighbouring economies such as China appear on the verge of emerging as more than just the world’s production house/s.

A few key facts and figures quoted in the article are:

According to the Digital Content Association of Japan:

  • Japan’s total Content business in animation, film, publishing and music was at 14.7 trillion yen ($140bn) in 2003
  • Animation (including manga cartoons, films, videos and character products) accounted for 2.7 trillion yen ($26bn), according to the Digital Content Association of Japan.
  • This compares with 50 trillion yen ($474bn) in the US, – 40% of the world total
  • Despite the strength of Japanese animation competition is bound to emerge from other Asian nations like South Korea and China, where Japanese animation companies turn to for labour.
  • China’s culture ministry last year started a university programme to boost China’s animation industry, including via tie-ups in Japan.

It is not just Japan that is turning to other countries for, what is still referred to by some in the industry as “grunt work”. Australian and Singaporean animators and game developers often outsource work to China given the significant cost difference. This comes despite Singapore not yet being an “established” media content region, and significant government efforts to promote the industry. Yet, similarly to Japan, both policymakers and industry players seem to realise that the only way ‘forward’ is to focus on the high-end ‘creative’ aspect of IP creation and the retaining of copyrights.

For Japan (as for Singapore) the strategy for policymakers surely lies in capacity building rather than excessive control of industry activities.

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