Competing narratives is a boon, not a bane

Tan Pin Pin is still waiting for the decision of the Film Appeals Committee over the Media Development Authority’s (MDA) decision to classify her film To Singapore, With Love as Not Allowed for All Ratings (NAR). But things aren’t looking good, if Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s comments are anything to go by.

Responding to a question asked following his speech at the National University of Singapore Society 60th Anniversary Lecture, PM Lee dismissed the film as a “self-serving personal account”. He also stated that a film was more problematic than books, as films could come across as more convincing.

“You write a book, I can write a counter book, the book you can read together with a counter book. You watch a movie, you think it’s a documentary (and) it may be like Fahrenheit 9/11 — very convincing, but it’s not a documentary. And I think we have to understand this in order to understand how to deal with these issues.”
- Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, as quoted by TODAY

It’s a strange argument that I’m struggling to understand. Content can be presented in various mediums: through books, articles, films, plays, paintings, art installations, etc. People then have the option of choosing which medium they would prefer to consume.

If your objection to the content is that it is fundamentally inaccurate and damaging, how can it then be acceptable in one medium and unacceptable in another?

Perhaps the Prime Minister’s meaning is that books – especially the history books that would cover controversial periods of Singapore’s modern history – might be academic and not very accessible to everyone, while a film is much more easily consumed by a wider audience. In that case, his issue doesn’t seem to actually be about the content, but the number of people who have access to it.

Contrary to the Prime Minister’s understanding, Fahrenheit 9/11 is a documentary. It might not be an “objective” documentary – filmmaker Michael Moore is known for inserting himself and his strong opinions into his work – but that doesn’t disqualify it from the documentary genre. It is, at the end of the day, just a style and mode of the art form.

One could even argue that such a style might be more honest than a documentary that presents itself as completely devoid of bias (while trotting out assumptions informed by dominant ideology). Moore never tries to pretend that Fahrenheit 9/11 doesn’t come through his personal lens, through his own political leanings and values. The audience is meant to understand that, and evaluate his arguments accordingly. I have no doubt that potential audiences of To Singapore, With Love will be more than capable of understanding this and coming to their own conclusions.

Furthermore, a single objective truth is practically impossible to pin down in a world of varied ideologies, beliefs, interpretations and recollections. That is why our understanding of history is always political; those in power will always seek to present their version of events as truth, erasing other narratives or experiences of the time.

It is normal for a society’s understanding of its history to be constantly challenged and in flux as we unearth and analyse information. It’s common for historians to continue to disagree and argue over interpretations of events, critiquing each other’s work as part of an ongoing process.

If we all accept one narrative as the definitive truth and stop seeking out alternative voices and narratives, we’ll be wilfully shutting ourselves off from a richness and vibrancy that could help us better understand the points of tension and power dynamics of a key period in our country’s journey.