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Singapore is Evolving, Says IMDA CEO Gabriel Lim

CEO of the recently established Infocomm Media Development Authority of Singapore, Gabriel Lim is charged with developing film, TV and tech industries, while also holding the line in a country known for social conservatism. He tells Variety that things are on the move on both fronts.

Variety: Why merge the Media Development Authority and the Infocomm Development Authority into one body?
Gabriel Lim: We see Infocomm and media coming together everywhere. Traditional tech companies recognizing that what they do is not just about technology, but also content, user experience and stories. And we have media companies recognizing the value of infocomm. We call it convergence.

So we decided to organize ourselves as a government and make a play for the future. (The agency) is both a regulator and a developer.

Regulation is mostly about how we can allow innovation to take place, while making sure that public interests are protected. Competition law etc.

From a development perspective we are really trying to take infocomm and media and to advance many sectors. We are helping our national broadcaster transition into a digital company. We are looking at how you distribute digital advertising through programmatic advertising. We’ve been looking at healthcare, urban logistics, and we are heavily involved in fintech. We support our smaller companies and help them grow.

We are very excited by VR/AR very exciting – intersection of tech and content. Singapore with its high level of basic and fiber connectivity is well placed.

Variety: Is the new agency’s budget the sum of the two predecessors?
Lim: No, not quite. There’s been some reconstitution. The final figure has not been settled because there is an adjacent development called GovTech.

In a future where technology is pervasive, the IMDAs role is to get Singapore and Singaporeans equipped for that. We help companies make transitions. We help workers through the tech skills accelerator. And we help people who are not in the sector – housewives, retirees, young children. The social bit is critical to nation building and national development.

Variety: So no more talk of being a hub?
Lim: We want Singapore to remain one of the leading global cities in the world, and a good livable city. Our Smart Nation policy is not just about technology, it is about a better life. Part of that is about making Singapore a hub as well. A hub for business, to serve Asian and the world. Bringing global companies to Singapore — Amazon will be setting up next month – and a hub for talent, entrepreneurs, new business people, greatest creative minds and give us a little bit extra as we move ahead.

Variety: Is the film industry being left behind as you prioritize these other things?
Lim: Film is moving quite rapidly as well. We also need to understand that technology is not just about the hard science, but also about creativity, outreach, personal relationships. They are Ying and Yang.
We’ve had a pretty good year for film. Two local films in Cannes – “A Yellow Bird” and “Apprentice” and Kirsten Tan’s film “Pop Aye” selected for Sundance.

We support film making through grants and scholarships, attachments and training opportunities. We’ve seen the quality of films go up and increasingly we have had to turn away applicants.

Variety: What are the measure of success for Singapore film industry?
Lim: It is a portfolio of KPIs. International awards are part of that. When Anthony Chen won for “Ilo Ilo” that was an awakening of sorts. It gave filmmakers the confidence that they could do it. He has inspired a generation who are prepared to give it a go. That is fantastic.

We’d like to see local box office receipts being healthy. They are still quite low. We’d like to see that grow 50% or double over the next few years.

So now we are putting in more money for storytelling. We’ve done storytelling labs in English and Mandarin Chinese and are working with MM2. This is upstream investment that will lead us to downstream box office takings.

Variety: Is Singaporean market share the key measure, or are you also interested in growing the overall box office?
Lim: Overall box office growth is modest. It is partly driven by ticket price increases, but also some volume growth. It could grow more.

What we don’t have a good measure of is how much people are spending online. Especially through a la carte purchases. We are not capturing all the data.

Variety: Does the IMDA have a China policy?
Lim: China as an interesting and important market. An important partner as well. We have a coproduction treaty with China. We take part in their trade shows just as they do in ours. And we are working with them in the ASEAN framework. We are engaging China as a social cultural partner. That complements a broader national engagement of China, as an important Asian neighbor and an Asian heavyweight.

Variety: Do you see China as exporting its regulatory policies within Asia?
Lim: We see China as a tremendous opportunity. It is one of the fastest growing economies in the world. It has been a force for good everywhere. Lifting millions of people out of poverty. The rising middle class is in turn opening new markets – for tourism and for film, and content. Many Singapore companies – production houses such as MM2 and Beachhouse, have set up branches in China.

It used to be said that when America sneezes the world catches a cold. Now when China sneezes everybody certainly takes notice.

Variety: How does being both regulator and industry funder work?
Lim: The are two sides of the same coin. You can’t develop an industry if you don’t have clear rules and fair application of those rules. And you can’t regulate properly if you don’t know what the industry wants and is going towards.

Both IDA and MDA were both regulator and developer. This dual role is not unusual and has allowed us to strike a more practical balance. Some of our prevailing rules are outdated and needed to be renewed.

The most recent example was how we looked at rules pertaining to OTT content. You have a lot of content streaming over the Internet. If you hold (OTT companies) to traditional broadcasting rules you’d probably say I’m being too conservative. If you hold them to Internet provider standards you can see them open up. We struck a middle ground that allowed us to provide more leeway over OTT services.

Variety: Are you referring here to this year’s relaxation of what was classified as R21 content?
Lim: Yes, we changed the R21 classification, and also the age verification PIN lock system to prevent kids from accessing adult content. But we are still holding the line at no porn. That is a stricter standard than on the Internet, where anything goes, but at the same time gives our local companies like StarHub and Singtel a bit more leeway when providing OTT services.

Variety: How do you impose conservative national rules in a small country, in an age where everybody has the Internet and VPNs?
Lim: Our rules (on content standards) are founded on where our society stands. We have a range of perspectives, but it is generally a conservative society by Western standards.
We don’t have a national firewall. We can’t control every bit of data that goes in and out. But, at the same time, it is important for us to govern.

We have a list of 100 blocked websites. That list was developed 20 years ago in the 1990s. Even then we recognized that we were not going to be able to control the Internet. But these 100 sites represent where we have content concerns and are mostly hard core pornography. If you really want to access (that content) you can probably use a VPN or go to the 101st site. It’s OK; it’s a symbol. This is what we think it is important to single out.

Variety: And how do you regulate when the companies are global players?
Lim: Global companies can have local solutions. Netflix and Uber can have very different solutions in each country. Netflix has been very happy to work with us. We have engaged with them on regulations and we worked with them on the arrangement that was also feasible for our local operators.

Variety: The SGIFF executive director Yuni Hadi recently called for censorship to evolve. Was she right?
Lim: We have evolved. We are more interested in classification these days. What we really censor are things that go beyond the pale: things that cut into the racial and religious harmony that we have here. We’ve built a multiracial society with unity and diversity over 50 years. We’re not going to let it go just like that.

Where I think Yuni is talking about evolving is a reflection of a newer generation. Younger people think differently from their parents, just as we thought differently from ours. It is not that long ago when wearing a mini skirt on TV was an eyebrow raiser. Some people would prefer that we evolved faster. Some would prefer that we evolve slower.

Variety: You’ve been in the job a couple of years. Will you apply to stay on or will you be rotated after the MDA-IDA merger is bedded in?
Lim: In the Singapore civil service there is a broader framework of rotating us. I’d love to stay on. It is very fun. It is an industry on the move. An industry that speaks for the future. But I’m here as part of a larger service. And if duty calls and the view is that I can make a more meaningful contribution elsewhere then I will move.

The thing that all of us in the civil service try to build is institutions that outlast personalities. If I move the idea is that the IMDA has the strength and senior leadership to fulfil our mission.

Variety: What are your own media pastimes?
Lim: I listen to music a lot. I’ve just bought an Amazon Echo (cordless speaker) and now have got access to this tremendous library of jazz, funk, easy listening – streaming straight from Amazon.
I try to catch as many movies as I can. Definitely the local productions. When I fly I try to catch international movies, especially those from Europe and Latin America, which have a certain style and sensibility I find very refreshing. Hollywood blockbusters I’ll catch at the movies with my wife.

If can I’ll watch at home through my AppleTV or streaming services. I believe in exploring — Viddsee, YouTube and the OTT platforms — to figure out what is trending.

That’s how I found Mannequin Challenge, which I asked the minister to join in with at the opening of Pixel Studios. It was just for fun, but all the industry partners, the sound recording studio staff, and even the CEO of StarHub took part. The minister’s Facebook views per post went from an average of 50-1,000 to over 5,000 for this one.

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