Despite being a working day, some 400 Singaporeans travelled across the border to Malaysian on Friday to catch a screening of the award winning film, “To Singapore, With Love”, at the Freedom Film Festival 2014 held in Johor Bahru.
While some made their own way across the border, 4 buses were organized by university student, Lim Jialiang and civil activist, Rachel Zeng to ferry over 120 Singaporeans from Singapore to Malaysia, sponsored by individuals who choose to remain anonymous.
The 70-minute documentary film on Singapore political exiles, by Tan Pin Pin, received a “Not Allowed for All Ratings” (NAR) classification from the Media Development Authority (MDA) on 10th September.
MDA claims that the subjects in the film gave “distorted and untruthful accounts of how they came to leave Singapore and remain outside Singapore.”
This means that the film is banned from public screening in Singapore.
However, in a statement on Friday evening (19 September), the MDA said it “is giving leeway to institutions of higher learning to show films that are restricted or not allowed, including To Singapore With Love.”
It also said it has accepted a request from the Yale-NUS College to screen Tan’s film, but this would only be “for classroom teaching and discussion only.”
The MDA said:
“Some leeway is provided to these institutions to screen films for educational purposes, on condition that these films have either been previously classified by the MDA, or prior approval has been sought from the MDA before the films are acquired.”
However, the “To Singapore With Love” Facebook page had on Thursday 18 September, said that it has “not agreed to any Singapore screenings, private or institutional”, contrary to a report in the news which said that Yale-NUS intends to screen the film.
“We have written to the news outlet to correct the article.,” the Facebook page said. It added a “postscript” which said that “Yale-NUS Professor Robin Hemley said that the article was a mistake.”
Ms Tan confirmed at the Friday screening in Johor Baru that she has yet to be contacted by the college for the intended screening.
“I certainly have not agreed (and they haven’t asked) to show ‘To Singapore, with Love’ at Yale-NUS,” she said on her Facebook page on Thursday.
While the ban on public screening will ensure that the film will not be publicly shown in Singapore, the film has gained international spotlight due to the ban, with the news being reported by the international media as well. (See here.)
It has also drawn vehement protests from many Singaporeans, with many ridiculing the MDA’s excuse for the ban – that it threatens “national security”.
The film presents accounts of political exiles who describes the circumstances and events leading to their departure from Singapore, how they were forced to escape prosecution from the government and how much they yearn to return to Singapore to visit their friends and family.
Many of the political exiles could only meet their friends and family members in Johor Bahru, just like how Singaporeans had to travel to view the screening of the film on Friday.
“To Singapore, With Love” is one of six films featured in the one day Freedom Film Festival in Johor Bahru. It has been shown in Petaling Jaya and will be next shown at Kuantan and Penang.
The organizers of the film festival said that they had to book an extra and larger room to cater for the sudden increase of audience members. The rooms which the film was shown could hold up to 400 seated individuals. During the show, many were seen standing as there were no more seats available.
Ms Tan said that while she is disappointed over the banning by MDA, the ban has created favorable publicity for the film. She said that she would consider re-submitting the film to MDA for classification and will also be keeping her options open.
Here are a few comments on the film from Singaporean members of the audience on the film:
“It was devastating and it was beautiful to really see how difficult the struggles of these exiles while living in exile, separated from their family and their belongings.”
“Actually I feel really sad at some points, because you just feel the genuine longing to go back home and that made me quite sad. And hearing Francis (Khoo)’s song made me tear up a bit. So I think it is about putting some things aside and just let these people come home.”
“At certain parts of the film, I was moved to tears. And I find it interesting that here I am not being that nationalistic about my country. But yet, these exiles though being away from Singapore for such a long period of time, still love this country so much.”
“Very good for your own self, especially if you are the younger generation…because we grow up knowing so much about Singapore history but there is this part of Singapore history that we are not aware of.”
Among the attendees were some former detainees who are in their 70s and 80s, who were imprisoned under the Internal Security Act (ISA).
While some audience members were elated to finally see a voice for the oppressed via the film, others were disappointed over the lack of information by the exiles about what the the Singapore government had done to them, and more explicit details about the transpired events from their perspective.
Ms Tan, in an earlier statement following MDA’s announcement of the ban, had said that her film, which was shot entirely outside Singapore, was “to find out how [the exiles] have lived their lives away from Singapore.”
She said she had hoped to have a conversation about what the film raises about our past.
“It is vital for us to have that conversation on our own terms,” Ms Tan said, “especially on the eve of our 50th birthday. We need to be trusted to be able to find the answers to questions about ourselves, for ourselves.”
“It is my deepest regret that we cannot have such a conversation here today.”
Note of edit: The buses were jointly organized and chartered by two individuals, Rachel Zeng and Lim Jialiang and the article has been updated to correct this point.