The movie opened with the most mundane and domestic of scenes – a father cooking char kuey teow for his family while talking about Singapore.
In that home setting and with the uncharacteristic London sun shining through the windows, the cacophony of the clanging wok and the sizzling and sputtering sounds of hissing cooking oil, Ho Juan Thai could have been in Singapore in an alternate reality.
Instead, the exile who fled Singapore for fear of political persecution is a million miles away from home and has no hope of return in the foreseeable future.
In his interview for “To Singapore, With Love” – the film banned by the Media Development Authority for presenting a "distorted and untruthful" of the exiles – Juan Thai is at once hopeful, wistful and full of unmistakable love for his country. His emotions arouse in the viewer a strong sense of patriotism, not one driven by any political agenda but a simple sense of belonging, inexplicable and unexplainable: We are Singaporean. Beyond politics, beyond ideology, Singapore is our home.
Dr Ang Swee Chai was also featured in the film, and should rightfully be recognised as a Singaporean who has done her country proud. An eminent doctor who has spent many years volunteering for the Palestinian cause, she is much respected in the UK and in the Middle East. She has even authored a book – From Beirut to Jerusalem and been on Ted Talks. In the film, she talks of her passions, her commitment to social causes and of her late husband, Francis Khoo and how he inspired her. It was her love for him that led to her leaving Singapore to start from scratch in London.
Sacrificing for love, committing to social work, giving back to the community, a global outlook – these are qualities that all Singaporeans should have. It is a great pity that many Singaporeans will not have the opportunity to be inspired by her.
As a viewer, I felt proud that she hailed from our little red dot and saddened that this film cannot be shown in Singapore on the basis of “national security” when not much was about national security at all. Instead, it is a story about how one simple life can make a world of difference if you would only try.
The film then travels to Betong, Thailand where the funeral of Liu Bio was held. Set amidst chanting monks and the bustle of an Asian city, the viewer is immediately given a great sense of place. Indeed, much of the film is a cultural feast for the eyes. Each change in destination begins with scenes of passing traffic and street life, capturing context while enriching the senses.
At Liu Bio’s funeral, Wong Soon Fong talks about Operation Coldstore, and how he escaped with fellow elected parliamentarian, Chan Sun Wing from Singapore after they were marked for arrest, and how many of Singaporeans are left in Thailand. His message was an account of his life and that of his fellow comrades.
Seamlessly moving across countries, the audience finds itself in London yet again with Tan Wah Piow, a student activist who was unceremoniously arrested and imprisoned in the 70s. His crime? Fighting for the rights of workers who were being retrenched without pay. While the government may have viewed this as “rioting”, film director Tan Pin Pin manages masterfully to give the audience an insight into Wah Piow’s life without preaching any political message.
A factual and objective account of Wah Piow’s fight for workers’ rights, arrest and flight was given while we are given a glimpse of his day to day life. We see that Wah Piow is a lawyer. We see him interacting with his clients and we see him at his book launch in Kuala Lumpur. He has made a very successful life for himself and his family in the UK without compromising on any of his principles.
The film travels yet again. This time to Hat Yai, Thailand. Here Yap Wan Pin and Tan Hee Kim are introduced. Despite having to leave their home, Yap and Tan have managed to build a thriving noodle factory. Although physically away from Singapore, they still keep abreast of Singaporean news.
Their days as guerrillas in the jungle are long past although they still have a keen interest in political affairs. Does that make one a threat to national security? In my humble opinion, not.
He Jin and his wife give an account of the guerrilla warfare waged by the communists in the jungles of Malaysia and Thailand. It was not a call to arms to stir communist fervour nor was it in any way an incitement against the status quo. How did a Singaporean end up waging war in the jungles? It was a piece of human story that ought to be part of the annals of the wider Singapore narrative.
It is also in Hat Yai that Chan Sun Wing reads a moving poem about Singapore retracing his journey and reaffirming his love and loyalty to a place that was once his home. It moved me to tears – not for any political fervour but I was shamed by how little I love my country in comparison to him.
Many other former political detainees shared their personal stories in the film – such as Tan Kok Fang’s and Said Zahari’s accounts about Operation Coldstore. Instead of inciting political hatred, their stories served as a timely reminder that the Internal Security Act needs to be repealed, having outlived its purpose and is in reality little more than a tool of repression that we no longer need.
Beautifully edited, “To Singapore, With Love” is visually pleasing and cleverly weaves between east and west – in many ways, mirroring Singapore’s position in history as having influences from both east and west as a former British colony, located at the tip of the Malay Archipelago with inhabitants from many parts of the world.
As the film progresses, it becomes crystal clear that this is not a film about politics. It is a film about life. It is a chronicle of how Singaporeans live their lives outside of Singapore. It follows their livelihood and home life. The audience enters their homes and meet their families.
The only difference is that these individuals cannot simply jump onto a plane and visit Singapore like other Singaporeans abroad can. Therein lie the haunting and poignant scenes of family reunions and precious memories.
Read also "Part 2: Only threat is to lost opportunities" to find out about the author's perspective on the film.
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