Local film To Singapore with Love premièred in London to great fanfare on 27 October 2014, with an attendance list of mainly young Singaporeans eager to watch a film about their homeland and also to see first-hand for themselves what the fuss was about.
Four screenings with Q&A sessions with director Tan Pin Pin, organised by the SEA ArtsFest – the first Southeast Asian arts festival in the UK, championing and developing the work of the artists of Southeast Asia and those inspired by Southeast Asia – took place at The SOAS, Kings College London and The Proud Archivist over 27 and 28 October.
Most Singaporeans I spoke to after the screening were against the ban, expressing the view that it was a well-made film that deserved to be shown on home ground. Many were impressed by just how good a local film could be and congratulated Ms Tan on a job very well done.
As director Tan Pin Pin expressed, the film was made to be “felt and heard”. Given that film is a genre of expression that is meant to connect with its audience on an emotional level, this is no big surprise.
Having watched the film myself, it is clear that the film is not meant to promote anything political. It is merely a film that follows the experiences of a group of Singaporeans from their ideals to their time in Singapore, and ultimately to their lives post Singapore. The film was selected for screening by the SEA ArtsFest purely on its merit as a film and not for the propagation of any political stand.
It would be an exercise in futility to pretend that the film does not contain political overtones. Of course it does. But it is important to remember that any political element exists only because the individuals that are featured had to leave for political reasons and it is not possible to tell their stories without a context.
Politics is therefore the background but not the focus and it is important to reiterate that each featured exile has very different political views, and the film does not promote any one view over the other.
As Ho Juan Thai very aptly put it, “This is simply a historical record of our experience”. Do Singaporeans not have a right to listen to the experience of another Singaporean? We may not have to agree with the views proffered by each of the exiles but it is important to recognise that no one has a monopoly over history and everyone deserves a voice.
What struck me most was the complete ease they had with being photographed. This new breed of young Singaporeans have grown up with the Internet. Social media and online exposure is completely normal to them. They have none of the “fear to be photographed at an allegedly politically sensitive event” – a fear that the previous generation would have.
Their participation in the Q&A was also lively and robust which made me look at the future of Singapore with great pride and hope.
Elliot, 23, a Singaporean studying history in London said that the film did not contain any earth shattering information because nothing was revealed in the film that he did not already know about. Although he enjoyed the film from an anecdotal perspective, it was not a revelation so to speak. Wherein does the national security concerns lie?
Any good film needs to engage with the audience and to that end, To Singapore with Love delivered above and beyond. It is therefore unfortunate that a film so well made should be viewed not simply as an excellent film but as some sort of sinister tool.
For the Singaporean, it was a chance to openly recognise the contributions made by all Singaporeans. It was also an opportunity for Singaporeans to experience the pride of a well-made local film together. The audience cried and laughed with the film – not out of a desire to topple of the status quo but out of a shared heritage. In my mind, this reinforces our national identity.
For the foreigners present, it was a chance to see Singapore through fresh eyes and appreciate non-western cinema. “To Singapore with Love is a tribute to Asian cinema and is a deeply sensory experience,” said another film-goer. Perhaps being non-Singaporean, he was able to appreciate the film for its merits and not be distracted by the politics behind the film.
As our country nears its fifth decade, it is important for us to assess our journey holistically. The good, the bad, the ugly should all be duly acknowledged. That is the only way we can move forward. We need to recognise that in the making of Singapore, we all played a part. Giving due credit to all the roles played by others does not negate the role played by the People’s Action Party. Singapore is big enough for all our views.
The making of our nation is not a childhood fable that requires a black and white hero or villain. Communists, socialists, activists, opposition party members have all played vital parts in the formation of Singapore and we cannot deny them their place in history. Nor can we rob Singaporeans from having a holistic version of history. How can we celebrate fifty years if only one side is represented?
Besides, we now live in the Internet age. Does the PAP really think that a ban will work? With globalisation, do they really think that alternative versions of history can be suppressed? As one audience member astutely points out – this is a film that was going to be made sooner or later. If Pin Pin did not make it, someone else will.
National security aside, Singaporeans should also have the freedom of speech and expression without the albatross of “national security” hanging over their heads. This movie will start no wars or racial riots. As observed by Tan Wah Piow, our freedom of expression, as enshrined in our Constitution, should not be curtailed.
In the same way we are denying these exiles a voice, this ban is denying Tan Pin Pin the local kudos she rightly deserves for an excellent film.
After 50 years in power, the PAP government really needs to come to terms with its new generation of voters and accept the fact that times have changed. Stop denying the past. Stop denying the contributions played by those that may have run foul of the government at some stage long past. They too deserve the credit for their sacrifices.
For instance, did the communists not fight the Japanese? Did Tan Wah Piow, Francis Khoo, Ang Swee Chai, Zaid Zahari (just to name a few) not fight for democracy and civil rights? Whether the PAP government agrees with their views is not the point. The point is that these people have contributed to the history of Singapore and we need to acknowledge it.
As Ho Juan Tai surmises, “Asking for an apology is not what I am looking for. What I want here is to repeat what I have been indicating to the authorities in the last few years in my request letters to them for regaining my Singapore passport, which is to let us learn from South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation spirit – and that is, let us all forgive and forget what everyone has done for the sake that we all can move on in order to move forward for the good of Singapore’s future.”
We cannot undo the past but we do need address the reality of history and acknowledge the past before we can turn a page and consign it to history.
Above all, politics aside, this is a film about life. As Dr Ang Swee Chai poignantly ended the Q&A by saying, “a life without love is not worth living”.
There is much sadness that comes with exile but in the grander scheme of things, her love for her husband and her love for her country made it worthwhile. I am sure the other exiles feel the same.