Singaporean director Royston Tan has challenged his country’s conventional narrative – which prizes prosperity and stability – by telling the stories of those living on the margins of society. But even the government has been won over.
Director Royston Tan’s first feature film, 15, about drugs, angst, self-mutilation and suicide in Singapore’s teenage gang underworld, didn’t exactly gel with the sanitised, business-friendly image of the country the government likes to promote. The film was initially banned in 2003 for being a threat to national security but the authorities later relented and agreed to release it if Tan made 27 cuts. The editing process was highly upsetting for Tan, then just 26-years-old. “I had to actually go to Japan to just hide for a while and do some self-reflection.” Upon his return, Tan made a short film called Cut, in which he relentlessly mocked Singapore’s censorship policies.
A decade older – and wiser – Tan insists he doesn’t set out to be a provocateur. Speaking to monocle at an independent visual arts centre, Objectifs, which has long promoted his work, he isn’t filled with self-righteousness or enduring resentment. Rather, the boyish Tan, wearing a pink T-shirt and matching pink Converse sneakers, is light-hearted and funny, at times even goofy. It’s not surprising when he says he was often punished in school for talking too much during class.
In fact, he may not have become a director were it not for an encouraging headmistress’s advice when he was 16. “She said, ‘Why don’t you put your gift to good use? You like to talk, right? Obviously you’re good at structuring a story so maybe you could be a filmmaker’,” Tan recalls. “She ignited the fire and I fell in love with filmmaking.”
Tan has since made more than 30 shorts, four feature films and two documentaries, establishing himself as one of Singapore’s most respected and daring independent filmmakers. He has examined the problems of dementia and Singapore’s isolating public housing system. In 15, which was the first Singaporean film to compete at the Venice Film Festival, he cast kids from the streets instead of actors in order to depict their lives as realistically as possible. For the documentary, 48 on aids, he interviewed 48 people about the condition including sex workers in brothels.
“I feel that it’s important to have a voice for people,” he says. “I work very closely with people living with hiv, mainly because I have friends who are hiv positive and I have seen certain discrimination of them in Singapore and how they’re unable to get certain jobs. I think that it has to be highlighted.”
While his films have put him at loggerheads with government officials in the past, he believes he’s convinced them of his positive intentions over time. His films have received funding from the Media Development Authority and earlier this year the education minister held him up as an example of how a broader education system can nurture students working in “unconventional” subject areas. “They have studied some of my films and they realise I’m not rebelling for the sake of just rebelling,” he says. “I’m doing certain pieces of work because I care for the country; I care for the people. That’s one reason why I can’t leave Singapore – because I really love the people.” In a country where few seek to challenge the government, Tan’s brazen style has made him a cult figure, particularly among Singapore’s youth. His third feature film, 881, a musical about the flamboyant getai singers who perform during Singapore’s Ghost Festival, gained him even more acclaim, becoming such a big hit it sparked a national revival of the kitschy shows. The heavy use of the Hokkien dialect of Chinese in the film was also a source of pride among speakers of the language, which has been sidelined in favour of Mandarin and English.
“I’ve seen how the older generation cannot express themselves to the younger generation, that’s the reason I wanted to do this,” he says. Tan is less of a rebel and more of a sentimentalist at heart, which resonates deeply with Singaporeans who are becoming increasingly nostalgic themselves. Tan’s latest obsession is archiving Singapore’s historic buildings before they’re bulldozed to build more shopping malls and high rises, an urgent concern of many residents. “The landscape is changing,” he says. “As a result Singaporeans are suffering from mass dementia. We cannot remember a lot of things; things have been replaced so quickly. It’s almost like our national hobby is renovation and tearing down things.”
His next project is the final instalment of a heritage-themed trilogy, a sort of a love letter to Singapore. The first two films in the series, Old Places and Old Romances, detail threatened places around the island that hold special meaning for people – old-school beauty salons, coffee shops, railroad station canteens. The new film, Old Friends, will document Singaporean dishes that are also disappearing as food courts and fast-food chains replace traditional hawker centres and coffee shops.
Tan demurs when asked if he’s an inspiration to young Singaporeans considering a career in the arts. But he does hope he’s changing the dialogue around what it means to be Singaporean and what people value most in such a hyper-modernising country. He may be one of the most patriotic members of his generation.
Singapore’s stringent censorship rules are increasingly running counter to its business-friendly image. A new regulation requiring lic-ences for online news sites was criticised by a coalition representing Google, Yahoo! and Facebook, which said it could have a “chilling effect on innovation” and hamper investment.