Singapore’s film industry is not exactly globally renowned so it’s always intriguing when I hear one of my fellow countrymen’s names pop up at a leading festival. This year at the Toronto International Film Festival I caught the premiere of Unlucky Plaza. Its director Ken Kwek’s previous film Sex.Violence.FamilyValues was banned by authorities in the city state.
There’s still no word on whether Kwek’s latest feature will make it to Singapore cinemas but in the meantime the censors have banned another film – To Singapore with Love – by local film-maker Tan Pin Pin. It is a documentary about political dissidents living in exile in the UK, Malaysia and Thailand. Now in their sixties, seventies and eighties, some of them have been away for almost 50 years and all have created new lives. One is a human rights lawyer, another a doctor, while another is living out his golden years in southern Thailand. Another thing they share is a love for their homeland. For her work Tan has won a series of accolades including best director at the Dubai International Film Festival and best Asean documentary. Her film is banned because it apparently undermines national security and stability (terms usually associated with physical violence, not films, in other parts of the world). This reveals the authorities’ fundamental sense of insecurity about its citizens’ ability to participate in meaningful political discourse.
Censorship in Singapore has always been around but it is an increasingly ineffective tool. In fact, bans and embargoes work against the government’s aims, because they draw more attention, not less, to independent films that would otherwise have flown largely under the radar.
The irony is that most of our population, benefiting from a rigorous education system, have become successful players in the global knowledge economy. Singaporeans by and large have succeeded and prospered: the country is at the forefront of research and development across a spectrum of industries, from IT to biomedicine. Singapore cannot be open and closed at the same time; by definition, critical thinkers do not think homogeneously. There is no such thing as a smart and unquestioning population. The government cannot purport to support local talent and then clamp down on works of which they do not approve.
The government must recognise that Singaporeans can be trusted to, well, talk about ourselves. After persistent lobbying by the arts community, the government reversed its decision for Kwek’s Sex.Violence.FamilyValues last year. The unbanned film was given an R-rating and was screened in local cinemas. I’m proud to report that despite the screenings, the sky didn’t fall in. Hopefully, Unlucky Plaza and To Singapore with Love will also be screened to Singaporeans in Singapore – and not just to those of us living overseas.
Jason Li is a researcher and writer for Monocle’s Toronto bureau.