Agence France Presse
June 20, 2005
IN the official version of Singapore presented by the nation's political leaders and tourism authorities, there are no women in wheelchairs who beg at train stations by singing haunting, hypnotic tunes.
The Southeast Asian city-state, famous for the "economic miracle" that transformed it from third-world status to first in a generation, is sold to the world as a shoppers' paradise, a high-tech hub and a land of no civil dissent.
The nation's mainstream media, under strict instructions from the People's Action Party that has ruled since independence 40 years ago, rarely deviate from the relentlessly upbeat theme, and life, it seems, is a dream.
A new film, however, offers an alternative, melancholic image of Singapore that documents the lives of a diverse group of proud citizens who share a common burden of having become lost and neglected amid the nation's material progress.
In Singapore GaGa, a woman missing most of her teeth sits in a wheelchair and sings in a beautiful voice a plea to the commuters walking past: "Uncle, Aunty, one dollar, one dollar, buy my tissues ... one dollar, one dollar".
In another scene, an elderly man who is a minor celebrity for his busking at subway stations recalls the time police forced him to the ground and moved to handcuff him for performing without a license. "I am a national treasure," he says repeatedly.
Other people featured include an exquisitely talented harmonica player who has been long-resigned to the government's insistence to teach the banal recorder in schools, and a group of community news readers who lament the fading use of Chinese dialects in favour of the official English and Mandarin.
"The primary theme is a sense of yearning to belong ... to be acknowledged," the film's director and producer, Tan Pin Pin, tells AFP in an interview after a screening for the local and foreign press last week.
The other theme, Tan says, is a "sense of being neglected, abandoned".
"In the process of putting this together, this theme emerged ... these people are coping with being neglected in different ways."
Tan, a 36-year-old honours graduate from Britain's prestigious Oxford University, is part of a small band of independent film makers in Singapore who continually struggle against the government's efforts to stop controversial issues from being aired in public.
Amendments to the Film Act in 1998 mean people who make "political" films can be jailed for two years, while strict censorship laws have for decades filtered out other so-called controversial issues such as sex, race, religion and national security.
One of Tan's early films, a three-minute effort from 1998 called Lurve Me Now that explored the fantasies of Barbie dolls, remains banned apparently because of its sexual references.
But, with Singapore GaGa, Tan has cleverly explored issues the government does not necessarily want aired by using subtlety, humour and pathos. Tan even earned a "PG" -- or parental guidance -- endorsement for the film from the government's censors.
"It's very hard to make anything critical in Singapore. You have to say something without actually saying it. So it's a sort of shadow dance that I sometimes find myself playing," she says.
"I find that making documentaries in this way, where there are many levels, is a way of being able to continue to make films in Singapore. Because doing anything more explicit may invite more questions."
And while the mainstream press such as the Straits Times newspaper have given her film rave reviews for being "quirky" and "striking a chord with every strata of society", others have appreciated the film for deeper political angles.
"GaGa is subversive in a warped patriotic gentle loving way, or rather, it's patriotic in a gently subversive way, i don't know, just don't let THEM know," writes one Singaporean in an entry posted on the film's official website.
Tan emphasises that there is no "enemy" she is trying to challenge. "It's not us against them," Tan says in reference to the government, adding that she has turned the restrictions into a positive.
"It actually makes my films better. You are constantly trying to add subtext to a film. The process of adding subtext or layers makes it a much richer work," she says.
But Tan admits that at times she is overwhelmed by not being able to fully express herself.
"What's most difficult for me is dealing with how not to censor myself when it has become such an automatic reaction. I have to sit down and tell myself: 'don't do that, don't do that (self-censor)'," she tells reporters after the press screening.
Other high-profile Singaporean filmmakers who have adopted more confrontational approaches have suffered accordingly.
Video editor Martyn See is under police investigation for making an unapproved "political" short film, Singapore Rebel about opposition politician Chee Soon Juan.
The film portrays Chee, a marginalised figure in Singapore politics who rarely receives positive coverage in the traditional press and has never been voted into parliament, as a loving family man who is eloquent, well-educated and courageous.
If convicted of violating the Films Act, See could be fined up to S$100,000 (US$61,000) as well as jailed for two years.
Another film maker to have run afoul of the law is Royston Tan, a 20-something director who has won more than 35 international and local awards and was last year named by Time magazine as an Asian "Hero" for his work.
Royston Tan's 2003 feature film about Singapore's gangland culture, 15, suffered 27 cuts at the hands of the censors over concerns of it being a national security threat.
In response, Royston Tan made a 13-minute film last year that became a cult hit called Cut, which lampooned the government's censorship policies and the head of the censorship board -- but managed to avoid being cut itself.
In 2001, a 15-minute film about long-time opposition politician J.B Jeyaretnam, Vision of Persistence, by three lecturers at the local Ngee Ann Polytechnic was also banned because of its political content.
Meanwhile, Tan Pin Pin is continuing to win wide acclaim for Singapore GaGa.
The film, which played to a standing-room only audience at the Singapore International Film Festival in April, will be screened at a local arthouse in July and the Rotterdam International Film Festival in Jaunuary next year.