To Singapore With Love documentary

Publicity image for To Singapore, with Love, taken from Johor Bahru, Malaysia, looking at Singapore from the other side of the straits.

Tan Pin Pin’s latest documentary, To Singapore, with Love (2013), opens with a shot outside a London home. Inside, Ho Juan Thai, a former student leader now in his 60s, is cooking char kway teow with prawns, “quite different from the Singapore way of doing it,” he laughs. Ho left Singapore in 1977, accused of inciting violence, and has lived in the United Kingdom for over 35 years, unable to return to Singapore unless he answers for his past actions. The film offers an intimate portrait of the lives of nine Singaporeans exiled from their home country during the 1960s and 70s for their alleged involvement in Communist struggles during those decades. Some have not returned to Singapore for over 50 years. Like other documentaries by Tan, the subject of this most recent film is Singapore: its people, their memories, and their unquestionable devotion to their country despite its conflicts and contradictions. Shot in Thailand, Malaysia and the United Kingdom, the film takes an external perspective as evidenced in the opening shot. In a statement released on To Singapore, with Love’s Facebook page, Tan says, “Like my other films … this film is a portrait of Singapore; unlike the others, it is shot entirely outside the country, in the belief that we can learn something about ourselves by adopting, both literally and figuratively, an external view.” (1)

Tan was moved to tell the stories of Singapore’s political exiles after reading Escape from the Lion’s Paw, a book of essays containing first person accounts by student activists, trade unionists, members of the Christian Left, and Communists, who fled Singapore in order to avoid detention under Singapore’s Internal Security Act. (2) The use of this legislation was central to what became known as Operation Coldstore, a crackdown in 1963 on alleged Communists carried out by Singapore’s first Prime Minister, Lee Kwan Yew, with the aid of British and Malaysian authorities. (3) Through arrests made under Operation Coldstore, Lee Kwan Yew was able to consolidate political power for the People’s Action Party (PAP) against left-wing movements, and at the elections held in 1963 the PAP won 37 seats, with the opposition Barisan Sosialis (Socialist Front) winning only 13. The PAP has retained political power in Singapore since its independence in 1965. (4)

To Singapore, with Love is not a historical documentary; rather it provides personal accounts of this formative period of Singapore’s history. However, like Tan’s interviewees, the film itself has been “exiled,” banned from public screenings on the island and unable to seen by the very people whose history it calls upon. Singapore’s Media Development Authority (MDA) refused to issue the film with a classification rating, deeming it NAR (“Not Allowed for All Ratings”), which means that the film cannot be shown or distributed in Singapore except in private screenings or in tertiary institutions where permission has been granted, making it effectively banned in its home country.

In a statement released on 10 September 2014, the MDA said that it “assessed that the contents of the film undermine national security because legitimate actions of the security agencies to protect the national security and stability of Singapore are presented in a distorted way as acts that victimised innocent individuals.” (5) A petition was signed by more than 1000 members of the public protesting the NAR classification and a statement signed by more than 40 prominent members of Singapore’s film and arts community was delivered to the MDA, expressing the signatories’ disappointment and urging the government to reconsider the ban.

Tan appealed to the Films Appeal Committee (FAC) which upheld the ban, with responses to the film from government ministers (including the Prime Minister) ranging from personal attacks against the director to comparisons with jihadi terrorism, as this essay will detail. In personal correspondence with me, in her typically modest way, Tan described the reception to her film in her home country as being “more interesting than the film [itself].” Although threatening to overshadow this intelligent and well-crafted work, it is indeed the banning of the documentary that reveals as much about the country and its devotion to a certain account of history.

The film offers a perspective on Singapore’s past that is fundamentally at odds with the instrumentalist logic of the PAP, and the government’s defence of “national security” belies a fear of a loss of political legitimacy; the film’s personal, individual accounts of history threaten to destabilise the nation’s founding myth of an opposition to Communism on which this legitimacy has been established. It is out of this context that we can better understand the Singapore government’s drastic action of banning the film.

Tan’s previous Singapore documentaries have been well received in her home country and are beloved by the state. Perhaps her most well-known, Singapore GaGa, was voted Best Film of 2006 by the national English-language newspaper, The Straits Times, and features on the Singapore Airlines entertainment list. Tan has won awards and critical acclaim in her home country and abroad for her deeply-felt, intimately crafted films, with a sharp but affectionate eye trained on the lives of Singapore’s everyday citizens, including its most marginalised and overlooked. To date she has been well supported by official channels, receiving funding from the Singapore Film Commission for several projects including Singapore GaGa (2006) and Invisible City (2007). To Singapore, with Love was largely self-funded, with the assistance of a US$10,000 grant towards its US$100,000 budget from the Busan International Film Festival’s Asian Cinema Fund, where it had its world premiere in competition in October 2013. Produced, directed and photographed by Tan herself, the film was made quietly, with few aware its existence until its premiere at Busan.

It is the construction of an “external” view presented by the documentary – a perspective of Singapore’s history in opposition to the narrative established by the ruling People’s Action Party (in a film supported by external funding, offering reflections of Singaporeans living outside the country) – that seem to be the basis of the film’s perceived threat to national security, because its falls outside the purview of the PAP’s particular vision for the country. Singapore’s “creative city” discourse is predicated on its openness; in order to attract foreign capital, encourage international companies to set up offices in Singapore, and entice professionals to work in the city, the state has invested heavily in its articulation of Singapore as a global city. (6) Yet paradoxically, while the island state promotes and encourages creative freedom, particularly when it involves international collaboration, it also seeks to considerably restrict freedom, especially among its own citizens.

The legislation governing censorship in Singapore is readily accessible and seemingly transparent: government authorities make their reasons for a decision fairly clear, and there is an appeals process. Yet on closer inspection the rules surrounding censorship are more opaque. The government’s instruments to restrict freedom of speech and expression are expansive and elusory, from colonial-era laws such as the Internal Security Act 1960, which gives broad discretion to the Government to detain, without charge, anyone deemed a threat to national security, and the Sedition Act 1948, which criminalises any act, speech, words, publication or expression that incites disaffection against the government or creates hostility between different races and classes in Singapore, to newer legislation including the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act 2002, which allows the Minister to grant and withdraw press licenses as deemed fit, and the Broadcasting Act 1995, which authorises the MDA to censor all broadcast media, including internet sites, videos, computer games, music, as well as films. Terence Lee writes, “The governmental application of censorship in Singapore… has the effect of shielding the ruling PAP government from overt dissident voices, as well as covert criticism, emanating from the artistic and cultural community. The need to position censorship guidelines as a moral regulatory practice for public consumption means… that the more politicised reason for censorship is rarely invoked in any ‘public’ discussion on the issue.” (7)

This article details what is at stake in this specific act of censorship; asking how can we interpret the action by the government to ban To Singapore, with Love beyond the display of a blunt instrument by a repressive state. (8) Singapore’s system of censorship is unique, sophisticated, and discursively produced out of a combination of historical need and political pragmatism, which in the case of Tan’s film employs a discourse of “national security” as a means of diverting attention from a perceived threat to political legitimacy. The separation between state and party in Singapore has never been more tenuous than when viewed from the outside, and the internal response to the documentary is tied up in the very questions Tan explores in the film, about political conviction and freedom of speech, reminding us that raising questions about one’s home country is not always or only an act of defiance or dissidence, but also often one of love.

Film Censorship in Singapore: Documentary (As) Evidence

Clarissa Oon referred to 2014 in Singapore as the “year of bans and boycotts.” (9) In addition to the ban on Tan’s film, in July 2014 the National Library Board made the astonishing decision to remove and pulp three children’s books from the National Library of Singapore featuring same-sex parents and other alternative family configurations: And Tango Makes Three, a story of two male penguins raising a baby chick at New York’s Central Park Zoo; The White Swan Express: A Story About Adoption, which features a lesbian couple; and Who’s In My Family: All About Our Families, which describes non-conventional family and parenting arrangements. (10) The decision to pulp the books was later reconsidered, with two of the books moved to the adult section of the library instead of being destroyed. Oon notes that the banning of these cultural artefacts (and in particular the call for the extreme act of pulping) is a symbolic act intended by the Singapore government to make its presence felt, since it is still possible to read or buy these books online or overseas. (11)

This year, 2015, has been politically significant for Singapore in other ways. It marks the 50th anniversary of independence from Malaysia on 9 August. “SG50” celebrations began in earnest in January 2015, the logo for the year-long series of events a little red dot. (12) Self-deprecatingly referring to itself as a “little red dot” on the world map, an “insignificant” island nation, this description belies widespread Singaporean pride in the country’s rapid economic ascent into the “First World” under Lee Kwan Yew. Yew’s death on 23 March 2015 at the age of 91 was met by an outpouring of grief across the country. More than 450,000 people lined the streets of Singapore, some queuing for over 10 hours in heavy rain on the day of the funeral, to pay their respects to Singapore’s founding father for the opportunities he opened up for them and future generations of Singaporeans, including a world-class education system and generous public housing allowances.

A few days after Lee’s death a 16-year-old Singaporean, Amos Yee Pang Sang, uploaded an 8-minute video to YouTube entitled Lee Kwan Yew is Finally Dead! , lambasting the former Prime Minister and making disparaging remarks about Jesus (whom Lee Kwan Yew was likened to) and Christianity. Yee was arrested and charged on two counts: of making offensive or wounding remarks against Christianity (in violation of the Penal Code) and for circulating obscene imagery. The prosecution requested that Yee be assessed for reformative training in an effort to “rehabilitate” him. (13) Most recently, in May 2015, Singapore’s National Arts Council revoked a SG$8000 publication grant awarded to comics artist Sonny Liew, because his graphic novel The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye was deemed to contain “sensitive content.” The graphic novel features Lee Kuan Yew and other political figures in its satirical recounting of 60 years of Singapore’s history. (14)

These events have been widely reported in the international media, putting Singapore’s strict censorship regime in the spotlight again. The banning of To Singapore, with Love in particular reveals the degree of control asserted over the cinema, targeting especially films made by Singapore’s own citizens, and specifically the documentary as a “factual” form. The degree to which the government saw fit to intervene in the case of Tan’s film demonstrates an anxiety and attitude towards cultural products, especially film, which seems almost retrograde when viewed against recent efforts to liberalise film classification in Singapore.

Tight censorship controls were considered vital by the state during the nation building process of the 1960s. As Jan Uhde and Yvonne Ng Uhde note, censorship operated as a form of “thought control,” banning media that could “put ideas into the heads” of the people. (15) Underlying the task of nation building during Singapore’s early years of independence was the PAP’s ideology of pragmatism, with the goal of economic growth as “the single criterion for both initiating and assessing all state activities. Since it is argued that domestic political and social stability is foundational for strong economic growth, legislation is enacted either to promote or to repress activities which may be presumed respectively to enhance or disrupt this stability.” (16) Thus the censorship regime can be considered an important aspect of the broad social governance of Singapore.

Out of this initial historical need, a gradual liberalisation of the system took place over the next two decades as the government sought to attract foreign capital to this growing “global city,” develop its domestic cultural industries, and promote Singapore’s arts and culture to the rest of the world. The link between creativity and relaxation of censorship has been frequently noted; Uhde and Uhde comment, “It is no accident that the revival of local film production coincided with the gradual liberalisation of censorship and relaxation of bureaucratic restrictions.” (17) In 1981, the Minister of Culture appointed a Committee “to review the existing censorship guidelines and laws so that they would be in tandem with the changing times.” (18) The committee recommended a distinction between printed words and visuals (with greater liberalisation towards the printed word), while censorship standards for television were to be on par with those of film and video. There was a further gradual liberalisation towards the late 1980s, via a move from a system of censorship to one of classification. Film classification was finally introduced in Singapore in 1991; before classification, films were simply passed, passed with cuts, or banned.

Under the Films Act 1981 (revised in 1998), responsibility for classifying films and videos rests with the Board of Film Censors (BFC), an arm of the country’s media regulator, the Media Development Authority. Films for commercial release are classified under six different ratings groups: G (general); PG (parental guidance); PG13 (parental guidance advised for children below 13); NC16 (no children below 16), M18 (for persons aged 18 years and above); and R21 (restricted to persons aged 21 and above). The MDA has stated “as far as possible, we would like to move towards classifying films, rather than editing them.” (19)

In addition to these six classifications, the Films Classification Guidelines state, “in exceptional cases, a film may not be allowed for all ratings when the content of the film undermines national interest or erodes the moral fabric of society.” (20) The NAR rating will be applied to films that are “deemed to undermine public order, national security and/or stability.” (21) This includes films with themes that denigrate any race or religion, content deemed to be pornographic or obscene in nature, the “explicit promotion and normalisation of homosexual lifestyle” or homosexual activity, and gratuitous depictions of extreme violence or cruelty. (22)

While Singapore is not the only country in the world to ban films or to have strict censorship guidelines, what is striking is how Singapore has made a particular practice of banning films made by Singaporeans about Singapore. This gatekeeping function against its own citizens is noteworthy in the context of the amount of money and resources it has channelled into developing local talent. Tan Pin Pin’s student short film, Lurve Me Now (1998) has also been banned in Singapore, although it is now available online. In 2002 Royston Tan’s 15 was banned but was eventually given an R rating after 27 cuts were made to the film (this inspired his satirical short film, Cut [2004]). The feature film Solos (Loo Zi-han and Kan Lume, 2007) was banned for its homosexual content. More recently, Porn Masala, the second story in Ken Kwek’s compendium of three short films, Sex.Violence.Family Values (2012), was banned for being “racially offensive and demeaning to Indians.” (23) The film was reclassified R21 after the film was edited. The use of Singlish or Chinese dialects in Singaporean films has also been opposed by the censors, as the country seeks to promote Mandarin and standard English – Jack Neo’s Money No Enough (1998), for example, predominantly features Hokkein dialect and met the ire of the censors.

In addition to the banning of fiction films, several documentaries made by Singaporean filmmakers have been targeted under a ban on “party political films,” which was introduced in 1998 with a revision to the Films Act. Section 33 of the Act criminalises the making, import, distribution and exhibition of any film that makes biased references to political persons or matter in Singapore. The Act defines a “party political film” as (a) any film or video which is an advertisement made by or on behalf of any political party in Singapore or (b) made by any person and directed towards any political end in Singapore. Offenders are subject to a SG$100,000 fine or two years’ imprisonment. (24) Martyn See’s Singapore Rebel (2004), a 26-minute documentary on opposition leader and Singapore Democratic Party chief Chee Soon Juan was banned under this provision. See was under police investigation for fifteen months between 2005 and 2006. Another documentary by See, Zahari’s 17 years (2006), about former journalist Said Zahari, who was detained without trial in Singapore for seventeen years for suspected pro-Communist activities, was also banned for undermining security and confidence in the government.

Prompted by police questioning of Martyn See over his film Singapore Rebel, Tan Pin Pin wrote to The Straits Times on 11 May 2005 on behalf of eleven independent filmmakers, requesting that the government clarify how it would interpret the political films provision in the Films Act:

We ask because, as filmmakers, we feel that almost anything could be construed as a comment on a political matter… We feel that the current state of the legislation poses unintended dangers for sincere filmmakers… It would be a waste to spend resources making a film only to find that it is unlawful because it has inadvertently run afoul of the Films Act.

As Cherian George describes, this letter was “couched as a polite plea from ‘sincere’ filmmakers facing a practical dilemma, the letter did not challenge the legitimacy of the ban, or attempt to defend the right of citizens to use their medium for overtly political purposes. By Singapore standards, however, it was an unusually bold intervention.” (25) George notes furthermore that, “It was not just the content of the letter but also the identity of its authors that gave it impact,” especially the fact that its lead author was Tan Pin Pin. “To borrow Bourdieu’s term, Tan Pin Pin was an indubitably ‘consecrated’ cultural producer.” (26) In the context of the banning of To Singapore, with Love, Zhang Wenjie, co-director of the Singapore International Film Festival, also commented that Tan Pin Pin is “viewed as a very reasonable, very logical and very thoughtful person, almost like a public intellectual.” (27) What is especially notable is how Tan’s letter to The Straits Times not only refrains from making any argument for freedom of expression or artistic interpretation but in fact echoes the PAP’s discourse of pragmatism: “It would be a waste to spend resources making a film, only to find out it is unlawful because it has inadvertently run afoul of the Films Act.” Paul Rae has described similar “pragmatic” strategies amongst Singapore’s theatre practitioners:

[I]n their dealings with the authorities, Singapore’s artists have tended to respond in kind: pragmatically, through a combination of negotiation and, where possible, strategic positioning. The first challenge of finding oneself in a censorship situation is to keep things in play. Crying ‘censorship’ is usually a last resort, since an unduly precipitate, public or pointed accusation can polarise an otherwise dynamic situation, and lead to a hardening of positions on all sides. This is not to say that the process is without its difficulties. To be censored by a state agency is to find one’s views, beliefs and way of life under suspicion by representatives of a society one may otherwise have assumed one not only belonged to, but worked in good faith to better. (28)

Rae’s statement captures the essence of Tan Pin Pin’s oeuvre to date; her films are affectionate portraits of the island and have brought it much (positive) attention through international recognition and awards. Yet strategic interventions and pragmatic responses to instances of censorship have resulted in only limited and minor victories, since any perceived criticism of the government is usually regarded as necessarily oppositional or negative.

One noteworthy change that occurred recently was the amendment of the Films Act in March 2009 to allow party political films as long as they are deemed factual and objective, and do not dramatise or present a distorted picture of politics in Singapore. “Films with animation and dramatisation and distort (sic) what is real or factual will be disallowed, as the intent of the amendments is to ensure that these films do not undermine the seriousness of political debate,” said Lui Tuck Yew, then a junior minister at the Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts. (29)

The relaxation of the rules on political films was introduced in response to the spread of videos (including both of See’s films, which had been circulating online for some time) and other news media on the Internet. Following the 2009 amendments Singapore Rebel was reviewed and reclassified with an M18 rating. However, Zahari’s 17 Years remains banned in Singapore. To Singapore, with Love was not considered a party political film and therefore did not fall under this section of the Films Act.

Filmmakers seeking to challenge a rating issued by the Board of Film Censors may appeal to the Films Appeal Committee (FAC), a fifteen-member panel composed of members of the public, whose decision is final. (30) Following To Singapore, with Love’s NAR rating, on 2 October 2014 Tan submitted her film unchanged to the FAC, which upheld the MDA’s decision to ban the film from theatrical release. Nine of the committee’s twelve members voted to uphold the NAR decision, with the other three voting for a R21 rating, which would have allowed the film to screen publicly. The FAC statement noted: “While of commendable artistic standard, the FAC found the film to be a one-sided account with minimal attempts to provide a balanced mix of views beyond those of the interviewees featured in the film.” (31) FAC Chairman, Tan Boon Huat, explained, “As real people and events were featured in the film, the FAC felt that viewers who watch it without sufficient knowledge and understanding of the historical context would take the views presented as the truth. This would mean that acts of violence and subversion would appear justified to the uninitiated.” (32) The use of the phrase “the uninitiated” speaks volumes about the government’s lack of faith in the ability of its citizens to think critically for themselves through their engagement with cultural texts, especially those featuring “real” people and events – that is, documentaries.

The banning of To Singapore, with Love was debated at a Parliamentary Sitting on 7 October 2014. Singapore’s Minister for Communications and Information, Yaacob Ibrahim, responded to questions posed by various Members of Parliament, including queries about the due process undertaken to ascertain that the documentary undermined national security, which aspects in particular were a threat to national security, and what the Ministry’s guidelines or markers were for films containing alternative narratives about Singapore’s history, and whether these standards were different for different media formats. The Minister responded to the latter by saying: “We do not have specific guidelines on films that deal with historical content, nor do we intend to develop them.” (33) Furthermore, Mr Ibrahim noted that the MDA supports films exploring Singapore’s history, “so long as the content does not breach the Film Classification Guidelines.” (34) In this tautological statement, which gestures towards the illusory separation of state and party in Singapore (the government supports what the government deems by its own guidelines to be acceptable), the banning of the film was sought to be justified through the PAP’s own narrativisation of the country’s history.

Mr Ibrahim reiterated that the film “must be considered in a historical context” of the Communist Party of Malaya’s (CPM) attempts to install a communist regime in Malaysia and Singapore between 1948 and 1989. (35) “The CPM’s aims, its violent means and its organisation and membership are well-established historical facts, and have been written about extensively. The film To Singapore, with Love contains untruths and deception about this history. Therefore it received an appropriate classification which disallowed it for public viewing.” (36) The Minister continued:

The film’s one-sided portrayals are designed to evoke feelings of sympathy and support for individuals who in reality chose to leave Singapore and remain in self-exile and who have not accounted for their past actions squarely. It is not a historical documentary presenting a factual account of what happened. It gives a misleading account of these individuals’ past, and makes no attempt to present an objective account of the violent Communist insurrection that they had participated in and have not renounced. To allow public screening of a film that obfuscates and whitewashes an armed insurrection by an illegal organisation, and violent and subversive acts directed at Singaporeans, would effectively mean condoning the use of violence and subversion in Singapore, and thus harm our national security. (37)

The Minister emphasised a distinction between films and print publications and the different legislation governing the two. “This is because of the difference in the nature and reach of the two mediums, as well as their impact on audiences. A film can more easily arouse emotive responses and is more likely to reach a wider audience than a book.” (38)

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong personally weighed in on the debate at a National University of Singapore Society forum, with his comments reported in the national newspaper, The Straits Times. Prime Minister Lee noted that there were Communists who had returned to Singapore after accounting for and renouncing their actions and there was nothing to stop those interviewed in Tan’s film from doing the same. “Well, they have chosen not to do so, so that’s their prerogative. But if they have chosen not to do so, why should we allow them, through a movie, to present an account of themselves not of documentary history, objectively presented but… a self-serving personal account, conveniently inaccurate in places, glossing over facts in others.” (39) Stressing again the potentially subversive effects of cinema over print media, the Prime Minister continued, “A movie is different from a book. You write a book, I can write a counter book, the book you can read together with a counter book. The movie, you watch the movie, you think it’s a documentary. It may be like Fahrenheit 9/11 – very convincing, but it’s not a documentary. And I think that we have to understand this in order to understand how to deal with these issues.” (40)

In an extraordinary statement that links the film dangerously to contemporary fears about terrorism, Minister Yaacob Ibrahim told Parliament:

Classification aside, given the reach and impact of the film medium, the Government will clearly challenge and refute attempts by individuals who have broken the law or performed acts which posed a threat to Singapore, like acts of violence or terrorism, but who deny in the film that they had done so.[…] Not to take any action against films which contain distorted or untruthful accounts would give the wrong impression that there is truth to their claims and that the Government’s actions against these individuals were unwarranted. This has serious implications because it would erode public confidence in the Government on security matters even as we deal with current threats like jihadi terrorism. (41)

Yap Neng Jye, Press Secretary to the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Home Affairs also published a letter to The Straits Times Forum on 14 October 2014 declaring that to allow a public screening of the film would be akin to “allowing jihadi terrorist groups today to produce and publicly screen films that glorify their jihadist cause.” (42) Ideologically, terrorism is the extreme counter to democracy, thus to raise the spectre of terrorism is for the PAP government to buttress its utopian vision for “a democratic society in the ‘final’ analysis”; that is, a society “with all that are conventionally taken as the desirable attributes of such a state … in which the collective good is balanced with individual preferences,” even if the “final” analysis never arrives. (43) As Chua Beng-Huat notes, however, “in practice, policies that are rationalized on pragmatic grounds turn out to be undemocratic in serious ways. …The only ideological justification is a promise that in the end all these policies will contribute to the establishment of a stable, democratic society. How all these policies are to be integrated into a democratic whole will never be logically articulated.” (44)

While the government may have had other courses of action open to it in relation to the film, its banning can perhaps be regarded as consistent with the PAP’s instrumental rationality characterising its illiberal democracy, which governs almost all of its policies and actions. (45) “This ‘instrumental rationality,’ to the exclusion of all other reasonable arguments, is the conceptual kernel of the PAP’s political pragmatism.” (46) What To Singapore, with Love embodies is precisely not a pragmatic response to the PAP’s narrativisation of the nation’s past, but rather a set of affective and individual responses to its history in the form of its interviewees’ personal stories of exile. It is the voicing of historical silences and the capturing of affective intensities that ultimately prove so unsettling to a political pragmatism founded on ambivalence. (47)

To Singapore, with Love: Historical Silences and Affective Intensities

Paul Rae has written that in debates concerning censorship in Singapore, “the relevant factors tend to be unevenly distributed across a field composed as much of blind spots, silences and affective intensities as of rational discourse and interpretive consensus.” (48) This field of representation is captured in its broadest spectrum in To Singapore, with Love, and the most open way to understand or to theorise the film (or the actions of the on-screen subjects themselves) would be to view it as an act of love. If the film is approached at the level of affect, rather than in terms of historical accuracy (following the PAP’s pragmatic line), what is revealed is a perceived threat to the PAP’s political legitimacy couched as a fear over national security, and of a citizenry calling for more space to debate, voice difference, and feel a sense of belonging to a nation that is larger than its official political identity.

The life stories of the film’s interviewees are certainly moving; not as a call to incite violence or dissidence but as a call for change and renewal. “At least I tried,” says Ang Swee Chai – a surgeon who has been based in London for over 35 years – of a life devoted to humanitarian and political aid. Ang is co-founder and patron of British charity Medical Aid for Palestinians, which provides medical assistance to Palestinian refugees. She is the widow of fellow dissident and human rights lawyer Francis Khoo, who was sought by authorities under the Internal Security Act after he defended in trial factory workers and a student leader who were accused of rioting. Khoo managed to escape to Britain and police detained his new wife Ang in an attempt to lure him back to Singapore. When they released her she joined her husband in exile. In the film she laments, “You go to England, you are nobody.” Despite a life of many achievements and immense altruism, everything for Ang is still measured against, or viewed in relation to, Singapore.

Another interviewee, former student leader Ho Juan Thai, fled to Britain after being charged for “playing up issues of Chinese language, education and culture” to incite violent reactions from Chinese speaking populations at election rallies. (49) Ho married and had two children later in life. He remarks: “Having two little kids now… it is excellent. For Singaporeans who haven’t got children, please try that. It is an excellent thing to do!” His comment, almost completely without irony, echoes the Singapore government’s push to encourage Singaporean couples to produce more children in the face of declining birth rates; so deeply has the PAP’s pragmatism been internalised. Ho is also a strong supporter of the Singapore Armed Forces and would like his son to become a Singaporean citizen so that he can join up.

To Singapore, with Love follows Ho’s wife and two sons as they fly to Singapore to celebrate his mother’s 95th birthday, while Ho is installed in a hotel room across the Causeway in Johor Bahru, Malaysia, to watch the party live from his laptop on Skype. A relative interjects and asks Ho to stop filming the guests, who are becoming upset. Tan’s camera respectfully cuts to a shot outside of the rain-splattered hotel room window, trained on the steady stream of cars on the street below. We hear Ho’s voice continue, “Please don’t worry,” attempting to diffuse a tense situation by asking when they will cut the cake.

To Singapore With Love documentary


Outside Ho Juan Thai’s hotel room window in Johor Bahru.

Other interviewees, former members of Barisan Sosialis now living in Thailand, also speak with deep emotion about the loss of their homeland and those they have left behind. Chan Sun Wing recites a moving poem he wrote entitled “Thoughts on changing citizenship” upon being granted his Thai citizenship.

Tan Wah Piow, a student leader arrested for “rioting” when standing up for the rights of workers retrenched without pay, sought political asylum in Britain in the 1970s when he had his Singaporean citizenship revoked. Tan Wah Piow removes two suitcases from his storeroom: “If for nostalgic reasons when I go back, I will try to put all of our belongings into these two little suitcases, which is what we had when we came to this country… Two little pieces of nostalgia.” He adds, “These two little suitcases represent the beginning of our lives in the UK. Where it will end, I’m not sure at this stage.”

To Singapore With Love documentary

Tan Wah Piow’s “two little suitcases.”

Tan responded to the banning of her film by releasing a statement saying, “We need to be trusted to be able to find the answers to questions about ourselves, for ourselves.” (50) While the banning of Tan’s film has been used for “political” ends, the film itself is not overtly about politics, nor is it primarily, or only, about political exiles. It is mainly about the subjects’ feelings for their long-estranged homeland, and their reflections on and conduct of a life lived in exile. Tan writes:

Their feelings for Singapore are intense and heartfelt, albeit sometimes ambivalent, even after so long away. Those feelings (more than the circumstances of their exile, or even the historical ‘truth’ that led to such exile) are what my film predominantly focuses on, because I feel that many viewers might relate to those feelings. I made this film because I myself wanted to better understand Singapore. I wanted to understand how we became who we are by addressing what was banished and unspoken for. Perhaps what remains could be the essence of us today. (51)

Perhaps it is the mere suggestion of “alternative” truths offered by the film that prove a threat to national security rather than the actual content of those narratives. The very existence of alternative possibilities indicates that the historical narrative of Singapore as it has been presented is not inevitable or foundational, but has been actively created. It is these emotional or affective intensities that give the discourse around censorship a human dimension, and mark its relevance beyond its application in this small island nation.

Touring a Banned Film: Love from the Outside

Tan Pin Pin herself has been forced to undertake “suitcase tours” of her film to the United States, London, and throughout Asia: “Now, the irony that a film about Singapore exiles is now exiled from Singapore as well – this is not something I ever wanted or hoped for. I was hoping that the film would open up a national conversation to allow us to understand ourselves as a nation better too.” (52) The “national conversation” Tan hoped to have has spread outside the borders of the nation. It is being held by Singaporeans online, by diasporic groups and overseas students in tertiary institutions in the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia and Asia, and in dialogue with non-Singaporeans around the world. There is clearly great interest in the film, with its banning bringing it more attention than it might otherwise have received.

Within days of the film’s ban, the documentary was shown at the Freedom Film Festival in Johor Bahru, Malaysia. Approximately 350 Singaporeans travelled to see the film at the festival, with four chartered buses carrying 150 people. Tan has travelled extensively and tirelessly to promote her film, and private screenings have been held at festivals and universities in South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, the Philippines, India, the United Arab Emirates, London, Germany, the United States, Australia, Brazil and at educational institutions in Singapore, where screenings are allowed if the film features as part of an official course syllabus. The film has already had screenings at Nanyang Technological University and Yale-NUS in Singapore.

Not all screenings have gone uncontested. An October 2014 screening of To Singapore, with Love at the Kuantan, Malaysia Freedom Film Festival, run by human rights NGO Pusat Komas, was cancelled by Malaysian authorities. At the Freedom Film Festival screening in Penang, Malaysia, fifteen officers from Malaysia’s Ministry of Home Affairs attempted to halt the screening of the documentary, claiming that it had not been vetted and approved by the Malaysian film censor board. After some negotiation with the organisers, who noted that the festival was a state-sponsored event and the films were being streamed online, and were therefore beyond the jurisdiction of the Film Censorship Act, the officers allowed the screening to proceed. (53) A planned screening in Thailand was also cancelled at the last minute.

Singaporean students studying overseas have been particularly proactive in seeking to have the film shown in universities outside Singapore. Groups of students from Georgetown University, Northwestern University, Vassar College and New York University pooled resources to fly Tan Pin Pin to the United States for a four city tour of To Singapore, with Love in April 2015. There is clearly interest among younger Singaporeans for more varied and nuanced accounts of Singapore’s history.

The documentary has also performed well on the international film festival circuit. Tan won the Best Director award in the Muhr Asia Africa Documentary section at the 10th Dubai International Film Festival (2013) and the Best ASEAN Documentary at the Salaya International Documentary Festival in India. The film has also been shown at the Busan International Film Festival, the Berlin International Film Festival, the Lincoln Center in New York, the Seoul International Documentary Festival, the Jogja-NETPAC Film Festival, the International Film Festival of Kerala, and London’s South East Asia ArtsFest, among others.

Although it cannot be shown publicly in her home country, the debates raised by the film have continued in other public forums in Singapore. As an alternative to Singapore’s SG50 celebrations, ten civil activists, artists and academics formed “Project 50/100” to support events that cast a critical eye back on Singapore’s history as well as look forward toward its future (its 100th year anniversary), with the tagline “Alternative Narratives, New Perspectives, Different Truths.” The group is motivated by the slogan, “Because We Love Singapore.” (54)

An affiliate project of “Project 50/100” is the highly successful “Living with Myths” forum, organised by three historians Loh Kah Seng (Sogang University), Thum Ping Tjin (National University of Singapore and Oxford University), and Jack Chia (Cornell University). (55) “Living with Myths” is a series of talks that aims to unpack the taken for granted and foundational stories behind Singapore’s history. At the seventh “Living with Myths” forum on 13 February 2015, “Discipline and Proscribe,” National University of Singapore Professor of Sociology Chua Beng Huat gave a talk entitled “The Banning of a Film” on To Singapore, with Love. Every inch of the forum’s venue, Muse House, a converted heritage Peranakan shophouse in Katong that is now a private museum and art gallery, was packed. People sat shoulder to shoulder, five rows deep on the floor right up to the entrance, good-naturedly finding more space for every new person peeking through the door trying to gain entry.

Chua Beng Huat characterised the banning of Tan Pin Pin’s documentary as a “clumsy act” by the PAP, alienating the very demographic of voters it needs to attract and retain. Chua notes that the government may have underestimated the backlash against its unpopular decision to ban the film, which may prove to be a politically costly act. “For the government to ban a film is for it to show its hands of repression; consequently, we have to believe that it is not a decision that is taken lightly. … For a government that characterises itself as ‘future-oriented’ rather than ‘backward-looking,’ why is it so possessive about national history?” (56) Chua argued that Singapore has no founding narrative and relies on an opposition to Communism to operate as its founding myth. What is at stake then, in the banning of the film, is not national security but PAP legitimacy. While the room filled with murmurs of approval, it was difficult not to be disheartened by the fact that outside those doors the film would not be seen by Singapore’s wider public, who would not have the opportunity to continue this dialogue and debate in their living rooms and coffee shops.


While it is true that the banning of To Singapore, with Love has brought the film more attention than it might otherwise have received, the cost of this political action, not just to Tan personally but also other filmmakers, especially those trying to establish themselves, cannot yet be counted. What has developed alongside Singapore’s quite broad and ill-defined legislation restricting freedom of speech is a growing culture of self-censorship.

“Culture” in Singapore is located at the intersection of governmentality (the regulation of the thoughts and behaviour of its citizens), politics (as a result of the large degree of state funding for the arts and culture) and industry (cultural as a commodity to be used in the service of national branding). It is precisely an externally projected image of Singapore that threatens the internal processes of governmentality and politics, and hence what the PAP seeks most forcefully to control. Nowhere in this configuration does culture feature as creative critical discourse, although To Singapore, with Love embodies this spirit and encapsulates it in its tagline: “Some places are better observed from a distance if you want to grasp their inner essence.” The dialogue and debates provoked by the film have moved online and overseas, and are being held by diasporic Singaporeans, students, and by international film festival goers. While the film, “a love letter to Singapore, shot entirely outside the country,” has been enthusiastically claimed, and loved, from afar, it is has yet to be returned home, where it belongs.

This article has been peer reviewed.
The author wishes to thank Tan Pin Pin, Dan Edwards, and the two anonymous referees for their invaluable feedback on this article.

Tan Pin Pin’s To Singapore, with Love can be viewed here: https://vimeo.com/ondemand/tosingaporewithlove



  1. To Singapore, with Love, Statement by the Director Tan Pin Pin, 10 September 2014, www.facebook.com/tosingaporewithlove?fref=nf
  2. Soh Lung Teo and Yit Leng Low, eds., Escape from the Lion’s Paw: Reflections of Singapore’s Political Exiles (Singapore: Function 8, 2012).
  3. Teo Chee Hean, Parliamentary Speech on the Internal Security Act by the Deputy Prime Minister, Coordinating Minister for National Security and Minister for Home Affairs, 19 October 2011, www.mynewsdesk.com/sg/pressreleases/parliamentary-speech-on-the-internal-security-act-speech-by-mr-teo-chee-hean-deputy-prime-minister-coordinating-minister-for-national-security-695944
  4. During the 1970s, over 230 politicians, activists and journalists were also arrested and held without trial under the Internal Security Act, some for extended periods. The People’s Action Party (PAP) has governed Singapore since 1959; from 1968 to 1981 the PAP had no political opposition in parliament.
  5. “MDA has classified the film ‘To Singapore, with Love’ as Not Allowed for All Ratings (NAR),” Media Development Authority, 10 September 2014, www.mda.gov.sg/AboutMDA/NewsReleasesSpeechesAndAnnouncements/Pages/NewsDetail.aspx?news=639
  6. Peichi Chung, “The creative industry of Singapore: Cultural policy in the age of globalisation,” Media International Australia 128 (August 2008), p. 32. See also Audrey Yue, “The Regional Culture of New Asia: Cultural Governance and Creative Industries in Singapore,” International Journal of Cultural Policy 12:1 (2006), pp. 17–33, for more on the regional and global aspects of creative industries policy in Singapore since 2000.
  7. Terence Lee, The Media, Cultural Control and Government in Singapore (London and New York: Routledge, 2010), p. 28.
  8. As Paul Rae notes, “too programmatic or absolute an opposition to censorship risks validating or indeed reifying a concept and a practice that possess a high degree of contingency, if not arbitrariness,” “Freedom of Repression,” Theatre Research International 36:2 (2011), p. 118.
  9. Clarissa Oon, “Year of bans and boycotts in Singapore’s cultural arena,” The Straits Times, 25 November 2014, www.straitstimes.com/lifestyle/more-lifestyle-stories/story/culture-vulture-year-bans-and-boycotts-singapores-cultural-ar/
  10. Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell, And Tango Makes Three (Simon & Schuster, 2005); Elaine M. Aoki and Jean Davies Okimoto, The White Swan Express: A Story About Adoption (Clarion Books, 2002); Robie H. Harris, Who’s In My Family: All About Our Families (Candlewick, 2012).
  11. Oon, “Year of bans.”
  12. Tan is one of seven leading Singaporean directors who together created an omnibus film entitled 7 Letters, funded by SG50 and including Royston Tan, Jack Neo, Eric Khoo, Kelvin Tong, Boo Junfeng and K Rajagopal. Tan Pin Pin’s contribution to the project, Roots, is her first feature film. Commissioned, funded and approved in the context of the government’s 50th anniversary celebrations, the PAP has deemed this sanctioned product an acceptable version of culture, and the film itself has been very successful locally.
  13. Olivia Ho, “Amos Yee back in prison for 3 weeks; to be assessed for reformative training,” The Straits Times, 2 June 2015, www.straitstimes.com/news/singapore/courts-crime/story/amos-yee-back-court-tuesday-morning-sentencing-20150602
  14. Akshita Nanda, “National Arts Council withdraws $8,000 grant for newly published graphic novel by Sonny Liew,” The Straits Times, 29 May 2015, www.straitstimes.com/lifestyle/books/story/national-arts-council-withdraws-8000-grant-newly-published-graphic-novel-sonny
  15. Jan Uhde and Yvonne Ng Uhde, Latent Images: Film in Singapore (2nd edition) (Singapore: NUS Press, 2010), p. 175.
  16. Chua Beng-Huat, Political Legitimacy and Housing: Stakeholding in Singapore (London and New York: Routledge, 1997), p. 131.
  17. Uhde and Uhde, p. 174.
  18. Ibid., p. 177.
  19. “Singapore Loosens Film Censorship,” BBC News, 25 March 2004, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/entertainment/3567789.stm
  20. Media Development Authority, Film Classification Guidelines, available at: www.mda.gov.sg/RegulationsAndLicensing/ContentStandardsAndClassification/FilmsAndVideos/Pages/default.aspx
  21. Ibid.
  22. Ibid.
  23. Media Development Authority, “Sex. Violence. Family Values,” February 2013, http://www.mda.gov.sg/RegulationsAndLicensing/ContentStandardsAndClassification/Documents/Classification%20Decision/Sex.Violence.Family%20Values.pdf
  24. Films Act 1981 (revised in 1998), section 33.
  25. Cherian George, “Silence and Protest in Singapore’s Censorship Debates,” in Popular Culture and the State in East and Southeast Asia, Nissim Otmazgin and Eyal Ben-Ari, eds. (London and New York: Routledge, 2012), pp. 197–8.
  26. Ibid., p. 198.
  27. Chen May Yee, “Banned Film Reunites Singapore with Its Exiles,” The New York Times, 30 September 2014, www.nytimes.com/2014/10/01/arts/international/banned-film-reunites-singapore-with-its-exiles.html?_r=0
  28. Rae, p. 119.
  29. Nopporn Wong-Anan, “Singapore Eases Law on Political Films,” Reuters, 23 March 2009, www.reuters.com/article/2009/03/23/us-singapore-films-idUSTRE52M29320090323
  30. Members of the Films Appeal Committee “are chosen for their interest in films and commitment to public service. They represent a cross-section of society and age groups.” See: “Consultation with Committees,” Media Development Authority, www.mda.gov.sg/RegulationsAndLicensing/Consultation/Pages/ConsultationwithCommittees.aspx
  31. Films Appeal Committee, Media Development Authority, “The Films Appeal Committee upholds MDA’s decision to classify ‘To Singapore, with Love’ as Not Allowed for All Ratings (NAR),” 12 November 2014, www.mda.gov.sg/Documents/News/2014/Press%20Statement%20-%20FAC%20Decision%20on%20TSWL%20Appeal%20(12%20Nov).pdf
  32. Kevin Ma, “To Singapore, with Love Appeal Rejected,” Film Business Asia, 14 November 2014, www.filmbiz.asia/news/to-singapore-with-love-appeal-rejected
  33. Yaacob Ibrahim, Minister for Communications and Information, “MCI’s response to PQ on ‘To Singapore, with Love,’” Parliament Sitting on 7 October 2014, www.mci.gov.sg/web/corp/press-room/categories/parliament-qandas/content/mcis-response-to-pq-on-to-singapore-with-love
  34. Ibid.
  35. Ibid.
  36. Ibid.
  37. Ibid.
  38. Ibid. Cherian George argues that Singapore’s theatre and film practitioners have successfully lobbied and achieved (limited) relaxation of censorship rules, but not journalists: “Some fields of cultural production are less tied than other fields to the political and economic powers that be.” George, p. 199.
  39. Nur Asyiqin Mohamad Salleh, “Exiles in ‘To Singapore, with Love’ shouldn’t get to air ‘self-serving accounts’: PM,” The Straits Times, 3 Oct 2014, www.straitstimes.com/singapore/exiles-in-to-singapore-with-love-shouldnt-get-chance-to-air-self-serving-accounts-pm
  40. Ibid.
  41. Ibrahim, “MCI’s response to PQ.”
  42. Yap Neng Jye, “Why public screening of film not allowed,” The Straits Times, 14 October 2014, www.straitstimes.com/premium/forum-letters/story/why-public-screening-film-not-allowed-20141014
  43. Chua Beng Huat, “Pragmatism of the People’s Action Party in Singapore: A Critical Assessment,” Asian Journal of Social Science 13:1 (1985), p. 29.
  44. Ibid.
  45. 45. Ibid., p. 36. The substance of the PAP’s pragmatism includes policies related to education as human capital, population control, meritocracy, language and multi-racialism, and generalised social discipline (from crime control to, I would argue, censorship).
  46. Ibid., p. 31.
  47. For another perspective on the ambivalent operation of the PAP’s illiberal pragmatism, see Audrey Yue and Jun Zubillaga-Pow, eds., Queer Singapore: Illiberal Citizenship and Mediated Cultures (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2012). Yue and Zubillaga-Pow employ the notion of illiberal pragmatism to characterise the emergence of queer Singapore and the regulation of sexual identity on the island, but this ambivalence arguably characterises other broad forms of censorship in Singapore, including film censorship.
  48. Rae, p. 117.
  49. At the time, the use of the English language was being promoted in Singapore and there was strong anti-Chinese language sentiment. When Ho tried to speak up for the language he was accused of playing the Chinese card and stoking resentment against other races in Singapore.
  50. To Singapore, with Love, Statement by the Director Tan Pin Pin, 10 September 2014, www.facebook.com/tosingaporewithlove?fref=nf
  51. Ibid.
  52. Ibid.
  53. To Singapore, with Love Almost No Show at Film Fest,” Rakyat Times, 26 October 2014, www.rakyattimes.com/~wolf/index.php/news/1456-to-singapore-with-love-almost-no-show-at-film-fest
  54. “Project 50/100,” https://project50100.wordpress.com/about/
  55. “Living with Myths,” http://livingwithmyths.wix.com/livingwithmyths#!about/c1enr
  56. Chua Beng Huat, “Living with Myths VII: Discipline and Proscribe,” Muse House, Singapore, 13 February 2015.


About The Author

Olivia Khoo is a Senior Lecturer in Film and Screen Studies at Monash University. She is the author of The Chinese Exotic: Modern Diasporic Femininity (Hong Kong University Press, 2007), and co-author (with Belinda Smaill and Audrey Yue) of Transnational Australian Cinema: Ethics in the Asian Diasporas (Lexington, 2013). From January–April 2015 Olivia was a Visiting Senior Research Fellow at the Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore.

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