Good Controversy?: Thoughts on ‘To Singapore, With Love’

Having just watched Singaporean filmmaker Tan Pin Pin’s controversial To Singapore, With Love (2013) at the Chinese Visual Arts Festival in London, I still do not understand why it is not allowed to be screened public or distributed (the government is keen to emphasise that the film is not banned). Tan’s thoughtful documentary attempts to tell an untold part of Singapore’s history, following a number of political exiles as they live their lives in Malaysia, Thailand, and the UK.

In a statement released by the Media Development Authority of Singapore, To Singapore, With Love is given a Not Allowed for All Ratings (NAR) for

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. Under the Film Classification Guidelines, films that are assessed to undermine national security will be given an NAR rating (MDA Statement 2014).

Further, the Minister for Communications and Information Yaacob Ibrahim says that 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’. He adds that To Singapore, With Love 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’ (Nur Asyiqin Mohamad Salleh 2014).

To these statements, I ask: how do you make a film that is not biased? All cinema is, inherently, biased. Texts usually have – explicit or not – left and right leaning ideologies. Even if a film sets out to be balanced and centred, it is still mediated by the filmmaker, and is ultimately subjective. I will not become a Nazi simply because I have seen Triumph of the Will (1935) for I recognise the film’s status as a piece of propaganda, and because I do not agree with the Nazi ideology. Similarly, I will not become a racist for having seen Ken Kwek’s Sex.Violence.FamilyValues (2012) because I recognise irony and satire as important reception frameworks. I may change my worldview because I critically engage myself with the discourses provided by the text but I am not a brain-dead viewer who absorbs whatever that is on the screen. In the same strand, I neither agree with all the actions taken by the individuals featured in To Singapore, With Love, nor do I disagree with all their ideologies.

Prohibiting public screenings and distribution of To Singapore, With Love not only creates a one-sided portrayal of the national history, but also prevents Singaporeans a chance to think for themselves. This is not the Singapore I want to be in. I am a thinking, rational adult, and I like to think that Singapore is not a nanny-state.

By giving the film an NAR rating, the Singaporean government severely neglects the larger themes explored in the film. Using micro stories (that of the individual exiles longing for a return to Singapore), To Singapore, With Love raises bigger issues of home and belonging. In such a globalised world, where exactly is home? The film spoke to me not because of its politics – though it sure did – but because of the questions it forced me to confront. A third into my fourth year in Manchester, my life is in a state of moratorium. I cannot call Manchester my adopted home but neither do I feel like I belong to Singapore, for whenever I return to Singapore I do not seem to recognise it. Watching To Singapore, With Love gave me a platform to think about notions of home – how do you get back inside when you feel so outside? It is therefore heartening to see the SAFRA Cinema at King’s College yesterday entirely filled up, and mostly populated by young Singaporean students. Whilst the atmosphere at the post-show Q&A was somewhat stifled, and participants were still hesitant to vocalise their ideological opinions, it was nonetheless still a very fruitful session. There was finally conversation.

Importantly, I do not think this discussion is limited to the overseas diasporic community. In fact, if anything, it is more relevant to people living in Singapore, especially in a political climate where debates surrounding immigration is gaining huge momentum. Both “born and bred” Singaporeans, and immigrants need to re-evaluate their stance towards home, and question whether they would consider Singapore one.

I anticipate that I may be accused of being indoctrinated by “Western liberal ideologies” and that I have left my “good Asian values” at home. In my defence, I would like to recall a statement made by Mitsuhiro Yoshimoto. In talking about the study of Japanese cinema in Western scholarship, Yoshimoto writes:

We need to put the Hollywood cinema in specific historical contexts; instead of talking about the Hollywood cinema as the norm, we must examine the specific and historically changing relations between the Hollywood cinema and other national cinema (Yoshimoto 1991: 254).

I think this concept is useful here. Instead of being pigeonholed, I think, and instead of using sweeping, timeless terms like East and West, it is important to recognise that my beliefs – as a Singaporean – stem from a specific postcolonial socio-political context. I grew up in an educational environment that is modelled heavily after Victorian England’s education regime while still indoctrinated with Confucian values like filial piety and the importance of the family unit. What, then, is East and West? By calling me a Westernised liberal, you are effectively subscribing to Eurocentric ideologies.

I firmly believe in universal free speech, and I believe that To Singapore, With Love should not have received the NAR rating. Yet, I suppose – in an extremely Machiavellian way – I am glad it happened because the controversy generated a wave of conversation not just locally but internationally. There is no way but progression. The journey for universal free speech is not an easy one, and the Holy Grail seems far away but – hey! – whilst we are on the road, why not enjoy the process?



MDA Statement, 2014. ‘MDA has classified the film “To Singapore, With Love” as Not Allowed for All Ratings (NAR)’ (Accessed 28th October 2014)

Nur Asyiqin Mohamad Salleh, 2014. ‘Parliament: “To Singapore with Love” has ‘distorted and untruthful’ accounts of past history: Yaacob’ (Accessed 28th October 2014)

Yoshimoto, Mitsuhiro, 1991. ‘The Difficulty of Being Radical: The Discipline of Film Studies and the Postcolonial World Order’, in Boundary 2 18:3, pp. 242 – 257.


About maohui

MaoHui Deng is currently a PhD student at the University of Manchester. His research is interested in the ways in which films about dementia can help further and/or complicate our understanding of time in cinema, gerontology and the wider society. His research interests include time and temporality; the representation of age on screen; childhood and cinema; memory; and the films of Federico Fellini. He is the postgraduate rep for the British Association of Film, Television and Screen Studies. He wants to become a lecturer, hopefully. You can contact Mao at You can follow him on Twitter at @dengmaohui.
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One Response to Good Controversy?: Thoughts on ‘To Singapore, With Love’

  1. Pingback: Mao: On Aims and Representations | THIS BLOG IS FUTILE

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