(The Fear of) Going Home

I have not been home for slightly under a year now but now it is time for me to pack my suitcase up again.

And I am afraid.

Not afraid because I do not want to see my family. Not afraid because I do not want to catch up with my friends. But afraid because the home I know will be different.

A Singaporean friend and mentor of mine in Manchester went back home for the first time after four years. She was surprised by the change. She did not recognise the unique MBS skyline that Singapore markets itself with nowadays. She got lost around Orchard Road because of its rapid change. She returned home to a different home.

Whilst my experiences have not been as drastic as hers, it is still as scary – if not more – for I witness the change. Change is a very funny thing. It creeps up upon us. We do not realise that it is happening when we are experiencing it, but when we step away for a while and return, we cannot deny the change that has occurred. I recognise home but I don’t know it. It is familiar yet unfamiliar. I land in the uncanny valley when I reach home.

But what is home?

I try to write one play a year. Till date, I have written three in Manchester, and am in the process of writing the fourth. And I realise that all three plays deal with the notion of home. It is as if there is something I want to express but can’t seem to articulate it properly. Stuart Spencer describes these stories as ur-plays, stories that are buried deep in one’s own subconscious that desperately needs to be told (Spencer 2002: 27). Further, David Mamet adds that these stories ‘aren’t clean, they aren’t neat, but there’s something in them that comes from the heart, and, so, goes to the heart’ (Mamet 2007: 18 – 19). My first play, Two Chairs, was about a brother who goes to the UK to study despite his family’s objection because he desperately wanted to get out of Singapore. My second play, To Be Frank, was about a mother who forgets how her family looks like. My third play, Purple Heart, deals with an overseas exchange student returning back to Singapore at the end of his overseas education stint, realising that he hates it back home.

Returning to the question posed above, I still do not quite know what is home. On the one hand, it is good to be afraid of going home – there is nothing wrong with it – the fear of not knowing how it will look like is a very real one. On the other, I think there is a need for me to re-evaluate what home means to me. When I am in Singapore, Singapore is my home. When I am in Manchester, Manchester’s mine. But what is going to happen when I move to another place? Thinking about the meaning of home may just be another exercise in empty nostalgia because it is always in such a constant flux: it means one thing yesterday, another today, and is most definitely going to be something else tomorrow.

Maybe, then, I should not be afraid of going home, or staying home for that matter. On the one hand, staying can be viewed as tragedy. On the other, stasis itself can be seen as defiance.

I am currently in the midst of writing the first draft of my upcoming play (to be staged in May by The 1121 Collective in Manchester), and for the first time – though the thematic concerns are still largely the same – I have adamantly and defiantly set my play somewhere other than Singapore. Wong Kar Wai, after making 2046, widely seen as the last of the Hong Kong “spiritual trilogy”, started making films that are quite different. Maybe, after this new play, I would have finally told the ur-play that is buried deep inside me.

But, for now, it’s Char Kuay Teow, Chicken Rice, Bah Kut Teh, Mee Pok, Pig’s Trotters, Steamboats, and Durians.

Reference 

Mamet, David, 2007. Three Uses of the Knife, London: Methuen Drama.

Spencer, Stuart, 2002. The Playwright’s Guidebook, London: Faber and Faber.

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At Leeds International Film Festival

I went to Leeds last Saturday for the 28th Leeds International Film Festival (#LIFF28). Not for long though, just a day trip from Manchester to Leeds. Here are my quick thoughts on a few films that I watched.

Before I go into talking about the films though, there is something I would like to rant about: FILMS SCREENINGS THAT OCCUR DURING FILM FESTIVALS NEED TO START ON TIME BECAUSE PEOPLE ACTUALLY DO RUN FROM ONE CINEMA TO ANOTHER!!!

Journey to the West (Tsai Ming Liang, 2013)

The latest addition to Tsai’s slow cinema, this film consists of 14 shots and lasts 56 minutes. Throughout, Tsai’s regular collaborator Lee Kang-sheng dresses up as a monk and walks through the streets of Marseilles at a snail pace. I have already seen this monk walked the streets of Hong Kong (Walker, 2012), and Malaysia (Letters from the South, 2013). As the monk walks through the streets, the audience is invited to, like the monk, meditate on his environs and the people that inhabit them. Both Walker and Letters from the South are short films that require the viewers’ patience, yet never testing it too far. Here, in Journey to the West takes on the challenge with an extended 56 minutes of walking. Describing the shots will be unhelpful and unnecessary (considering the film is only made up of 14 shots) but one thing should be noted: I was never bored by it. In fact, many times, I forgot that the monk actually in the shot and instead became more enthralled by the passers-by that occupy the frame. The film is also knowingly funny as the audience is constantly invited to look for the monk in the shot. The monk, dressed in his red robe, becomes Wally.

Paris of the North (Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurdsson, 2014)

This is the latest feature from the Icelandic director who brought us Either Way (2011), which David Gordon Green’s Prince Avalanche (20113) is based on [If you haven’t watched Prince Avalanche, you have to now. It’s wickedly funny]. Unlike Sigurdsson’s previous film, Paris of the North treads less on the comedy but more on the drama. The protagonist of the film, Hugi, is a recovering alcoholic and has escaped from Reykjavik to a small Icelandic village to deal with his breakup. Hugi’s father, Veigar, however, decides to pay Hugi a visit. Chaos ensues as both Hugi and Veigar are forced to reconsider their relationship.

Throughout the film, characters often breaking into philosophical musings and asides. Yet it strangely works. I was so drawn into the world that the “expositions” – which usually make me cringe – seem like something the characters would say in a normal conversation. The film is also very funny. In one sequence quite early in the film, for instance, Hugi sits through an AA meeting with two other alcoholics. The convenor of the meeting gets Hugi to introduce himself and declares that they would go anti-clockwise this time round to spice things up slightly. In another instance, a group of ladies exercise in the pool whist Veigar floats along in a pair of garishly kitsch flora trunks. The humour can’t get any drier.

Symbol (Hitoshi Matsumoto, 2009)

Directed and starring Hitoshi Matsumoto, Symbol is a master class in absurdist comedy. The film has two plots running alongside each other. The first concerns a wrestler (Escargot man) as he prepares for the toughest match of his career. The second follows a man (Matsumoto) who finds himself trapped in an empty white room surrounded by many protruding cherubs’ penises.

Whilst there are moments where Matsumoto can be accused of over-acting – and, in fact, there are many of such moments – the film is nonetheless rip-roaringly funny. The situation in both plots become increasingly absurd and culminates in a third act that no one could have imagined. Considering Matsumoto’s cult status, it is quite surprisingly that the film was received rather poorly in Japan.

This is a bizarre picture that requires the audience to just go with it. If you do, you won’t be disappointed.

DISCLAIMER: These are not really reviews, or fully formed thoughts (as you would have realised from the abrupt ends to the paragraph). I do apologise because it’s been quite a week since I saw the films, and have crammed many other movies into my brain during the in-between, so my memories are vague. I have also been quite busy (i.e. managing my time terribly) so have only managed to write half-paragraphs. I promise a better entry the next time round.

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Homosexuality and Humanities

On Wednesday, October 30th 2014, Singapore’s Court of Appeal ruled that Section 377A is constitutional. Section 377A is a piece of legislation that Singapore inherited from colonial Britain that states:

Any male person who, in public or private, commits, or abets the commission of, or procures or attempts to procure the commission by an male person of, any act gross indecency with another male person, shall be punished with imprisonment for a term which may extend to 2 years.

Arguments for and against the repeal of 377A are aplenty. Pro LGBT rights groups have long campaigned for social equality, and the nation’s Pink Dot movement has gained much momentum in the past years.

Conversely, opponents of the repeal include Pastor Lawrence Khong of the Faith Community Baptist Church who, in a statement in front of Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong, said that ‘the repeal of similar laws have led to negative social changes, especially the breakdown of the family as a basic building block and foundation of the society’ (Oi 2013). In 2014, in an attempt to counter Pink Dot SG – an event where citizens dressed in pink get together to show their support for the LGBT community – Islamic religious teacher Ustaz Noor Deros started a Wear White campaign, encouraging people to wear white to defend traditional family values.

Additionally, in 2014, Singapore’s National Library Board (NLB) removed three books concerned with LGBT themes from the library. They are An Tango Makes Three, The White Swan Express, and Who’s in my Family. NLB decided to pulp the books. The decision ultimately proved extremely controversial and Minister Yaacob Ibrahim ordered both An Tango Makes Three, and The White Swan Express to be reinstated in the libraries, but categorised under the adult section instead of the original children’s. Who’s in my Family had a more unfortunate fate as it had already been pulped earlier.

In defending the constitution and Section 377A, Judges Andrew Phang, Belinda Ang, and Woo Bih Li of the Court of Appeal write:

It is also important to emphasise that it follows that nothing in this judgement impacts the freedom of a person or group of persons to freely espouse as well as practise his/its values within the boundaries of the law.

They continue:

This freedom cannot, however, extend to an insistence by a particular group or individual that its/his values be imposed on other groups or individuals (CNA 2014)

The irony of this statement is simply too painful to ignore. By insisting that a particular group cannot impose their value on other groups simply reiterate the fact that a majority group is/has always been reinforcing a hegemonic belief, and this is where I become particular disappointed by the ruling.

My stance is clear: LGBT groups deserve the same rights just as anyone else – they should not be made criminals because of their sexual orientation; they should not be discriminated because their beliefs may stray away from the mainstream majority; and, most importantly, their onscreen representations should not be turned into stereotypes.

Onscreen stereotypes of gay characters are aplenty in Singapore, and they usually boil down to being effeminate and crude. Ultimately, these characters are the butt of the jokes. I have not, in my experience of viewing Singaporean mainstream media (both television and cinema) come across a positive representation of a gay character. Further, the Media Development Authority (MDA) makes it difficult for films that are perceived to promote a homosexual lifestyle to be screened to a huge audience. For instance, Milk (2009), a biopic about gay rights activist Harvey Milk, was given an R21 rating. This means that only cinemas in the city centre are allowed to screen them, whereas suburban cinemas are not. In another example, the Filipino film Boy (2009) received a Not Allowed for All Ratings (NAR) certificate from the MDA because the film attempts to ‘normalize homosexuality and that the movie romanticizes sex between men’ (Calindas, 2009). The stance held by the MDA towards portrayal of gay men and the issue of homosexuality is, frankly, extremely unacceptable. This, coupled with the lack of formal media education in schools, leads to a whole generation of people who are brought up to believe in these stereotypes. Stereotypes (not just of the LGBT community) are damaging.

Here, it is crucial that I take a detour. In a letter to the Straits Times’ Forum, Edmund Khoo Kim Hock writes that gender stereotypes ‘exist because they are fairly accurate generalisations of both male and female attributes’ (Khoo 2014). On top of using the terms ‘gender’ and ‘sex’ interchangeably, Khoo argues that girls should wear pink and dresses whilst boys should wear blue and never play with dolls. Ultimately, ‘gender stereotypes exist for a purpose, which is to define the roles of men and women in our culture and society, and not to define us as people’.

This is an extremely appalling viewpoint. Stereotypes exist because of one reason: to serve the myopic worldviews of bigots who are simply too lazy to realise that the world is made up of individuals. A quick browse through the works of – say – Judith Butler will highlight the fact that gender is indeed a construct that forces people to behave in certain ways. A study of how gender is represented on screen will highlight the damaging sexist stereotypes that still exist. And it is our responsibility as thinking human beings to not take everything we see or hear point blank, but to challenge them dutifully.

Here, I cannot reiterate the importance of the humanities. Unfortunately, Singapore’s education system has long placed more emphasis on the sciences than on the humanities. I do not have empirical evidence to back this claim up (and I welcome anyone to disagree with me), so I merely have to fall back on personal anecdotes (not stereotypes). My parents were horrified when I decided to switch from the Science Stream to the Arts Stream during my Junior College years. “Why?” they said angrily, “Why would you throw away a good future?” In the army, I am known as the “Thespian” with a capital ‘T’, not necessarily a term with positive connotations. Army superiors and fellow army colleagues held me with deep suspicion because I was the one who dealt with – and I quote – ‘airy-fairy beliefs’ and everything I said was mere fluff because ‘arts people only know how to smoke’. All these simply stem from the fact that I preferred Literature to Physics, History to Maths, and Drama to Business. Even as I tell people I am a Screen Studies scholar now, they still think it entails me standing in front of the camera acting, and that I’m not going to have a bright (monetary) future after my education finishes.

Crucially, I am not discounting the importance of reading science. In fact, I very much love and enjoy my Chemistry, and I think science is an irreplaceable part of our lives. However, I do disagree with the hierarchical position science is placed in relation to the humanities. Why is one more important than the other? Why can they not be both of equal standing? I think this is a dire situation that needs immediate address here; doing humanities does not equate to doing a lesser degree.

Humanities, for one, introduced me – from a very early stage – to the fact that there is no such thing as a right or wrong answer. Unlike early education science where there is a definite right and wrong answer, humanities grounded me with the ability to defend my beliefs, and that my thoughts are just as valuable as the person next to mine. It also, importantly, allowed me to very clearly see the injustice faced by different groups of people simply because they do not belong to the majority hegemonic ideology.

In doing Screen Studies, I learnt that the less powerful groups of people (women, African Americans, gays and lesbians, for instance) constantly struggle for positive representations, and that is how stereotypes come about. Stereotypes do not exist because they are right or fairly accurate. Stereotypes exist to subjugate. In doing Screen Studies, I learnt that the world is a very unfair one, and that I can only hope to make it a better place by becoming more grounded with social reality. And I did not only learn these from Screen Studies. I got the same values from reading Literature, Drama, History, and Geography. These rewards are not necessarily the most visible nor tangible, and that is perhaps why there is still a slight stigma towards the humanities in Singapore (again, I do not have empirical evidence and I am merely arguing from personal experiences).

At this point, I just want to thank all the humanities teachers who are working hard to equip students with this invaluable ability to be more in touched with the social injustices faced by many groups of people – keep up the good work!

Unfortunately, at the current political climate, I neither foresee the MDA changing its stance on the portrayal of homosexuality on screen, nor can imagine Section 377A being repealed anytime soon. My only suggestion is that we keep fighting. We cannot dismiss the humanities as subjects less worthy of study because they do not make us money. Rather, we should look beyond and see that these subjects make us more empathetic, and in a society that just ruled the criminalisation of homosexuality as constitutional, we sorely need to be humane.

References

CNA, 2014. ‘Decision on Section 377A “not acceptable”: LGBT’
http://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/singapore/decision-on-section-377a/1443512.html (Accessed 1st November 2014).

Calindas, Marconi, 2009. ‘Filipino film “Boy” captures hearts in San Francisco’
http://www.gmanetwork.com/news/story/166505/pinoyabroad/filipino-film-boy-captures-hearts-in-san-francisco (Accessed 1st November 2014).

Khoo, Edmund Kim Hock, 2014. ‘Gender Stereotyping Serves an Important Purpose’
http://www.straitstimes.com/premium/forum-letters/story/gender-stereotyping-serves-important-purpose-20141023 (Accessed 1st November 2014).

Oi, Mariko, 2013. ‘Is Singapore’s stance on homosexuality changing?’
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-22088852 (Accessed 1st November 2014).

 

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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?

 

References

MDA Statement, 2014. ‘MDA has classified the film “To Singapore, With Love” as Not Allowed for All Ratings (NAR)’
http://www.mda.gov.sg/AboutMDA/NewsReleasesSpeechesAndAnnouncements/Pages/NewsDetail.aspx?news=639 (Accessed 28th October 2014)

Nur Asyiqin Mohamad Salleh, 2014. ‘Parliament: “To Singapore with Love” has ‘distorted and untruthful’ accounts of past history: Yaacob’
http://www.straitstimes.com/news/singapore/more-singapore-stories/story/parliament-not-acting-singapore-love-would-give-signal-v (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.

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