Appreciate bright sparks in Singapore content

Let's move away from opinions such as local shows are terrible because of the Government's moralistic meddling

Many Straits Times readers have been bemused by a letter to the newspaper proposing that because of foreign competition, the Government pump money into local filmed content and then guide people to watch it.

Put that way by the letter writer, it seems to be yet another tragicomic case of nanny-state thinking.

But to my mind, Mr Colin Ong Tau Shien's idea is neither new nor controversial.

In Singapore, as in many other countries, publicly funded shows have been around for ages, long before Amazon Prime, Netflix or iTunes entered the picture.

It also makes sense that every effort be made to sell that local work to citizens, short of setting quotas for local versus foreign content, as is the case for cinemas in South Korea and China.

What is more interesting to me are the reactions to Mr Ong's letter on Web forums and social media.

Judging Singapore content by television dramas is like judging all American output based on Keeping Up With The Kardashians or 16 And Pregnant.

The opinions are many I've read before - that local content is terrible because of moralistic meddling by the Government and that Singapore, with more people than Norway or Iceland, cannot produce the same quantity or quality in books, films and music as those two nations because there is something wrong with us.

And finally, there is the good old cringe argument: What's touted as local content on Channels 5 and 8 just makes viewers grimace in agony.

On the cringe issue, to each his own. The more self-reflective person might analyse that cringe response to see where it is coming from, rather than roll the eyes and return to the comfort of the echo chamber.

As for the population-size argument, it overlooks a couple of facts. The entertainment we consume - books, movies, television - is locked into our first language. English speakers gravitate towards content from Hollywood or the BBC and Chinese speakers towards that from China, Hong Kong and Taiwan.

Where can Norwegians go when they want to hear stories in their own language? Only inwards. Many of us are cursed - or blessed, if you prefer - to drink the language of other, faraway continents along with our mother's milk.

Then there are further subdivisions here - by age, education and socio-economic group. Not all Chinese speakers enjoy attending getai (street concert) shows or watching the new Ah Boys To Men comedy movies. And not all English speakers will enjoy Shakespeare In The Park or buy tickets to the Middle East Film Festival at the arthouse cinema The Projector.

We might have a sizable population, but we are split into tiny slices demographically. We are nowhere as linguistically or culturally homogenous as Iceland or Norway.

And as for the problem with top-down moral guidelines on television, yes, it exists, but so what? The bland, preachy dramas so mocked on social media form a tiny fraction of stuff made here.

The graphic novel The Art Of Charlie Chan Hock Chye, which made a dent on many best-of lists around the world last year, was produced here and had its government assistance withdrawn, but there's also Ilo Ilo, the 2013 movie that won several Golden Horse awards. It was made with public funds by Anthony Chen, a film-maker who studied in London on a public scholarship.

Judging Singapore content by television dramas is like judging all American output based on Keeping Up With The Kardashians or 16 And Pregnant.

But if what you prefer to do is rant about local writers and artists, the Government and dumb Singaporeans who lack your refined taste, then go ahead, do your best Amos Yee impression.

After doing so, I hope you pick up a copy of The Art Of Charlie Chan Hock Chye, or go watch Boo Junfeng's Apprentice (the 2016 drama about the death penalty), or buy a ticket to the Singapore Chinese Orchestra, or have a listen to the singer Gentle Bones.

Then assess each one individually, rather than as one lumpy mass called "Singapore content". The only thing you have to lose is your online edginess.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 05, 2017, with the headline 'Appreciate bright sparks in Singapore content'. Print Edition | Subscribe