Singapore movies: Time to change the script


One of the bonuses of this year being Singapore's 50th birthday is that the whole nation is celebrating its identity and heritage by bringing back elements of pop culture through the years.

So we are hearing songs that played on the radio as we were growing up, and will be seeing iconic plays that we might have watched as teenagers and young adults. Singapore films are also very much part of our national culture, but they were a later phenomenon that took off only from the second half of the 1990s.

As the SG50 celebrations get going, some of these films are being shown again. For example, Singapore Airlines has created a special section showcasing Singapore films on its flight entertainment system.

This was how, on my most recent vacation, I managed to finally catch Eric Khoo's critically acclaimed 2008 film My Magic, and Singapore Dreaming, a 2006 film by Woo Yen Yen and Colin Goh. Earlier SQ flights that I was on carried the nostalgia-laced That Girl In Pinafore (2013), and two of Tan Pin Pin's documentary films. I also managed to watch again Anthony Chen's Ilo Ilo - the first local film to win an award at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival.

I always find Singapore films enjoyable, whether they are arthouse movies or Jack Neo's box-office blockbusters with more mass appeal. There is a warm and instant familiarity about the places, objects and events portrayed and, very often, they bring back memories of days that always seem so golden and carefree through the lens of time.

But as I watched these films on the plane, I found myself looking over at my fellow passengers, from all over the world. Many were just transiting through Singapore and may not have stopped to visit, let alone live or work in the country.

If they were curious or adventurous enough to watch one or more of these iconic Singapore films, what would they see? What impression would they come away with of life in this tiny island city state?

Of course, there is now a slew of Singapore films covering all sorts of genres, including horror, so it's not quite fair to generalise.

This is also not a column debating what sort of national image or stereotypes these films ought to be portraying. They are what they are. But in crafting their own individual storylines, Singapore film-makers do turn the lens on life here.

With those caveats in mind, I think it is fair to say that one common thread running through the movies is that many Singaporeans constantly worry about money. We seem unhappy with what we have and want to earn more, thinking that having more money will make life easier and happier.

But the way it turns out in many of the films is that more money doesn't necessarily buy happiness because money also begets other evils.

Of course, the fact that money woes feature prominently is understandable, partly due to the relatively high cost of living here. But Singaporeans' worries extend beyond that.

They are more broadly about meeting expectations - that a person must have a good education that leads to a good job that earns high pay. Peer pressure and competition feature prominently in the storylines: what people will say if you're unsuccessful or different, and how this reflects on your upbringing.

The onscreen result is a lot of unhappy people stuck in jobs they don't want to be in. Stuck in family routines and situations they can't get out of.

They dream of escaping from it all, and falling into depression when they realise that they can't. An existentialist crisis ensues, followed by a shocking and unfathomable incident that suddenly opens everyone's eyes.

Of course, these films point out that everything is relative and that things in Singapore are really not that bad.

Everything works in Singapore and the city is safe, clean and efficient. People own their homes and have jobs. They can afford maids and the latest toys, IT gadgets and cars. In the movies, it always takes a foreigner who has come to live and work in Singapore to remind the locals not to complain so much and wallow in their own self-pity.

Yet so many Singaporeans identify so strongly with a malaise in society depicted in these films. I was especially moved by films like Singapore Dreaming and Ilo Ilo because I know that many Singaporeans, myself included, are subject to these pressures day after day.

We watch these films and have that moment of self-realisation when a mirror is held up to our faces. We laugh at the irony and cry at the disappointments of the characters, and we silently cheer as some of them break out of the lives they don't want to lead and make a fresh start.

And when the film ends and we return to real life, some of us even resolve to re-examine our lives and make the same changes ourselves.

Like it or not, as the nation turns 50, this has been the script of life in Singapore. It's a script that has followed the trajectory of the economy and the nation.

Sure, the underlying storyline is one depicting success through good government and hard work. Yet the phenomenal pace of growth of this young nation has also led to societal cracks and pressures on individuals as they struggle to keep pace with rising wealth and standards of living.

What do you see when you watch the characters in a French film? What makes a Japanese film typically Japanese?

As we look ahead to the next 50 years, my wish is for us to change this script and forge a new Singapore.

Whether it is obsessing over our children's primary school admissions and tuition, or aspiring to that new car or condo, all it takes is for more of us to have the courage to act out of character.

And little by little, we will change the Singapore story.