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Love in Exile: a Cinematic Pilgrimage to Watch Tan Pin Pin’s Censored To Singapore, with Love

Love in Exile: a Cinematic Pilgrimage to Watch Tan Pin Pin’s Censored To Singapore, with Love


Doubly Exiled

At first glance the title of Tan’s third feature, To Singapore, with Love, seems laden with a rueful irony: the 70-minute documentary is a series of interviews with political exiles forced to abandon the South East Asian island nation for a life elsewhere. Condemned for various reasons (communism, student activism, leftist Christian interests) in the ’60s and ’70s, the nine exiles in the film now live around the globe—as close as Thailand; as far as England. Some of them have accepted citizenship elsewhere; most have not been back to Singapore for more than 30 years.

The ace up the film’s sleeve is that the “Love” in the title is, in fact, entirely sincere. Yes, there is a deep-rooted indignation at the still-dominant People’s Action Party (“Our society today is suppressed by… the same people in power,” says Said Zahari in the film. He was detained for 17 years in the anti-communist Operation Coldstore of 1963.) But whatever sedimentary bitterness the decades have failed to erode takes a back seat to a unanimous patriotic affection. One by one, the exiles express love for the country that cast them out—a fervent longing to return, to be buried in the soil of their childhoods. They sing songs and recite poetry to the camera—odes of homesickness and yearning (“If only you knew how much your present and your future preoccupy my thoughts”). Memories are fresh, even 50 years later; wounds are raw, tears are shed.

It makes sense. These are idealists who cared enough about the fate of their nation that they fought to improve it. In the context of Singapore (which the Berlin International Film Festival called “an ultra-modern city in a democratic coma”), that’s something to write home about.

The subject of exile crystallized accidentally for Tan. “I was looking to photograph the coastline of Singapore from Malaysia or Indonesia,” she tells me in an interview on September 23. “And while researching that, I stumbled upon Escape from the Lion’s Paw [a collection of first-person essays by some of the exiles eventually featured in the film]. A lot of Eastern European writing from the Cold War, and a lot of Greek writing, is about the idea of not being able to go home. I was aware of this body of work and interested in finding the Singaporean equivalent of it.”

The director—whose 1998 student short, “Lurve Me Now,” was also banned in Singapore—was not unaware of the politically sensitive nature of her subject. “It was important for me to do most of it myself. Few people knew I was making the film until it world-premiered at the Busan International Film Festival.” She worked in an unusually independent capacity, producing, directing and shooting the film alone, assisted with funds from Busan’s Asian Cinema Fund.

It took her eight months to track down all her subjects, who were “happy that someone from Singapore was interested in their story.” Production involved learning to handle her Canon XF100 and sound without a crew in unfamiliar terrain. After five months of editing her 15 hours of footage, the film was finished.

Chan Sun Wing, one of the documentary's subjects, reads a poem about taking up Thai citizenship. Courtesy of Tan Pin Pin

Chan Sun Wing, one of the documentary’s subjects, reads a poem about taking up Thai citizenship. Courtesy of Tan Pin Pin

Prior to being outlawed from Singaporean screens, To Singapore, with Love enjoyed a healthy run on the international circuit. The film played Berlin in 2014, won awards at festivals in Dubai and Bangkok, and screened at New York’s Film Society of Lincoln Center in April 2014. In September 2014, the National University of Singapore programmed a triple-bill of Singapore GaGa, Invisible City and To Singapore, with Love, intended to be the film’s domestic premiere.

Censorship, Privacy, and the Digital Age

Perhaps we should have seen it coming—it’s not like Singapore has ever been too interested in self-reflection. William Gibson famously said as much in his 1993 article, “Disneyland with the Death Penalty” (which resulted in WIRED Magazine being—you guessed it—banned in perpetuity from Singaporean newsstands): “The physical past here has almost entirely vanished,” he wrote of the then 28-year-old nation. Like the American, Tan opens windows into a national identity that would prefer to remain opaque, but her insider take on history is much more complex than Gibson’s glib, disparaging witticisms allowed.

Still, the MDA’s September 10 announcement is an unhappy surprise. The agency classifies the film as “Not Allowed for All Ratings,” or illegal to distribute or exhibit in public (“private” screenings are allowed, whatever that means), because the contents of the film are “untruthful” and “undermine national security.”

“The individuals featured in the film,” the statement reads, “gave the impression that they are being unfairly denied their right to return to Singapore. They were not forced to leave Singapore, nor are they being prevented from returning.” In fact, the subjects “can return if they agree to be interviewed by the authorities on their past activities to resolve their cases. Criminal offenses will have to be accounted for in accordance with the law.”

Besides the fact that the use of censorship as a solution seems anachronistic in an age where information wants to be freed, the MDA’s decision speaks to a misunderstanding of media itself. Piqued by curiosity about a film that would have otherwise probably remained relatively obscure, the online uproar comes thick and fast. On September 10 a petition is released by the local arts community urging the MDA to reconsider. Tan also releases a statement online, expressing her regret that a vital national conversation could not take place: “We need to be trusted to be able to find the answers to questions about ourselves, for ourselves.”And Jialiang, armed with a Facebook page, a Google form, and a ravenously righteous energy, rallies together the convoy he named “the Love Bus.” Likes surge. The film trends. By September 11, Freedom Film Festival organizers are so inundated by requests for tickets that they have to make arrangements for a bigger venue. Whatever the MDA intended, the immediate effect of their action is to drive people in hordes towards the documentary.

“I have to thank the MDA for bringing attention to the film,” Tan tells me. She’s not being sarcastic. “The timing of the ban was actually quite good, because it was a few days before the Johor screening. Everything worked out.”

The debate continues hotly in the news for the next month, evolving into an intriguing nation-wide philosophical discussion about historical truth—one camp defending the exclusive validity of the dominant narrative, the other arguing on behalf of counter-perspectives and open dialogue. At a speaking event at the National University of Singapore, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong describes the insidiously persuasive power of cinema, citing Michael Moore’s Farenheit 9/11 as, like To Singapore, with Love, “not a documentary:” “Why should we allow [the exiles], 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 inconvenient facts in others?”

Allowing the film to screen in public would be “like allowing jihadi terrorist groups today to produce and publicly screen films that glorify their jihadist cause,” writes Yap Neng Jye, press secretary to the Ministry of Home Affairs, on October 14.

On the other hand, journalist Kirsten Han asks, “How can the reminiscing of exiled Singaporeans cause any credible threat to the country’s safety and stability?” In her Yahoo! News blog, she quotes historian Dr. Thum Ping Tjin saying that the government’s “continued insistence on clinging to a false narrative of the past” is “the equivalent of the South African government continuing to insist that Nelson Mandela was a terrorist, or the South Korean government continuing to insist that Kim Dae Jung was a terrorist.”

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