In my previous posting, “Welcome to Singawood,” I argued that Singapore had failed to produce any form of artistic expression in the film arts because it relied on a single script writer, namely the government. I also mentioned that the most compelling movie stemmed from an event in which the government had no control over. I am of course, referring to the trial and subsequent acquittal of Parti Liyani, the Indonesian maid who was accused of stealing from the home of the former Chairman of Changi Airport Group.
This incident had all the elements of a good drama. It had the poor heroine being bullied by the rich and powerful and assisted by the heroic actions of the pro-bono lawyer and non-government organization (NGO). To add to the drama, you had the story of government collusion with the rich, thanks to the police bungling the investigation. In any other country, aspiring authors would already be bashing our chapters in their books with dreams of selling the rights to the movie.
This, however, is Singapore. Shakespeare’s analogy of “All the world is a stage,” is perhaps the most apt when it comes to describing the system of governance. The powers that be, are the studio executives, script writers, producers and directors of the system. The rest of us are supposed to be the “extras” on the set, grateful for the roles assigned to us.
One only needs to look at the type of books and TV series that get produced. The only real author was Lee Kuan Yew, who was under the impression that he was writing the Quran (well, ok, that’s probably unfair to the Quran – in Islamic tradition, Prophet Mohammad took dictation from the Angel Gabriel. In the Singapore system, LKY was the one giving dictation). Everyone else limited themselves to writing ghost stories and pouring out romantic ideals of life in the kampung (Malay for village). As for our movies, well the only ones that get produced (or at least the ones that can be watched) are cute little comedies about exams and National Service.
The system worked for many years. The guys who wrote our scripts, actually got round to helping us produce the movie of our individual lives. When the government said that the best thing, they could do for us was to send us to school and we’d get better jobs, we really got better jobs. Sure, a few of us (myself included) fell through the cracks, but by and large there was some sort of follow through on the script they were writing and things could work. In a way, the Great Singapore Movie produced by the Istana was both aspirational and relatable.
However, somewhere along the line, the powers that be forgot that you can’t repeat the same script over and over again. More importantly, getting the script to movie stage actually required them to produce and direct. For me, the most noticeable came in 2007 when the so called “worst terrorist,” Mas Selamat strolled out of a highly secured facility and could only be caught by the Royal Malaysian Police.
Instead of admitting to an error, the script writers in the government proceeded to try and jam through more meaningly propaganda about the great job that the government was doing on the security front. Suddenly, we had a government we generally trusted, telling us things that were neither believable or relatable. I mean, how can you be doing a good job on security yet you can’t even get the security cameras to work in the prison for the worst type of criminals?
Somehow, what was a “boring” family drama was turning into a comedy of farce. Take the constant break down of MRT trains around 2017. Yes, we slowed the trains down but the general running the train system continued to collect a high salary and insist that everything was fine. In fact, when the general decided it was time for him to bow out, the casting directors in Singapore decided to find the man’s successor as Chief of Defense Force as his successor of the train system. Despite his inability to get to the route of the problem, the man was hailed as a hero for rescuing the system. How did he rescue the system? He sold the problem to the government, was hailed as a hero to his shareholders of which the most significant one was the government.
Somehow the great Singapore movie has staggered on despite the lack of production. In part, it’s been helped by the fact that the producers in other parts of the world have been more incompetent or rather their incompetence’s have been harder to hide. Whatever is said about access of our ministerial salaries, our Prime Minister has not been found with a billion in his personal bank account. Whatever is said of our handling of Covid-19, at least our Prime Minister is not proclaiming the good job he’s done as doctors struggle to get protection equipment in hospitals.
Having said all of that, it doesn’t mean that we’re doing well and Parti Liyani has helped exposed how the studio producing the Great Singapore Movie is has failed to produce a movie that we can relate to and believe.
What we are believing is the script that the script writers have lost control over. Ms. Liyani has just got leave of court to go after the police and prosecutors. We, the extras and audience on the set of the Great Singapore movie can’t help but believe that there is something rotten in our system and that this Indonesian maid is somehow going to force us to clean up. We sit riveted by what happens next. In the meantime, prominent figures having warning us not to prejudge Mr. Liew and reminding us what a great chap he is, despite the fact that what the evidence says. It goes without saying that the case has made the powers that be neither believable to relatable. If we had a choice about what theater we visit, we would walk out of the place showing us a movie that we cannot relate to or aspire to and move onto the place showing us something that we can watch.
The government needs to take action and change course. Slapping PORFOMA orders against people who say things they don’t like is not going to solve the problem. While it may be sometime before Singapore’s more liberal minded can “Parti,” the government will need to act in order to clean up certain things that are in danger of exploding.
This article was first published here.