Filmmaker, photographer and artist Tan Pin Pin is among the great contemporary voices of the art scene in Singapore, the city state to which most of her output has been devoted. Her work initially impresses through its formal diversity, unfailingly offering the radicalisation of a filmic resource: a record of the exhumation and removal of a tomb (belonging to the director’s grandparents) in the name of rapid urbanisation – Moving House (version one, 1997) – rubs shoulders with the immolation of a Barbie doll in Microwave (2000); a 38-minute sequence shot crossing the island taken from the Pan Island Expressway – 80km / h (2003) – is followed by a pointillist portrait of the city through its banned songs and dialects in Singapore Gaga (2005); a strictly visual kinetic collage of footage from television archives showing four decades of national celebration – 9th August (2006) – gives way to a strictly textual semantic interrogation of the word “remember” in Thesaurus (2012). If every one of these films boasts its own unique formal apparatus, they are all energised by the same critical task of describing, safeguarding and promoting a multi-ethnic Singapore, one that remains both multi-cultural and fraternal in the face of the government’s coercive standardisation policies. Moving House (version two, 2001), Gravedigger’s Luck (2003), Invisible City (2007), The Impossibility of Knowing (2010) and Yangtze Scribbler (2012) all confront death, from the results of criminal lives to the sometimes tiny vestiges human existence leaves behind, as well as providing support for those in danger of simply vanishing without trace. Such a sense of responsibility to collective history, which carries living individuals and dead bodies along with it like wisps caught in a whirlwind, actively seeks out every possible visual and aural means of first countering the Singapore authorities’ artificially imposed view of progress as a forced march away from independence, then repairing the damage caused to collective memory, culture and emotion.
From her first short film, Lurve Me Now (1999), an erotic fantasy involving two Barbie dolls – anticipating Albertina Carri’s Barbie también puede estar triste (‘Barbie Gets Sad Too’, 2001), shot in Argentina two years later – Tan Pin Pin has endured censorship. Her first documentary to achieve international success, Singapore Gaga, encountered censorship problems simply because the use of an ambiguous word in Malay – “animals” – at first caused it to be labelled a “threat to national security.” But with To Singapore, With Love (2013), which gave voice to Singapore’s political exiles, the entire film was banned, an act of prohibition which has not only been maintained to this day, but also extended to all distribution media.
Nicole Brenez: Can you tell us about your family background, education, artistic environment? Did your education in Law at Oxford, UK, helped you to confront situations of censorship?
Tan Pin Pin: I grew up in the 70’s and 80’s Singapore, at a time where economic imperatives trumped all other imperatives. The whole nation was marshaled into wealth creation and improving our GDP. My growing up years were surrounded by songs such as “Good better best, never let it rest!” Though our material quality of life improved quickly, civil rights were suspended. For example I found out recently while researching To Singapore, with Love, that over 800 people were arrested under the Internal Security Act in the 1970’s alone, a huge percentage for a small population of 2.3 million. In the days before the Internet, the arrests went under the radar, people simply disappeared or were later exiled. There is so much in the 1970’s that remains unaccounted for in the Singapore story.
My parents were the first few in their families to go to university. They were architects so we had a very interesting childhood spending weekends visiting construction sites. I went to state schools where art had a very small part in the curriculum. In my teens, I discovered the BBC World Service on the FM dial. By the time, I finished secondary school, I knew I wanted to get out of Singapore to go to England where it seemed more free and more humane.
I won a scholarship to study law at Oxford University, law for no particular reason other than I was more likely to secure a Singapore scholarship with that course. At Oxford, I discovered photography and art books in the city library. Within the first semester, I knew I was in the wrong course, I should have gone to art school instead. But I decided to finish the course to keep my scholarship. Meanwhile, I spent all my free time taking photos and developing prints in the dark room. If I had not left Singapore, I am not sure I would be making films today. In those striven times, art-making was too frivolous an undertaking and I would have had no support.
I was a lawyer for six days before I left the profession. In fact, I made my first film, Moving House (1996) as a trainee lawyer. Through the law course, I understood how power comes to be and is devolved. I also learnt the difference between being legally right and morally right. In Singapore, the two are sometimes very far apart.
NB: What was your first encounter with Singaporean censorship? Can you explain the alleged reasons? Did you made any cut in the film?
TPP: My first encounter with Singapore censorship and self-censorship was meeting the first opposition Member of Parliament, the legendary J.B. Jeyaretnam [Leader of the Workers’ Party, center-left, from 1971 to 2001] on the street in the 1990’s. Through a series of defamation suits by the PAP [People’s Action Party, center-right, ruling the country continuously since 1959] leaders, he became bankrupt so he couldn’t run for office. I saw him on the street, ringing a bell, selling copies of his Party’s publication, I wanted to buy a copy but I was too scared to be seen doing that, as if I would be guilty by association, of what, I wasn’t sure.
To this day, the sight of this solitary man seeking out a space to speak, and my woeful avoidance of him still haunts me. Later, two Singapore film lecturers made a short documentary about him, Vision of Persistence [2002, by Kai Sing, Mirabelle Ang and Christina Mok]. The film was mysteriously pulled out from the Singapore International Film Festival (SIFF) last minute. I heard the filmmakers were threatened and the film has disappeared.
My first personal encounter of censorship was for a student short I made, Lurve Me Now (1999). It was slated to show at SIFF. It featured a Barbie doll being felt up by a hand amidst heavy breathing. The film was banned by the censors for, of all things, its sound track. Censorship through a direct film ban, through redacting Chinese dialects in the mass media in the late 1970’s or through the sudden withdrawal of the Vision of Persistence, was all it took to render the something non-existent. I did not make any recuts for the censors, it did not occur to me to bend to their will.
NB: When you decided to shoot To Singapore, With Love (2013), were you already aware that your documentary will endure banning?
TPP: I did not start out to make this documentary. Like many of my other films, To Singapore, with Love took shape organically. I was making a video about Singapore’s coastline from afar. In the process of researching the idea of being outside, I stumbled upon Escape from the Lion’s Paw [Escape from the Lion’s Paw: Reflections of Singapore’s Political Exiles, Soh Lung Teo, Yit Leng Low, Singapore, Function 8, 2012], a book of first-person accounts by Singapore political exiles, people who remain outside the country, but not by choice. I decided to interview one of them, Dr. Ang Swee Chai, based in London, who by chance was in nearby Malaysia at that time. I was so moved by her account of exile that I decided to change focus and To Singapore, with Love was born. Later, I interviewed eight more exiles in London, Malaysia and Thailand. Some have not been back for more than 50 years. They talk about why they left, but they mostly talk about their lives today and their relationship with Singapore. They were of different political persuasions and different generations of activists. Some were communists, some were student activists, others were from the Christian Left.
I made this film because I myself wanted to better understand Singapore. I wanted to understand how we became who we are by addressing what was banished and unspoken for. I was also hoping that the film would open up a national conversation to allow us to understand ourselves as a nation better too.
I realised that this film could be banned when I was editing. Two films featuring former long-term political detainees talking about their detention without trial by another Singaporean director, Martyn See, were banned too [Said Zahari: 17 years, 2007, about Said Zahari ; Lim Hock Siew, 2010]. I knew that any suggestion that the Internal Security Act was used to detain and silence political opponents (rather than just communists) would be problematic to the state’s cleaned up version of the Singapore story.
Though fearful, I finished the film, partly inspired by the idealism of the people I had interviewed. I only exhaled when I sent the film out of the country. It premiered at Busan International Film Festival. In the end, the film was indeed banned because it was a “threat to national security”.
NB: Did all the exiles you wish to interview agreed to be filmed? Were they under surveillance?
TPP: The people I contacted all agreed to be filmed. I had sent them my older films so that they could get a sense of my work. I am not sure if they are under surveillance. They have been away from Singapore for more that 35 to 50 years.
NB: Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong declared: “the political exiles featured in the documentary should not be allowed the chance to air their own ‘self-serving’ accounts of the fight against communism”. Is it usual in Singapore that a PM makes public comments about a film?
TPP: The bedrock of the Singapore narrative is built upon her fight against the communists more than 50 years ago. Using all the laws and armory at our disposal, we won that war and look how far we have come today. Hence it behooved Prime Minister, when queried, to justify the ban using the same Cold War rhetoric that the modern Singapore state was built upon.
The film’s main subtext, that in certain cases, the state overused its powers to silence political opponents was not addressed. Instead, the PM and all the government responses harped on the crimes committed by communists (which those interviewees who were communists did not deny) totally ignoring the substance of the film, which shows what a self-serving act of censorship the ban was.
The PM also said that my film was “one-sided”. I do not believe that balance or neutrality are useful ways to think about history, especially Singapore history. I am interested in providing alternatives. In fact these alternatives ‘balance’ out the dominant accounts propagated by textbooks and state propaganda.
The whole event clarified for me that we do not own our history. Films are banned or disappear, archives even those relating to events that happened more than 50 years ago are out of bounds, all to protect the official version of our history.
NB: A collective of 350 Singaporean organized a travel in Malaysia to attend a screening of To Singapore, With Love. Can you tell us about such an event? Is your film still prohibited in Singapore, even through the internet?
TPP: If one wants to learn about the reach of power in Singapore, they could study the immediate aftermath of this ban.
The film was originally slated to world premiere with my other films Invisible City (2007) and Singapore GaGa (2005) in a triple-bill organised by National University of Singapore (NUS). When the ban was announced, the university remained silent even though they were the organisers of the presentation. In less dysfunctional democracies, the organisers would be the first to speak for the film.
Instead, on the same day, 40 leading artists, filmmakers and civil society activists, most of whom had not seen the film, spoke for the film with a short statement asking the censors to reconsider the ban and to allow different expressions of our past.
A week later, several twenty something civil society activists, using social media, found anonymous donors and chartered coaches to go to neighbouring Johor Bahru, Malaysia, to watch the film where it was slated to screen at the Freedom Film Festival (FFF). So one afternoon, more than 350 Singaporeans crossed the border, curious to see what the fuss was about. FFF is a small travelling human rights festival. To cope with the unexpected swell in numbers, they opened more screening rooms throughout the hotel. We had to use bed sheets to erect screens and borrow extra projectors. I never would have imagined a Singapore film premiere (in Malaysia!) such as this, but at the same time I felt glad that Singaporeans marched with their feet to go where Singapore laws cannot reach to find out for themselves.
Today, the film can screen privately in Singapore, but public and ticketed screenings are forbidden, DVDs cannot be sold here too. The film can screen overseas, so apart from the festival circuit, Singaporeans overseas have also organized public screenings in Australia, Hong Kong, UK, USA and Canada. Singaporean students in USA and London have also organised campus tours of the film.
It can be seen online on the Vimeo VOD site, but if you access it from Singapore, you will see a “Not available in your region” message. The censors prohibited me to let those with Singapore IP addresses have access.
NB: How do you feel about the future of Singapore, which, in a way, is the time set in your new work, Pineapple Town (2015)?
TPP: Pineapple Town is a short film that was commissioned to celebrate 50 years of Singapore’s Independence. In the film, a mother tries to find out more about her adopted baby’s past. The final part of the film is set in the future where the adoptive mother brings her young daughter to visit the little Malaysian town where she was born to acknowledge her past, even the troubled bits. The film is hopeful, it shows it is ok to face up to the past, not bury it.
NB: Would you have an advice to formulate for filmmakers in repressive or even dictatorial situations from all over the world?
TPP : I proffer this advice that was given by Dr. Poh Soo Kai at his book launch. He is a former political detainee who was featured in To Singapore, with Love. His book is called Life in a Time of Deception [Function 8 Ltd and Pusat Sejarah Rakyat, 2016].
He quotes from Paul A. Baran [Professor of Economics at Stanford University], who said in 1931, in the looming spectre of Hitler: “And if the tribulations of the political humdrum and the disappointments of our last decade have caused many of you to desire some political tranquility, to desire a vacation from politics, you must repress this attack of weakness with all your might. This desertion from the political battleground is the greatest crime against humanity that one can commit, because the others, the reactionary backwards striving forces never quit, never allow themselves a vacation from politics. And if you, infuriated and embittered, now renounce the political struggle; if you sulkily stand off to the side with a dismissive wave of your hand; then you leave the politics to the others; then you subject yourself to their domination.”
Full account of the ban
Paris-Singapore, March 2016.
Deep thanks to Silke Schmikle.