Tan Pin Pin’s film ‘To Singapore With Love’ summed up in less than 50 words:
a few communists, some ex-PAP men & women, a student activist-turned-Oxford-educated lawyer, a Gaza activist and a folk singer walk into a cinema and tell their story to a camera.
What they all have in common: they all want to go home.
[Content warning: extreme patriotism, 70s protest songs that will make you cry]
[Spoiler alert: only one of them will make it home. In an urn.]
So I was part of the three busloads of people (and many others who found their own way) who rode form Singapore to Johor Bahru to watch To Singapore With Love, the latest film by Tan Pin Pin, and the latest film which the Media Development Authority of Singapore has given the very special rating of ‘not allowed for rating’ so it cannot be screened publicly in Singapore as it may be a threat to national security. It was just as well Malaysia’s amazing Freedom Film Festival 2014 was organizing a screening of it in JB as part of the Johore leg of their festival.
They needed two hotel function rooms to fit all of us. The filmmaker would later tell us how the film festival volunteers were cutting up bed sheets that very morning to stick to the walls to make the screens. Some of us sat on the floor. The chairs were reserved for seniors. Most of the people who came on our buses were either seniors, many of whom had some connection to the people in the film, or people in their 20s or 30s. There probably would have been a greater range of ages if the film had been screened over a weekend because of people with jobs, but it was cool to see a lot of young people because, you know, the future.
So what was the film like? It was a series of interviews with people who lived in the UK and Thailand. They were there because they had to escape Singapore for to escape detention/other political persecution in the 60s or 70s. Some of them disagreed with government policies, some were alleged a communists some were alleged activists who shouted a little too loudly, some were at the wrong place at the wrong time.
What they had in common: they wanted to go back but could not without being arrested or in a couple of cases, being made to publicly renounce their beliefs on national TV. They were all asked how long they have been away for. Some could tell you the exact day they left Singapore with two suitcases. Some weren’t quite sure and have to start counting the decades before realising holy fuck, about 40 years. In one of the first scenes, an exile in London asks Tan a question about whether she will have problems with the Singapore Broadcasting Corporation for this film and those of us who were alive when the SBC was a thing laughed.
You don’t have to feel sorry for the exiles. By the time they get interviewed they have made lives for themselves abroad. Comfortable lives. Started businesses, families, an NGO, written books. Three to four decades is too long to sit around wishing to go home. But not too long to keep holding out a little bit of hope that maybe one day they will be able to return the country they were born and grew up in, and in some cases, they country they fought for independence for. Some of them are still incredibly patriotic. Like the exile who wishes his son was a Singapore citizen so he could fight in the Singapore Armed Forces and protect the country, because he believes in Singapore’s need to defend itself, etc.
And maybe this is the real tragedy of the film: ok so anyone can make a life anywhere in the world if they put their mind to it, but it is another thing to be to be forced to flee the place you grew up in against your will because you love it and want it to change, just in a different way from the people in power. It is another thing to dedicate a large part of your life to working towards sovereignty and freedom from colonialism for the place you grew up, only to be exiled and never get to live as a free person in the country, now that it exists. And then be erased from history books. And yet, one exile still tells Pin Pin that she is sorry that they did not fight hard enough for democracy and freedom for the younger generations.
(but will the younger generation miss something we never had?)(do we give a shit?)
There are happy moments, though. There are two funerals we see for two different exiles. There will be a birthday party. There will be beautiful folk songs. And one of the most gut-wrenching poetry readings you will ever hear about Singapore. And there will be a scene where an exile stands at the shore of Johore Bahru and looks over the water to a place he escaped 37 years ago and may never return to again. And all of us that day watched this scene in a room in Johor Bahru and wondered the same thing: why?
[What everyone wants to know: is this film a threat to national security? If by ‘threat’ you mean ‘makes people think a bit differently about Singapore’s national security policies and the history we were taught’, then yes. If by ‘threat’ you mean ‘inspire people to smuggle 80-something-year-old exiled alleged communists to Singapore to start a Marxist revolution’, I would strongly advise you to go home because you are probably drunk.]
What the fuck can you do while waiting to watch this film:
• If you want to know more about the issues the film is on about, support Function 8, an organization which raises awareness about these kinds of things
• Take a look at this list of detainees . Look at the names, the occupations, the year each person was detained, their dates of release, and their fates. (Note: This is a partial list – the information is not complete due to issues such as the detainees’ concerns about privacy. So for those arrested in the 60s-80s, don’t worry too much if there’s no release date. Unfortunately, many of the supposed ‘terrorists’ detained after 9-11 are still detained without trial.)
• Support the nice people of Freedom Film Festival, Malaysia’s most established human rights film festival (going for over 10 years) which works tirelessly to support films like To Singapore With Love and get them screened and seen. They run on donations. And it comes to Singapore’s Arts House in November. This screening would not have been possible without them.