10 Singapore films that can give you some political education

In Singapore, party political films are against the law unless it is a documentary that presents actual events, persons or situations, in an untampered fashion, free from any form of dramatisation. The lawmakers see it as an undesirable medium for political debate in Singapore which can sensationalise political issues. Yet, this has not deterred filmmakers in Singapore from creating films that hold a mirror up to socio-political issues and uncomfortable truths. The past few years have seen filmmakers here depart from safe HDB chamber dramas to films about more complex issues like foreign labour, political history, political dissidents and the death penalty. There is a certain amount of activism intertwined with the practice of making films. If you don’t have something to say or care about anything, the struggles in putting together a film is almost not worth the pain. There has been so much good material floating around in the online and in the cinemas in the past years that you have no excuse not to get a little more educated about politics and society and become a little more ‘woke’. Here are 10 Singapore films we recommend you watch. 

To Singapore with love (2013, 70 min) by Tan Pin Pin 

This documentary is a collection of accounts from Singapore political exiles such as Tan Wah Piow and Ang Swee Chai. Some of them were activists, student leaders, others were card carrying communists. Though from different political persuasions, they all fled Singapore in the 1960’s, 1970s and 1980′s to escape the prospect of detention without trial carried out by the British Colonial Government and later, by the Singapore Government. They are now in their 60′s to 80′s spread across the globe and filmmaker Tan Pin Pin travels from Malaysia to Thailand to the English countryside to interview them. What she discovers is that the idea of Singapore is still very much on their minds. “Singapore oh Singapore, you are still on my mind, today and everyday” intones a poem written by one of them. As they recount their lives, we see a city that could have been. A love letter to Singapore, from the outside. 

The film was banned from public screening in Singapore on 10 September 2014, with the reasons that it “undermined national security”. Despite a petition by the film community and a re-submission by the filmmaker, the Film Appeals Committee upheld the ban. Outside Singapore, the film can be seen freely with no restrictions. Sold-out screening tours have been organised in USA, UK, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Malaysia. It has also screened and won awards at film festivals in Korea, UAE, Thailand and Malaysia. 

How to watch 
The film can only be privately screened in Singapore or in Singapore tertiary institutions if certain conditions are met. In addition, the film has been barred from being released through a VOD portal so it is only accessible to those logging in from a non-Singapore IP address via Vimeo

Apprentice (2016, 96 min) by Boo Junfeng 

Alan Shadrake wrote a book about Singapore’s death penalty called ‘Once a Jolly Hangman’ based on in-depth interviews with Singapore’s chief executioner for almost 50 years, Darshan Singh and other accounts of high profile cases. Based on this book, Apprentice tells the story of Sergeant Aiman who gets transferred to a maximum security prison and incidentally lands himself in the shoes of the apprentice to the country’s chief executioner, Rahim. Through the process of learning the ropes (pardon the pun) of the job, he confronts the horrors of the execution process, his personal past in which his own father was hanged, as well as the moral dilemma of performing the job of pulling the plug. 

Watching the film will make you marvel at how well-researched the film is and the maturity it displays in dealing with such complex emotions and personal struggles. Not being able to film this at Changi Prison, the crew built the fictitious Larangan Prison, a “Frankenstein” of a prison, patched together using multiple locations in Singapore and Australia. Apprentice had its world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival in 2016, in the Un Certain Regard section, and subsequently travelled to over 60 film festivals around the world. And it has a 88% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. 

Here is our review of the film. 

How to watch 
You can purchase the DVD at the Objectifs Centre for Photography and Film for $30. https://www.objectifs.com.sg/product/apprentice-dvd-boo-junfeng/ 

Snakeskin (2015, 105 min) by Daniel Hui 

It is the year 2066, and the sole survivor of an enigmatic cult recounts his country's traumatic history and the events that led to the rise and collapse of this cult. As he reminiscences, ghosts from 2014 and the years before appear as witnesses. Part dream documentary, part city symphony, this hybrid film traces the lineage of oppression as inscribed both in Singapore's physical landscape, as well as its collective unconscious. The narrative voice-over reflects on that which is forgotten, subjective, and polymorphic in history. Snakeskin is a thoughtful look at the legacy and future of Singapore, using a collection of narratives interweaved with one another to form a tapestry of memories associated with Singapore. The common thread running through these stories is an attempt to revisit and dismantle a certain version of ‘history’. Singapore’s first prime minister Lee Kuan Yew died in the year 2015, the year this film was released, and the debates that have surfaced about who owns the Singapore story (or rather ‘success story’) and all the SG50-induced nostalgia gave this film its political relevance. As Daniel shared in his interview with SINdie, he was interested in thinking about the national founding myth and he realised there were many histories that were either erased or purposefully forgotten, such as Malay cinema and the Chinese leftist movement. 

Here is our review of the film 
Here is our interview with Daniel Hui 

How to watch 
The film is currently unavailable in public, but you can write to 13littlepictures@gmail.com to request for the film. 

I Dream of Singapore (2019, 78 min) by Lei Yuan Bin 

I Dream of Singapore is an immersive, almost meditative documentary that revolves around the journey of Feroz, a migrant worker. Feroz suffered a terrible injury on his abdomen at a construction site and was denied proper medical treatment by his employer. Under the care of social workers from Dayspace, he awaits his return home. We witness the recovery of Feroz, alongside the acute loneliness he faces for most of his days. By trailing a single migrant worker’s journey back home, the film expands its vision from individual to community: we are invited to the migrant’s home, family, and the larger community of Bangladesh as well. Interweaving between the natural worlds and cityscapes of Bangladesh and Singapore, the film captures the broken bodies, stoic faces, surveilled dormitories, and sprawling construction sites plus shipyards that make up the migrant-labour flow from one of the world’s poorest countries to one of the richest. Ultimately, it casts a humanising light on a hot button topic of 2020 - migrant workers in Singapore and their trials and tribulations. 

Here is our review of the film 

How to watch 
The film is available on Video on Demand at $9.99 in this link. https://vimeo.com/ondemand/idreamofsingapore 

Unteachable (2019, 77 min) by Yong Shu Ling and Lisa Teh 

Education has always been a hotly contested topic in Singapore. Adding to the intensity is increased awareness of how our system measures up to that of other exam-driven powerhouses (South Korea, China), or of countries which take an entirely different approach altogether (the Nordic countries, most notably Finland). Unteachable follows the story of Damian, a struggling teenager at the bottom rung of Singapore’s academic ladder, and a young teacher Meixi, who is on a mission to transform the way learning is conducted in classes like his. Meixi grew up under the grades-centric system in Singapore and she challenges teenagers like Damian, deemed “unteachable” by society, to rekindle their natural love for learning. Convinced that the best way to master a subject is to take ownership of both learning and teaching, Meixi introduces Tutoriá (Tutorial Relationships) in Damian’s classroom. Originally from Mexico, Tutoriá redefines everything students and teachers think they know about learning in school. The documentary follows her on this mission to make Tutoriá succeed and the various obstacles she faces. “Mistakes are important”, says one of Meixi’s colleagues who makes several appearances in the film, appearing obliging at the start. But when push comes to shove, the time he spared Damian to clarify his Math answer was cursory. He quipped, “We just don’t have the time.” 

Here is our review of the film 

How to watch 
Follow the official Unteachable film site to get the latest information on the next screening of the film. https://unteachablefilm.squarespace.com/watch-the-film 

The Songs We Sang // 我们唱着的歌 (2015, 128 min) by Eva Tang 

On the surface, this film seems just like an anthology of xinyao (新谣) music over its active decade in the 80s and early 90s, something made for diehard fans of xinyao. But the film The Songs We Sang by Eva Tang proves to be more than nostalgic or a trip down memory lane. It is a history lesson that answers and also raises so many questions, with an undeniable nuance of pain and regret. Like why Mandarin has become the poorer cousin of English as the choice language among many Singaporean Chinese. Like the tumultuous chapter in Singapore’s education history that is Nanyang University and its eventual shutting down. Framed against the socio-political events that shaped Singapore and our culture, the film depicts a coming-of-age of our identity and attaches context and meaning behind the most recognisable xinyao hits sung over the years. One scene that stands out showcases former students of Nanyang University reuniting in a choral rendition of 挥手. One look across the choir screams ‘pioneer generation’ but it’s so hard to fathom the fact that some of them were part of the only kind of student activism we ever had in Singapore. They held more placards and banners than we’ve ever done for G-dragon and BTS. 

Here is our review of the film 

How to watch 
The film is currently not available but you can follow the official The Songs We Sang // 我们唱着的歌 facebook page to get the latest information on the next screening of the film. https://www.facebook.com/thesongswesang 

1987: Untracing the Conspiracy (2015, 54 min) by Jason Soo 

Filmmaker and art history lecturer Jason Soo found his film story after reading the book Beyond The Blue Gate by ex-detainee Teo Soh Lung. The film covers Operation Spectrum, an operation where 22 people were arrested under Singapore’s Internal Security Act (ISA) in 1987, accused of being involved in a Marxist conspiracy to establish a communist state. The detainees were tortured and then coerced into implicating themselves and their friends on public television. Featuring interviews with ex-detainees and political exiles, the film focuses on the first 30 days of their ordeal, including various physical and psychological techniques used by their interrogators. Very little is known about Operation Spectrum by the younger generation Singaporeans and Jason hopes this film will generate discourse among them. The film had been awarded the Best Southeast Asian Feature at Freedom Film Festival 2015 and had a limited run at The Projector. 

Here is our interview with Jason Soo on the film 

How to watch 
The film is available on YouTube for all to watch. Here is the link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eBJqJroWt3E 

1965 (2015, 130 min) by Daniel Yun and Randy Ang 

There was some hype built around the film 1965 mainly from early news that Tony Leung would play the role of Lee Kuan Yew in a star-studded production. Singapore actor Lim Kay Tong filled those shoes instead in the end in what became one of the several SG50 cinematic tributes in 2015. 1965 is a historical film marking Singapore’s independence. Framed through the perspective of Adi, a senior Malay man living in modern times, the film takes you through a period of rising racial tensions in Singapore, leading up to Singapore’s separation from Malaysia. A cast of thousands and elaborate set designs aside, the film raises questions about racial identity and national identity in a nation where immigrants form a large part of the social fabric. With what’s happening around the world, conversations about race cannot be more pertinent and urgent. 

Here is our interview with producer Daniel Yun and director Randy Ang
Here is our review of the film 

How to watch 
The film is available for watching on DVD. One place to buy it is Books Kinokuniya. https://singapore.kinokuniya.com/bw/9556100001849  

The Return (2015, 83 min) by Green Zeng 

The film follows Wen, an ex-political detainee, as he returns to society after many years of imprisonment. Arrested for being an alleged communist, he returns, an old man, to an uneasy reunion with his children. Wen also wanders through the city to see how his homeland has transformed into a shining metropolis. He is philosophical about his long detainment without trial and is ready to move on. But as the past collides with the present, unforeseen circumstances force his journey to take a tragic turn. The Return was selected for Venice International Film Critics' Week in July 2015 and has screened at several film festivals worldwide from Cairo to Hanoi to Kerala. 

Here is our interview with filmmaker Green Zeng 

How to watch 
The film is currently unavailable in public, but you can write to mirtillofilms@yahoo.com.sg to request for the film. 

Singapore Rebel (2005, 26 min) by Martyn See 

This short film by Martyn See is a chronicle of an early chapter of the political career of Dr Chee Soon Juan. Today, more of us have come to know about Dr Chee’s life thanks to social media but back then, due to the lack of channels, a documentary like this packed volumes. Dr Chee’s life has been quite a journey and so has this film’s. In 2005, the Singapore government banned the film, and Martyn was subjected to 18 months of police investigation for alleged violation of the Films Act. It was eventually passed by the censors in 2009 with a rating of M18 (Mature audience 18 years old). Singapore Rebel can be considered one of the earliest politically-themed films in Singapore and following that, Martyn has gone on to make other films such as ‘Zahari’s 17 Years’, a documentary on an ex-political detainee, and ‘Speakers Cornered’, a chronology of brief scenes from a street corner standoff between pro-democracy activists and the police. 

How to watch 
The film is available on YouTube for all to watch. Here is the link:

Politics is not for everyone but it doesn’t hurt to get a little education.
Previous Post Next Post

Contact Form