Still behind, four decades on

Seah Chiang Nee
The Star

After 46 years of regulated existence, Singaporean film producers are finding it tough to think of marketable fresh initiatives. There are times when they take the easy way out.

When I first arrived to work in Hong Kong, I gained the early impression that it was at least 10 years ahead of Singapore in television and films.

More than that, the people – the majority non-English speaking – seemed miles ahead of us in modern fashion design, music and performing arts, both eastern and western.

That was in 1973, before the arrival of Jurassic Park or the computer chip. The two cities were tough rivals in everything they did.

So how did Hong Kong churn out so many movies and TV drama shows that millions at home and abroad wanted to see?

As I was news editor of The Standard, heading a reporting team, I had a good view of how the city and its people worked.

It quickly dawned on me that despite Singaporeans’ higher academic and English language standards, we were lagging behind them in film and musical ideas.

In ideas and creativity – the catalysts of entertainment – Hong Kong was miles ahead.

A Macanese editor gave me another reason for it: Britain’s laissez faire attitude is a boon to actors and designers.

“That’s why Hong Kong has produced so many top talents. The colonial government lets them do anything within the law to make money,” he added.

“It was a perfect marriage. In response, the Hong Kong people dared to experiment. Besides, movies had a longer history here than in Singapore.

“With its heavy regulations and sanitised laws, Singapore won’t take over anytime soon.”

These thoughts resurfaced when I was reading recent criticisms on the Web that Singapore’s TV drama shows lagged poorly behind imports despite being in existence for 28 years.

If their views are anywhere justified, it means that the show business gap with Hong Kong, now a Chinese city, has widened.

In addition, the global competition has widened. New players like South Korea, Japan, China, India, have burst onto the scene with an awesome array of talents.

In mitigation, the republic is a relative newcomer. In 1982, it decided to enter the arena, hiring technical experts from Hong Kong to help produce local dramas for television, and moving later into films.

The Singapore challenge to Hong Kong, however, faces several obstacles.

Apart from strict censorship, although relaxed somewhat of late, these Mandarin TV series are the products of a state-owned channel, rather than private enterprise as elsewhere in Asia.

Although its seven TV channels and 14 radio stations are commercially run, some critics view the mixture of creative entertainment with officialdom (with all its rules and regulations) a bad idea.

Fully-owned by the government, MediaCorp has been producing 300 hours of Chinese drama annually.

On average, each episode is watched by 600,000 to one million viewers.

Not surprisingly, as foreign shows gained popularity in recent years, the level of criticism of local shows appeared to have risen.

“This is the effect of global competition, not surprising. It’s like everything else, trade, sports, etc,” said a TV executive. “We have to keep coming up with new ideas.”

This is the fundamental issue. After 46 years of regulated existence, many Singaporeans are finding it is tough to think of marketable fresh initiatives.

There were times when producers took the easy way out.

“Whether it is a local drama or a game show, much of what Singapore shows are copied from foreign countries like Hong Kong, Korea or Japan,” said a surfer.

“These foreigners are scoring higher ratings than our programmes because their story lines are changing all the time.”

Chris Tang wrote: “MediaCorp is a monopoly and funded by the government. It will always survive. Why would they be motivated to aim for excellence? It’s time to throw in some real competition!”

MediaCorp, however, differed. In fact, it has just announced hitting the highest viewership in 10 years – 2.7 million daily. The Mandarin Channel 8 has 1.8 million, and its sister channel, Channel U, about 1.1 million, the highest since 2004.

The biggest threat is cable, which is steadily taking away many young English-educated fans.

The next is the Korean wave, which despite its short history has taken a big bite of the market as well as of traditional rival Hong Kong.

Singapore is, however, whittling down Hong Kong’s lead as a bustling, exciting global city – thanks to its massive immigration expansion.

When I arrived in 1973, Hong Kong had a population of 4.2 million or twice Singapore’s 2.2 million at the time.

Today, the number of people here has reached 5.08 million – an increase of 130%.

By comparison, the Chinese city’s current population of 7.09 million is a rise of only 68%.

It also boasts of two highly profitable casinos (leaving aside the social impact) compared to Hong Kong’s none.

Some entertainment commentators believe that the future for locally-produced TV dramas may slide without some fundamental improvement.

Tan Chew Yean, entertainment journalist of the Chinese-language Lianhe Zaobao, said: “The main problem with local dramas is their lack of variety. All year round, we get regular doses of family drama.”

Account executive Ken Kuan, 28, said that he and his family had not followed a local drama series since subscribing to cable TV five years ago.

Many families have switched to Korean and Hong Kong shows.

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