Censorship of Sigapore’s dark side

November 28, 2003
Singapore Democrats

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Alexa Olesen
Associated Press Writer
23 November 2003

They skip school, smuggle drugs and lash out with box cutters – hardly the teen image that strait-laced, orderly Singapore wants to show the world through its movies.

Indeed, even as “15” was winning praise at film festivals in Venice, Toronto and London, it was being suppressed by government censors at home, and is only now in Singapore theaters, with more than 20 cuts adding up to several minutes.

“Pulp Fiction” it isn’t, but director Royston Tan says it’s a faithful take on life in the high-rise projects that house many of tiny Singapore’s 4.3 million people.

The authentic flavor is heightened by the cast – real-life street kids Tan knew from teaching drama at high school.

The fact that such a movie could be made and shown even with cuts is a sign of changing times.

Wealthy Singapore is trying to shed its image of ferocious public hygiene rules, bans on chewing gum and long hair and low tolerance for political dissent.

This passion for discipline has historically been driven by a desire to maintain order and harmony among its Chinese majority and Malay and Hindu minorities. But Singaporean elders have lately concluded that to attract foreign business and encourage creativity in the high-tech industry, it has to lighten up.

The government invested more than $28,000 in Tan’s $115,000 film and paid his way to the foreign film festivals as part of a campaign to put itself on the world cultural map and encourage its own artists to be more active and outspoken.

“Right now the system is definitely opening up,” 27-year-old Tan acknowledges. “It’s a beginning, although my ultimate wish is that this film can be shown uncut.”

Even with cuts, it’s a grim chronicle of the violent, desperate and depraved everyday lives of five teenage boys.

One boy tears methodically into the flesh of his own forearm with a box cutter in a public bathroom, then slashes another kid’s face. A boy gags and pukes as he forces a butter-smeared condom filled with Ecstasy down his throat before smuggling it from neighboring Malaysia into Singapore.

Tan portrays life in Singapore’s cookie-cutter high-rises as a soul-destroying grind, where second and third generation immigrant families are locked in a vicious cycle of debt, violence and menial labor.

About one-third of the film is about one boy’s search for the perfect building from which to leap to his death.

Like their parents, the boys of “15” speak Mandarin Chinese peppered with dialect slang and are ridiculed at school and in their own neighborhoods for being unable to speak proper English, the Singaporean lingua franca from British colonial times. Consumed with defeated fury, they turn to gangs and drugs, or suicide.

The film is titled “15” because its main characters are that age and because it took just 15 days to film.

Singapore may not be entirely ready for “15.”

A columnist at Singapore’s Straits Times newspaper fretted about the impression a visitor from outer space would gain from Tan’s “horrifying vignettes of teen anguish.”

“He might think that Singapore is made up primarily of young Chinese gangsters and debt-ridden Chinese families,” wrote Ong Soh Chin.

But in the Today newspaper, reviewer Siew Kum Hong called it a “piece of art that Singaporeans ought to be proud of…a story that needs to be told of the seldom-seen underbelly of Singapore.”

The film is limited to just four movie houses and to audiences aged over 21, and won’t be issued on video or DVD. The movie hardly qualifies as a box office hit, having earned only about $57,000 since its October release.

The censors cut a close-up of male genitalia and acted on police advice to cut real life gang names and songs on the grounds they could incite violence.

And yet, the Singapore Prisons Department has requested a copy to show inmates in the hopes it will turn them away from crime, Tan said.

“I think this film has created division in the camps,” Tan says. “There
were people (in the government) who were fighting for the film and there were people praying this film would never come out.”