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5 January 2004
Acclaimed film dubbed a threat to Singapore’s national security
With his spiky hair, infectious bonhomie and casual dress sense, the 27-year-old Singaporean film-maker Royston Tan is not obvious as a threat to national security.
He has more than two dozen awards and his debut feature film, 15, last year became the first movie from Singapore to compete at the Venice film festival.
“15 is the best Singaporean work for the last few years,” said Philip Cheah, director of the Singapore international film festival, of the drama about a teenage gang of misfits struggling to survive in the abandoned underbelly of the city state’s supposedly squeaky-clean society.
But Singapore’s police, reflecting the government’s obsession with social order and national stability, dubbed the film a threat to national security.
Much of 15, which is cast with real teenage gang members, has no discernible plot, due partly to the fact that one of the stars was arrested for stabbing another gang member halfway through filming. It is a no-holds-barred, fly-on-the-wall part-documentary, part-drama of their unconventional lifestyle.
One “actor” repeatedly slashes his wrists with a box cutter, another forces a condom packed with drugs down his throat to smuggle overseas, two pierce each others’ faces to insert studs and one squirms as he gets a rudimentary tattoo.
“The act of inflicting pain on themselves is like a form of rebellion,” Tan said. “I think I do have a responsibility [to intervene] but I have a greater responsibility to tell the audience how they lead their lives.
“You know that shows a very real side of their lives and there’s a growing number of kids like this.”
Police statistics confirm this. Crimes committed by children aged seven to 15 rose 56% in Singapore in the first six months of this year compared with the same period last year, while youth crime in 2002 was 55% higher than in 2001.
But Singaporeans have no need to learn about this niche of their society in such a graphic way and through a vehicle with no moral message, according to the authorities – even though the Singapore Film Council funded 25% of 15’s S$200,000 (68,000) production costs.
“The police were concerned about scenes which featured real-life gang chants which had resulted in gang fights when they were sung in public places,” said a spokeswoman for the Media Development Authority, which oversees censorship. “The film also named actual secret societies and their operational grounds which the police felt would serve to promote and give prominence to these gangs.”
The censorship board reportedly wanted only one cut before approving 15’s release in Singapore, a brief shot of a 17cm (7in) penis, while the police insisted on 26 further deletions. After four months of deliberations 15 was released with about 10 of its 100 minutes expunged, but with an 18 rating and not in suburban cinemas.
Tan had prepared a version for Singapore with the penis and a few other shots deleted but was not prepared for the scale of the controversy. But he says he is unable to discuss the way his film was treated.
“I’ve been advised not to talk about censorship, that we should move on,” he said, admitting only that one of the stars, Shaun Tan (no relation), had told him police had interrogated him.
“Shaun [told me he] was threatened to be stripped and have cold water poured over him if he didn’t give the answers they wanted,” he said. “It’s strange I haven’t been questioned. I offered myself but they didn’t want to speak to me.”(Emphasis added)
The police declined to comment on this allegation.
Singaporeans’ desire to see 15 was unambiguously demonstrated on the only occasion it was shown uncensored, at the Singapore international film festival. “The 1,002 tickets sold out in less than a day, breaking the record for the festival,” Tan said.
But perhaps 15’s greatest accolade was not winning the international film critics’ award at the festival, but the authorities’ response.
Last month the national crime prevention council and police released their own 90-minute feature about gang life and the consequences of teenage recidivism, After School.
“We were told this film was made to correct the image of Singapore that 15 did not give,” Tan said. “They said 15 is an extreme film while their film brings out the right consequences of crime.
“That’s the biggest compliment that somebody could ever give me.”
The executive director of the crime prevention council, Lee Chee Chiew, denies this, saying he has never seen 15 and cannot comment on any comparison.
A police spokesman, Acting Superintendent Ang Poon Seng, said the decision to make a film was merely “to harness the power of movies and their widespread popularity among teenagers” and had nothing to do with 15.
The two films’ styles are undoubtedly very different and After School is laced with such moralising soundbites as: “There’s nothing to lose, just walk away”; “The police are so powerful they can target anyone”; “How can he survive if he has a criminal record?”; and “The things that come free are actually the most expensive.”
“The films differ in terms of treatment and messaging,” the Media Development Authority spokeswoman said.
“After School is about love and the importance of family bonding, and carries a clear anti-crime message. 15 focuses on secret societies and teen gangs, and has no clear moral message.”