copyright 2003, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
No. 46


Contemporary Singapore filmmaking:
history, policies and Eric Khoo

By Tan See Kam, Michael Lee Hong Hwee and Annette Aw

Our paper offers a brief history of contemporary Singapore filmmaking, as seen in the context of both public and private initiatives since the last decade to revive a once vibrant local filmmaking industry.[1] During the “revival” period, the independent production company, Zhao Wei Films, owned by Eric Khoo, has been one of the most active players. Sometimes this company produces wholly independent works and sometimes it makes movies in collaboration with state film bodies such as Singapore Film Commission (SCF) and Raintree Pictures. In this paper, we analyze only the former corpus of Khoo’s work, that is, his early films from 1990-1997,[2] with a particular focus on what has been regarded as the “breakthrough”[3] film of the “revival” period, 12 Storeys (in Chinese: Shi Er Lou; [4] dir. Eric Khoo, 1997).

We analyze Khoo’s work in relation to contemporary Singapore society, against the background of local filmmaking practices and policies. Positing the films as counter-discourse, we investigate their complicated role in the way they comment on state practices and ideology, directly or indirectly offering a critical response to PAP-dominated political culture.[5] As critique, the films represent a growing awareness among the current generation of independent filmmakers about the need to provide alternative ways of “seeing” the nation-state. That is to say, Khoo’s early films would approximate the kind of “critical requisite” which the cultural critic Kuo Pao Kun has called for:

The rise of the knowledge economy initiated a paradigmatic shift... The collective mentality which served the country well in its industrialization phase is rapidly becoming redundant. Individual initiative marks the character of the new labour, something a dominant state and a compliant people decidedly lack... If [art] was at all dismissible in the past, it has now become a critical requisite in the nurture of children for the knowledge society.[6]

Contemporary Singapore filmmaking: a portrait

Film in Singapore developed in a unique historical situation, as part of a multi-ethnic and multicultural society, reflecting the city’s demographic and cultural variety...[F]rom the earliest years, film production in Singapore has been subjected to a variety of cultural, economic and political influences: Chinese, Indian, British, Japanese, American and Malay.[7]


You know you’re watching a [contemporary] Singaporean movie, when ...

•There’s a reference to food or money in the title (Mee Pok Man, Chicken Rice War, Money No Enough and all their copycats).

•Singlish[8] is uttered with a vengeance, after being chased out of TV.

•A three-degrees-of-separation chart for every movie reveals a link to Eric Khoo or Jack Neo.

•The soundtrack lets you hear great Singaporean music you never knew existed, like from Tanya.

•You spot the all-too-familiar faces of TV actors, and realize there are no bona fide movie stars in Singapore anyway.[9]

Emerging hesitantly in prewar colonial Singapore,[10] the local filmmaking industry boomed in the postwar years. It then ended when Cathay Organisation’s Cathay-Keris Studio (established in 1953) closed in 1972, some three years after Shaw Organisation (founded in 1924) shut down its studio, Malay Films Production (MFP, established in 1947).[11] Cathay-Keris’ demise in post-independent Singapore[12] in the early 70s marked the end of a golden era of local filmmaking. Together, the two studios made some 300 Malay language movies,[13] which reportedly had reached numerous ethnic communities. These postwar films were variously directed by Indians, Filipinos and Malays, and were financed by Chinese magnates. All featured Malay actors, most trained in Bangawan, Malay opera.

The PAP-led government did not come to the aid of the once vibrant filmmaking industry. Its policies for the newly independent country were generally based on developmental economism, which emphasized rapid industrialization and modernization. This emphasis accompanied the political rise of Singapore as a one-party dominated, depoliticized, technocratic and administrative nation-state, a phenomenon coinciding with the PAP government’s social engineering policies.[14] It also led to increasingly strict media censorship.[15] These factors, together with the government’s anathema towards developing infrastructures in the domain of culture and the arts by way of funding, training or education, contributed to the eventual demise of local filmmaking activities.[16] During this period, Shaw Organisation and Cathay Organisation continued to be the major film distributors and exhibitors serving the domestic market, which in the meantime grew and expanded steadily.

In the 1990s Singapore saw a gradual re-emergence of local commercial filmmaking activities, beginning with the controversial Medium Rare (dir. Stan Barrett and Arthur Smith,[17] 1991), which if nothing else, revealed a lack of local filmmaking talent and related professional expertise.[18] The filmmaking “revival” period came about through a combination of initiatives from both the public and private sectors, including that of entrepreneurial individuals. The PAP government’s efforts to expand the service sector in response to the recession of the mid-1980s included identifying filmmaking as a service industry and a potential economic growth area.

Then the government pushed for Singapore to become a regional hub for international film production and distribution with state of the art media production and postproduction facilities. This push saw the setting up of filmmaking and related media studies programs at local tertiary institutions. Educational grants that funded overseas training for film industry professionals also became available. To encourage investments in media related projects, the government further offered attractive tax break packages to joint capital ventures. Meanwhile stringent film censorship rules were “liberalized.” This resulted in 1991 in an age-based film classification system, which allowed for more product variety, and the relaxation of censorship also led to the mushrooming of cineplexes, showing mostly overseas films.[19]

Peaking in 1999, and extending into the new millennium, the revival period has generated a total of 37 feature films.[20] Mostly on celluloid, they also include six DV-films, with the first, Stories About Love (dir. James Toh, Abdul Nizam[21] and Cheah Chee Kong),[22] released in 2000. Two of these DV-films, Stamford Hall (2000) and Hype (2001), are amateur attempts by university students. Otherwise the “revival” films are all professional efforts. They generally draw upon established genres such as family drama, horror, action thriller, comedy and farce, and they may be grouped into three production-types: local independent productions, local+transnational collaborations, and local+Hong Kong coproductions.[23]

Productions in the first category do not receive any form of financial assistance from the state: they are the efforts of independent producers. The second category does not preclude wholly independent productions, but it additionally contains semi-independent (with finances from state film bodies) and wholly state productions. That which most distinguishes the first two production-types is the local and transnational divide in the creative aspect. In local independent productions, the director(s) would all be local. This is also generally the case with the cast. Examples include 12 Storeys (1997) and Stories About Love (2000). This is not always the case of local+transnational collaborations since the directors and lead actors concerned may be foreign, though not exclusively so; examples include Medium Rare (1991), Liang Po Po—The Movie (in Chinese: Liang Po Po; dir. Teng Bee Lian, 1999), Song of the Stork (dir. Jonathan Foo and Nguyen Phan Quang Binh, 2002).[24]

Finally the third category refers to joint ventures between local and Hong Kong producers; the former may involve independent or state film bodies. Such coproductions would have a multinational cast, though mainly with actors of “Chinese” origin, be they from Singapore, Hong Kong or Taiwan. The directors are invariably from Hong Kong—for example, Derek Yee with The Truth about Jane and Sam (in Chinese: Zhen Xin Hua; 1999), Gao Lin Pao with Lucky Number (in Chinese: Bailiu Libai; 1999) and Oxide Pang and Danny Pang with The Eye (in Chinese: Jian Gui; 2002). The local producer in this instance is most likely Raintree Pictures, the filmmaking arm of the government-owned Media Corporation of Singapore, or MediaCorp; MediaCorp also manages the Television Corporation of Singapore (TCS) and Radio Corporation of Singapore (RCS).

Ethnicity and Singapore film production

In the first two types of production, the local directors are mostly young Chinese-Singaporeans, under the age of 35 at the time of their feature debut. Some had overseas training. For example, Eric Khoo of Mee Pok Man (1995) and Lim Suat Yen of The Road Less Travelled (in Chinese: Guidao; 1997) respectively went to film school in Australia and United States. Other directors such as Colin Goh of Talkingcock—The Movie (2002; DV-film) and Royston Tan of 15—The Movie (in Chinese: Shi Wu; 2003) are largely self-taught. Some older directors come from the TV industry, including MTV, for example, Jack Neo with That One No Enough (in Chinese: Na Ge Bu Gou; 1999), Daisy Chan with The Tree (in Chinese: Haizi Shu; 2001) and Jonathan Foo with Song of the Stork (2002).

Actors and actresses similarly come from diverse backgrounds. They include local TV celebrities (e.g. Jack Neo, Zoe Tay and Gurmit Singh) and stage performers (e.g. Lim Kay Tong and Lucilla Teoh). Others are amateurs, including real-life street kids (e.g. Shaun Tan and Melvin Chen of 15—The Movie[25]). Yet others are big names from Hong Kong, Taiwan and Thailand, for instance, Aaron Kwok Fu-sing (AD 2000; in Chinese: Gong Yuan 2000; dir. Gordan Chan,[26] 2000), Angelica Lee Sin-jie (The Eye, 2002) and Chutcha Rujinanon (The Eye), respectively, or relatively unknown American actors such as David Calig (Tiger’s Whip; dir. Victor Khoo,[27] 1998). Finally homegrown “Chinese” actors and actresses appear in all the three categories of productions, usually in a lead role. “Other” local races mostly get minor, supporting roles, with the exception of Andrea De Cruz (Tiger’s Whip) and Gurmit Singh (One Leg Kicking; dir. Khoo Koh, 2002); both are local TV personalities.

The cumulative effect of this casting practice makes Singapore on film look like, as Colin Goh puts it, “some amorphous Chinese city.” Asserting that this is not the Singapore he knows (“I have friends from every race”), Goh, a Chinese-Singaporean lawyer turned freelance cartoonist and then filmmaker, thus directed Talkingcock—The Movie (2002) with “a multiracial cast picked from the street.”[28] This DV-film and other “revival” films provide a stark contrast to the movies of the golden period.

Past era films chiefly starred Malay actors and featured Malay characters. In contrast, none of the “revival” films uses Malay dialogue. Instead the dialogue now contains the gamut of English, Mandarin, local Chinese dialects, Singlish and their permutations and combinations. While reflecting the country’s multiracial and multicultural character, this language mixture also suggests the marginal role the indigenous Malay language (or for that matter, Indian languages) plays in contemporary Singapore society.

The production crew may have a multiethnic configuration, but present day independent film companies are akin to Cathay-Keris and MFP in that they are in “Chinese” hands. These quotation marks signal that the “Chinese” are now Singapore nationals (as opposed to emigrants from China or colonial subjects of British Malaya), and that these companies, being independent, do not operate on a studio system with a stable of filmworkers on regular payroll.

Cathay Organisation’s production output in recent years has not amounted to its making a comeback in the filmmaking business. It did make Army Daze (dir. Ong Keng Sen, 1996), A Chinese Ghost Story—The Animation (in Chinese: Xiao Qian, dir. Tsui Hark,[29] 1997), and That One No Enough (1999).[30] As Cathay’s chief executive, Meileen Choo, put it at the time of Army Daze,

[I]f we do one movie a year, it will help the local film industry get a start.[31]

Cathay Organisation has yet to make another film since That One No Enough, but it still focuses on distributing and exhibiting films, as does Shaw Organisation.[32] As distributors and exhibitors, both companies face stiff competition for a share of the immensely lucrative local market from their business rivals, especially the GV chain of cinemas formed in 1992,[33] which now owns the most screens.[34]

As film consumers, Singaporeans have many choices. In addition to local films, they literally have at their feet mainstream movies, art house films and/or indies from East Asia (China, Hong Kong, India, Japan, Korea and Taiwan), Southeast Asia (e.g. the Philippines and Thailand), North America (United States/Hollywood and Canada), Europe (e.g. Britain and France), and Australia and New Zealand. Singaporeans are some of the world’s most avid film consumers. On average, between 1991 and 2001 viewers here spent in excess of S$100 million per year on movie tickets.[35] Such statistics make local producers and their supporters look for a renewal of the once vibrant local filmmaking economy. Seeing promise in this movie-loving audience leads local filmmakers to aspire to success and fame, if not fortune.

Sadly, many have become a “one film wonder,” with three conspicuous exceptions: Eric Khoo, Jack Neo, and Daniel Yun, all often collaborating with each other. Eric Khoo owns the independent production company, Zhao Wei Films, and is the first local filmmaker to win international critical recognition for his features, namely, Mee Pok Man (1995) and 12 Storeys (1997). In more recent years, Zhao Wei Films has done collaborations with government funded film bodies such as Raintree Pictures, notably, Liang Po Po—The Movie (1999) and One Leg Kicking (2001). For these films, Khoo’s involvement has been that of coproducer and not director. Raintree, headed by CEO Daniel Yun, is now the country’s most active film producer and has made eight feature films, mostly in collaboration with local or Hong Kong producers.

Jack Neo, on the other hand, is primarily a comedian who became a household name by hosting the TCS show, Comedy Night (Gao Xiao Xin Dong; 1995-2002), and from 2002 on, another successful TCS Chinese variety show: Top Fun (Huan Xiao Dian Feng). Neo has also worked with Khoo in two film projects, first as an actor in 12 Storeys (1997) and then as actor, scriptwriter and coproducer for Liang Po Po (1999), made in association with Raintree and Zhao Wei. The script for the latter film features an immensely popular 85-year-old granny character of same name whom Neo plays on Comedy Night.[36] In the interim, he has scripted and acted in Money No Enough (in Chinese: Qian Bu Gou Yong; dir. Tay Teck Lock, 1998), which turns out to be the country’s top grossing local film of all time.[37] In addition to That One No Enough (1999), he has also directed the hit-comedy, I Not Stupid (in Chinese: Xiao Hai Bu Ben; 2002), which he additionally scripts and acts in.[38] In short, Neo is not only a highly versatile TV comedian/filmmaker, but also a most bankable local film personality.

The phenomenal success of Money No Enough and also Glen Goei’s Forever Fever in the same year (1998) brought about a sudden flurry of investors’ interest in film. The following year saw a two-fold increase in film production, a peak that has yet to be surpassed. Of the eight local features released in 1999, three (The Truth About Jane and Sam, That One No Enough and Liang Po Po) were local hits, but only in the qualified sense that their domestic sales exceeded their production costs. The rest were all box-office stinkers, including Money No Enough’s copycat, Lucky Number (1999). As a consequence, investors’ euphoria-driven optimism quickly subsided. If Money No Enough earned S$5.8 million in domestic sales, the producer’s eventual share was S$400,000—slightly less than seven percent of the total domestic sale. When compared to the production cost (excluding fees),[39] this was less than 50 percent return, therefore a small profit by commercial standard. But for Singapore filmmaking to have long-term commercial prospect, local producers need to sell their films beyond the domestic market. As we shall see in the next section, Raintree’s production strategies reflect such a growing awareness about distribution.

State film initiatives and cultural economic policies

Can we have a Singapore Arts Centre by just bringing all the arts of the world to Singapore without our own education, without our own creativity?[40]

The Singapore Film Commission (SFC) and Raintree Pictures emerged in the same year as the Money No Enough’s success story. These two state initiatives also correspond with the official effort to remake Singapore as a “world class city,” inhabited by a gracious people more interested in the finer things in life such as the arts than in mere materialist pursuits. State film initiatives as such also complement and supplement extant independent film organizations—namely, the Singapore Film Society (registered in 1958), the Singapore International Film Festival (SIFF, launched in 1987), and the Substation (founded in 1991 to provide an alternative arts space).[41]

Set up with a seed fund worth S$2.5 million,[42] some five months before Raintree was founded in September 1998, SFC’s mission is to address “the film industry’s needs” and to “encourage, upgrade and develop Singapore filmmaking talent through training activities” by providing “funding for productions, training and film-related travel.”[43] In concrete terms, SFC has granted scholarships for film-related training, held the Master’s Series to promote film education,[44] and cosponsored the annual Singapore International Film Festival (SIFF). It has additionally funded local productions, occasionally collaborating with Raintree Pictures and Zhao Wei Films.

Financially better endowed than SFC, Raintree mainly does production. With Media Asia (Hong Kong), it coproduced the most costly Singaporean film, AD 2000. But this US$5 million (approximately S$9 million) action thriller contrasts with other revival film budgets. These range from the high of S$1 million to S$2.62 million to the moderate of S$300,000 to S$900,000 to the “shoe-string” budgets of S$18,000 to S$150,000. Although a stinker at the box office everywhere, AD 2000 nonetheless fits into Raintree’s production agenda: to make “truly international and ‘borderless’” movies that would “[raise] the profile of the company in the region” and “travel beyond Asia.”[45] For Raintree, finding the “right mix of local and regional talents” seems crucial. In AD 2000, this mix consisted of one notable Hong Kong director, Gordon Chan; one Hong Kong superstar, Aaron Kwok Fu-sing; and two TCS-MediaCorp celebrities, Phyllis Quek and James Lye. The same kind of mix characterized Raintree’s other two Hong Kong coproductions, The Truth About Jane and Sam (1999) and The Eye (2002).

Another variation of this mix for the same end can likewise be founded in the two Raintree’s local+transnational collaborations, Liang Po Po (1999) and The Tree (2001). The first was Raintree’s debut. It was made in association with Eric Khoo’s Zhao Wei Films and cast Hong Kong comic star Eric Tsang opposite Jack Neo who cross-dressed as Liang Po Po. Solely financed by Raintree, The Tree starred TCS-MediaCorp’s soap queen, Zoe Tay, and Hong Kong star, Francis Ng Chun-yu, the latter also appearing in AD 2000. The films were respectively directed by TCS-MediaCorp trained Teng Bee Lian and Daisy Chan. The “regionality” of Raintree’s films has also expanded to find symbolic expression in location shooting in Singapore, Hong Kong and Thailand which variously make up the films’ backdrops.

In addition to using local celebrities from its parent company, MediaCorp, Raintree has the added advantage of state finance that allows it to mount major publicity campaigns for its films, pay good salaries to regional stars, and partake in expensive productions, estimated by local standards. Raintree and correspondingly the MediaCorp celebrity-actors get transnational exposure. Its coproductions allow it and its stars and directors to hitch a ride into pan-Asian film markets. The government hopes such films will become significant cultural exports.

Meanwhile back home, Raintree actively fosters ties between the TV industry and the filmmaking community, especially in its predominantly local productions, often made with Zhao Wei Films and/or SFC. Apart from Liang Po Po, Raintree’s other collaborations with Zhao Wei are One Leg Kicking (2002) and 15—The Movie (2003), both also supported by SFC. Prior to this, SFC had one other coproduction with Raintree: Chicken Rice War (in Chinese: Qiao He Ji Yuan; dir. Cheah Chee Kong, a.k.a. CheeK, 2001). Presently, SFC has planned four more coproductions, telemovies, with Raintree.[46]

SFC’s many activities and Raintree’s production strategies, whether at the local or regional and transnational level, underscore what Lily Kong has called “cultural economic policies”[47] more than cultural policies per se. In her paper, “Cultural Policy in Singapore: Negotiating Economic and Socio-cultural Agendas” (2000), Kong differentiates between these two types of policies: For her, cultural economic policies seem like cultural policies but have an economic-driven agenda; the chief aim of which is to nurture the arts as a potential cash cow for the state and to make the arts part of the state’s economic base. Cultural policies, on the other hand, support cultural practitioners and the socio-cultural agenda of artists.

Kong mainly attributes the prevalence of cultural economic policies to MITA (Ministry of Information, Communication and the Arts; formerly Ministry of Information and the Arts, formed in 1991). MITA largely oversees the promotion of artist pursuits and cultural endeavours in keeping with state “world class city” discourse. In her paper, Kong generally discusses how technocrats in government have had control over the Singapore polity since independence in 1965. In her particular analysis of MITA’s public pronouncements, it is evident that MITA’s promotion of the arts has consistently sought to push Singapore in the direction of becoming an “international market for the arts,” with the arts understood here as not different from rubber, spices, oil, Asian Currency Units or gold futures.[48] Not only that, cultural practitioners who object to such a push are very likely to receive a quick rebuttal from the state. In this connection, the refutation (1992) from B.G. George Yeo, then Minister of MITA, is exemplary:

Nothing is more inimical to the development of the arts than a false nationalism which tries to protect a market under the guise of safeguarding some misconceived national essence. We offer Singapore as a venue and as a stage for artists and those who enjoy the Arts from all over the world.[49]

In 1994, Yeo also said:

If the arts in Singapore are only by Singaporeans for Singaporeans, we will get nowhere for we are too small... Singapore is Singapore only because our national spirit is a cosmopolitan one.[50]

Such pronouncements not only negate the value of local arts and arts workers but also repudiate the socio-cultural agenda of local cultural practitioners as normative. Accordingly then, Kong concludes that the state’s 1990s cultural development policies were not really cultural policies but cultural economic policies trying to harness the economic potential of the arts.

For those not attuned to the Singapore polity, it should quickly be stressed that “film” has had an existence in state discourse for the arts as a discrete sub-category only in recent years, alongside the more traditional categories of theatre, dance, music, literature and the visual arts. Prior to this, film’s relation to the arts was implied, as demonstrated by the fact that SFC, at the time of its establishment was housed in NAC (National Arts Council), a MITA affiliate established in 1991 for promoting the arts in the nation-state. Now SFC comes under the umbrella of the Media Development Authority (MDA), a statutory body formed in 2002 through a merger of SFC, Films and Publications Department (FPD), and the Singapore Broadcasting Authority (SBA). But SFC remains in MITA’s clutches because MDA, like NAC and NHB (National Heritage Board),[51] comes under MITA’s purview. SFC’s sometime collaborator in film production, Raintree, is similarly linked to MITA, but less directly. Raintree, along with TCS and RCS, is a subsidiary of the government owned MediaCorp. MediaCorp’s relationship with MDA is, technically speaking, that of a licensee and licenser, respectively, since MDA as the government’s media watchdog is entrusted with task of granting or rejecting MediaCorp’s license to operate as a national broadcaster in radio (RCS) and TV (TCS).

Our particular tracing of the government’s complex organizational network for media and the arts aims to highlight the intricate relation between film, media and the arts in Singapore society. That is to say, public pronouncements about and cultural economic policies for the arts, especially those emanating from MITA, affect film and media.

Indeed if the 2000 Renaissance City Report is an indication,[52] then it would seem that MITA’s cultural economic policies are here to stay. Produced by MITA, this report takes great care to emphasize its compliance with state discourse apropos to remaking “Singapore as a world class city supported by a vibrant cultural scene.”[53] Accordingly, it “outlines the strategies required to take Singapore there.” [54] A close scrutiny of the report’s outlined strategies reveals more of the state’s hegemonic economic-driven agenda, most evident in the following pronouncement:

[C]reative and artistic endeavors will... play a decisive role in the future economy [because they have] direct economic benefits [and lend themselves to] arts marketing and cultural tourism.[55]

Specific to filmmaking, the report recommends:

[that SFC] consider the commercial viability of building film-making facilities ... [so as] to establish Singapore as the regional hub for post-production work in films, [and that it should] encourage and facilitate international coproductions and collaborations involving Singapore and overseas talent.[56]

The report does not consider how local filmmaking (or for that matter, the arts in general) might develop as a socio-cultural activity in an indigenous way. However, it does say,

Culture and the arts are important to us because they enhance our quality of life, contribute to a sense of national identity and add to the attractiveness of our country. [57]

This is technocratic language at its best: Here, the use of “our” is all-inclusive, but it has discounted those who consider themselves outside this agenda—especially local cultural practitioners with a thoughtful agenda. Indeed, scrutiny of the report’s professed “consultation with members of the cultural community” [58] reveals no “consultation” with any notable person in the local film scene.

Given the state’s clear sense of the economic place of the arts, it is important to evaluate the degree to which independent filmmakers must work within the constraints of the state’s hegemonic economic agenda. Have they found or can they find alternative modes of expression, ones which manifest a strong awareness of state hegemony but work to circumvent, even overcome, it? After all, in the context of Singapore society, the state’s dominant economic agenda along with its autocratic and technocratic ways are not new to its citizenry. State policies have shaped people’s lives since independence. But even if we understand the degree to which the state has shaped people’s political sensibilities and sensitivities, we would not postulate that state force has ensured compliant subjectivities. The policing of boundaries is never absolute but is subject to negotiation and reinterpretation by the very people whom the state seeks to curtail with its policy net. Eric Khoo’s sardonic appraisal of his career as a filmmaker neatly sums up such popular kinds of interpretation and reinterpretation. Analogically he is referring to state control, policing and surveillance of the arts:

They used to call me the Prince of Darkness.

He says this referring to the early phase of his filmmaking career, a time when he was known for directing dark, depressing films about the Singapore underclass. Then, referring to his latter-day collaborations with SFC and Raintree, he adds somewhat self-depreciatingly,

Now they’re going to say: ‘It’s too mass. It’s too commercial. Why are you [referring to himself] selling out?’[59]

His self-mocking tone bespeaks a kind of reinterpretation that is self-empowering precisely because he uses equivocal speech imbued with heightened, ironic self-awareness. He calculatedly uses a discourse opposed to boundary setting, technocratic speech.

On this note, we now turn specifically to an analysis of Khoo’s early films, discussing them in conjunction with and as working against the above-outlined background of revival films and cultural economic policies. In so doing, we seek to address issues of artistic resistance in the face of policy policing and citizen negotiation and (re)interpretation. In this way, we analyze Khoo’s early films as counter-discourse vis-à-vis state discourse, its policies included.

Unorthodoxies of Eric Khoo’s early films

Singapore has often been an object of envy. For its affluence, its discipline, its skilled workforce, its immaculate streets. The Lion City prides itself on these qualities... The metropolis built on high tech and high finance dreams of becoming a Nanyang New York, a Cannes-on-the-South China Sea. Of becoming “the regional hub of the arts.”[60]


Eric Khoo’s Mee Pok Man and 12 Storeys rejected the authorized image of Singapore—wholesome, clean, upgraded and upwardly mobile—to show its grittier side”[61]

A cultural practitioner of sorts, Eric Khoo is the son of hotelier Khoo Teik Puat and now the father of four boys. Together with his wife, Jacqueline Khoo, he operates Zhao Wei Films (named after thir first son) from the family’s crown-jewel edifice, the Goodwood Park Hotel. Zhao Wei sometimes collaborates with Raintree and SFC, which have clearly benefited from the state’s cultural economic policies for the arts, but Khoo has not directed a film since 12 Storeys, though, as mentioned earlier, he continues as a producer.

Khoo’s early films (1990-1997),[62] those made prior to and inclusive of 12 Storeys, are certainly not soothing for the Singapore mainstream. Watching the films can in fact be quite torturous, as reviewer Walter V. Addiego of the San Francisco Examiner (March 7, 1995) found out with respect to Khoo’s controversial short, Pain (1994), which walked away with the Best Director and Special Achievement awards in the Singapore Short Film category at the 1994 7th SIFF. “Aptly titled,” comments Addiego, who then elaborates:

This black-and-white nightmare vision focuses on an alienated young Singaporean who acts out his sadomasochistic impulses, first on himself and then on the friendly chap who sells him cigarettes. The depiction of torture is graphic, so much so that my critical objectivity went out the window. I made it through the scene where the central figure pushes a pin into his finger. I held on when he snuffed a candle flame with his bare hand. But when he brought out the razor blade and the bowl of salt, I slumped down in my seat and shut my eyes.[63]

Khoo’s other early films are less tortuous to watch but are likewise dark in tone and mood. Like Pain, they contain stories about, as Khoo says,

anti-heroes...who don’t function too well and have to exist within society’s rules and regulations.[64]

Thus Carcass (co-dir. Nazir Husain, [65] 1992; hi-8 video format) focuses on the troubled relationship between a butcher and his two sons, while Symphony 92.4 (1993; Super-8) captures poignantly the loss and isolation of an elderly Chinese man who lives alone. Both, like Pain, are set in urban Singapore.

The themes of loneliness and alienation in an impersonal urban environment similarly abound in Khoo’s next two films, Mee Pok Man (1995) and 12 Storeys (1997). The first is Khoo’s debut as a feature director. Its young unnamed, speech-challenged, male protagonist is a noodle hawker who lives alone and does not appear to have friends. (In terms of the film’s title, mee pok is a Hokkein[66] name for a kind of Chinese string noodle). When not working at his stall in a shop located somewhere in the red light district, the mee pok man (played by Joe Ng) spends his free time in his HDB apartment “talking” to his late father’s picture; HDB being an acronym for the Housing Development Board, a statutory board for overseeing high-rise public housing.

He is attracted to a disillusioned prostitute, Bunny (played by Michelle Goh), but is unable to bring himself to tell her so. A frequent customer of the hawker’s noodle stall, Bunny also resides in a HDB flat. There, she does not relate well to her mother or younger brother. They hardly talk to each other, even though they live together. Bunny keeps a secret diary, but its intimate content is progressively revealed through a voiceover when her brother inadvertently discovers it and reads it. Bunny has an English lover, Jonathan Reese (played by David Brazil), and she dreams of a better life in the West, considering Reese as her potential emigration ticket. However, unbeknown to her, Reese is a porno-photographer from a European skin syndicate who preys on unsuspecting prostitutes.

One night, Bunny meets with a hit-and-run accident. As the mee pok man takes the wounded Bunny home rather than to a hospital, the narrative slips into the twilight zone. In his claustrophobic flat, the young man nurses her injuries and manages to win her trust. At one point, they attempt to have sex; during that attempt, she dies. Finally he keeps her corpse in his flat. Tending to it lovingly, he pours his heart out to Bunny whose body, in the meantime, has decomposed. Necrophilia in the context of Mee Pok Man thus becomes a powerful, deadly metaphor for critiquing a society that cannot foster healthy human relations.

Characterized by spatial and temporal discontinuities, the montage sequence containing the film’s final scenes heightens this social critique. The visual track intercuts between the mee pok man’s flat and various exterior locations around the island-state. In these shots the outside world is filmed in the style of documentary verité. Intercut are rapid glimpses of passengers in a moving MRT train, and the HDB-scape from the windows of that train. Outside, the distant HBD housing, home to 85 percent of Singaporeans, seems assembled from Lego blocks; it looks clean, functional and yielding. Elsewhere, glistening glass and concrete towers loom tall in the Central Business District where the crowd, including immaculately dressed white-collar workers, moves about as if on urgent yet futile missions.

In another part of tropical downtown Singapore, an equally faceless, nameless crowd mills about Orchard Road. Here the thick air of Christmas festivities hangs heavily over the country’s shopping mecca. The view seems to present a picturesque consumer-land, with fairy lights dotting the landscape’s orderly pavements, trees and mall, and concurrently throwing a cheery glow on a gigantic jolly snowman effigy around which are reindeer figurines and other motifs from the North’s snowland. This collage is a compilation of still and moving shots. It gives a tourist view of affluent Singapore that stands in a surreal contrast to the mee pok man’s flat, including the seedy red light district seen elsewehere in the film.

Back in the mee pok man’s flat, the hawker makes an offering to his late father’s photo on the wall. Then he proceeds to eat breakfast. His late father, for the first time in the film, makes an “appearance.” Sitting next to the son silently, he watches him vacantly. The film finally ends with the mee pok man returning to bed where he snuggles up to Bunny, seeking comfort from the corpse, presently wrapped in a blanket.

In his next feature film, 12 Storeys, Khoo takes up the theme of urban isolation and alienation in modern Singapore.[67] He develops associated motifs, taking them to another height. Here he restricts the narrative to a 24-hour period on one Sunday; the setting to one apartment block in an anonymous HDB estate, and its immediate surrounding; and the storyline to four Chinese households residing in this block. The film opens quietly. On the soundtrack is a light extradiegetic tune. Visually, we see a montage sequence that cuts together various images from the environment into the opening credits. These images include long shots of the apartment block’s exterior as seen in the wee hours of a quiet morning, close ups of household objects, and portrait shots of “HDB-dwellers” in their home.

At daybreak, Meng (played by Koh Boon Pin) jogs alone in a seemingly deserted HDB estate. A large depressed-looking woman, San San (played by Lucilla Teoh), who turns out to be Meng’s neighbor, soon turns up in this HDB-scape, as does their enigmatic neighbor, a young Chinese man (played by Ritz Lim) wearing an Astroboy tee shirt. Meanwhile, the cheerful sound of an early radio program greets the new day. Moments later, the Chinese man jumps to his death from the 12th floor of the HDB block (hence the film’s title); his grieving father later remembers him as a smart son especially good at making money. This montage sequence, highlighting the lack of friendly contact between HDB-dwellers, resists official clichés for HDB housing (e.g. a friendly neighborhood), and for film critic Derek Elley, kicks in “a darker reality” that stands in sharp contrast to “the official image of Singapore.”[68]

From the outset then, 12 Storeys subtly reinforces Khoo’s trademark penchant for the unorthodox. Indeed as the film progressively unfolds against a setting all too familiar to Singaporeans, using gritty realism for its visual style, it also brings in the bizarre. With a motif that recalls the necrophilia and ghostly father scenes in Mee Pok Man, here the dead Chinese man returns as a ghost. Khoo’s handling of Spirit, the name he provides the ghost “posthumously” in the film’s closing credit, similarly goes against the grain of customs and conventions.

For instance, like the ghost of the mee pok man’s late father, Spirit exists in daylight contrary to local belief that specters come out at night. In terms of horror cinema, Spirit or, for that matter, the mee pok man’s ghostly father, is not a horror stock character. Rather than a bloodied zombie (for example), the spirit looks just like the living, not different from breathing HDB-dwellers. This, together with the film’s markedly unorthodox treatment for Spirit’s various manifestations in the storyline, works to dampen ghostly horror. Here, ghostliness is primarily achieved apart from generic tricks of the trade. For example, Khoo eschews sudden cuts that swiftly reveal scary supernatural manifestations, including shot-reverse-shots that show the living’s frightful reaction in the face of such manifestations. He also shuns eerie musical cues that foreshadow the manifestation of a paranormal presence, or rapid mood changes characterized by a shift from an ordinary environment to a creepy one.

Khoo’s camerawork in this connection is like that used for the necrophilia scenes or the ghostly father scene in Mee Pok Man. The visual style maintains a certain detached calmness that comes with measured takes, minimal camera movements, and nominal actions from the characters, dead or alive. The camera is, for the most part, still. When it does move to reveal a particular detail in a scene, the moves, whether pans or cuts, are never sudden. These shooting and editing strategies make possible the appearance of Spirit in the narrative as unmotivated: it just happens to be there, exerting its quiet presence unobtrusively.

In Mee Pok Man, such strategies similarly help nullify the horror associated with necrophilia, and surrealistically they bring to fore the sublime beauty of the noodle seller’s unconditional love for Bunny. That is to say, as in 12 Storeys, the extraordinary in Mee Pok Man is rendered somewhat ordinary. It has no drama about it but represents a fantastical extension of the everyday. The co-existence of the dead and the living in the two films therefore establishes an analogy about the putrid in everyday life, or about the dea(r)th of everyday moralism in Singapore’s rigidly ordered, capitalistic society. In Mee Pok Man Bunny metaphorically serves as conscientious objector (she wants to emigrate). In 12 Storeys, Spirit serves as witness as it is privy to the comings and goings of living, dysfunctional HDB-dwellers.

As eyewitness, albeit a dead one, to events that unfold behind the close doors of four Chinese HDB-families, including the dead man’s household, Spirit exerts a horrifying narrative presence, not ghostly horror but one that transgresses social decorum and propriety. It “enters” the home of others uninvited. It intrudes upon privacy, and even worse, it gains privy to the apartments’ occupants’ psychic world, giving hints about their dark deeds and desires. It does not sleuth but acts as a detached silent observer of the happenings behind closed doors, of the deep secrets within.

For the most part, the secrets indicate severe family communication problems, between mother/daughter, parents/son, husband/wife, and sibling/sibling. (In the next section we will discuss the specific nature of these secrets.) Analogically, the storylines about secrets expand to develop a whole mood of urban alienation and isolation. The particular discursive paradigm of lack of communication extends to HDB neighbors, since the four households never talk to each other. On occasions when the households’ respective members pass by each other, they maintain a “healthy” distance. Thus when San San shares a lift with her neighbor, the anonymous man before his suicide, upon seeing him enter the lift, she turns away.

Even in supposedly social and friendly environments, this turning away occurs. After marriage, Ah Gu (played by Jack Neo) minimizes his contact with buddies who usually congregate at the neighborhood coffee shop. When he and his wife happen to run into them, his first reaction is to keep up the false pretense of a happy marriage. Furthermore, in other scenes at this coffee shop where anonymous taxi-drivers, including Ah Gu’s buddies, gather to exchange gossips, and to make idle conversation about current state affairs such as the caning of Michael Fay,[69] the gathering does not show a strong sense of communicative communalism.

Finally, this same theme of non-communication imbues the film’s bizarre dimension. When the family—such as father, mother and ghost son—occupy the same frame, physical and psychological estrangement still prevails. Here, the parents (Mother: Tan Kheng Hua; Father: Ng Sway An) cannot establish eye contact; they sit apart from each other and speak in monologues.[70] Though clearly in deep sorrow over their son’s death, they are unable to offer each other comfort. Meanwhile Spirit watches quietly; its very presence serves as an ironic amplification of the humans’ inability to connect.[71]

All these scenarios provide an index, both literal and analogical, to dysfunctional relations in modern Singaporean society. Such relations are portrayed as ingrained and persistent. When viewed in the overall context of the film’s HDB setting, 12 Storeys’ critical commentary is intensified. The housing projects were originally founded in 1960 on democratic socialist principles for “creat[ing] social justice,” and provid[ing] a “‘safety net’ [for] ... families who did not have enough to meet their minimum needs.”[72] HDB has since become a definitive statement about the PAP-led government’s vision and achievements in the last 37 years (at the time of 12 Storeys). As the pride and glory of that government, these housing developments have also granted political legitimacy to the regime.

Yet the HDB of 12 Storeys (or for that matter, Mee Pok Man) tells a starkly different story. Miserable and dysfunctional HDB-dwellers here counter the official image of HDB as a successful public housing project. Indeed in consciously probing into domesticity in public high rises and in developing the attendant themes of urban isolation and alienation, Khoo’s two films amount to, in the words of Cherian George, “deeply political creation[s]”[73] that reveal the dark side of the Singapore moon.

In addition to their settings and themes, both 12 Storeys and Mee Pok Man are unconventional in terms of the official agenda for the arts, perhaps most exemplified by the following technocratic pronouncement:

Performing arts in Singapore, apart from being an enrichment experience for the people, will form an integral part of Singapore lifestyle no different from its greenness and cleanliness, which together will affirm its position as a centre of excellence and an attractive place in which to invest.[74]

Mee Pok Man and 12 Storeys eschew such an agenda. They are not the sort of artistic tract that government bodies such the Economic Development Board (EDB) and Singapore Tourist Board (STB) would rush to get hold of to promote Singapore as “a centre of excellence” and “an attractive [investment] place.” Amidst Singapore’s renowned “greenness and cleanliness,” Khoo shows drabness and dreariness. In addition to plotlines about dysfunctional HDB-dwellers, the two films have Singaporeans of whom even mothers might be ashamed—pimps, prostitutes, and gangsters. In short, Khoo’s characters are not representative of model Singaporeans. Nor are they like the much-favored “cosmopolitans,” who, as Prime Minister (PM) Goh Chok Tong points out in his 1999 National Day Rally speech, would have an international outlook:

[Cosmopolitans] speak English but are bilingual. They have skills that command good incomes – banking, IT, engineering, science and technology. They produce goods and services for the global market. [They frequently] use Singapore as a base to operate in the region. They can work and be comfortable anywhere in the world.[75]

Goh also gives us the converse to this paradigm, the not so highflying “heartlander” Singaporeans who

make their living within the country. Their orientation and interests are local rather than international. Their skills are not marketable beyond Singapore. They speak Singlish. They include taxi-drivers, stallholders, provision shop owners, production workers and contractors ... If they emigrate to America, they will probably settle in a Chinatown, open a Chinese restaurant and call it an “eating house”. [76]

The PM’s highly polarized categories indicate a persistent imaginary running through governmental discourses before and after the PM’s speech. These two groups have long existed as unnamed entities, especially earlier in the 90s in government discourse on globalization consequent to the advent of the Information Technology (IT) revolution. This discourse hails the interconnectivity of a borderless world made possible by the Internet. With that sense of “cosmopolitanism,” the government seeks to transform Singapore into a regional/international hub for commerce and the arts as a response to the “challenges of globalization.”[77] It concurrently encourages Singaporeans to cast an entrepreneurial eye beyond the local. Those who have succeeded are the unnamed precursors to “cosmopolitans,” while those who have not are compelled to seek their livelihood at home, and thus are here belatedly classified as “heartlanders.”

The globalizing push also gives credence to the related discourse of “foreign talent,” with ideas about increasing the country’s talent pool and accordingly raising its talent pyramid.[78] By the time of the 1997 recession, a consequence of regional financial crisis, however, discourse about foreign talent rebounded back on the government, who had to deal with growing criticisms from the middle-class. Thus the PM also said in his 1999 address:

Foreign talent will not take away jobs from Singaporeans. Instead [they] will create more jobs and prosperity for all of us.[79]

“Foreign talent,” though not named as such until the late-1990s, previously came in the form of “foreign technological know-how” or “foreign expertise.” Such expertise played a role in the country’s developmentalist economism and move toward rapid modernization and industrialization. Historically, foreign elements had a revered status in the official annals, variously regarded as visionary architects, builders and developers of modern Singapore; the most exemplary was Stamford Raffles, fondly remembered as “founding father” rather than as an Englishman who colonized the island in 1819.

While we do not want to insist that Khoo’s “foreign” characters indicate a direct critical response to the official discourses around “foreign talent,” the various manifestations of foreign elements in Khoo’s early films do depart markedly from official annals and “foreign talent” discourse. In these two films, for example, we see an “Oriental pussy” seeker from London (Reese in Mee Pok Man) and a scheming China-bride (Lili in 12 Storeys[80]), and hear about a young American vandal (Michael Fay in 12 Storeys).

Chinese-Singaporean characters in Khoo’s early films, including Mee Pok Man and 12 Storeys, or “heartlanders” as the PM would put it, would not only speak Singlish but also other tongues long disowned by the government. These languages run the gamut of non-standard English and Mandarin, and local Chinese dialects such as Hokkein, Cantonese and Teochew. These are languages which the PAP-government has actively sought to rectify or eradicate from the public sphere since the 1970s. The government has assumed that these languages would impede the country’s economic prosperity and international competitiveness. Their return via Khoo’s early films and many “revival” films (as well as other cultural forms such as popular songs) constitute—as Chua Beng Huat might put it—a form of protest against their continuing marginalisation in state discourse.[81] At the same time, the very presence of disowned languages in Khoo’s early films and elsewhere serves as a terse reminder about the state’s failure in language policing.[82]

The unorthodoxies of Khoo’s early films collectively undermine slickly packaged national myths built with official clichés such as “wholesome, clean, upgraded and upwardly mobile,” and a country noted for “its affluence... discipline... skilled workforce...[and] immaculate streets.” In this sense, Khoo’s early films resist officialdom. In the next and final section of this paper, we look further at Khoo’s early films as counter-discourse with particular reference to themes of secrets and secrecy in 12 Storeys, and we also look at how Khoo’s work comments on and undermines the national “Shared Values” ideology.

12 Storeys’ secret world

The Five Shared Values:

[W]e’re not supposed to do political films, not to do anything against any religion and then, the third one I think, is alternative lifestyles—I think that can encompass a whole spectrum of stuff...[84]

First conceived by PM Goh Chok Tong, then the First Deputy Prime Minister, in 1988, the Shared Values ideology was nationally adopted in 1993. Spelled out in the first epigraph of this section, the ideology officially proclaims a set of beliefs as part of Singapore’s cultural heritage. The ideology thus proclaimed, as Gunther Kress and Bob Hodge might put it in a different context, has the modality of being real, natural, transparent, inevitable, factual, unquestionable, and doubtlessly true.[85]

With a propaganda machine supported by the mass media publicizing its launch and its ongoing regurgitation in public discourse, the ideology has a widespread, even hegemonic reach. When we did a search on the phrase, “Shared Values Singapore,” we found e-domains that encompass target audiences ranging from “Singapore Kids”[86] to educators and students[87] to “Expat Singapore.”[88] The last website is meant for expatriates or foreign talents, living and working in the nation-state, including those who plan to do so.

These sites may hint at the pervasive extent of the e-reach of the Shared Values ideology, but they do not prove that Singapore’s population, locals and expatriates, has pervasively internalized it. In this connection, Khoo’s early films would arguably stand as both witnesses to and contenders against the Shared Values’ presumed hegemony.

12 Storeys was made four years after the Shared Values were promulgated. In terms of plot and themes, the film seems to represent a partial critical response to that ideology, partial in being ambivalent toward the fifth shared value, racial and religious harmony. In the case of 12 Storeys, Khoo gives “race” a fleeting nod via a strategic sprinkling of multiracial snapshots throughout the film. If 12 Storeys does not actively problematize the issue of race and religion in multiracial, multireligious, multicultural Singapore, does this constitute an act of self-censorship on the part of Khoo?

Eric Khoo makes no secret about the fact that he applied “self-censorship”[89] to 12 Storeys when making it. His reasons were clear. He wanted to ensure a Parental Guidance (PG) rating so that the film would have a wider circulation than his earlier Mee Pok Man, which was slapped with a Restricted (Artist), or R(A), rating, thereby limiting its exhibition to viewers over 21 and in selected cinemas.[90] In that light, Khoo’s self-censorship was both pragmatic and voluntary. Beyond this, he gives no details of what 12 Storeys might have looked like otherwise, though he told a reporter around the time of Mee Pok Man that his second feature would “centre on the lives of Singapore teenagers.”[91] As it turns out, the finished version of 12 Storeys is more about HDB-families and their secrets than about Singapore teenagers and their lives.

There is therefore a gap about our knowledge of 12 Storeys the made version and 12 Storeys the shelved version. This gap makes a close reading of 12 Storeys a challenge, all the more so when the film’s plotline is packed with secrets of multiple shades and colors. Perhaps because of this gap 12 Storeys would eventually have a distinctively loose narrative structure characterized by a fragmented, elliptical storytelling style. In a different context, such a style reminds us of Michael Levine’s psychoanalytic study of writing under censorship, in particular his useful notion of “writer’s blocks,” in this case, blocks that emanate from self-censorship activities.

Khoo’s self-censorship raises questions about compromises he made that result from a fear of political consequences. If this fear came from social conditioning and political immaturity,[92] it would readily challenge our thesis that 12 Storeys has contestatory status primarily by taking official discourse as its object of critique. Here, our analysis of Khoo’s social thematics is predicated upon Michael Levine’s theory of self-censorship that takes such questions about or suggestions of compromise as a point of reference as well as a point of departure.[93] Generally Levine’s model recognizes that censorship is endemic in all human societies so that self-censorship is an inevitable response. Because of this, Levine rejects the notion that artists’ acts of self-censorship are simply compromises based on fear of censure from a high authority such as the state.

More pertinent to our present context is Levine’s discussion of the complex relations between self-censorship and state censorship, and their bearing on producers of texts and textual production. For Levine, producers of texts (here, films) are faced with a dilemma: to pre-censor their works (since they would be, in one way or another, subject to some form of state censorship), or to allow the state to censor them on their behalf (since it is empowered to do so). The former is a private decision, while latter is an institutionalized practice. To avoid state censorship, producers of texts are thus compelled to self-censor their works in one way or another. The advantage here is that they still consciously retain creative power. As Levine points out, this type of self-censorship:

... is itself internally conflicted and must be understood as a practice structured by the interplay of competing forces which, on the one hand, attempt to circumvent official sanctions and, on the other, cannot help but internalize them to varying degrees as forms of writers’ block.[94]

When externalized, adds Levine, the “writers’ block” manifests itself in texts in the form of “narrative interruptions,” “deletions, blanks and disguises,” “reversals,” “distortions” and/or as games of concealment that include “excisions, approximations and circumlocutions.” Underscoring strategies of “conflict and compromise” (as opposed to just compromise), these textual elements make self-censorship “an elusive object of investigation [for the state]” since it is “difficult [for the state censor] to grasp without in turn becoming caught in its grip.” They also underscore “stylistic innovation ... [that] makes another, more equivocal and double-edged style of writing possible.” The net result, says Levine, is a “positively paralyzing effect” on state censorship. Thus conceptualized, self-censorship can offer itself as a “political weapon,” albeit an unwieldy one.[95] In sum, self-censorship gives the appearance of being compliant when it may be a conscious strategy to deviate from state control and surveillance.

Put contextually, Khoo’s particular self-censorship with respect to 12 Storeys achieved its primary goal: the film received a PG rating as intended. Being elusive, the self-censorship process is difficult here to put a finger on. In the context of 12 Storeys, it has an uncanny relation with the film’s leitmotifs of household secrets and secrecy discourse. It is almost as if Khoo has underscored his film with a wicked private joke. “Writers’ blocks” clutter the diegesis and contribute to the film’s recurrent jarring discontinuities, often characterized by fragmented narratives, unmotivated cuts, elliptical editing and the deficiency of reaction shots. In this way, the style reveals or comments on Khoo’s self-censorship strategies. To know it is, then, to unpack the secrets, and vice versa

12 Storeys is full of secrets, so much so that all key characters have secrets to manage, conceal or divulge. These secrets are either personal or household ones and can be open, manifest, latent and/or absolute.[96] The secrets’ disclosure, whether covert or overt, is for the most part witnessed by the presumed omnipresent Spirit. In scenes where Spirit is absent, its presence is inferred, if not felt. In instances where it appears next to the “living,” it is invisible to them.

Not all secrets are divulged, however. Though having privy to the secrets of others, Spirit harbors one of the film’s absolute ones: No one (including his parents and the viewers) has a clue as to why Spirit the man killed himself. By contrast, open secrets circulate in the realm of gossip, as with a passing comment with regards to Ah Gu’s lack of filial piety overheard at the neighborhood coffee shop. Manifest and latent secrets, on the other hand, occur only behind closed doors, not for public purview. Latent secrets, unspoken and unspeakable, do not lend to ready representation on screen. Nonetheless they cue us into their shadowy presence by leaving traces and clues.

In his essay, “Dead Man Gazing,” Michael Lee dwelled on the film’s many secrets and its secrecy discourse in great detail.[97] In Spirit’s household, he said, there are two secrets. One is Spirit’s absolute secret. The other belongs to “his” parents. Theirs is a latent secret which hints at a highly dysfunctional family and an unspoken failed spousal relation. In another household, the failed marriage between Ah Gu (a Chinese-Singaporean) and Lili (a “China- bride” from Beijing played by Quan Yifeng) is a manifest secret; as depicted in the film, it stems from a dance of mutual lies and betrayals. In a marriage as good as over, they, especially Ah Gu, keep up the public façade of happiness.

This household has another secret: the photograph to which Lili masturbates, late at night. This photograph, showing Lili and a Chinese man (possibly an ex-lover), is an index to Lili’s undisclosed past in China, her absolute secret. There is no absolute secret in the third household, but personal secrets abound. For example, the eldest child, Meng, has incestuous desires for his younger sister, Trixie (played by Lum May Yee), while young Trixie has illicit underage sex with friends. There is no sex in the final household, though it has been home to San San and her late “schizogenic mother.”[98] It is not clear if San San is in fact a schizophrenic. But if she were, then the constant verbal abuse from her late mother (played by Lok Yee Loy) which she had to endure would have been a major contributory factor to her present schizophrenic-like state of existence. Finally Lee suggests that in this household, there is the possible act of matricide.

A sexuality-related secret

To this paradigm of secrets, we would like to add one more: a sexuality-related secret. This is a latent but ultimately absolute secret. It gives a fleeting glimpse into alternative lifestyles in Singapore, or rather, a possible instance of one. As pointed out in the second epigraph of the last section, the subject matter of alternative lifestyles in local films would fall within the “OB” domain of state discourse.[99] More to the point, the sexuality-related secret, as it were, comes out during San San’s first subjective flashbacks of her late mother (shot in extreme close-up), who throughout the film is relentlessly hurling verbal abuses at San San. (The late mother exists only in San San’s flashbacks.) Amidst the expletives, unkind words and derogatory names she threw at the daughter, the old lady said:

Ah Ling and I worked and saved for 20 years to buy this flat. We don’t even charge you rent for staying here. Why don’t you take care of this place?

What is most intriguing in these lines is the name “Ah Ling.” Ah Ling is a woman’s name, and it is mentioned only once in the film; that much is known. Beyond this, Ah Ling is an enigma. We learn in one of San San’s later flashbacks that her late mother used to work for Rachel’s (played by Neo Swee Lin) mother as a maid. From this information and from the Cantonese dialect she spoke, one could extrapolate that San San’s adopted mother used to be an amah. Though an extinct occupation category in contemporary Singapore, amahs were commonly found in affluent households in the past.

In her book, Sons of the Yellow Emperor, Lynn Pan observes that the domestic phenomenon of amahs in East and Southeast Asia began around the 1930s when young single women emigrated from Shuntak, a county in Guangdong, south China, to work as maids.[100] Amahs commonly tied their hair into a pigtail and donned a samfoo, which consisted of a virginal white top and a pair of black trousers. These were the amahs’ trademarks. More relevant to the present context, amahs were known to practice a sisterhood that celebrated spinsterhood. This practice has not been well-documented because, as Pan puts it,

They did not like to publicize [their] arrangements among people not of their persuasion; sisterhoods were private affairs, to be kept from the world as much as possible.[101]

This, together with their “emblematical, or enigmatical, method of communication,” helped shroud their private world with secrecy.

The pictorial book, Chinatown, gives a further glimpse into this private world when it recounts that amahs were:

... Cantonese women from the older generation [who] work[ed] in Singapore as domestic servants and remain[ed] unmarried. Many such women [would] pool [their] resources and share a cubicle to keep their personal belongings. It [was] also a meeting place. They usually ha[d] no relatives in Singapore and rel[ied] on each other for assistance.[102]

This anecdote sheds some light, albeit momentarily, on the secret world of amahs. First they had developed a support system for each other. As unmarried women who practiced sisterhood-cum-spinisterhood, they were not reliant on men for subsistence and livelihood. They were independent, which led to “gossip,” notes Pan: “[I]nevitably, some of the more passionate friendships were [thought to be] lesbian relationships”; or in Chinese, “mo tofu” relationships.[103] To mo tofu literally means to grind beancurd, or to crush soybeans with the two flat slabs of Chinese grindstones so as to extract soy juice for making beancurd. In some contexts, tofu is an euphemism for breasts; mo is also a pun for touching and fondling. Put the three Chinese words together, one gets an erotic picture: mutual touching and fondling of breasts.

Elsewhere, in her historical account of Chinese women in Singapore, Ann Wee (1996) similarly notes that some of the amah alliances were of a “lesbian” variety, though she concedes that there is “no evidence that this is a major theme in their dormitory life.”[104] The lack of evidence does not confirm absence; it may well be due to the amahs’ immense success in keeping their private affairs under wrap. To a large extent, the silent code of amah-sisterhood would help them in their secrets and their secret world.

If Ah Ling and San San’s late mother were indeed a mo tofu couple, then the latter, being an amah, would probably have had abided by that code of silence and accordingly kept their relationship from the public eye. There is, of course, no way of knowing that this was the case. That they had pooled their resources together to buy the flat nonetheless shows a deep and trusting friendship.

Local film viewers would also understand this act in the context of the HDB’s purchasing scheme, which absolutely forbids non-family members from buying a HDB flat collaboratively. What this means, then, in the context of San San’s household, is that the flat belonged to San San’s late mother, with San San listed as occupant not as co-owner since at the time of the purchase, 20 years ago, she would have been too young. Upon her mother’s death, she inherits the flat since she is “family” to the old lady. For HDB, an unmarried woman and a legally adopted child constitute a family unit.

Ah Ling, a non-family member, could never have been the flat’s rightful owner nor have had legal claim to it even though she had helped pay for it. That she had knowingly put in money for it for 20 years thus reveals an enduring close friendship between her and San San’s late mother, one built on mutual faith and trust. That they lived in the flat for so long similarly hints at an intimacy that was based on close partnership and companionship. Ah Ling’s physical absence in the film suggests that she might have been dead; San San’s late mother’s advanced age also alludes to this. Furthermore, Ah Ling figures only in the old woman’s speech and not visually present in San San’s memory. This implies that Ah Ling was also likely to have been closer to the mother than to the daughter. Finally there appears to be no men in their lives, and San San the daughter was adopted.

When compared to Meng’s sexual secret and Lili’s secret love, the enigma of Ah Ling and her relation to San San’s household is indeed most difficult to crack. What we have endeavored to do here is not so much insist on the possible existence of a mo tofu couple as the unspoken secret of this household. We hope also to show the importance of using inter- and extra-textual references to anchor the plausibility for such a reading. Such a reading strategy becomes necessary when dealing with latent/absolute secrets, or “writers’ blocks” that ensue from self-censorship activities, because we have no recourse to direct verbal speech or explicit visual clues as a means of disclosure. The name, “Ah Ling,” is a case in point. Although it appears in the direct speech of the late mother, it is in fact an indirect one because it comes to our knowledge only in San San’s memories. In this way, deciphering the film’s secrets requires a deconstructive strategy along the line of citizens’ interpretive strategies and resistant forms of communication within an authoritarian and censorious state.


In conclusion, families in 12 Storeys all harbor secrets one way or another. More pertinent is the film’s portrayal of the ways secrets, whether personal or household ones, are managed, along with disclosure, discovery and/or concealment. Secrets can adversely impact communication within families and contribute to dysfunctional relations among parents, spouses, children, siblings and neighbors. For Khoo, such widespread, persistent communicational dysfunction within families, between neighbors and among individuals points to a larger level of urban isolation and alienation. These motifs in his films attack the Shared Values national ideology and other state discourses.

In 12 Storeys and Khoo’s other early films, the neighbors avoid each other; the nation-state has not fostered mutual community support and respect for individuals. Individuals in turn are too engrossed with their own secrets to take notice of the world around them or to forge meaningful relations with others, within and/or outside the familial domain. Khoo’s early films create analogies to trace the disparity between the visionary endeavors articulated from the top and the reality of daily doldrums that anchor the everyday people firmly to the ground. By giving privy to the “lived” reality of HDB-dwellers who experience endemic urban alienation, 12 Storeys presents an alternative, albeit gloomy, way of seeing the nation-state: It is a sunny tropical isle high on economic achievements but low on other endeavors, especially human(istic) ones. The alterity of Khoo’s early films bears the mark of an honest and bold filmmaker.


[1] We would like to thank Gina Marchetti and Julia Lesage for their comments on earlier drafts of this manuscript. In this paper, we generally use the Chinese nomination order for a person’s name (that is, surname first), the exception being Western names, or people who have a Western given name; in which case, the second word in the nomination sequence would be the surname of that person—for example, Stan Barrett and Eric Khoo.

[2] Our category, “Khoo’s early films,” refers to the short and feature films which Khoo produced and directed between 1990 and 1997, as distinct from Khoo’s more recent works in that his involvement in them is that of co-producer only. Our particular study of Khoo’s early films excludes Barbie Digs Joe (1990) and August (1991) because we had no access to these shorts at the time of writing this paper. Space constraints also impede a similar close reading of Khoo’s more recent films, but references to them will be made where appropriate.

[3] Jan Uhde and Yvonne Ng Uhde, Latent Images: Film in Singapore (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), p. 119.

[4] All Chinese film titles are given in pinyin. Local films invariably have an English title, though not all have a Chinese one. Those which have a Chinese title are either wholly in Mandarin, or predominantly in Mandarin with a dash of other local languages, including Chinese dialects. Those without tend to be in English, smattered with Singlish and local Chinese dialects. Here Mandarin may be used, but only occasionally.

[5] PAP is the acronym for the People’s Action Party which came to power in 1959 and has since ruled Singapore continuously.

[6] Kuo Pao Kun, “Re-Positioning the Arts,” The Arts Magazine (November/December 1999), p. 22.

[7] Uhde and Uhde, Latent Images, p. 1.

[8] Singlish is a colloquial term for the highly localized version of English, or English with a strong local flavor. Singlish is thus like English, except it comes smattered with words, phrases and expressions borrowed from Malay, Tamil, Mandarin and other Chinese languages such as Cantonese and Hokkein.

[9] Author unknown, “Poultry in Motion,” “Life!” in Straits Times (November 16, 2000), p. L5. The Straits Times is Singapore’s longest running English daily.

[10] Produced and directed by Indian nationals, K. R. S. Chisty and B. S. Rajhans, respectively, the first local film, Laila Majnun was made in 1933. It had “Bangsawan [Malay opera] actors, musicians and set designers and, like Bangsawan, was in the Malay language,” and told the legend of titular namesakes, otherwise known as the Romeo and Juliet of the Persian-Islamic world. See William Van Der Heide, Malaysia Cinema, Asian Film (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2002), pp. 124-26. In addition, between 1938-1942, the Shaw Organisation made eight Malay films, under the banner of Shaw Brothers. They were all directed by Miss Yen and Wan Hai Ling, believed to have been from Shanghai. For a list of these films, see Uhde and Uhde, Latent Images, p. 224.

[11] Ibid., pp. 1-31 and Van Der Heide, Malaysia Cinema, Asian Film, pp. 123-49. Shaw Runme founded the Shaw Organisation in 1924. In 1935, the Associated Theatres Limited was established; it was renamed Cathay Organisation in 1959.

[12] In 1965, Singapore became an independent nation after its separation from the Federation of Malaysia.

[13] In 1960, Cathay-Keris produced Singapore’s first Mandarin film, Lion City (in Chinese: Yi Sui; dir. Thung Pak Chee). It would appear that this is also Cathay-Keris’ only Mandarin movie.

[14] Cf., Chan Heng Chee, “Politics in an Administrative State: Where Has All the Politics Gone?” in Seah Chee Meow, ed., Trends in Singapore (Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 1975), pp. 51-68. Cf., Michael Hill and Lian Kwen Fee, The Politics of Nation Building and Citizenship in Singapore (London: Routledge, 1995).

[15] See Uhde and Uhde, Latent Images, pp. 186-87.

[16] Ibid., pp. 29-30. Cf., John Lent, The Asian Film Industry (London: Christopher Helm, 1990), p. 98.

[17] Stan Barrett is American, while Arthur Smith who replaces Barrett as the director is British. Unless otherwise stated, all directors named in this paper are of Singapore origin.

[18] For a discussion of this film, see Udhe and Uhde, Latent Images, pp. 109-10.

[19] Cf., David Birch, “Film and Cinema in Singapore: Cultural Policy as Control,” in Albert Moran, ed., Film Policy: International, National and Regional Perspectives (London: Routledge, 1996), pp. 185-211. See also Udhe and Uhde, Latent Images, pp. 59-80.

[20] This figure comprises the 35 features listed on Singapore Film Commission (SFC)’s website: “List of Singapore Films (1991-2002)” <
> (April 10, 2003). It also includes two films not on the SFC’s list, namely, Cathay/Film Workshop’s A Chinese Ghost Story—The Animation (in Mandarin: Xiao Qian; dir. Tsui Hark, 1997), and 15—The Movie (in Mandarin: Shi Wu; dir. Royston Tan, 2003). Of the 35 films on the SFC’s list, four have yet to see commercial release in Singapore.

[21] Abdul Nizam is a Malay-Singaporean.

[22] Given that a primary focus of this paper is on Eric Khoo the filmmaker, we will highlight films which are made in association with Khoo’s production company, Zhao Wei Films. Stories About Love is a Zhao Wei-Cyberflics co-production. It features a portmanteau of three stories, each helmed by a different director.

[23] The only exception to the three categories would be Miss Wonton (Dream Chamber Films, 2001). Directed by Meng Ong, a Singaporean, this film is produced and financed by American investors. See Marie K. Lee, “Sundance Interview of Meng Ong the Director and Amy Ting the Star of Miss Wonton” <
> (April 16, 2003). See also “List of Singapore Films (1991-2002)” <

[24] Produced by MegaMedia (Singapore), Song of the Stork is the first, and so far only, Singapore-Vietnam collaboration in film. Jonathan Foo is Singaporean, while Nguyen Phan Quang Binh is Vietnamese. See “Song of the Stork” <
> (April 20, 2003).

[25] See, for example, “15” <> (April 18, 2003). See also “In Tune with Disaffection,” “Life!” in Straits Times (October 12, 2002), p. L3.

[26] Gordan Chan is a Hong Kong director.

[27] No relation to Eric Khoo.

[28] Colin Goh, in an interview with Karl Ho, “Look Who’s Talking?” “Life!” in Straits Times (April 17, 2002), p. L1. See also Tan Tarn How “Coming, movie,” Straits Times (August 30, 2001) <
> (April 17, 2003). Talkingcock—The Movie is based on the satirical website on Singapore society, founded by Colin Goh in 2000. For this website, check <>. “Talking cock” is local parlance for activities relating to idle chatting, inluding satirical speech.

[29] Tsui Hark (a.k.a., Xu Ke) is one of Hong Kong’s most established directors.

[30] The second is a coproduction with Film Workshop (Hong Kong), while the other two are wholly local ventures.

[31] Cited, Udhe and Uhde, Latent Images, p. 113.

[32] Cathay Organisation has been a publicly listed company on the Singapore Stock Exchange since 1999. Shaw Organisation, on the other hand, remains in the hands of the Shaw family.

[33] GV, or Golden Village, is a joint venture company between Australia’s Village Roadshow Limited and Raymond Chow’s Golden Harvest Group of Hong Kong See “GV Cinema” <> (April 16, 2003).

[34] According to Kelvin Tong, Singapore had a total of 160 screens in 1998. Of them, GV had 51, while Shaw and Cathay had 29 and 12, respectively. The other three major film exhibitors were Eng Wah (public listed in 1994) with 18 screens, and Studio Cinemas and Overseas Movie, with 13 screens each. Finally there were six relatively small-scaled exhibitors, with a screening capacity that ranged from one to seven. See Kelvin Tong, “Cinema Guide,” “Life!” in Straits Times (April 18, 1998), p. L1. The Singapore Department of Statistics gives a lower figure: 133, 144, 134 and 131 screens in the respective year of 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001. Cited; “Number of Cinema Screens and Seating Capacity in Singapore (1998-2002) <
> (April 16, 2003).

[35] Singapore has an average cinema attendance of 17.5 million per year (1991-2001), about four times the size of its population. See “Cinema Attendance in Singapore” <
> (April 12, 2003). Cf., Birch, “Film and Cinema in Singapore,” p. 209n2.

[36] Neo and Khoo have also teamed up in Drive, a six-part TV series which MediaCorp commissioned to Zhao Wei Films to produce in 1998.

[37] In terms of top-grossing movies of all time in Singapore, this film is third to the two Hollywood blockbusters, Titanic (dir. James Cameron, 1998) and The Lost World (dir. Steven Spielberg, 1997).

[38] Money No Enough grosses S$5.8 million, while That One No Enough, Liang Po Po—The Movie and I Not Supid chalk up S$1.02 million, S$3.03 million and S$3.8 million, respectively, from local sales. After Money No Enough, Neo plays a Singapore lawyer in the local-Hong Kong coproduction of The Mirror (Guai Tan Zhi Mo Jing; dir. Raymond Wong, 1999). A box-office bomb, this film is a portmanteau of the four horror stories variously set in Ming China, Shanghai in the 1920s, modern-day Singapore and contemporary Hong Kong. The stories are linked by an antique chest of drawers, with the eponymous looking glass as its feature, and revolved around the theme of its capacity to exert a strange power over the various owners of the antique-piece, compelling them to behave oddly, with tragic and deadly consequences. Neo appears in the third story. Under the spell of mirror, he would do anything to win a case for a rapist and murderer. Made by Mandarin Films (in Chinese: Dongfang Dianying; Hong Kong) at the cost of S$2 million, The Mirror raked in only S$160,000 at the local box-office.

The highly versatile Raymond Wong Bak Ming who directs the film was a co-founder of the now defunct Cinema City (Hong Kong) with Mak Kar and Dean Shek Tien, in 1980. When this studio closed in 1991, he established Mandarin Films. In 1993, Mandarin Films started to operate in Singapore, partly because of the lucrative tax-break which the Singapore government offered to film joint-ventures, and partly due to the politico-economic uncertainty in Hong Kong in the run-up to the imminent handover of the territory to China in 1997. It reportedly invested a cumulative total of some S$60 million in Singapore for the purpose of making films in the nation-state.

Yet these films distinctly featured outlooks and sensibilities more attuned to the Hong Kong way of life, even though some were shot in Singapore. This is perhaps not surprising since the films were predominantly based on screenplays written by Hong Kong scripwriters, and featured Hong Kong directors and stars. That is to say, the input of local talents in Mandarin Film productions with a Singapore label was minimal, if any at all. Cf., Birch, “Film and Cinema in Singapore,” p. 187, and Darryl Pestilence, “Studio: Cinema City” <
> (May 24, 2003).

[39] Insofar as the method for sharing the revenue generated from the ticket sales is concerned, complex formulae exist; but generally speaking, both the exhibitor and distributor would make the first claim, which amounts to about 50 and 25 percent, respectively, of the gross take, with entertainment tax treated as separate. Although the producer gets to keep the remainder, or a share thereof, in the case of co-production, s/he is responsible for the cost of production. To turn a profit then, a film needs to earn at least four times over and above the production cost.
Cf., Jamie Ee, “Staying Alive: [Singapore’s] Movie Business” <
> (April 12, 2003).

[40] Kuo Pao Kun, Art vs Art: Conflict and Convergence (Singapore: The Substation.1995), p. 145; cited, Lily Kong, “Cultural Policy in Singapore: Negotiating Economic and Socio-Cultural Agendas,” Geoforum 31 (2000), p. 420.

[41] See Uhde and Uhde, Latent Images, pp. 35-57, 52-53, 81-105. The SIFF and the Substation are two major venues for showcasing local shorts (both video and DV). Though our study here does not include shorts, it is worth mentioning that some feature-length films actually begin their existence as shorts—for example, Talkingcock—The Movie (2002) and 15—The Movie (2003). See also “Singapore Film Society” <> (April 19, 2003), “About Us” <> (April 16, 2003) and “The Substation: Home for the Arts” <> (April 16, 2003). Cf., Kong, “Cultural Policy in Singapore,” pp. 420-21.

[42]See Kelvin Tong, “Singapore: the Cannes of the East?” “Life!” in Straits Times (28 April 1998), p. L3. The money came from MITA (Ministry of Information and the Arts), and two statutory boards, STB (Singapore Tourism Board) and EDB (Economic Development Board).

[43] For a listing of SFC’s activities, see “About Us” <> (April 10, 2002). Cf., Uhde and Uhde, Latent Images, pp. 12, 49, 71, 98-99, 107, 124-25, 145, 170, 205-08.

[44] Distinguished filmmakers for thes series have included director Peter Weir (e.g. The Truman Show, 1998), composer Michael Nyman (e.g. The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover, dir. Peter Greenaway; 1989) and cinematographer Peter Pau (e.g. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Tiger; in Mandarin: Wo Hu Cang Long, dir. Lee Ang; 2000). Lee Ang, A Taiwanese filmmaker, also goes by the name of Ang Lee.

[45] “Corporate Profile” <
> (April 10, 2003).

[46] See “SFC: News Release” (February 1, 2002) <
> (April 12, 2003).

[47] Kong, “Cultural Policy in Singapore,” pp. 415-16.

[48] George Yeo Yong Boon, “An International Market for the Arts,” Speeches: A Bi-monthly Selection of Ministerial Speeches, 17 (1993), p. 66; cited, Kong, “Cultural Policy in Singapore,” p. 415. George Yeo is the then Minister of MITA; he relinquishes that portfolio to become the Minister Trade and Industry, around mid-1999.

[49] George Yeo Yong Boon, “Promoting the Arts,” Speeches: A Bi-monthly Selection of Ministerial Speeches 16 (1992), 114; cited, ibid.

[50] George Yeo Yong Boon, “Singapore Arts Centre: Taking Shape,” Speeches: A Bi-monthly Selection of Ministerial Speeches 18.4, (1994), pp. 36; cited, ibid.

[51] NAC and NHB were established in 1991 and 1993, respectively.

[52] The precursor to this report is the Advisory Council of Culture and the Arts Report (1989), often regarded as a watershed document for the development of culture and the arts in the nation-state because it is the first to advocate, since independence, the building of associated infrastructure as both a state concern and affair.

[53] “Executive Summary,” Renaissance City Report (2000) <> (April 14, 2003).

[54] Ibid.

[55] Ibid., emphasis ours.

[56] “Chapter 7,” Renaissance City Report (2000) <> (April 14, 2003). Emphasis ours.

[57] “Executive Summary,” Renaissance City Report (2000) <>.

[58] Ibid.

[59] Eric Khoo (2001); Cited, “Bite Into It [Singapore film-maker Eric Khoo (One Leg Kicking) on never being able to please the critics],” “Life!” in Straits Times (December 7, 2001), p. L1.

[60] Alexandra A. Seno & Santha Oorjitham, ”Gaining Cultural Capital,” in <
> (April 18, 2003).

[61] Cherian George, Singapore: The Air-conditioned Nation: Essays on the Politics of Comfort and Control 1990-2000 (Singapore: Landmark Books, 2000), p. 147.

[62] This corpus consists of five shorts and two features. As mentioned before, our study does not include Khoo’s first two shorts, Barbie Digs Joe (1990) and August (1991).

[63]Pain” <
> (April 18, 2003).

[64] Eric Khoo in an interview; cited, Uhde and Uhde, Latent Images, p. 121. Cf., Tan Shzr Ee, “Too Close for for Comfort,” “Life!” in Straits Times (September 17, 2002), p. L1.

[65] Nazir Husain is a Malay-Singaporean.

[66] Hokkein which originates from the Fujian Province, south China is, generally speaking, the language of illiterate elderly people, school dropouts and blue-collar workers. Though still a widely spoken local Chinese dialect, it is also a “disowned” language of the state.

[67] In 12 Storeys, Bunny’s pimp, Mike Kor (played by Lim Kay Tong) from Mee Pok Man, makes a “cameo” appearance at the neighborhood coffee shop of the former film. While there, he has a brief conversation with an anonymous lout. During this conversation, viewers learn that he has knowledge of Bunny’s death, and that he blames the mee pok man for it. The two films thus find an interface in this way.

[68] Derek Elly, “12 Storeys,” Variety (June 9-15, 1997), p. 71.

[69] Michael Fay, the American youth at the center of the controversial vandalism trial (1994), appears only in the speech of these taxi-drivers. For a background of this trial, see, for example, Alejandro Reyes, “Rough Justice: A Caning in Singapore Stirs Up a Fierce Debate About Crime and Punishment,” Asiaweek (May 25, 1994) <
> (April 26, 2003).

[70] They speak in Teochew, a language which originates from the Chaozhou County of the Fujian Province, south China. In Singapore, Teochew is not as widely spoken as Hokkein is, but like the latter, is a “disowned” language of the state.

[71] This composition is a variation to the ghostly father scene in Mee Pok Man.

[72] Lee Kuan Yew, Memoirs of Lee Kuan Yew: The Singapore Story (Singapore: Times Publishing, 1998), p.130. Cf, Chua Beng Huat, Communitarian Ideology and Democracy in Singapore (London: Routledge, 1995), pp. 124-46.

[73] Cherian George, “Not All Can Be Under One Roof,” “Life!” in Straits Times (1997, June 27), p. L4.

[74] The Committee on Performing Arts (November, 1988), p. 58; cited, Birch, “Film and Cinema in Singapore,” p. 185. Emphasis ours.

[75] Goh Chok Tong, The Primer Minister National Day Rally Speech (1999) <
> (July 2, 2002).

[76] Ibid.

[77] Goh Chok Tong, Address by Singapore Prime Minister at the Dinner Hosted by Economic Minister Dr Hans Wijers on Thursday, October 10, 1996 in the Netherlands <
> (April 27, 2003).

[78] Goh Chok Tong, Singapore Dream and Singaporeans’ Dream: Speech by Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong at the Nanyang Technological University (NTU) on Friday, December 20, 1996, at NTU’s Main Lecture Theatre at 7.30 pm <
> (April 26, 2003).

[79] Ibid. Also Cf., “Attracting Foreign Talent vs Looking after Singaporeans,” in Singapore 21: Together, We Make The Difference (1997) <
> (April 26, 2003).

[80] Cf., Michael Lee, “Dead Man Gazing: Posthumous Voyeurism in 12 Storeys, or ‘Splacing’ Singapore’s Official and Unofficial Discourse,” Asian Cinema (Fall/Winter 2000), pp. 114-18.

[81] Chua Beng Huat, “Viewpoint: Wau Lau! A ‘Chim’ Take on Hokkein,” “Life!” in Straits Times (June 21, 1998), p. L5.

[82] This, the PAP government has been reluctant to admit openly. But in recent years, radio and TV programs in Chinese dialects have resurfaced periodically on the various channels of the government-controlled media. This occurred, for example, in the run-up to the country’s General Election 2001. During this period, the media would broadcast speeches which PAP electoral candidates gave at public rallies, including those made in Chinese dialects.

If a policy change as such was part and parcel of the ruling PAP’s election gimmickry to win votes from some quarters of the population, it was also reflective of that party’s anxiety over its dwindling support from the “non-elite” section of the electorate. Earlier this year (2003), Chinese dialects made yet another return to the broadcast media: during the SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) epidemic, the PAP government was compelled to use and rely on dialects for creating SARS awareness, especially among the elderly and less-educated Chinese-Singaporeans. Media celebrities were roped in for the task; among the SARS education enlistees were Kim Ng, Bryan Wong and Xiang Yun.

[83] This is found in the inside page of the back cover for exercise books available for purchase by students of Kuo Chuan Presbyterian Primary School in Bishan HDB Estate, Singapore.

[84] Eric Khoo, in an interview; cited, Uhde and Uhde, Latent Images, p. 191.

[85] See Bob Hodge and Gunther Kress. Social Semiotics (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1988), pp. 26-27, 121-128. Cf., John Clammer, “Deconstructing Values: The Establishment of a National Ideology and Its Implications for Singapore’s Political Future,” in Garry Rodan, ed., Singapore Changes Guard: Social, Political and Economic Directions in the 1990s (New York: St. Martin’s, 1993), pp. 34-51, and Lim Shan-Loong Mark, “Shared Values & Their Role in Singapore’s Evolving Ideological Framework” (26th March 1999) <
> (April 27, 2003).

[86] “Singapore Infomap for Kids: The National Website for Kids” <> (April 20, 2003).

[87] “Ministry of Education: The National Symbols” <
> (April 20, 2003).

[88] “Expat Singapore” <
> (April 20, 2003).

[89] Eric Khoo, in an interview (1999); cited; Uhde and Uhde, Latent Images, p. 122. “OB markers” is a local euphemism for politically sensitive issues which discussion in any public form or forum is off-limit to Singaporeans in general, with “OB” standing for “Out of Bound.” Of these issues, race and religion are top, or near the top, of the “list.” The “list” does not exist as a formal document; so OB markers are somewhat both opaque and translucent. People who thread upon them, unknowingly or inadvertently, risk official repercussion since these markers, though informal, are presumed to be the tacit knowledge of all Singaporeans.

[90] The exhibition of R(A) films is not permitted in cinema-houses located in all HDB estates.

[91] Sandi Tan, “A Boon for Film-maker,” “Life!” in Straits Times (May 8, 1995), p. L2.

[92] Cf., James Gomez, Self-censorship: Singapore’s Shame (Singapore: Think Centre, 2000), pp. 55-66.

[93] Cf., Tan See Kam, “Ban(g)! Ban(g)! Dangerous Encounter—1st Kind: Writing with Censorship,” Asian Cinema (Spring 1996), pp. 83-108.

[94] Michael Levine, Writing Through Repression: Literature, Censorship and Psychoanalysis (Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 1978), p.26.

[95] Ibid., pp. 2-3, 25-30, 34-45, 51-52.

[96] Tan See Kam, Michael Lee Hong Hwee and Annette Aw, “Culture of Reticence: Reading Secrets, Family, and Communication in 12 Stories,” A refereed paper presented at the International Communication Association Conference 2002 (Popular Communication Division) (Korea: ICA, 2002).

[97] Lee, “Dead Man Gazing,” pp. 107-24.

[98] Ibid., p. 110.

[99] In Singapore, people who engage in alternative lifestyles such as homosexual practices are liable to be prosecuted. Alternative lifestyles as such are deemed as criminal acts. In the context of local filmmaking, they would fall within the OB marker domain, especially if they are portrayed in the positive light. Thus Bugis Street (in Mandarin: Yao Jie Huang Hou; dir. Yon Fan, 1995) is “acceptable” perhaps because it features the lives of transvestite-prostitutes in tragic terms. There is also the matter that its Mandarin title when translated into English means “The Queen of Demon Street.” (Yon Fan, the director of this local R(A) rated film, is based in Hong Kong.)

At the time of 12 Storeys, sympathetic representation of alternative styles remain an untested ground, though in more recent years, local feature films with queer characters have appeared—most famous is Liang Po Po, a granny played by Jack Neo in drag. Liang Po Po, however, is stripped off all sexuality: she is a desexualized comic figure. Cf., the various shorts directed by Royston Tan—for example, 15(2002), 48 on AIDS (2002), Hock Hiap Leong (2001), Mother (2001), Sons (2000), Senses (1999), Kisses (1998) and Adam.Eve.Steve (1997). These shorts do not have an explicit alternative agenda, sexuality-wise speaking, but they variously feature a campy aesthetics that verges on queer sensitivity and sensibility.

[100] Lynn Pan, Sons of the Yellow Emperor: The Story of the Overseas Chinese (London: Arrow, 1998), p. 193.

[101] Ibid., p. 196.

[102] Author unknown, Chinatown: An Album of a Singapore Community (Singapore: Times Book International, 1983), p. 156.

[103] Pan, Sons of the Yellow Emperor, p. 196.

[104] Ann Wee, “The Way We Were,” in The Ties That Bind: In Search of the Modern Singapore Family (Singapore: Aware, 1996), p. 25. Cf., Harriet Evans, Women and Sexuality in China: Dominant Discourses of Female Sexuality and Gender Since 1949 (London: Polity Press, 1997).

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