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The Torch: A Different Kind of National Day

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Whenever I watch Royston Tan’s “15” I am baffled and frustrated by the thought that this film has still not had a commercial release in Singapore. And that it is banned in the one place where its subject matter can be fully identified with.

Its in a class of its own, grounded deeply in the Singapore experience, the richness of its diversity and ensuing contradictions. The film has no other destination than to deliver its message straight at the minds and hearts of Singaporeans.

I enjoyed its DVD release (the 93-minute version that is), miles away in Europe and I wouldn’t hesitate to say that it delivered a wonderful mind-f*@$ (excuse me!) like you have with only the best, the rarest of films out there. But to Singaporeans who have not seen the film, what does it mean, really?

To some it is nothing but an extended version MTV video-clip, shocking and over long. Some consider it a nuisance, nothing but an obnoxious joke, equally lavish as it is foolish to the core. One may see it as a portrayal of “crypto-gay bonding”. To me it is above all else a substantial take on the intricacies of friendship and male weakness. Seen entirely from the perspective of its protagonists, youths struggling for their place in society and almost inadvertently growing up in the process, “15” is a statement on contemporariness in its own right, unparalleled, solid and incorruptible.

But in fact you do not need to love this film as much as I do. What is needed though is that everyone interested in watching “15” should actually have the opportunity to see it,

It is essential that anyone should be able to exercise their independent thought, pass their own judgment instead of being left to rely on somebody else’s caring prescriptions. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder; so is any display of human or artistic concern – its relevance has to be questioned and discussed in the open, unimpeded by sanctions of third parties, however well-intentioned.

There is no escaping this one inconvenient truth: preventing “15” from being shown to its home audience is suppression, plain and simple. A legitimate artistic statement is being barred from making itself heard, from opening up a discussion and giving voice to life at the fringes of mainstream society. Which could be self-healing – if only it had a chance of being listened to.

You may object that this is easy enough for me to say; that all it amounts to is an over-simplification only an outsider in his total ignorance of the subtle sensitivities involved could possibly conceive. And you would be right, in part.

But anyone who argues along these lines must answer this question in return: does arrogance and self-service lie on one side only, or isn’t this just another over-simplification in itself? A meddling that grows out of self interest and freely admits to it can be discarded, alright. But viewed in the light of internationalisation this should only be done in full consciousness of such a rejection’s ultimate implication: namely to disallow for the many possibilities of self-advancement, which any equal exchange has in store for those who are willing and daring to undertake it. And no-one is giving unasked for advice here, so I hope.

And “15” raises an issue in Singapore which isn’t limited to film alone but clearly is much more far-reaching than that. What I see at work here is an ill-fitting interpretation of “security” mixed with a large dose of pride, given that one cannot always be certain that the adviser is more qualified than the one being advised.

When I say that the “release” of “15: the movie” would constitute a different kind of National Day for Singapore I do not intend to belittle anything or anyone in a country that I am not even familiar with. I am fully aware that especially in the field of nationalism my own country of origin, Germany, has but a sorry record (correction, catastrophic would be the right word and for once I am not exaggerating). All the more reason for me to be outspoken and uncompromising where freedom of expression is concerned. May anybody think it pathetic or outdated, I don’t care. I would vehemently argue to the contrary on any given occasion instead.

What I advocate is this: any society will fully mature only when it owns up to its shortcomings in a civilised and humble manner. True civil independence is not only a prerequisite to democracy, it is its utmost fulfillment and human obligation. It need not be granted, but it needs to be defended. And the arts and the artist should be leading in the unrelenting effort this requires.

As a last turn of the screw, I stress that I firmly believe that a lifting of controls and an end to will lead to substantial and lasting benefit. In its pursuit of viable international exchange, which is also what I personally want to see, Singapore will be more attractive to foreign artists, creatives and overseas publics generally when it decisively moves into a mature mode of freedom of expression. That institutions feel it appropriate to, and do, apply dampeners on expression is a major reason why many international, in particular European, entities feel unease when considering to engage with Singapore, despite the will, endless potential and a crying need to do so.

Royston Tan’s “15” connected with me and many others around the globe. Taking one possible message of this film by the word, you may come to re-think this truism once again: that for every winner, there is a multitude of losers. It just can’t be any other way; or can it, really? – I’m still thinking…

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