Defining Home: Three Singaporean Filmmakers’ Take On National Identity
“This is home, truly, where I know I must be. Where my dreams wait for me, where that river always flows.”
Every year on the same day, we sing to the nostalgic tunes of familiar National Day songs that play alongside the parade on TV. These lyrics come to us as naturally as breathing; the same for reciting the pledge beneath the sweeping reds and whites of our flags during our youth, or easily naming five of our favourite local dishes when asked.
These are little things inculcated in us from a lifetime of being raised in Singapore, and they are, certainly, important things that make up our consciousness as Singaporeans. But what do these little things mean in the greater scheme of things?
This relates to identity, and identity isn’t something that’s easy to grapple with — it’s tricky and slippery, multi-faceted and nuanced. Yet three individuals, distinguished filmmakers in their own rights, attempt to give an answer to this decades-old question: What could our Singaporean identity be?
Through the medium of films and their own personal narratives, featured filmmakers from this year’s LumiNation — Yeo Siew Hua, Eva Tang, and Jerrold Chong — talked to us about the struggles of establishing a national identity, and how identities performed on screen might help to bridge the gap.
Yeo Siew Hua
Director and writer of A Land Imagined
Director and producer of From Victoria Street to Ang Mo Kio
Director and animator of Nascent, Ways of Seeing, Eclipse, What Has To Be, Automatonomy
Their films, curated by The Filmic Eye, will be screened at LumiNation over the festival weekend:
15 Aug: From Victoria Street to Ang Mo Kio
17 August: The Animated Shorts of Jerrold Chong
18 Aug: A Land Imagined
Sinema: Off the top of your head, what do you think being Singaporean means, or what is representative of Singaporean identity?
Yeo Siew Hua (SH): Aside from a shared history and the common tongues, it’s easy to fall into stereotypes when trying to define an identity for a group of very diverse people. Any attempt of it seems to me an exercise in myth-making, since there is no singular persistent coherence to be found across people I meet here. I guess any kind of national identity is ultimately a fictive imagination to begin with; maybe the more important question is who gets included in this imagining?
Eva Tang (E): It is the line from our national pledge: “regardless of race, language or religion, to build a democratic society based on justice and equality”.
Jerrold Chong (J): For me, being a Singaporean means feeling happy, welcome, and comfortable in this country we call home. Whenever I land at Changi Airport, coming out from the departure gates gives me a huge sense of comfort and joy, regardless of how tired I may be upon landing.
I’m sure this feeling is common to many other Singaporeans as well. Being Singaporean means having your family and friends close by, and having the confidence that our hopes and dreams, regardless of what they are, can be fulfilled, and that we can find meaning in the life that we live here.
What do you think are some of the struggles that we as Singaporeans have when it comes to reconciling ourselves with our national identity, as compared to other nations?
SH: If it’s a struggle to reconcile Singaporeans with our national identity, then it doesn’t sound like our national identity in the first place, does it?
As someone who is sceptical of stable identities, I’m not sure the promotion of national identities to be truthful or useful in any meaningful way, since they are almost always imposed from without. I am also quite suspicious of its intention for unity and belonging, since it does more to limit and control. Instead, I am more inclined towards self-determination from within, or more fluidity through porous boundaries.
E: We feel like we belong everywhere, yet at the same time belong nowhere. In terms of national identity, we have no qualms about proudly identifying ourselves as Singaporeans [such as on National Day], yet culturally in our everyday lives I hardly hear Singaporeans reacting in the same way. In fact, some of us might identify more with American culture, or European culture, or Japanese culture, Korean culture, etc.
Culture is not just a word, it’s a way of life. It is a set of values passed on from generation to generation. I guess we need to reflect upon our pragmatism and materialism in trying to reconcile with who we are or who we want to become.
J: I think Singaporeans think of national identity as something that they can immediately define, or can control to serve a purpose. But the concept is an amorphous, ever-changing one. For other nations, they may have a long history that they can look back upon. However, for us, as a young country, just as art takes time, a national identity also takes time to emerge.
Rather than trying to define our national identity in concrete words or ideas, it is more important to spend time to reflect upon our individual experiences, and contribute to a diversity of voices. As a melting pot of many different cultures and different walks of life, I feel that a national identity can emerge if and when everyone in Singapore is given a voice to express their concerns, dreams, and beliefs.
How would film help to bridge this gap that we have regarding our own national identity?
SH: Films are narrative constructs; in itself, personal truths of the filmmakers and sometimes their outlooks on society. I’m not sure if it changes the way an audience thinks about national identities, but I think it could help give bearings on how one may situate oneself or find a place within the larger structure of a national body.
E: Any medium that is honest and soul-searching can touch and inspire their audience. When my documentary The Songs We Sang was screened overseas, I had audience telling me that it has helped them to re-visit Singapore, knowing that Singapore has more to offer than just tourist attractions.
We’ve also had Singaporeans, non-Singaporeans, and recent immigrants sharing with us about how From Victoria Street To Ang Mo Kio has helped them to learn more about the history of Singapore, which they did not know prior to watching the film.
Similarly, when I travel, the films and books that I see and read about foreign places help bring me closer to them, and broaden my understanding of these places.
J: It’s important for film, and other art-forms, to tell local stories and to experiment with different ways of storytelling in order to resonate with Singaporean viewers. Too often, when the common man watches films, he sees Hollywood actors or actresses — foreign actors — on screen, and not himself. It is important for us to be able to see ourselves in real, honest ways being represented on screen.
It is also important to have as many diverse perspectives as possible on what our national identity constitutes, and film offers a unique way for many filmmakers to present their diverse stories and allows viewers to empathise with their characters.
The more diverse art becomes, the more we would get closer to looking at national identity as a bigger picture, one that is a reflection of many unique stories, personalities, and ways of life, in our little home.
Regardless of country, which film(s) has influenced you to reflect about your relationship with Singapore, and why? How has it affected the way you think about national identity and how it is represented on screen?
SH: I recently saw the films of Toh Hun Ping. These films lay bare the filmmaker’s deliberations and in every frame we are made to confront the brutal honesty of the artist coming up against himself, the society at large and the state above all.
Watching the films, I see that the only truthful representations of our (national) identities are necessarily put forth through the self in negotiation with the work, reinventing the discourse, not through dialectics, but a series of personal transformations.
E: Good films will have an impact on me, regardless of which countries they are from.
In the mid-90s, as a reviewer for Lianhe Zaobao, I wrote reviews about Korean films — films which were not known to most Singaporeans at that point in time. At that time, Korea was already making very good films that touched on their history and their separation with North Korea.
As the Korean film industry blooms, we are able to sense their strong national pride and sense of identity on screen. Their government supports the industry in all aspects, the cinemas help to protect local works, and the people are critical and united.
Even when Bong Joon-Ho was making big Hollywood studio productions such as Snowpiercer (2013) and Okja (2017), he did not lose his ‘Korean elements’ and we still see the Korean cast members speaking Korean in the English-speaking films. When the credits rolled, I was particularly moved to see a balance of international and Korean crew members working side by side.
In Singapore, sometimes it is disheartening to see how our audience and media only begin to appreciate local work after it is first recognised by an overseas film festival. It is fragile to base success just on that. The real test is for filmmakers to learn to build their own audience base.
J: Hiroshima mon Amour is a huge influence on me as a filmmaker, and what I love most about the film is how abstract yet tightly-linked the relationship between our most intimate experiences and the history of the place that we live in is.
The relationship between the two protagonists develops as they share memories of their past and find a way to dream of the future. This link between our identity, or national identity, and the abstract concept of time is quite wise, because my notion of national identity changes over time.
As I grow up from being just a student in secondary school, to serving the country in national service, to spending time away from Singapore studying overseas, to building a new home and family back here, my emotions towards my relationship with Singapore changes. At the end of the day, when I think about how my best memories and happiest experiences have happened in the spaces of Singapore, these emotions and memories tie me closer to the country I call home, and ultimately define my relationship with Singapore.
Where do you think our film industry is heading towards, and how might it affect the way we think about our Singaporean identity?
SH: The film industry seems to be headed towards more professionalization, but with regards to the question of a Singaporean identity, I think we will see more formalization along harder lines rather than of reflection and discovery, as is often what happens with such a process.
E: The best way to nurture our artists is to give them the support and freedom to do what they want. Singapore is a melting pot of many different cultures; we should let it brew organically for its rich and full flavour.
J: As a relatively newcomer into our film industry, I feel that it has a lot of promise and will hopefully continue to grow and make waves both locally and internationally. Sometimes, when I introduce Singapore to overseas friends, I would recommend a Singaporean film or two (Ilo Ilo, or Apprentice often comes to mind) and it gives a quick way for outsiders to quickly and intimately connect with and understand the culture, politics, and way of life here in Singapore.
I think it’s important that the younger generation watch more local films, as it can have a strong impact on strengthening our identity, rather than diluting them.
About LumiNation 2019
Held in conjunction with National Day, LumiNation takes centre stage in The Arts House to explore the Singaporean identity through performances, talks and more. Audiences are invited to discover and reconnect with the quieter parts of the Singaporean conversation over a weekend of thoughtfully curated programmes.
This year, LumiNation explores the theme Building Identity, putting our personal relationships with the nation in conversation with communal narratives and histories, as well as exploring the relationship between the self, place and space in creating a fuller sense of belonging.
Learn more about the programme line-up and ticket prices here.