Is it just because it is done by a Singaporean, like how the group at “DESIGNED IN SINGAPORE” define it?

Perhaps how it is done with Singaporean products, like how Homespun have done with some of their products? Or like how Larry Peh does with some of his designs?

Or should it be designed for a Singaporean?

The grammar of Singapore design needs to be defined so that the people doing it can make products that serve the needs of Singaporeans and better reflect our identity.


black-logo-2-webThe home, where we are most honest with ourselves, a place where we start and end our day, and a site where society’s larger issues play out in the most intimate of ways. This was what Filament ’09: A Site For Home brought home with its collection of final-year films from the students of the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information (WKWSCI).

For Rent, The Same Ties That Bind, The Funeral, 無蟹可擊 Crab! and The Healing Touch

The documentary For Rent brought us into the homes of the lesser known population of Singapore that live in rental flats. Over 80 per cent of Singaporeans live in public housing and this has always been touted as a success of the state in providing a roof and an asset for its citizens. But behind every gleaming upgraded facade in these featured Boon Keng flats we see how less fortunate Singaporeans squeeze themselves into one-room flats to enjoy public housing. Indeed, the image of home as a place of comfort is questioned when one sees how a family of twelve people into an apartment built for two and one is left to wonder what other stories could lie in the neighbouring units.

But a home is not just a physical entity, it is also a collection of relations between people. This is explored in The Same Ties That Bind, a documentary about the acceptance of gays by families. It advances the discourse about the controversial place of gays in Singapore right to the heart of things: family and religion. The interviewee’s frankness in front of the cameras makes it almost like post-dinner conversation, although in reality, would talking about gays in the family make it palatable? While the documentary take on religion is solely from the Christians’ perspective, with the recent AWARE saga it does gives this part of the film heightened relevance.

The issue of religion in family is also taken on by the drama, The Funeral. The death of a little brother prompts a debate between a Christian sister and a Taoist brother over how to settle the rites for his funeral. This piece is loaded with references for the film aficionado and its production is stellar, coming especially from students. It shows how a good drama can convey so much more than an objective documentary, but to do so, one has to be able to read the depth this film tries to provide. But in each scene, one can easily be overwhelmed with either how good the shot looks or what is going on. It felt like this was the “best of” compilation of a hour-long film and one just longed to have some dead space in between to reflect.

無蟹可擊 Crab!, is also another family drama, but a much more light-hearted one. Reminiscent of Channel 8 dramas, it follows the journey of how a son is tricked into taking over his family’s crab bee hoon business. The cast for the film are a host of familiar faces from television commercials and dramas that provide comfort for the viewer but they struggle to hold together a film whose script becomes predictable after a while. Like the crab bee hoon the lead cooks at the beginning, it’s a potentially great dish with good ingredients, but the chef still needs to improve on its cooking.

The same might be said of The Healing Touch, a documentary about Reiki healing, a spiritual approach to health. The film comes across as a very objective informercial rather than a partisan documentary. Ironically, the soothing voice-over and background track may only further discomfort the viewer who for most part of the film is extolled the benefits of this healing by Reiki practitioners. It becomes almost an afterthought when the documentary ends with a medical doctor and an academic weigingh in on the potential placebo effects of such healing.

做到老 Live. Work. Die., Trust, Make.Shift, LOL.SG and 家,不家 Home

Taking us out of the family and into the larger home of society, 做到老 Live. Work. Die., documents the quest of one elderly man to find a job in Singapore. This documentary takes on a Michael Moore-esque style where the filmmakers are very much visible — one of the producers stars in the film and there are scenes where the filmmakers sit together to discuss what to do next. Perhaps it was out of one of such discussions that this film was conceived and they set out to do it all in one day. The documentary does have the feel of a Michael Moore film but it lacks the thought. The former is professionally amateur but the latter is just amateur. Still, kudos should be given to a documentary that challenges the way this form is done locally.

The drama, Trust, touches on an issue that has only been recently introduced in Singapore: terrorism. This piece is heavily dependent on its actors carrying out a dialogue driven script but alas the actors do just a decent job and the film fails to live up to its potential. The camera work and the props in the film do little to mask this too. The ending may surprise some but by the time one gets there, the initial question of, what would you do, gets lost in a plot that tries to take on world domination but is just too big for it. 

While home is a permanent place for most of us, in Make.Shift we see how the business of night markets, popularly known as pasar malams in Singapore, are always on the move for a home. At 17 mins, one of the shortest films of the night, this documentary highlights a community that is well-known in the Singapore cityscape but just doesn’t bring it home. We hear a lot about the economic struggle of this industry, including an interesting juxtaposition of the in-fighting between the big players but one was left wondering: why should I care? Perhaps by overly-focusing on the economics of things, the soul of the pasar malam space, it’s myriad offerings of ordinary things, the sights, sounds and smells just got lost.

Similarly, LOL.SG, a documentary about the local comedy scene begs the question of why should I care. From start to almost end, one chuckles through the film and realises how difficult it is to do comedy here, but so what? This was enjoyable and novel because no one has taken a serious look at what’s funny here but one might just laugh it off without the context to make this an issue. What might also be worth looking at is non-English funny people too, after all, how many Singaporeans actually watch Channel 5 or stand-up comedy?

The search for home is taken to China in 家,不家 Home? where this documentary looks at the rebuilding efforts of survivors in Jinlong, Sichuan after the May 12 Earthquake last year. The stories are touching and what one would expect — uncertainty, red tape and struggles — but these are told to us by the survivors straight onto the camera. That is where one might lose the connect as one wished to see more of the disaster site to see how things were and could become.


The audience were also entertained at the beginning and intermission of the screening by post-, an audio project inspired by the students’ time at WKWSCI. A track that stuck was Everything At Once that seems like a perfect track to accompany a drive across the expressway on a rainy day — perhaps an ode to the long journey many of us take to school?

So for two nights, the Singapore Art Museum became a temporary home for the different generations of WKWSCI students: juniors awaiting to start on their final-year projects, current final-year students and seniors who returned to see how things were changing. An interesting note was that the theme, “A Site For Home” was never set out when the students began work on these final-year projects in August last year, but when they got together to organise Filament ’09, it became apparent that almost all the films had, literally, come home.

DISCLAIMER: I am also a final-year student at WKWSCI and my group’s project Reclaim Land: The fight for space in Singapore was also featured in Filament ’09. For objectivity sake I have left it out in this review.

The element of introspection seems to be a common thread amongst Singaporean photographers here. Specific examples fail to come off my head now, but a lot of the work I have seen from emerging photographers in the past year always circle around their personal memories or subjects. A chair at home, a family portrait… it seems like most Singaporean photographers when allowed to pursue their own body of work prefer “self-expression” as compared to something like documenting the society around them.

How often is this element found in Singapore photography, and could such an element in our visual language say something about the country? 

I think it may reflect the kind of environment the photographers are in. When trying to take photographs in the public, they get unfriendly stares, hands-covered faces or stern-looking security guards questioning their right to take photographs. Why go through so much hassle to take photos? Why not just turn the lens at yourself?

A society of “mind-your-own-business” further discourages photographers from being pesky and getting themselves out of their comfort zones. So they turn to what is easily available and comment on themselves.

It may also be due to the need to express themselves because of how small one feels in Singapore. Unable to express themselves freely in the presence of larger voices like the state, documenting personal artifacts and lives becomes a way of contesting the domination and assuring their existence as individuals.

These also lead to photography that is often conceptual and abstract. So what they cannot say or document, they hide behind photography that allows them to say something but not say it, all at the same time.

Formula for the language of Singapore Photography:

Introspection + Abstract = A form of self-censorship


What do you think?