I had assumed everyone knows Ang Peng Siong. Until I mentioned his name to a 21-year-old and did not get the reaction I expected. I asked this young man if he was familiar with the music of ABBA. The reaction was similar. To a whole generation of Singaporeans, Ang Peng Siong was arguably the first poster boy of swimming, nicknamed Asia’s ‘Flying Fish’, idolised and the source of inspiration for many. It was a time when our nation was coming into its own, when the bread-and-butter issues of the 1970s were less pressing. In 1982, Ang Peng Siong became the first, and since then the only, Singaporean to hold the world number one ranking in the 50m freestyle with a time of 22.69 seconds. He was awarded the ’the world fastest swimmer’ title that year. He would go on to represent Singapore in world events, including the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics and 1988 Seoul Olympics.
Last Saturday, from the business district to the heartland, in homes, coffee shops, offices, shopping centres and clubs, Singaporeans held their breath for 50.39 seconds. When they exhaled, an Olympic record was broken. By a 21year-old Singaporean. On the podium, with the gold medal hanging from the broad shoulders of Joseph Schooling, grown men and women started to cry across the island as Majulah Singapura was played for the first time at the Olympic Games. And for the first time, a new generation of Singaporeans saw how sports can unite a nation with pride, how sports can knit the multi-racial and multi-cultural fabric in a way they have never experienced before. From that moment, Singaporean boys and girls will take for granted that it is possible to win at a world event. A glass ceiling was broken. Young Singaporeans will work harder, push further and dream bigger.
This week, a new Singapore film, ‘Apprentice’, opens in our cinemas. It deals with the death penalty. In this sophomore feature, following his well-received debut ’Sandcastle’, Boo Junfeng tackles the subject of capital punishment. It has garnered positive to glowing notices around the world, with a standing ovation at Cannes, no less. How will the Singapore audience respond to such a film in its home turf? A friend who just watched ‘Finding Dory’ asked me, “Is ‘Apprentice’ any good?” Before I could answer, he ventured with more questions, “Did you enjoy it? Should I watch it?”
The straight forward answer is, “I enjoyed it and you should watch it.” But it is no ‘Finding Nemo’ or ‘Ah Boys To Men’ and there is nothing straight forward about ‘Apprentice’. Nothing cut and dry or black and white about it. In cold hard shades of grey, it shows the dark corners and cruel space in and around a prison. Alongside, it unravels the emotions under the calm surfaces of people inhabiting this space. Watching this film, if you notice the look and feel is less parochial and local while still unmistakably Singaporean, you will have uncovered a significant precedence this film has achieved.
A single-minded focus of being the best drove and defined the former boss of MediaCorp Raintree Pictures
During last year’s mid-autumn festival (中秋节), a day when ethnic Chinese worldwide celebrate what is also called Mooncake festival by gathering with family and eating sweet moon-shaped pastry, Daniel Yun stood alone atop one of the dozens peaks of the Yellow Mountains (黄山) in the Eastern Chinese province of Anhui (安徽). The veteran media executive gazed out over the giant boulders that had poked through the sea of clouds, exhaled, and took in the view that had inspired generations of poets, painters, and artists of every description.
Just weeks prior, Yun had released the film 1965 days ahead of Singapore’s 50th independence anniversary on August 9th. Film critics panned it, calling it a propaganda piece. Box office takings, totalling about S$700,000 in its seven-week run, were a fraction of its S$2.8 million budget. Ancillary sales are ongoing.
We can all remember a time when something happened, and we had expected some friends to call, to ask, to speak up, or just say something. After a while, when they didn’t, we were perplexed, confused. Then it dawned on us. We were on our own. They had looked the other way. Their silence was deafening. The feeling was beyond hurt or betrayal. We felt suddenly alone, abandoned and afraid. And what Martin Luther King said, rang loud and true. ‘In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.’
Once in a while, there is a film like ‘Spotlight’, which isn’t just the most significant movie about journalism since ‘All The President’s Men’, it is also the most enjoyable. It is about breaking this silence. On one of the most ungodly sins. Committed by priests who were protected by the ‘system’ when the Church and State were almost one. Co-writer and director Tom McCarthy tracks the team in the newsroom like a procedural thriller, letting the facts tell the knotty story with unrelenting integrity and mounting tension.
I messaged a friend recently, after meeting a young man still in school but intent on getting work experience and exposure. I have been impressed with the young people I am interviewing for internship. They are not only hardworking, often juggling a few part-time jobs and projects, they are also smart and driven. My friends are surprised by my impressions. After all, the so-called ‘Strawberry Generation’, while not as spoiled as the rich single child in China, are often accused of being ambitious yet laid-back, socially aware yet selfish, and they seem to be born with an imposing sense of entitlement. Admittedly, they have not gone through the hardship of the pioneer generation. Yet talking to them, I realise life for the so-called ‘Millennials’ is anything but easy.
Watching Jack Neo’s ‘Long Long Time Ago’, I suddenly saw a new context. I come from a generation which benefitted directly from the hard work of our pioneers. Our pioneers are a mix of immigrants and natives who must first find the means to make a living. Their lives were more about survival. It was more about how to start a life, than about how to live one. There were little options. It would have to be a life of strive, to make ends meet, to build the basics of having a roof over their heads and having food on their tables. Which was why the connection between ‘Long Long Time Ago’ and the older audiences was immediate. There is no romance. From the start, the protagonists in the film have to find ways to survive.