Tan Wah Piow's Suitcases

Three days ago I watched To Singapore With Love in a sparsely-filled auditorium. Since I already knew the broad strokes of the film, I tried to pay attention to style. The most tender moment of this documentary is not visual, but sonic: when the late Francis Khoo’s voice appears, haunting, dripping with 1970s karaoke sensibility, singing his own song about seeing home some day, played over the image of the Malaysian landscape through a cruising car. Imagine the hours Tan Pin Pin must have taken to agonise over how to craft this scene.

Two years ago, a number of movers and shakers released a manifesto for the arts. It included such key phrases as “Art can be challenged but not censored,” “Art is fundamental,” “do not attempt to define Art for others,” and “Art is political.” For me, only when art ceases to be political will censorship cease. And any call to stop people from defining art is self defeating. If artists don’t try to define art for their audiences in their work, they’re dead, and if artists think only artists get to define art, then we’re all dead. I wouldn’t dare to leave all my politics in the hands of politicians, and the same goes for art in the hands of artists.

When I write a poem, I am selecting a hundred or so words from a repository of millions, placing them in such and such an order, breaking a line here and not there, punctuating, deciding where to begin and where to end. If I am writing a sonnet, I know what I want from it, its argument, its turn, its compressed slice of thinking through a problem and attempting a solution. If I choose to write a sonnet, I am subject to rules which I can break to productive effect, but if broken too much, will result in a work that I can no longer, in good conscience, call a sonnet. Even after all of this, the poem is still subject to edits from my future self and from other forces I have less control over—the workshop group, the publisher, the trusted friend.

About one third of the way through the film, someone paused it, and the house the lights went up. Something was wrong with the video—an almost-invisible line divided the screen into two, the top half lagging just a few frames behind the bottom. Tan Wah Piow’s face was broken into two, his eyes unnaturally disconnected from his mouth as he drove past Tudor houses on the way to his London law firm. However, even after restarting, the glitch continued to manifest itself. It wasn’t the end of the world, but it was annoying, and added a slightly anxious tone to the whole affair. Someone said, “I don’t think MDA is trying to do anything funny”. Nothing to be done. Lights went down.

Censorship, to me, represents an institution taking the freedom of speech seriously, as a means of communicating both the need to be responsible in that freedom, as well as assuming the power of the censored message. When, a couple years ago, my Facebook comments on an activist group were deleted repeatedly, I did not disagree with the act of deletion, but I did wonder about the intentions of a group who would cry out against censorship while exercising their right to censor in the name of safe space. I see many establishment efforts to censor as efforts to create safe space, whether I agree with actual individual acts of censorship or not.

I have to admit that on some level it’s very shiok to read something like Kuo Pao Kun’s The Coffin is Too Big for the Hole and realise what it says in the face of what it’s not explicitly allowed to. Kuo was also detained in 1976, for four years and seven months. In 1992, his citizenship was reinstated. He is a pillar of Singapore theatre. Artists are creative problem-solvers, and I like to think that difficult, out-of-bounds topics are problems ripest for creative solutions. As an artist who has never been censored by the government, I imagine all artists thrive off the potential of censorship. Pushing boundaries only makes sense, becomes powerful, if there are clear boundaries to be pushed in the first place.

At the end of the screening the director took questions. Someone asked if there was any way the film could have incorporated different points of view. Perhaps, if there was a more even-handed way of telling the story of our exiles, then the film would be unbanned, reach more eyeballs. I can’t remember her answer in full, but I do recall her face, rightly assessing the question as ridiculous and missing the point. A balanced account was never the intention. She just wanted to tell, in the most powerful way possible, the tale our exiles tell themselves. In order to do that, she had to select as I select words to fit into a form.

This is another scene that stood out to me: Tan Wah Piow shuffles to his little shed in a corner of his lawn. He drags out two suitcases, dark blue, old, we would call them vintage. He says that these two suitcases contained everything he brought when he fled Singapore to start life again in London. Just two suitcases. And he says, if he ever gets back, that he will take with him nothing more than what they will carry.

Hao Guang Tse