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Conference Paper on Foreigners in Singapore Films reported in The Straits Times, 28 September 2021

Updated: Oct 8, 2021

How foreigners are portrayed in S'pore films

Ho Ai Li, 28 September 2021

The Straits Times

Ignorant, second-rate, morally degenerate and even vampiric.

These are some of the ways in which elite foreigners - usually male Westerners - have been portrayed in Singapore films since the 1990s, noted Professor Kenneth Paul Tan in a paper titled The Foreigner In Singapore Films.

Prof Tan, of Hong Kong Baptist University, presented his paper last Thursday at an online film symposium organised by the Nanyang Technological University's Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information.

In his presentation, he cited examples from Eric Khoo's Mee Pok Man (1995) to Sandi Tan's Shirkers (2018). In Mee Pok Man, a sleazy foreign photographer leads Michelle Goh's character on with the false promise of a job in London. In Shirkers, based on a true story, a mysterious American, "an older vampiric, slippery con-artist", mentors a group of teenage Singaporean girls in film-making, but ends up stealing their movie.

In Djinn Ong's Return To Pontianak (2001), a Briton trips over a gravestone in a haunted forest but does not apologise to the spirits and even kicks the gravestone. He later meets a horrible end.

And in Jack Neo's I Not Stupid (2002), a Western expatriate in an advertising agency is not above stealing ideas from his subordinates, but some local clients initially have blind faith in him. "Ang moh's idea is always very special. Even if I have to pay more, I don't mind," says the boss of a bak kwa firm in the movie. But the boss has to eat his words after the expatriate comes up with a rebranding proposal that is culturally inappropriate.

"These films seem to reflect the latent local hostility directed at the privileges accorded by a seemingly unjust post-colonial system to foreign talent, who then behave arrogantly and dishonestly," says Prof Tan, who does research in areas such as film and government studies.

But this may not reflect rising xenophobia or racism, he notes. "Singaporeans have been by and large conditioned to think of the survivalist requirement to be plugged into the global economy to compensate for the country's own resource capacity and skills shortage, and to find in the wider world opportunities for growth."

Singaporeans have been questioning not so much the wisdom of attracting foreign investment or talent, he adds, but whether "the right talent" has been attracted and whether locals have been displaced from jobs unfairly.

On the other hand, South Asian migrant workers have been portrayed a lot more favourably in Singapore films than Western expatriates.

Referring to works such as Yeo Siew Hua's A Land Imagined (2018), Prof Tan says: "These films portray them sympathetically not just as victims of exploitation, but as people with agency, dignity and dreams of a better future for themselves and their families."

Lei Yuan Bin's I Dream Of Singapore (2019) follows the journey of a Bangladeshi construction worker in Singapore who returns to his home country after an injury. A Land Imagined takes viewers into the world of migrant workers, offering a glimpse into their community life and their hidden-away dormitories.

Prof Tan also examines the portrayal of South-east Asian women, in particular Filipino domestic workers, in Singapore films.

The films portray them as women who are "powerless and vulnerable, whose fate lies in the hands of their troubled Singaporean employers. At the same time, the employers' profound dependence on the domestic workers and their unavoidable presence in the most intimate space of the home triggers all kinds of anxieties".

In Anthony Chen's Ilo Ilo (2013), the anxiety is over the commodification of mothering. In the movie, Teresa, a Filipino maid employed by a Singaporean family, is like a mother to her employers' son, but this triggers insecurities on the part of the boy's mother. The boy's parents, facing money woes during the 1997 Asian financial crisis, decide to let go of their helper eventually.

Meanwhile, the abuse perpetrated against migrant domestic workers here, as seen in maid abuse cases, is mirrored in Kelvin Tong's horror movie The Maid (2005).

In the film, Filipino maid Rosa comes to realise that the Chinese family she is working for plans to kill her so that she can be a ghost bride for their dead son. She also encounters the spirit of Esther, a fellow Filipina who used to work for the family, who was burnt to death after being raped by the son.

The film reflects not just the physical violence inflicted on these women, but also "structural violence", given that their rights and well-being are only minimally protected, adds Prof Tan.

He notes that migrant workers in Singapore are usually out of sight, in dormitories or private homes. What these Singapore films have done is to take viewers into not just the private spaces of these workers, but also their minds.

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