To documentary filmmaker Tan Pin Pin’s credit, before To Singapore, with Love only one of her films had been banned in her home country. As if to lend legitimacy to her narrative, not only was her 2013 film about the lives of Singaporean political exiles abroad banned upon its release, it was also formally critiqued by the Prime Minister of Singapore himself. Tan’s film “may be like [Michael Moore’s] Fahrenheit 9/11 – very convincing, but it’s not documentary,” says Lee Hsien Loong, the nation-state’s head of government since 2004, because it’s “not of documentary history, objectively presented, but a self-serving personal account.”
Back that up for a second. Crazy Rich Asians (2018) put Singapore on the map as the location for Hollywood’s dazzling money-spinner. It made $2.38 billion worldwide and was the first Hollywood movie with an all-Asian cast in 25 years. Tan’s documentary is a stark counterpoint to the lush, luxuriant, culturally diverse South East Asian metropolis that Singapore brands herself as.
Singapore is a politically stable financial hub and geo-political player with a colonial past. To Singapore, With Love shows a refugee’s view – what does Singapore look like from the outside, as a person longing to return home? All viewers see of Singapore in Tan’s film is Changi Airport. The story unfolds in Thailand, Malaysia, and the UK, to the soundtrack of her subject’s voices, silence, and one exile’s love songs to Singapore. “For a few, Singapore is a haven, but for many, the bulk of the 2.3 million people [in 1979], it is a bitter reality of what a society ought not to be. I participated actively in the student movement of the 1960s. I had been publishing political cartoons for years,” activist and exile the late Francis Khoo said to the BBC.
What makes Tan’s work crucial isn’t domestic politics or the arguments of historians – it’s that she tells deeply personal stories of love, patriotism, and what’s worth fighting for. The role of a documentarian is to preserve a space to discuss, disagree, and finally, unite.
We are all exiles and immigrants somewhere down the line. Home is an idea, an identity, however far you roam.