Singapore as Sollywood? U gotta be kidding.
Singapore as Sollywood?
By Tony Sitathan
Sep 24, 2003
SINGAPORE - It has been almost a year since the government unveiled
yet another blueprint to attempt to transform Singapore into Asia's
media hub. This is a two-decade-old dream that has invariably
foundered on the reality of the government's poisonous attitude
toward the foreign media.
The international media, often regarded locally as certain to bring
perdition ashore, all too often have faced legal actions and libel
suits that would have been laughed out of court in 1950s Bulgaria.
Magazines and newspapers have had their circulation cut drastically
for stories that contained the slightest amount of government
criticism. That has made the international media deeply suspicious
about the government's perennial blandishments to move their
operations to the island republic.
But with Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong having taken over in 1990 from
Lee Kuan Yew, tolerance seems to be growing. Goh's leadership style
is more consultative and consensus-driven than the combative former
Singapore's communications infrastructure now makes it ideal for
broadcasting international media content by a host of foreign media
companies. BBC World, ESPN, MTV Asia, the Discovery Channel and
National Geographic Channels International (NGCI) have all decided to
make Singapore their regional home.
Diverse viewpoints have gingerly begun to surface - to a point.
"As long as international broadcasters do not tamper with the
domestic political scene or meddle in Singapore's internal affairs,
international broadcasting companies are churning out programs for an
international audience," said Andrew Marshal, a regional programming
specialist with an international media house based in Singapore.
The fact is that local political events remain off-limits to the
print media on pain of being censored, gazetted or banned from
circulation. The broadcast media run the danger of losing the right
frequency allocations to air their programs. The international press
faces the choice of transmitting knowledgeably to a local audience of
3 million or to a broader audience across Asia. It thus makes
economic sense, if not journalistic bravery, for the international
broadcasters to fold their hand when reporting on Singapore's
internal affairs. And they do.
Singapore, technologically streets ahead of the rest of Asia, is
still faced with the oxymoronic conundrum of being a creative vortex
or an authoritative straitjacket. The media, ever ready to be
seduced, are contemplating the unlikely possibility that the
government has mellowed. In its latest incarnation as a media center,
the Ministry of Information, Communication and the Arts (MITA) has
been entrusted with a mission, called Media 21, to springboard
Singapore into a mini-Hollywood - Sollywood? - churning out
international TV programs and regional films, including
David Lim, the former acting minister for information, communication
and the arts, calls it a way to enhance the Singaporean identity and
multicultural heritage as well as a vision to capture a creative and
connected Singapore. Still, obviously there is a price to pay for
being creative and connected, and Singapore, with its straitjacket
broadcasting policies and restrictive censorship, so far has resisted
all serious attempts at transformation.
The government has made some inroads on its media-center campaign,
working with NGCI and the Economic Development Board (EDB). Both sank
close to US$2 million two years ago into a joint development effort
to make documentaries on Asia from a local perspective and broadcast
The EDB-NGCI documentary production fund is designed to help budding
local and other Asian filmmakers and production companies produce
original programs with an international appeal. It has also recently
announced a further injection of $8 million to $10 million over a
"When Singapore first started in the direction to be a media or
broadcasting hub, there were not many foreign media talents in
Singapore with the exception of the Yellow River Network, which was
an amalgamation of production, talent and post production houses,"
said a local source who started his own production house in 1999
before closing it down two years ago. "Then the Singapore
Broadcasting Corp [SBC] had a virtual monopoly of the media industry
before it became a semi-government entity under the Television Corp
of Singapore [TCS].
"Times were really tough for those that wanted to do documentaries,
as budgets were comparatively small compared even to commercials and
docudramas made for television. Although the Singapore government put
emphasis on training of media practitioners and graduates of mass
communications, the reality at that time made it impossible for
smallish run production outfits to survive."
A technical sound expert with Turntable Music Pte Ltd, based in
Singapore, maintains, however, that even today the opportunities for
new companies starting up are not many, since the market is
relatively small and its creative talent is limited.
"I find it difficult for Singapore to be another Hollywood or, for
that matter, another Bollywood, as the Singapore market of less than
4 million people makes it rather difficult for the documentaries or
films to be absorbed locally," he said. "Production companies are
therefore dependent on the outside market for their distribution of
content. And even in terms of location shooting, countries like
Malaysia and Thailand have much more to offer in terms of natural
scenery and contrasting landscapes."
However, Michael Chin, formerly operations director in a local
production company, said he is hopeful that the issue of grants and
funding allowances is different now. In the past, he said, when the
EDB dished out grants it did not physically give money but rather
converted the grants into tax holidays that were later accounted into
final production costs. "It was a counter-productive effort, since
small companies had no way to claim their money upfront and were only
given tax holidays that were later factored as grants from the EDB,"
So it is little surprise that one of the first documentaries made
using the EDB and NGCI fund was Hidden Genders, shot in Thailand by a
Singapore-based production company called Right Angle. It examines
Thai kickboxing and looks at the world of transsexuals and
transvestites. It received about US$200,000 in funding, a large
amount by local standards.
Now there seems to be a concerted effort by the newly anointed Media
Development Authority (MDA) to push Singapore's idea across as a
global media city, said Lim Hock Chuan, the chief executive officer
"Media 21 is our vision of how we can co-create our future of
Singapore as a global media city," Lim said. "It represents a
holistic approach to develop the whole media ecosystem, covering the
whole range of processes ranging from content production and
delivery, the education system, talent development, infrastructure
and facilities, and media literacy."
There are also concrete plans to double the media sector's
contribution from $2.5 billion or 1.56-3 percent of gross domestic
product. According to the latest statistics, the film and video
production industry has been growing at 13.5 percent on average each
year from 1995 to 2000, and its total output of the industry was
estimated at $30.2 million in 2000.
Is all this going to happen? David Yew, the strategy director of
Fusion Consulting, based in Singapore and with regional offices in
Asia, says having money alone is not a good consideration for
boosting the creative side of the business that is needed to drive
the media industry.
"The talent industry needs to be nurtured," he said. "Singapore's
vision is parochial in nature. It needs to change the way it uses
creative talents from overseas while nurturing its own talent base.
Also the current attempts at making movies makes it difficult to be a
regional success. When there is use of Chinese dialects like Hokkien
or Teochew, the majority of even the Chinese may be alienated. It has
to look at universal themes instead of cultural themes that may only
work in the beginning."
Thus, despite Singapore's bid to catapult itself into Asian media-
hubdom, there are some considerations that Marcel Fenez, a media
specialist with PricewaterhouseCoopers based in Hong Kong, brought up
during one of the recent forum discussions organized by MDA in
Singapore. He said Singapore should loosen its censorship laws and
deal with its external perception when attracting overseas investors
to invest in its media industry.
"Singapore also has to deal with [places] like Hong Kong and Dubai
that have adequate protections for intellectual property as well as a
regulatory environment which encourages creativity and freedom of
expression," he said.
That would mean financial carrots alone aren't sufficient. Singapore
needs to look at its regulatory framework, its talent mix as well as
its prohibitive censorship laws that could well be a stumbling block
to achieving its dream.
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