“Can I use the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house?” The film asked introspectively, the master alluding to the our late founding father Mr Lee Kuan Yew. Looking at the prosperity that sloshes around this island, I think it is easy to forget what was destroyed to achieve what we have today. Snakeskin, a part dream documentary, part city symphony, is a film directed by local filmmaker Daniel Hui, that was shown at the recently concluded Southeast Asian Film Festival 2015 organised by the Singapore Art Museum.
The film is set in year 2066, and the sole survivor of an enigmatic cult recounts his country’s traumatic history and reminisces about the oppression that has been inscribed on Singapore’s physical landscape. It traces the Japanese Occupation, Operation Coldstore and other chapters of Singapore’s history. One particular chapter worth highlighting was the destruction and demise of the Malay film industry in the 1960s; credit to Daniel Hui, a Chinese filmmaker for bringing out this latent issue carefully concealed among the local Malay identity.
In its heyday, the Malay film industry, epitomized by the legendary P Ramlee, was a creative cauldron financed by the Chinese, (the Shaw and Cathay enterprises), technically helmed by Indians from Bollywood and artistically inspired by Malays from Malaya. But the grand nationalism project of newly independent Singapore led by LKY meant that these vestiges of genuine inter-racial business cooperation and racial harmony was to be replaced by mistrust and tension so as to justify a new raison d’etre of growth at all costs and attracting western investments. Malay cultures, local traditions, Chinese schools, were systematically removed from the nation’s memory and siege mentality assumed control.
Using long shots and pensive moods, Daniel Hui’s narration speak to the long hollow corridors of our forgotten collective subconscious as a true Malayan people, “He (cult leader LKY) especially detested the Malay film industry. The radically egalitarian society these films dreamed of…he could never accept the idea in these films that the different races could live together as brothers. He needed us to believe that the different races lived in constant tension…that even the smallest spark can start a fire…”
Daniel Hui even managed to interview Yusnor Ef, one of the famous lyricist during the heyday of Malay cinematic grandeur. He penned lyrics to many hits, such Kasih Sayang Suami Isteri and Gelisah. As I watch Yusnor recount the splendor at Jalan Ampas (the film studio of Shaw Brothers), I mourn for the missed opportunities that my community could have had, but most of all, I mourn for the lost kampongs and the spirit that was destroyed along with our zinc roofs and wild fruit trees, to be replaced by mindless concrete and carefully manicured plants.A
If there was one line from a movie that stuck with me as the curtains were drawn, “He only wanted us to remember the legacy of the Chinese people, who according to him built Singapore. That meant erasing the Malay culture that came before the Chinese.”
I hope Snakeskin will one day make it to the big screen so that more young Malays and youths of other races can appreciate our history. Although it’s esoteric art form would probably mean negative profits. But as our nation celebrates its 50th birthday, it is timely for us to remember not only what we have created, but what we have destroyed.
Before the cult unleashes hell on me. RIP LKY.
Editor’s Note: This is a film review of the movie Snakeskin which was screened at the recent Southeast Asian Film Festival 2015. This is a contribution by our resident film critic.