September 2, 2008
The romanticisation of the working class is a universal past-time. It begins when specific everyday actions of the working class are interpreted as acts of resistance, heroic struggle, or tragedy; actions that are framed with linear time and unfolding towards self-realisation. Such actions are taken to characterise the sentiments of an entire, often diverse, group; turning the romanticisation process into an erasure of complexity and the expression of homogeneity.
Jack Neo has emerged as Singapore’s most popular and populist film-maker whose work has become synonymous with the Singaporean heartland. His stories about the plight of the Chinese Singaporean working class in the fast-paced global city are often soaked in socio-political critique and cultural moralism, and presented straightforwardly in a conventional style. His protagonists are predominantly Chinese males who are poorly educated and dialect- or Mandarin-speaking, and are often portrayed as victims of global capitalism and/or the PAP state’s education, bilingualism and foreign talent policies. While his production values are considerably lower than his contemporaries like Eric Khoo or Royston Tan, they exude an economical aesthetic that coats his films with a patina of no-frills authenticity. Meanwhile, his success at the box office has not only established his commercial viability but also shows that his stories about heartland life have struck a chord with the average Singaporean. A large chunk of Neo’s charm and box-office success has come from his romanticisation of the Singapore working class.
All of Neo’s Chinese working class protagonists are essentially well meaning, even if sometimes morally misguided, but nevertheless always redeemable and thus able to achieve absolution or reprieve through self-realisation by the end of each film. Hence, whatever struggles, hardships and luckless escapades they go through, his protagonists are guaranteed of a happy ending. In Money No Enough (1998), Ong (played by Mark Lee) is a happy-go-lucky renovation contractor who borrows a large sum of money from illegal money-lenders. He is confident he can repay the money-lenders because his friend is supposed to return him some money borrowed earlier. However, when Ong’s friend absconds, Ong is unable to pay the money-lenders and gets a beating from them. These money-lenders later interrupt a funeral but are conveniently arrested by the police. Having avoided the nasty consequences of illegal money-borrowing, Ong goes on to set up a car-polishing business with his friends, and the film ends with the business achieving some degree of success.
Another example of Neo’s luckless-working-man-trying-to-make-good narrative is found in The Best Bet (2004), a cautionary tale on the evils of gambling. Tan (Mark Lee), a hawker and incorrigible gambler, dreams of striking it rich. After several attempts at lottery and gambling, Tan starts a business with his two friends, Yong Shun (Christopher Lee) and Richard (Richard Low), which very quickly folds up, landing all of them in debt. Tan is arrested for trying to borrow money from illegal money-lenders but eventually and facilely strikes it rich with a winning lottery number. The film closes with Tan partnering Yong Shun and Richard in a bak kut teh (herbal pork rib tea) business which prospers. In One More Chance (2005), a story about convicts and second chances in life, Zhou (Henry Thia) is a factory supervisor cum burglar. Though a criminal, Zhou is also a filial and devoted son who cares for his senile mother. After a spell in prison, Zhou decides to turn over a new leaf but finds that he is not accepted by society. To top it all, his romantic overtures to a warden officer is rejected. Driven to desperation and fuelled by the desire to fulfill one of his mother’s wishes, Zhou gathers a couple of his ex-prison mates to plan for a burglary. Nevertheless, everything works out for the better in the end and the film closes with a heavy dose of moralising.
Neo’s Chinese working class protagonists in all three films fall into the cycle of misdemeanour and redemption. It is a formulaic account of human failing, self-realisation, struggle and finally the endowment of material largess as signifier of success. This is not surprising given that economic status is one of the most recognisable and respected signs of legitimacy in capitalist Singapore. Neo’s Chinese male heartlander is vulnerable to hardship yet resilient, crude yet kind, materialistic yet sentimental, able to overcome his socio-cultural disadvantages through hard work or sheer luck. In their everyday struggle against state institutions and structures, they offer themselves as heroic figures who can overcome socio-economic adversity, serving as metaphors for rebirth, self-awakening and self-purification for a nation of consumers devoid of a ‘golden past’. Hero-making, Anthony Smith informs us, is necessary for the transmission of values, culture and customs from generation to generation.
Neo also laces his heartlanders with authenticity by contrasting them against middle class English-educated and English-speaking characters. In Singapore theatre, television and film, several stereotypes have emerged as literary devices to encapsulate different cultural groups and socio-political interests. One of the most persistent and recognisable stereotype is the English-speaking middle class character, typically as the epitome of political and bureaucratic power (civil servants), or Western values (proponents of liberal democracy and freedom issues), and economic success (well educated professionals and beneficiaries of global capital). Neo may lionize the heartlander by highlighting “Western values” as foreign and alienating.
Take for example a scene in I Not Stupid (2002), where a young precocious female Chinese student stands up in class to declare that she wishes she was a Caucasian because “if I am a Caucasian, I won’t have to learn Chinese anymore”. This prompts the Mandarin teacher to launch into an impromptu lecture on how Mandarin is the key to personal and national identity, and without mastery over the language, the young anglophile would not understand who she is or where she comes from. Explicit in the teacher’s discourse is that ethnic Chinese who are better versed in English and the ‘West’, like the young student, are likely to be rootless and unauthentic.
Lastly, Neo is fond of illustrating heartlander authenticity by setting up clashes between Chinese- or dialect-speaking protagonists and English-speaking middle class characters in order to accentuate the contrast between the beneficiaries and non-beneficiaries of globalisation and PAP state policies. In Money No Enough (1998), Keong (Jack Neo), a Mandarin-speaking, senior and more deserving worker, is passed over for promotion in favour of his new colleague, Jeremiah Adolpher Lee, who has an overseas (read: Western) education. As the film unfolds, it is revealed that Lee’s command of English and overseas education triumph over Keong’s qualities such as industriousness and sincerity in the corporate world. This perhaps echoes the sentiments of the Chinese-speaking majority who may feel that their nation-building sacrifices have been glossed over by the English-speaking elite who have made the Singapore Story one that celebrates only the achievements and successes of the English-proficient Singaporean. Neo hints at this in the film by having the overseas educated Lee deploy his command of English to embarrass and put down his Chinese-speaking colleagues.
Neo’s celebration of the Chinese-speaking working class must be framed with the cultural politics of globalisation. Individuals, groups and communities who claim authenticity are, in effect, positioning themselves as an embedded quality against deterritorialising and delocalising forces. The local-global and heartlander-cosmopolitan binaries not only draws attention to the spectre of loss and transience in the global city, thus reaffirming the human need for a sense of the real, but also highlights the vacuum in the Singapore national identity that has not yet been filled.
[This is an excerpt from a longer paper. Footnotes and references have been removed.]