Hidden Gems: Prize-winning entries from the Singapore Video Competition 1985, 1986 and 1988

This essay was written as an introduction to accompany the screenings of the programme Hidden Gems: Prize-winning entries from the Singapore Video Competition 1985, 1986 and 1988 which will screen on 21 August and 2 September 2022. You can download the full Singapore Shorts ’22 e-booklet here.

An Introduction 

By Sophia Siddique 

What you are about to experience is a window onto a vibrant period of grassroots filmmaking that remains at best marginalized and at worst invisible in Singapore film history. Selected from approximately 33 film titles housed in the Lee Kong Chian Reference Collection at the National Library of Singapore, these eight short works represent entries from the 1985, 1986, and 1988 Short Video Competitions co-organized by the Singapore Cine & Video Club (SCVC) and the People’s Association.[1]

The dominant narrative of Singapore film historiography proceeds from the end of the studio era of the Shaw Brothers’ Malay Film Productions (1967) and Cathay-Keris (1972), to a spate of independent filmmaking in the 1970s, to a dearth of filmmaking activity in the 1980s, followed by the revival era of the 1990s. However, by focusing solely on completed feature-length works exhibited and distributed in theatrical spaces, this account erases the prolific period of grassroots filmmaking of the 1980s and denies the beauty and power of the short film’s polymorphous possibilities.

The short film is often seen as a derivative of the feature film. The temporal limits of a short film are vexed by the absence of a standard definition, with some defining a short film as any film under 30 minutes, while others categorizing it as under 15 minutes. The AFA’s Singapore Shorts’ 22 showcase centers the short film as an integral component of Singapore cinema. As producer Juan Foo remarked in 2002, a nation’s cinema “starts with shorts” since more short films are produced in Singapore than feature films.[2] This curated program proves the 1980s was an active and generative period of Singapore filmmaking.

As a key player in the grassroots filmmaking sphere of the 1980s, the Singapore Cine Club (SCC), founded in 1961, sought to extend film appreciation and production beyond the confines of SCC membership to the wider Singaporean public. The SCC changed its name to the Singapore Cine & Video Club in 1982 to accommodate an increasing interest in video production.[3] In fact, one in five households owned a VCR, with almost six million blank tapes imported during the first nine months of 1982. By 1984, approximately 500 video cameras and 350 VCRs were  sold  monthly, ranking Singapore “among the world’s biggest buyers of video recorders.”[4]

In 1983, the SCVC joined forces with the People’s Association (PA) to conduct video workshops and jointly organized an annual video competition. As a state organization, the PA administered community centers, provided access to recreational facilities and, in the 1980s, offered video production courses as part of its community outreach programming.[5] Participating community centres included Queenstown, Boon Lay, and Marine Parade.

The first annual competition for amateur filmmakers in 1983 carried no thematic restrictions on films for submission. Hagemeyer Electronics, agents for National, Panasonic, and Technics video products donated $25,000 worth of prizes.[6] The categories of competition reflected the grassroots mode of production as “all residents and citizens in Singapore” could compete in the open section while students enrolled in schools, tertiary institutions, and colleges were eligible to enter the student section. The 1984 Singapore Amateur Movie Competition recognized the centrality of students’ creative voices by changing its submission deadline so that there were no conflicts between filmmaking and school examinations.[7] 

The PA-SCVC workshops and the Singapore Video Competitions fostered the growth of grassroots filmmaking in Singapore and echoed video’s rich potential as a medium for constructing alternative stories of Singapore as a city-nation. These competitions and workshops filled a void since film education was not yet at a critical mass.

Image still from Being a Woman (身为女人) (1986, dir. Jack Neo)

There were 56 total entries for the 1985 competition.  Being A Woman (Jack Neo) and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (Ling Li, Viola Kok, Belinda Yap) competed in the amateur section, while Traveller (Choo Hoh Yim [Zhu Houren]) and A Day with Labourers (Fuziah Taha, Chiang Eng Teck, J. R. Kamble) competed in the open section.  The prize sponsorship from Hagemeyer totaled $12,350. The public screening took place at the PUB Auditorium at which Mr. Wong Kan Seng, then Minister of Foreign Affairs, was the guest of honor.[8] The total entries in 1986 was lower, with 27. 18 competed in the open section including Stranger Danger (Lim Swee Lin, Lucy Tay, Nicolette Sage, Emily Lin, Lynn Lee, Gilbert Yap), while The Garden (Ong Ann Meng [Meng Ong]) joined 8 other short films in the amateur section.[9] In 1988, the total entries grew to 52 with 34 competing in the amateur section and 18 in the open section.[10] Feathered Friends (Ong Jong Keg and Rexon Ngim) competed in the Open Section and won a $500 Merit Prize and a Special Award for Best Photography ($400).[11]

Image still from The Garden (1986, dir. Ong Ann Meng)

This curated slate is formally and thematically diverse. For example, The Garden, an experimental narrative short, takes you on a mesmerizing and sensuous journey of loss, mourning, desire, and innocence. A Day With Labourers is a poignant and pointed portrait of the labor force, especially those who toil in the heat and humidity for Singapore’s construction industry, while Feathered Friends reframes Singapore from an urban city-state to a space populated by a complex avian ecosystem of approximately 300 species of birds. Some of you may recognize directors Meng Ong and Jack Neo but other notable alumni of these video competitions in the 1980s include Eric Khoo whose short film A Question of Lust (1988) competed alongside Feathered Friends and garnered a Merit Prize ($500) and a Special Award for Most Creative ($400).[12] Renowned playwright Haresh Sharma’s parody of a TV talk show, The 1:15 Show, won third prize in the 1986 video competition.[13]  

Image still from Feathered Friends (1988, dir. Ong Jong Keg, Rexon Ngim)

While these short films have ethnographic and historical value in terms of how they contribute to our understanding of Singapore’s popular culture and its material and built environments of the 1980s, they ask us to reimagine the dominant narrative of Singapore’s film history and invite us to consider the centrality of the short film form in Singapore’s cinesphere.

[1]There were various names for this competition. For example, the Video 88 Awards, the 1984 Amateur Movie Competition, Panasonic Video Awards, and the Singapore Video Competition.

[2]  Juan Foo, “‘A nation’s cinema starts with shorts,” Arts Magazine (December 2002 ), http://www.filmsasia.net/gpage77.html. See, Jan Uhde and Yvonne Ng Uhde, Latent Images: Film in Singapore (Singapore: NUS Press, 2010), 156 – 171 and Sophia Siddique Harvey, “Nomadic Trajectories: mapping short film production in Singapore,” Inter-Asia Cultural Studies 8:2 (2007): 262 – 276 for more information about the Singapore short film. Additional resources on the short film form in Asia include: Olivia Khoo, “The Minor Transnationalism of Queer Asian Cinema: Female Authorship and the Short Film Format,” Camera Obscura 85, Volume 29, no. 1 (May 2014): 33 – 57; Thomas Barker, “Indie Cinema and the Short Film Assemblage: An Essay on Dewi pulang,” Bijdragen Tot De Taal-, Land – En Volkenkunde 177 (2021): 208 – 220.

[3]“Singapore Cine & Video Club,” Informational Sheet.

[4]Bertilla Pereira, “Singapore is among the world’s biggest buyers of video recorders,” Sunday Monitor, August 19, 1984.                                               

[5]C.M. Turnbull, A History of Singapore: 1819–1988 (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1989), 275, 307 – 308.  

[6] Chee Eng To,  “Contest to bring the Spielberg out of you,”  Singapore Monitor, August 3, 1983.

[7]Kannan Chandran, “The producer in them,” July 16, 1984.

[8] “Panasonic Video Awards,” Memo, b:entries.pva

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] “List of Winners and Synopses of Winning Entries,” Video 88 Awards, Appendix 2, cevid2/agen-app3.

[12] Ibid.

[13] “Home Movie Rivals of SBC: Have fun, will shoot,” New Paper, October 8, 1988.

About the Writer