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Thinking and Talking about Arts and Culture in Southeast Asia

An Elder Millennial’s Guide to Classic Singapore TV & Movies

By Joel Tan

Okay, as if we needed another existential crisis during the Pandemic of 2020, more than a hundred classic Singapore TV shows and movies just got dumped on Netflix. For our younger Gen Z readers who grew up when terrestrial television in Singapore was already a joke-category[1], this moment might be bewildering, even embarrassing. You might have already waded into the first five minutes of one of these shows and found the experience mind-boggling: what is this vintage film grain, is that an actual live studio audience, why do they sound like that, is this meant to be ironic? Why are your crusty millennial friends, if you have any, freaking out about this?

As an Elder Millennial raised on this stuff, let me say this: if you’ve never been screamed at by your mother to hurry up because the 7pm show is starting, you’re not going to understand the emotive appeal. People used to gather around the TV, kiddo, and we wept and laughed and did not cringe at these TV versions of ourselves. Film and TV in the 90s and early 2000s gave us the first and some of the best onscreen representations of Singapore life. I’ve compiled a list of my favourites, and like a good millennial, will make you sit through a lengthy TED Talk on why I think they’re so special.

So pipe down and be educated, Zoomer. And don’t you dare cringe!

[1] Purists are undecided on when exactly Singapore TV died, but I think 2007, when Phua Chu Kang wrapped, and 2015, when Tanglin started, might be a good gauge. There is a lot to be said about the feverish creativity and boldness of TV in the ’90s, and of the ’90s in general. See this nostalgic account of Zouk to get a sense of the people who would have been making TV at the time. Channel 5 in 2020 is a bland parade of glittering MBS offices and besuited aspirants who speak with bizarre American accents. Read: a show-reel for beautiful young things looking to make it capital R and B: Regionally and Beyond. Good luck to them, but for many of us, it’s the kind of thing you put on TV to drown out the awkward silence at dinner with your parents.

 

1. Phua Chu Kang Private Limited (1998-2007)
Photo: Netflix 

 

To this day, Singapore culture has not produced an Everyman quite as compelling as Phua Chu Kang, the money-minded contractor with a heart of gold. You know whoever made this show must have had a very colourful home renovation experience because PCK, drawn with so much granularity, is clearly one of those “can’t make this shit up” characters. 

The show itself cuts right to the heart of one of our society’s most central conflicts: atas vs not atas[2].

In PCK’s improbably large bungalow rages an eternal class war. Can hoity-toity, acrolectal-English-with-an-American-twang Singaporeans ever get along with your teh-peng-from-the-packet variety? Are either Elitist Margaret or Spendthrift Rosie good role models for our young women? What does it mean that we root for the Contractor, not the Architect? How is this a family? It’s somehow equally preposterous and radical. 

This show would be unimaginable in 2020, when slanging Margaret, and not crass Rosie, is likely to be the Channel 5 heroine; when the handsome Architect and not the big-haired Contractor is likely to have his own show[3]. And in 2020, I just can’t imagine a Mediacorp writers’ room getting past the fundamental question: “eh how come this chao beng can live in such a nice house?”

All of this tension is potently mirrored in the IRL story of the show: PCK became such an icon that his silly catchphrases (“Abuden?!”, “Don’t pray pray”) became national lexicon. This crass, nouveau-riche Beng became, perhaps, too beloved. In 1999, then-PM Goh Chok Tong took on PCK in his NDP-rally speech, singling out the salty-mouthed contractor for glamourising Singlish and threatening children’s abilities to speak proper English. How much do we want to bet that a Margaret[4] wrote in to complain? The next season of the show opened with far less Singlish, and with it, we lost a kind of full-blooded Singapore comedy we’ve never seen on TV since[5].

[2] Or as we say in 2020, “High SES” vs. “Low SES”. There’s much to be said about the class discourse in Phua Chu Kang. For one, the slightly queasy politics of a “low class” caricature created by media elites for mass consumption. But it’s worth pointing out here that the show also contained some very progressive (for Singapore) ideas. As activist Jolovam Wham pointed out recently on Instagram, in one episode of the series, Ah Soon, one of PCK’s employees, stages a worker’s strike (complete with “Worker’s Party!” shout-out) to whose demands PCK actually acquiesces. And all-round, Phua Chu Kang is a stern but ultimately compassionate employer, which, in the construction industry, we know to be a far cry from reality.

 

[3] Years later, avatars of Margaret and Chu Beng re-appear as characters in the smash hit, Crazy Rich Asians, a vision of Singapore fully committed to the aspirational fantasies so savagely mocked in Phua Chu Kang. Given the trajectory of modern screen representations of Singapore life, one that arguably begins with Under One Roof and PCK and ends up with Westworld, Crazy Rich Asians, and present-day Channel 5, one possible answer to PCK’s central question, atas vs not atas, is that the greasy aspirants win in the end. Cue here the death-knell of the Ah Beng, now an endangered species, largely replaced with bespectacled faux-hipsters in Uniqlo togs, drinking bubble tea.

 

[4] I seem to recall Margaret being a derogatory term back in the day. Maybe ‘Margaret’ is the local version of ‘Karen’ we’ve been seeking. Categorically, in this country, I seem to know many more nice Karens than Margarets.

 

[5] In the first episode of the new PCK, Margaret brings in a white man from the British Council to verify the spoken English in the household. Over scones, the ang moh gently chides Margaret for her prescriptive approach to language, and famously corrects her pronunciation of her son’s name. Not Aloy-shus but Aloo-wee-shus, he says, beckoning a dark time for Aloys all over Singapore, as kids of the GCT generation took the show’s cue to mock pretentiousness and the speaking of Good English. It’s a subtle but powerful clapback, to this date one of the finest salvos in the stupid debate over Singlish.

 

2. Growing Up (1996-2001)
Photo: Netflix

 

Growing Up was one of Singapore’s longest-running TV shows, probably at this point only rivalled by Tanglin, a show of far less ambition and quality. The show kicks off in the 60s and ends up somewhere in the 80s, following the travails of the lovable Tay family.

Watching Growing Up while you were growing up in the 90s was a bit of a trip. The Singapore you saw unravelling on screen was barely recognisable, a dreamscape witnessed through perpetual sepia. The show was living history for an older generation emerging from the erasure of lived heritage, and a younger one born into a vacuum of it. 

Every episode was littered with little nostalgic nuggets that today would be trite, but back then felt novel. Think: Ice Kacang served as balls of ice; people crowding around the TV instead of getting their own; chummy race relations except everyone spoke impeccable English; and couples going to paktor at the symphony for an evening of honest-to-god ‘70s sophistication.

Growing Up’s Ma is pretty up there in the pantheon of Long Suffering Mothers in Singapore drama. Ma (real name Soo Mei, played by Wee Soon Hui) was gentle but no pushover, and she elegantly taichi-ed the family’s energies from behind the scenes. Smiling, doting, and suffering internally[6], she was the perfect foil to her husband’s constantly externalised, inexplicable anger at everything (who hurt you, Charlie?). And then, spoiler alert, she died.

Ma’s death rings through time as one of Singapore TV’s greatest tragedies, after Tanglin. Ma was stabbed by a desperate robber and left to die, which in 90s Singapore had the kind of culture-destroying force of the Red Wedding. Who can forget the children wailing by the deathbed, Ma’s beatific face as she slips away, the crushing weight of The Morning After? When her gentle power vacated the show, and all we were left with was the unbridled anger of the Tay men[7], it left a hole the show never quite recovered from. 

[6] Yes I’m aware that I frequently use the word “suffering” to describe the women in these shows. This is descriptive as it is critical. There’s a genuine case to be made for how many women in Singapore drama tend to suffer for the iniquities of the men in their lives, and that this suffering is often their sole, albeit heroic, character trait. The trope of the virtuous long-suffering woman is rivalled only by the trope of the unscrupulous go-getting woman, and both are especially rampant in Channel 8 shows, alongside another trope: “have you taken your medicine yet?” Obviously this is very bad and Mediacorp can, as always, do better. Has it? I don’t watch enough recent TV to know, but tell us about it in the comments.

 

[7] Special Singapore Queer History teachable moment: Baby gays all over the island saw themselves in earnest do-gooder and middle child, David. Soft-spoken, nerdy, and cute, he was mercilessly bullied by his butch gangster older brother, Gary (the handsome macho man all us gays hated but whose approval we desperately wanted). David was played by Steven Lim (his gay glow-up is very worth the Google), and his first words on the show are: Fabulous! 😏

 

3. Under One Roof (1995-2003)
Photo: MediaCorp

 

The granddaddy of them all, Under One Roof was our first locally-produced English-language sitcom. I remember the fanfare on TV when the promos first dropped, the novelty of seeing a pre-posthumously-cancelled Michael Jackson and Wheel of Fortune punctuated by promises of the Family Tan. They were heralded by a cheesy rap: “MOSES LIM IS TAN AH TECK, KOH CHIENG MUN IS DO-LLY…” The stretched vowels, the janky stresses, set over the ubiquitous 90s hip hop that played all over TV at the time… this was home[8].

There was a sweetness to this family that managed to be banal and engrossing at the same time. More than PCK, I think the Tan family really got under the skin of middle-class Singaporean neuroses: a bunch of smart, ambitious, and unmarried adults stuck at home with their smothering parents, all grown too large for the nest and constantly exploding in each other’s faces? Relatable! And just like in homes across the island, they all grumpily repress their grievances and sit down peacefully for dinner, just so they don’t break their quivering-lipped mother’s heart. Dad, clueless about what’s really going on, nonetheless wants the last word, and wraps it all up, painfully non-sequitur, with a bad story. It’s all smiles till the next argument.

Here’s to sassy, ambitious Denise, perennially grumpy Paul, Americanised bum Ronnie, lovable mansplainer Ah Teck, and most of all: doting, self-conscious Dolly. Roll in the neighbours, the magnificently sharp-tongued Rosnah, her adoring husband Yusof, and the elegant go-getter Daisy, and you’ve got CMIO[9] in a package that somehow didn’t seem contrived and inorganic. Sure, these were sitcom characters, but they had beating hearts, and they looked and sounded like us, for the very first time. How not to love?

[8] On a personal note, the Family Tan practically mirrored my own (my Mum is also Dolly Tan), so you’ve got to forgive my slightly breathless take on the subject. 

 

[9] Chinese, Malay, Indian, and Other (cue here Mark Richmond as Denise’s Eurasian boyfriend). We should note that most of the Netflix dump is in English or Chinese, and it was strategically released just in time for National Day. A timely reminder of… what a great year for race relations it’s been in this country?

That said, isn’t it funny how English language programming in Singapore bears the brunt of representing all the races? It’s because everything else is language-streamed, which seems fine until you think about how horrific Channel 8’s vision of the world is. Relieved of the need for diversity, Channel 8 represents our country as a kind of all-Chinese Utopia (in its earliest sense as a “non-place”), where everyone speaks an unplaceable, elevated form of Mandarin rivalled only by Nine Years Theatre. With the notable exception of Gurmit Singh, who appeared in 2001’s The Hotel in a Mandarin-speaking role, you’re more likely to see dubbed-over white people on Channel 8 than minority race actors. Even Suria frequently has Chinese and Indian people on it.

 

4. I Not Stupid (2002)
Photo: SGIFF

 

I don’t blame our Zoomer audience for wincing at this one. Has Jack Neo not been cancelled after the Shrey Bhargava debacle of 2017? On top of that, the Jack Neo movie machine has for the past couple of years churned out stinker after stinker[10], trafficking in bad stereotypes, bad jokes, and populist fluff. All true, but 2002 was a long time ago, kids.

I Not Stupid is told primarily through the POV of a bunch of oppressed kids –which is where Neo’s films tend to shine– who suffer at the hands of their parents’ aspirational hang-ups, and potentially crumble under Singapore’s education system. Didactic, affective, and effective: upon its success, the film sparked widespread and high-level conversations about our education system, which continue till today

Armed with cultural cachet and some box office success[11], Neo obviously got a bit more daring with his satire in this one, taking direct potshots at our smothering government, the education system, language policies, and white people. It’s super on the nose today, but we didn’t have The Online Citizen back then. Selena Tan as the mother of Terry, the yellow-bellied protagonist who stands in for our coddled, lumpen citizenry, is possibly one of the finest and most blatant cinematic representations of the Singapore Government to date. She’s neurotic, constantly shrieking, always dressed in white, and completely oblivious to the psychic damage she’s inflicting on her bratty kids. This is my go-to image for anthropomorphic renderings of the PAP. Plus, the sight gag of her rolling down a hill and having her face squished against a fence? Pure delight.

Xiang Yun also delivers a now-classic performance as an emotionally repressed, long-suffering mother who, turning her inner demons into child abuse, almost drives her son to suicide. Then, she upstages him by getting diagnosed with leukemia and taking his bone marrow. Your mother wishes she could be this dramatic.

[10] This includes the desperately bad Liang Po Po: The Movie, featuring Neo in the titular role, his most demonic creation: think Mr. Bean in a samfu and bad wig. She’s recently returned from the dead, sort of, to teach people about social distancing on the MRT. 

 

[11] It’s worth pointing out that the Jack Neo cinematic universe began on TV, with Gao Xiao Xing Dong (loosely, Comedy Movement) on Channel 8. This was Chinese SNL for ’90s kids. The show blasted out larger than life caricatures and finely observed bits that skewered local idiosyncrasies. These guys were comedy royalty, and Jack Neo was the king of them all. Week after week, we witnessed the scandalous behaviour of well-meaning dolts, vicious grannies, kiasu HDB aunties, bengs, lians, and huis in rapid succession, and the show cemented Mark Lee, Henry Thia, and Jack Neo’s reputations as gods of the HDB Comedy Universe. This world transitioned seamlessly to the big screen, with Money No Enough in 1998, and because of the broad-based appeal of Gao Xiao Xing Dong, Neo’s early films were huge hits, even if they were critically panned.

Sidenote: Gao Xiao Xing Dong may have been on Channel 8, but I know lots of non-Chinese folk who tuned in for the high-jinks, buffoonery, and salty humour. Am I being romantic when I remember those days being a little bit more linguistically porous than today? I remember watching Aksi Mat Yoyo every day as a kid, even though I didn’t understand most of it. To be fair, I didn’t understand 80% of what was happening on Gao Xiao Xing Dong either.

 

5. Singapore Dreaming (2006)
Photo: Netflix

 

Cautionary-Tales-About-The-Dangers-Of-Our-Toxic-Materialistic-Culture is a somewhat tired genre of Singapore drama, and it always reaches the same conclusions: BAD! CANNOT! DON’T BE A DICK! Singapore Dreaming manages this with elegance, poise, and an elegiac tenor. For this reason, I think it’s one of the best Singapore movies ever made. Also because it is a Yeo Yann Yann Suffering Film, a genre unto itself (see also: Pregnant Yeo Yann Yann). 

Basically, it follows a middle class family bursting at the seams with all kinds of deceptions, ugly values, and a lingering feeling of defeat. There’s a distinct Death of a Salesman vibe with this film. Everyone is trapped under horrible structures (bad jobs, bad marriages, bad values), and everyone suffers. Ultimately, in one of Singapore cinema’s most memorable scenes, it takes a China beer girl to lay it all bare: “You Singaporeans are always complaining. Do you think your life is tough?” Zing! The classic Singapore conundrum: yours is a nightmare of your own making, don’t you dare complain! 

As hard looks into the mirror go, this one is unflinching but subtle, and in 2006, the perfect foil to the by then intolerable Jack Neo oeuvre.

 

Honourable Mentions

Ultimate Camp Classic

The Unbeatables (1993-2002)
Photo: MeWatch

 

I never followed this growing up, but I watched the first episode for the sake of this article. Can I just say: the legend holds up. Think a live-action anime where everyone is obsessed with gambling and they all have special god-like gambling powers that allow them to kill people with playing cards and predict how a die is going to fall with pinpoint accuracy. This is the most preposterously Chinese thing I have ever seen: people in this show will literally die or gouge their eyes out for gambling. Everything becomes an opportunity to gamble, even eating ice cream in an ice cream shop. Does no one know how ruinous gambling can be? Does anyone even care? No! Let’s gamble! Chinese language TV in Singapore has always been leagues above the English stuff in terms of ambition and lack of self-awareness. The Unbeatables is a true testament to the strength of the stuff people were smoking in the 90s.

Character Study Masterpiece

The Noose (2010-2014)
Photo: Mediacorp

 

This isn’t a classic per se, but The Noose single-handedly changed the way a generation learned to mock itself. Where it lands hardest is everything that Michelle Chong did on the show. Specifically Barbarella, queen of the SPGs. Chong’s pitch perfect parody of the hideous accent people put on when they’re trying to posh up their English has become an unofficial Singaporean dialect. There’s also Nancy Goh, the Bukit Timah Auntie who, years after Margaret on PCK, picked up the pace and reminded us that anybody who talks like that cannot be trusted. Mostly everything else on the show is pretty cringe (a newscaster called “B.B See” is an actual character) but Chong and whoever wrote her bits deserve Cultural Medallions.

Scandalous Omission

Triple Nine (1995-1999)
Photo: MeWatch

 

I’m actually offended that this has been excluded from the Netflix dump. No Singaporean cop drama (no Singapore TV drama, period) has come close to the sexy cosmopolitanism of this show. And by sexy cosmopolitanism I mean James Lye and Wong Li Lin making out. For a whole generation of horny teenagers, these sex gods getting it on (in a lift, on a park bench, in the office, over a dead body, I dunno, pick one!) had an intensely erotic, totemic power. For my money, I have not seen anything hotter on our screens since. Sorry I have nothing more sophisticated to say about Triple Nine


This article is supported by Splice Lights On.

Joel Tan is a playwright and performer based between Singapore and London. Previous Singapore TV criticism includes his reviews of Masterchef Singapore, though he’s more well known for his plays, none of which are relevant here. Joel is one half of the podcast, T42, which you can listen to here. Follow Joel on Twitter @joeltheobscure and on Instagram @joltahn.

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