Royston Tan: 'I must rebel for the right reason'

8 May 2016 / 5 months 2 weeks ago

Do not call him the reformed bad boy of local cinema.

Even though Royston Tan has effectively become the go-to guy for government-endorsed projects - he has done more than 20 in the past decade, including 10 in the last year alone - there is still a rebel in him.

It is just manifested a little differently now.

The local film-maker still wants his work, be it short or feature-length films, to raise eyebrows.

"I don't think my story-telling style has changed over the years. The objective is still the same," Tan told The New Paper over the phone.

"There are certain messages I want to get across. I'm still telling stories close to my heart."

And that would be uniquely Singaporean human interest stories or tales about the community.

Sixteen years in the industry have certainly changed people's minds and opinions, as well as his own "enfant terrible" reputation.

For a director whose seminal 2002 feature film 15 struck a nerve in Singapore - particularly that of the Government's - due to its unsavoury depiction of teenage delinquency, gangs and illegal activities, Tan appears to be going in the opposite direction.

This year, the 39-year-old has already completed three commissioned projects by various ministries and agencies.

The first was a video installation called A Moment Of Unity for the National Museum of Singapore to mark the first anniversary of the passing of Singapore's first Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew.

That was followed by Shoelaces, a heartwarming commercial commissioned by the Workplace Safety and Health Council to create awareness that all injuries and ill health at work can be prevented. It is now showing on TV and in cinemas. 


Then there is Homecoming, a one-hour documentary film commissioned by the National Heritage Board (NHB) for Singapore HeritageFest 2016.

It features personal stories of former Pulau Ubin residents who still return to the village and others who have left their homes on the mainland to settle down on Ubin.

Its premiere will be at the Pulau Ubin Wayang Stage on May 14, alongside another local film, Dahdi, by Kirsten Tan.

When asked if he is "selling out" for what may be perceived as propaganda projects, Tan brushed off the criticism, saying that "the culture has changed".

"I've not lost my edginess. It's just that the environment is more open, and that presented more opportunities for creativity," he insisted.

"The (agencies) don't interfere much nowadays... they just let me do what I want."

He said the agencies gave him free rein on the stories and direction.

"I guess they like my narrative and atmospheric style."

It is clear that there is no longer any bad blood between Tan and the censorship board, and all those 15-related fiascos are water under the bridge.

"I never thought of myself as a rebel against the authorities. When I rebel, I must rebel for the right reason."

He added, laughing: "I'm still very much against censorship, though!"

For Homecoming, Tan was approached by NHB because of a Pulau Ubin segment in his short film 50 First Kisses, which was part of the SG Heart Map campaign last year.

"(NHB) asked if I have any more footage on Pulau Ubin. After much discussion and brainstorming, we realised that the island has a lot of interesting people, and they should be featured.

"They have so many wonderful memories and those should be shared."


Capturing the past has long been a hobby for Tan, who is passionate about archiving and documenting Singapore's lost heritage, forgotten places and even old architecture.

Doing commercials such as Shoelaces pays the bills for him to indulge in such pet projects, Tan joked.

However, Tan insists he still pushes the envelope.

"I have a big 'naughty' project coming up," he teased.

"We used to have those Speak Mandarin campaigns and were forbidden to use dialect.

"But dialect is beautiful and it should not be lost. It's how we communicate with our elderly folks.

"If Singaporeans can speak Korean by watching the TV shows, why can't they pick up Mandarin so easily too?

"So don't blame dialect and make it the scapegoat for us not being able to speak Mandarin properly.

"Wait for my next project. It will be out in a few months' time and it is going to be historic," he said, laughing.



Movies Under The Ubin Stars


Wayang Stage, Pulau Ubin


May 14, 7.30pm


Free, although the public is recommended to buy an SHF - Ubin Access Pass. The $10 pass includes access to the designated seating area for the screening plus two-way boat and bus rides. More information can be found at


A Moment Of Unity


Concourse Gallery, Level 1, National Museum of Singapore


Till Oct 2, 10am to 7pm daily


Free for Singapore citizens and permanent residents


Old Friends (2015) Singapore Memory Project

Pioneer Generation Package (2015) Ministry of Communications and Information Singapore (MCI)

50 First Kisses (2015) SG Heart Map

Cong Xin Fa Xian Jia De Wei Dao (2015) Singapore Tourism Board

Guilt Kid (2012) Workplace Safety and Health Council

Mrs Chong (2011) Ministry Of Education

Ah Kong (2010) Health Promotion Board

This article was first published on May 6, 2016. 
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