(1) Studio system of Shaw and Cathay (1930s to the 1960s) which made over 250 films in the Malay language.

(2) Independent productions of the 1970s, which made less than 10 films in Mandarin and English during that decade, and then soon collapsed, so no films were made at all in the 1980s.

(3) Revival of the 1990s with independent film production.


Just as the studio system provided the institutional background for the golden days of Hollywood, in Singapore, so too did the studio system ensure a steady stream of popular films of good quality.

In Singapore, during the 1950s and 1960s, there were two studio houses, Cathay and Shaw.
1. These studio houses owned production lots (Shaw had Malay Film Productions - MFP at Jalan Ampas and Cathay Keris had its production lot at Jalan Keris on the east coast).
2. They had their own stable of actors who worked only with them (eg P. Ramlee only worked with Shaw, not Cathay).
3. The studios owned their own cinemas in which they showed their own films, as well as the Hollywood blockbusters. Shaw cinemas did not show Cathay films, and vice versa.
4. These studios functioned as complete creative units, in which their films could not be attributed just to the effort of one individual, such as a director. Quite often there were Chinese producers working with Indian directors and camera crew filming Malay actors. However, there was no strict division of labour. The most talented director was Hussein Haniff who worked for Cathay Keris, but the multi-talented P. Ramlee combined acting, directing, and singing.
5. The individuals who ran the studio houses resembled the powerful, eccentric, and creative characters who ran the studios of Hollywood. Shaw was headed by the movie moguls’, the Shaw Brothers, and Cathay was headed by Loke Wan Tho.

The Rise and Fall (and Recent Revival) of Cinema in Singapore
1930s Shaw Brothers and Cathay are formed as theatre chains.
1933 According to Cathay: 55 Years of Cinema, Laila Majnun, about a pair of ill-fated lovers in the Middle East, was the first feature film to be made in Singapore.
1935 Shaw Brothers began making Chinese films in Singapore. They switched to Malay films after their success in that language in the late 1930s.
1942-1945 The Japanese used Shaw Brothers Studios to make propaganda films.
1947 Shaw Brothers set up Malay Film Productions at Jalan Ampas.
1950-67 250 Films are made in Singapore. In 1958, for example, there were 17 Malay language feature films made, some had English subtitles to give them a wider audience.
1953 Cathay Keris set up to make Malay films. They focused on stories from the Bangsawan and Malay folklore. They released about 10 films a year.
1957 P. Ramlee wins best actor award at the Asian Film Festival Awards.
1960 Cathay Keris screened its first Chinese film, The Lion City.
1963 Television is introduced to first Singapore and then Kuala Lumpur.
1964 The impetus behind film production at Cathay Keris Loke Wan Tho was killed in an aircrash at the Asian Film Festival at Taipei.
1964 P. Ramlee left Singapore to make films in Kuala Lumpur.
1966 Cathay Keris retrenched staff because of competition from television and loss of the Indonesian market due to the Confrontation. Till this day the studio exists in name only.
1967 Shaw Brothers closed down Malay Film Productions. Competition from television, and Hollywood movies, and the cost of stock and producing films gradually brought an end to the industry.
1960s and 1970s The Malay movie industry moved to Kuala Lumpur, where production houses attempted unsuccessfully to revive its past glories.
1973 P. Ramlee died.  The Chinese language kung fu film, Ring of Fury, starring local martial arts teacher, Peter Chong, is made in Singapore.
1974-5 Chong Gay made the films, The Hypocrite, Crimes Does Not Pay and The Two Sides of the Bridge.
1978 The film They Call Her Cleopatra Wong starring Marie Lee and Brian Richmond was made. Sunny Lim tried to promote the film in America by dubbing in American voices. It was followed up by Bionic Boy and Dynamite Johnson.
1991 No films were made in the 1980s until the true story of serial priestly killer Adrian Lim, Medium Rare. The film flopped at the box office in Singapore.
1995-6 Army Daze was made and released in 1996. Although a box office success in Singapore, it never was taken seriously outside of Singapore. Bugis Street, released in 1995, was also produced in this year, and had a similar fate. However, Eric Khoo's 1995 Mee Pok Man did well at the box office and received international attention.
1997 Hugo Ng's God or Dog was made, and had moderate success in earning back its cost in international sales. Eric Khoo's 12 Storeys was made in this year and received international critical acclaim. Lim Suat Yen's  first film The Road Less Travelled was released and had international critical success. This film and 12 Storeys were described by Kenneth Tan, Chairman of the Singapore Film Society as films that he would "be proud to show anyone anywhere. They prove that local creative credentials are becoming evident".
1998 The year saw sudden upsurge in local films which had box office success in Singapore although many were unlikely to be of international interest. These included, Money No Enough (the second highest grossing film in Singapore, including foreign films), Forever Fever, The Teenage Textbook Movie, Lucky Number and Liang Po Po (1999).
After this year there has been a steady output of Singapore films, many of which you can read about in the references below.

By far the best comprehensive works are:
Jan Uhde and Yvonne Ng Uhde, Latent Images: Film in Singapore (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 2000).

Raphael Millet, Singapore Cinema (Singapore: Editions Didier Millet, 2006)

Other good works include:
Lim Kay Tong, Cathay: 55 Years of Cinema (1991)
Timothy White, “The Cinema of Malaysia” The Arts, issue no. 4, June 1997, pp.18-21.
Timothy White, “When Singapore was Southeast Asia's Hollywood”, The Arts, issue no. 5, December 1997, pp.21-24.
Mohd. Anis Md. Nor, “The Malay Movie Industry in the 1950s, in his book”, Zapin: Folk Dance of the Malay World, (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1993), pp.45-61.
Zinjuaher H. M. Ariffin, Sharifah, Sejarah Filem Melayu/The History of Malay Motion Pictures (Kuala Lumpur: Sri Sharifah, 1980).
“From Kachang Puteh to Popcorn: Charting the Course of Singapore Film”, 12X, May 1999, pp.4-5.
Timothy White “Historical Poetics, Malaysian Cinema, and the Japanese Occupation”, Kinema, no.6 Fall 1996, pp.5-27 (in the course notes) or at the website:
T.N. Harper, “Popular Cultures in Transition” in T.N. Harper, The End of Empire and the Making of Malaya, (1999) pp.282-285.

History of Shaw Brothers
The Film 12 Storeys:
Singapore Cinema in the 1990s:

Hey Singapore! A Black and White Affair, 9.7.97, (available in READ at Teachers Network on VHS -
They Made a Difference: Loke Wan Tho (1997, Available at READ at Teachers Network on VHS
From Kachang Puteh to Popcorn (1999 Available at NTU library. It can be download once you have located it on the NTU library's catalogue)


Between 1950 and 1967 over 250 films were produced in Singapore just before the film industry declined. In the 1950s, two film companies churned one blockbuster after another. They were Shaw's Malay Film Productions at Jalan Ampas and other at the East Coast - Cathay Keris. With the movies, a whole new world was opened to the public - a world of thrilling story lines and majestic costumes. Actor, Lim Kay Tong in response to the question about the achievements of the early black and white Malay films of the 1960s, replied that one of their achievements is that they created a film industry. Just to create a national or local film industry is an achievement. Cathay Keris focussed on putting Malay culture on film.  Some people say that they early Malay movies were moving photographs of Malay theatre or opera called the Bangsawan. The Cathay Keris films helped preserve the stories of Malay folklore and plays of the Bangsawan for permanent record on film. These films took most of their story lines from Malay opera or Bangsawan, which were basically tales of heroism, fantasy, and romance. Their main characters were mostly of high standing from the Malay aristocracy.

Origins and Achievements
Mr Kwek Chip Jian, a manager from Shaw Brothers' Malay Film Productions, described how the early Malay movies were influenced by Indian films. In his time, there were five Indian directors.  Every Indian director would have a Malay assistant, so they learnt from the Indian directors. When the Indian directors went back to India, the Malay assistants become directors. The Indian directors started an era in film making in Singapore when Indian acting styles and techniques became an accepted form of expression in the movies. Mannerisms and dialogues followed Indian film conventions. As in the Indian movies, songs were used to express emotions of the moment. Mr Kwek said that many of the early directors were from India, such as Jamil Sulong. However from 1963 to 1967, Malay directors had complete control of most aspects of production. Lim Kay Tong adds that the Malay director Hussein Haniff's work with innovative camera work and angles in films, such as in Hang Jebat and Dang Anom, has been compared to that of the great Japanese director, Kurosawa. Malay directors injected into the industry their own individuality and creativity.

Artists and Studios
The people who made the movies lived together in company housing near the studios. Shaw's Malay Film Productions (hereafter MFP) was at Jalan Ampas, and accommodation quarters was at Boon Teck Road, which was within walking distance. Accommodation was free and the tenants just paid their water and electricity bills. Cathay Keris had a similar set up at its Jalan Keris studio on the East Coast. Film historian Yusnor Ef describes the staff at MFP living together as "a family". The actor Ahmad Daud also has given that description. The artists signed contracts with the studio and became salaried. They were paid bonuses based on the success of the films. Mahmud Jun, who played the "bad guy" in many of the Cathay Keris films, mentioned that upon signing his contract he was paid $150 and one of his bonuses was $300.

P. Ramlee's Talent and Achievements
P. Ramlee was seen as the most gifted of the artists in the black and white Malay language films. He was talented at acting, directing, and singing. The films of P. Ramlee, such as Bujang Lapok, according to Yusnor Ef were based on daily life but had a simple message. P. Ramlee's self-directed film Penarik Beca, was named best film in 1955 by Utusan Filem Dan Sport magazine. P. Ramlee was the ideal model of a Malay actor. He won best actor at the 1957 Asian Film Festival for his role in Anakku Sazali, and 6 years later was voted the most versatile actor at the same Asian Film Festival in Tokyo. According to Kwek Chip Jian, the pictures of P. Ramlee all made money, and that such was the studio's faith in P. Ramlee's films to make a profit, Kwek was instructed to give him an unlimited budget.

Reasons for the Decline of the Malay Language Film Industry in Singapore
In the mid-1960s, there were troubled times for film making in Singapore. MFP's colour film Raja Bersiong proved very costly. It was the most expensive film made by MFP, and shooting it dragged on from three to five months. Although completed in 1967, the film was not released until January 1968. By then, Shaw Brothers had wound up MFP. Cathay Keris ceased production in 1973. Several factors have been seen as responsible for the sudden collapse of the industry in Singapore during the late 1960s. The competition of TV is often cited. The rising cost of stock and film materials and the processing of them is also given as a reason. Demands from the artists themselves is also a factor. Many were under-paid, and MFP was crippled by a strike of its artists in 1964 that lasted many months.

The Revival
Both Lim Kay Tong and Philip Chia of the Singapore Film Festival maintained that there was nothing stopping Singapore directors and artists from making good films again. The expertise is there and there are good Singapore stories. Chia pointed to the fact that in 1997 there were 3 feature films being made in contrast to the previous year when there was just one.


"There's no reason why movies cannot be made here.."  - Loke Wan Tho. He died in a plane crash at the 1964 Taipei Asian Film Festival at the age of 49. Loke's death ended an era that was never to repeat itself. He had built an empire of cinemas and developed a film industry in our own backyard. He was recognised by Hollywood film-makers. In 1958, his Hong Kong-made Chinese film, Our Sister Hedy won best film at the Asian Film Festival. He produced some of the best films for the Chinese market - movies that have become classics, such as Sun, Moon, Star, and Mambo Girl. At home, the movie Pontianak made Maria Menado a star, and Cathay became the centre for Malay production. For his contribution, Loke was given the title of Datuk.

Origins and influences
Loke set up Cathay Keris in 1953 to make Malay language movies and it was entrusted to Loke's partner, Ho Ah Loke, who as a young man had travelled riding a bicycle from town to town in Malaya showing movies. He was struck by the very favourable public response when the first Malay language movie Laila Majnun was shown in 1933. The plots were based on the Bangsawan or Malay opera, drawing stars, who were already popular on stage, to the screen, and their fans followed. The early film makers were mainly from India who understood what the crowds wanted. Dato L. Krishnan (Cathay Keris director 1952-1960) said that "the stories were easily understandable and they loved the Indian music, so when the Indian directors came they did the movies a la Hindustan. The music was also a la Hindustan.." Loke even visited the studios in India to find out how the movies worked at first hand. But Cathay Keris was to set new standards and made films without the Hindustan elements.

Comments on working in the Studio system
Datin Hjh Umi Kalthom (Cathay Keris actress 1953-1965): "He (Loke) advised them (film makers and artists) if the movie is weak to try again. Advised as a friend. I would ask him if it was not good and he would say so. I would say are you happy with my acting? He would say that's good. We worked like a family.".

Wahid Satay (Cathay Keris actor 1957-1977) "Every film that was shown received a good response. We travelled to Malaysia. Films were shown in all theatres. We received rewards. Loke Wan Tho's enthusiasm was fantastic. He had his supporters. We respected his authority. We were in a class of our own. He invited Hollywood personalities to coach us.

Datin Kalthom: "He compared us with Hollywood standards. If you want to make it, you have to be strong. You must accept a role. Take it, and from that you learn.

Kalthom in 1957 won a beauty contest in a magazine against strong opposition from Shaw Brothers actresses.

Dato Krishnan: "In the studio system you compete with another. Not only boss to boss, but director to director, producer to producer, actor to actor. So Cathay artists wanted to make better films. Cathay wanted to be better artists than Shaw artists. So that we were competing, which made the films better and flourish better."

Lim Keng Hor (Dept GM Admin Cathay 1952-1965) "Shaw had a good head start, but we caught up. Maybe we didn't overtake Shaw, but we did a lot of good catching up".

How it began
Loke's mother saw the potential of the movie industry. She and two others owned a chain of theatres called Associated Theatres. Loke's father had made a fortune from the tin mines in Kluang Bahru. He died when Loke was just two. By the time he was thirteen Loke was already head of the family with his trustees. He went to school in Switzerland before going onto graduate at King's College Cambridge at 21. He expressed doubts whether majoring in history and English literature were suitable subjects for someone going into business. However, he found English literature a pleasure, and the years ahead were to dispell any doubts. He quickly acquired a chain of cinemas in Singapore and Malaya. He built the Cathay cinema complex before the war. He bought the Majestic cinema for Chinese movies.

Loke was very much involved in setting up the film industry of Hong Kong. In 1949, many of the Shanghai film makers were moving to Hong Kong to avoid the Communist takeover. One of these film makers, Lee Tsu Yung became a close associate. Loke wrote to him saying that he saw no reason why Chinese films could not be made in Hong Kong, and that he would welcome Lee as a partner. The movie Rose, Rose I Love You marked Loke's entry into the Chinese movies. It was part of a package of a series of deals with with Yung Hwa Motion Pictures, but in the end Yung Hwa faced financial trouble and Loke had to take over the business to recover his investment. Loke refurbished it with the latest in sound and film equipment and appointed the man to run the studio. Loke instituted a proper studio system to produce quality Cantonese and Mandarin films, and marketed them creatively. Cathay produced many Chinese films from Hong Kong. Mambo Girl was Cathay's first hit in the theatres in the region. The actress of the film, Ge Lan became a superstar in the region.

Achievements of Loke Wan Tho in Chinese Films
Ge Lan on Loke Wan Tho: "When he came in, he made movies which became classics. He set the example for others to improve and follow. For that one can never forget Loke Wan Tho".

Lay Chen from the Hong Kong film making company Dian Mao (1956-1970) on Loke: "The impact was tremendous because after he took over Yung Hwa everything from voicing to subtitling, the equipment lighting were there. His expectations were very high. Every movie has to be of a high standard. Dian Mao expected everyone to put their heart and soul into the movie. There was competition, but it was positive".

Many of the Hong Kong Chinese films had Hollywood style plots. Characters were modern and smart. In Singapore, the glamorous stars drew the crowds and were mobbed during personal appearances.

Decline and Loke's death in 1964
However, making money was getting hard by the end of the 1950s. More people were drawn to English movies. By the 1960s, people had to be lured away from their TV sets. Luxury theatres was the way to go, such as the Orchard, which opened in January 1965.

In spite of hard times those close to him believed that Loke would have found a way out for them. Wahid Satay said, "He was a good man. He loved us. If he was still around I don't think the studio would have closed".

Lim Keng Hor (Dept GM Admin Cathay 1952-1965): "He was a sort of rallying point. People rallied around him. This business is not a small business. It is a large business. You need some one of mental strength and whose presence is to attract you, and to attract you to him and the company. So when he died it was more or less a rudderless ship."

Wang Tin Lam (Dian Mao 1956-1969) "Shaw said they were very sorry they lost a competitor. Now there was no one to compete with us. Loke was the only one who could compete".

Loke Wan Tho made a difference to the Hong Kong film industry, leaving in place a studio system for newcomers to become the next cinema kings.


The earliest films made in Singapore were probably created by film exhibitors who often shot footage of places they were travelling through so they could exhibit the material elsewhere.

Zukini Martin, a rubber planter of Armenian descent, was the first to operate a hand-cranked projector at Beach Road to exhibit films. The first theatre for showing pictures appears to have been at Beach Road in 1907. It was later replaced by the Allhambra Theatre.

In 1923, Run Me Shaw arrived from the Shanghai film making industry to Singapore to introduce more Chinese films in Singapore, mainly those of his brother Run Run Shaw. They leased the Empire Theatre.

The Beginnings of Feature Film (Movie) Making in Singapore
The first feature movie made in Singapore is reputed to have been Laila Majnun in 1933. It was an immediate hit and a sensation. The story was a Malay language version of Romeo and Juliet. Shaw Brothers saw the benefits that the production of their own films would bring. To make films themselves that would be screened in their own cinemas would clearly be a profitable enterprise. They would have control over every aspect of production, distribution, and exhibition. In 1937, they commenced film production using expertise and equipment and technicians from Shanghai and Hong Kong. The artists and stories came from the Bangsawan, or Malay opera. The early Malay language feature films had love stories, adventure, and horror themes. However no known footage of these films from the 1930s survives. They were sufficiently popular for Shaw Brothers to remain committed to local film production.

The British exercised film censorship in colonial Singapore. According to film historian Timothy White, the British were concerned that American films in particular showed white women as too loose and wanton: and that there was too much democracy in American films and an emphasis on people being equal.

As the 1930s closed, Singapore's first skyscraper, of 16 stories, appeared when the Cathay organisation opened its Cathay cinema complex. The first film shown there was Four Feathers on 3 October 1939 when the complex was opened. Cathay were expanding their cinema chain from Kuala Lumpur. The original company had begun in 1935.

The Japanese Occupation interrupted the development of local films. The Japanese did however pay Run Run Shaw $350 a month to show Japanese propaganda films. Indian films were also shown.

When the British returned the first film that was brought in to be shown was at the Cathay cinema complex. It was a propaganda film Desert Victory about the British success in the North African desert campaign. Perhaps it was meant to counter the Japanese propaganda and restore British prestige.

In 1947, Loke Wan Tho came back to Singapore to re-establish Cathay as a film distribution rival of Shaw. He actively pursued the goal of establishing a regional cinema distribution chain to rival that of Shaw Brothers. Attention soon turned to the making of Malay films. Shaw re-opened its Malay film making productions at Jalan Ampas. Film production began with the independent film production Seruan Merdeka (Malayan Arts Production) in 1947. It was quickly followed by Shaw's Singapura Di Waktu Malam in the same year, starring Siput Sarawak. Shaw Brothers had first experimented with a Chinese director, but this proved unsuccessful, and they switched to recruiting Indian directors, notably B.S. Rajhans, who had directed Singapore's first feature film in 1933. Others were B.N. Rao, K.M. Basker, S. Ramanathan, and L. Krishnan. Both studios started using Indian directors. Film historian Yusnor Ef says that this use of Indian directors was because historically Malay culture has been strongly influenced by the Indian tradition. The stories in old Malay culture and Bangsawan sometimes draw upon influences that pre-date Islam and go back to the early Indian culture of the region. In 1953 Loke Wan Tho plunged into the making of Malay films to directly challenge Shaw.

Veteran director B.N. Rajhans talented spotted P. Ramlee. He first appeared in the movie Cinta in 1948 as the villain. P. Ramlee made his first film Penarik Beca at the age of 26. He was a gifted and innovative director and composer of songs as well as a good singer. His directing abilities matched those of the Indian directors who were helping set up the industry.

Shaw's Malay Film Productions completely dominated Malay language films until the entry of Cathay Keris in 1953. Their first movie was Buloh Perindu in 1953. It was produced by Ho Ah Loke. According to Albert Odell (Distribution Manager - 1950s Cathay Organisation) "Ho Ah Loke came from British Gayana [in South America] many years back and he started in Malaysia more or less at the same time as the Shaw Brothers started... in showing films in open air places. He was able to make an arrangement with Loke Wan Tho whereby they formed a partnership, which was called Loke Theatres. Then Ho Ah Loke sort of branched off and decided to get involved in film production in making films locally. He formed his company Kris films and had a makeshift studio in Tampines. And as they expanded he was able to induce Datuk Loke to get involved and it became Cathay Keris films."

Ho Ah Loke needed experienced film makers and artists and found no shortage of them at Shaw's Malay Film Productions. By offering them better salaries and contracts he induced them to join Cathay Keris. Despite the emergence of a rival, Shaw believed they still had the edge, and that edge was P.Ramlee. Yusnor Ef said that P. Ramlee told him that when the "audience comes to the cinema want to enjoy after a hardworking day, so don't give them problems, give them humour, song, and dance, so attract them to that story line. The complicated story line let them think at home. The second thing, don't forget to put your song. Your song or music will become the beauty of the film. And always he told me, if you want to make the film make from idea and feeling. If you get idea then you feel it, then you direct."

Any P. Ramlee film was guaranteed to fill the cinema. His emergence as a director was doubly significant. It meant that local directors could be as talented as the Indian directors.

Decline of the Film Industry in Singapore
However, in 1963, P. Ramlee left Singapore to go to Merdeka studios in Kuala Lumpur, after making 40 films with Shaw. His last production in Singapore was Tiga Abdul. However, what ever magic he had at Shaw in Singapore did not follow him to Kuala Lumpur. At Shaw's Malay Film Productions there was a prolonged strike that was very costly for Shaw, which closed down the studios. This did not happen at Cathay Keris.

One of the talented Malay directors was Hussein Haniff. His classic films Hang Jebat and Dang Anom, were more sophisticated that many previous films, and did increasingly well at the box office in the early 1960s. The films that made the most money were the Pontianak. They were so successful that they were dubbed into Chinese. L. Krishnan, a director with Cathay Keris, noted that "while P. Ramlee's films, although they made money, did not make as much as the Pontianak because P. Ramlee's films catered for the Malays. Whereas B.N. Rao who directed the film Pontianak he never thought of the Chinese, but it so happened that because the Chinese came everybody walked into the cinema".

The horror films - the Pontianak and Orang Minyak were box office successes. To their producers this was a most gratifying aspect. L.Krishnan commented that "we did not make art for art's sake, we did not make art films, we made films for money's sake. We liked to be proud because my film made makes money or was a box office hit, but to get an award was not so important". While the profits from the horror genre had been successful, for their other films it had been less so. For the film business the bottom line was always profit. Albert Odell (Distribution Manager - 1950s Cathay Organisation): "the Malay films made in Singapore didn't do much business and basically they only played in the theatres in the Geylang district where most of the Malays reside. They really needed the Indonesian market, which was almost impossible to get. Malaysia was a big market, Borneo Sarawak, but I believe it was not sufficient to sustain the business as such." Krishnan: "I don't think Shaw and Cathay were making losses, but as competition went on we want to make quality productions and therefore the cost of production goes up, but overall I think they never lost because overall the cinema was theirs, the production was theirs, the exhibition and distribution was theirs. So you never lose".

Cathay Keris saw audiences declining with the obvious consequence of diminishing box office returns. The reasons were beyond their control and effectively spelt the end of Malay films in Singapore.

L. Krishan, director with Cathay Kris said, "the Malay films were mainly for the mothers, fathers, grandfathers. These were the people who would walk miles to come and see a Malay film and go back. When the children were being educated they were not following the mother and father. For the mothers and fathers when television came in they started sitting down in their own homes and forgot about Malay films and films in general".

By 1972, when Cathay ceased making films, the film industry in Singapore was dead.


Decline of the Film Industry in Singapore in the late 1960s
Timothy White, film historian, "I don't think you can blame the death of the industry on one particular factor, eg TV. The movie industry had changed. Instead of making Pontianak movies, the Singapore industry copied American or Hong Kong ideas. They tried to beat Hollywood at its own game".

Audiences did not flock to the Malay films but to Malay dubbed Filipino movies or Indian movies. According the Herbie Lim (own of the Garrick Theatre) these were seen as better because of better costumes and acting, - "everything was on a higher plane".

When TV arrived in 1963,  the public clustered around outdoor TVs in community centres. Herbie Lim says that the introduction of TV meant that cinemas lost 50 percent of their audience.

To combat the small black and white screen, Hollywood produced big screen spectaculars with stereophonic sound. Unfortunately, Malay movies fell somewhere between TV and the Hollywood blockbusters. They were better than TV, but not as good as the Hollywood films.

Singapore Chinese Language Films of the 1970s
Hong Kong managed to recapture interest in the movies with Kungfu films of the early 1970s. Brian Richmond, actor, noted that there was Kungfu craze in the early 1970s that was led with the Bruce Lee films. His films would be playing at 4 or 5 different cinemas, and they would be packing them in.

Singapore film makers produced their own Kungfu film in 1973, Ring of Fury, which was in colour and was widescreen. It was quick to capitalise on the Kungfu success. The film was independently financed by people who had nothing to do with the film industry, but who were interested in profit and returns - a motivation today that is still the basis of most independent productions.

Tony Yeow, director of Ring of Fury describes how the film was about a hawker who refused to pay extortion money, so the gangsters killed his mother, so he learns Kungfu, comes back and kills the gangsters. The film had no actors. All the people in the film, like the hero, Peter Chong, were Karate artists, Shoalin or Tai Chee practitioners. The fight scenes were not pre-choreographed, but the director would just let them fight for as long as they liked. One fight scene in the movie went on for 60 minutes.

However, the looser censorship standards in Europe and America had meant that there was an influx of movies that had themes which centred on sex and violence, so the Singapore censors started to crackdown, particularly on Kungfu movies. To the astonishment of its makers, Ring of Fury was banned for the same reason.

Tony Yeow: "The main reason was the element of gangsterism. The government was very uncomfortable that there were gangsters and they were almost conducting their business in the open. That had prompted us to make the film. It was actually an anti-gangster film."

As well as the element of gangsterism, the film was perceived to be condoning vigilantism, taking the law into one's own hands. Because of this, an extra scene was shot showing a policeman warning the hero of taking independent action. The insertion of the scene was not felt sufficient to stop the ban. Singaporeans had to wait twenty years before they saw Ring of Fury, on television.

Also making Chinese language films in the 1970s was the company Chongay. It made three  Mandarin films, Two Sides of the Bridge (1974), Crime Does Not Pay, and The Hypocrite. Chongay made an effort to revive the film industry in Singapore although the demise of the industry meant that film industry expertise had left Singapore.

Lim Meng Choo (Co-director of Two Sides of the Bridge): "Chongay's film production unit was a big thing in those days. They employed 10 fulltime actors. It started off with the training from Hong Kong experts. These actors had lots of stage experience, but it was different on film. Nevertheless with their stage experience, they were able to understand the characters better. Chiang Mong and I participated from the second film and observed the working style of foreigners. After the second film, the director left, and we directed the third film, Two Sides of the Bridge with all local actors and staff, except for a few foreign lighting and camera crew. We stopped after 3 films because of the cost factor. They closed the film department. From a business point of view, if the films did not make money, they could not be continued in the long run. So they ceased production. But Mr Lim Zhixiun, Chongay's chairman, continued to pursue his interest in film making. He started talking to a Shangai film studio to work out a possibility of co-producing Mandarin films. I was involved in the initial discussion with Shanghai. The story and screenplay were almost finished. Unfortunately Mr Lim passed away and the whole plan was cancelled".

Singapore English Action Movies of the 1970s
In 1978 the film, They call Her Cleopatra Wong exploded across movie screens of Singapore and the Philippines. It starred Marie Lee. The film was the brainchild of Sunny Lim, ex-wrestler promoter turned movie maker. The film was a combination of action scenes, Kungfu and James Bond. Actor Brian Richmond says that in They Call Her Cleopatra Wong, he was asked to play the role as an Interpol chief. The plot was that they were trying to squash this drug triangle in Singapore, Hong Kong, and Manila. It started out in Singapore and moved to Hong Kong, then Manila, and back to Singapore for the climax. It was heavily influenced by American action films of the time with the villains dressed up as gun-totting nuns, and James Bond gadgetry.

Brian Richmond, the male actor in They Call Her Cleopatra Wong says that "Sunny Lim took a gamble to produce a local English language film. There was a market for Malay films, for Chinese films. The market for local English films at that time was unknown. He had big plans in the States and Europe. He dubbed the film with American voices".

They Call Her Cleopatra Wong was Sunny Lim's third Singapore film. He had made two previous films The Bionic Boy (1978) and Dynamite Johnson starring eight year old Singapore Tae kwon do black belt Johnson Yap. The Bionic Boy was loosely based on the TV action series the Six Million Dollar Man. The film was an immediate hit.

Sunny Lim: "We discovered one thing from all that - people love to see action...even today. The Bionic Boy had the strength of superman. The kids went crazy. From the word go it had been meant to be international, and it has been very successful worldwide."

Sunny Lim made only these three films in Singapore before moving to Kuala Lumpur, having not found the film making climate in Singapore to his liking. Sunny Lim, "I didn't get the co-operation that I thought I would have got. Censorship was very strict You can't get any finance. Anywhere else it was a different world."

The 1980s and Early 1990s
By 1980, film making was in limbo. However TV productions under the direction of experienced directors and producers from Hong Kong were creating action series that were attracting over one million viewers. The Economic Development Board started to take an active interest in film making. Daisy Goh of the EDB remarks that the EDB set up a Creative Business Unit as part of an overall effort to develop creative services, the arts, as well as tourism services. This Unit promoted host productions, facilitated film location shooting, and developed film training in Singapore, such as the Film and Media School at Ngee Ann Polytechnic, so that there could be a pool of skilled technicians in the area of film making in Singapore to underpin production facilities involved in television broadcasting. Lim Kay Tong, Singapore actor, has noted that although there were production technicians at the end of the 1980s, there were no fulltime playwrights, directors, or producers. He adds that if not for a few people who could have given up and gone somewhere else rather than persisted, there would be no industry in the late 1990s.

Hong Kong producers started to use Singapore as a location for making films. Last Blood (1990) with big names, such as Andy Lau and Eric Tsang, was shot in Singapore. Large scale film production started to come to Singapore. All's Well Ends Well 2 (1992) was shot at Tang Dynasty Village, which was designed as a film location and theme park.

Film exhibition started to change. Golden Village opened its multiplex at Yishun in the mid-1990s. Cathay and Shaw followed by transforming single hall cinemas into multiplexes.

The first Singapore Film Festival of 20 February to 1 March 1987 marked a turning point. It brought in international films which expanded the taste of the audiences. Also, its short film awards encouraged local Singaporeans to enter film making and improve their work for competition. Kenneth Tan of the Singapore Film Society says that the Singapore film festival could not have come at a better time - "people were getting titillated already but the appetite had not been fully sated and just exploded with a big delicious bang".


Revival of Film-Making in the early 1990s with two big local films and the R(A) category


Medium Rare (1991) seemed to have a lot going for it – a local production with an international cast. It was based on a true story of spiritual medium and killer, Adrian Lim. As Singapore’s first feature film in over a decade, the movie looked poised to re-launch the film industry at the start of the 1990s.


Geoff Malone, Singapore International Film Festival:

“It was obviously a brave attempt because nothing else was being made at the time. I think the only problem is for the sort of film that it turned out, too many people pinned their hopes on it. There was a sort of involvement with EDB (Singapore’s Economic Development Board), which was trying to set up film production in Singapore and it was a very highly touted movie. But unfortunately the end result did not live up to expectations. In that way it was a bit unfortunate.”


To allow the film to travel, the lead was given to American Dore Kraus. Given the story’s Asian context, it was an unusual piece of casting.


Errol Pang, Executive Producer, Medium Rare:

“If you are cooking in the kitchen, the first dish may be not enough well done, but now I know the ingredients to put in, what sauce to put in, whether it's going to be lightly burned or a little bit cooked, not just medium rare. Hopefully my second movie will be well done.”


With a story that sounded too bizarre and out of place, Medium Rare didn’t work as a film, but it at least showed a willingness by local producers not to give up on the film industry.


Errol Pang:

“I was a bit too early. I thought permission to go ahead with R(A) films was a bit too late for me. If that had been 8 months later and I had put in an R(A) element to it, I may have hit a million dollars.”


The Restricted or (RA) rating reflected a liberation of censorship standards and would be a turning point in local cinema.


Kenneth Tan, President, Singapore Film Society:

“July 1991, the R rating, as it was called then, was introduced (18 and above). Maybe it was such a radical change of policy and practice. The film distributors and exhibitors brought in a lot of different kinds of films under that category, some of which were very good, many of which were very bad. I think public reaction was typified by the feeling that suddenly the classification was of not very good quality films, like Holy Virgin versus the Evil Dead, Erotic Nights, and Erotic Ghost Story. The shift from R (18 and above) to RA (21 and above) did 2 things. One, it had the age requirements a bit more stringent. Two, it introduced the element of contextual judgement into the rating process. In other words, it said, I am not just going to grade films more loosely, or in a relaxed manner because these are for older people. I am going to do that, and I am also going to take into account the artistic quality of the film.”


Bugis Street (1995) the movie is the perfect example of a film that might never have been made if there was no rating system in Singapore. Singapore’s first R(A) movie. It was filmed by veteran Hong Kong film director Yon Fan, and starred Hiep Thi Le, an Asian-American actress from Oliver Stone’s film Heaven and Earth. Some where along the way, however, a deep and serious docu-drama turned into a campy melodrama.


Ong Soh Chin, former Straits Times film critic:

“To be perfectly honest, I thought Bugis Street was a waste of time and money. I thought it looked very good. The production values were excellent, but I thought the subject matter was not treated very well. I thought Singaporeans and transvestites were portrayed in a very negative inaccurate light. I was really embarrassed watching it actually.”


Ernest Seah, actor in Bugis Street:

“The subject was really difficult, but it was done very tastefully and it showed a side of Singapore that a lot of people don’t normally get to see; and I must say that the producers really took a big risk in making such a movie in Singapore, especially when it was so taboo. We have not really done many taboo movies yet.”


If locals were offended by Bugis Street’s superficial and risqué treatment, the West seemed to embrace it. It would go on to earn praise from various American film critics and became a cult hit in the US.


The Rise of Art Films in Singapore and Popular Blockbusters in the mid 1990s

With feature film making at an embryonic stage, the Singapore Short Film competition, established in 1991, provided an outlet for budding directors.



“From the inception of the film festival, we have always tried to encourage Asian films; with the fourth festival, we had more or less established how we might encourage the industry. That’s when Phillip Cheah came up with the idea of having a short film award for Singapore made films because there was no film industry here, so there was no point in doing a feature film award or anything like that. It also marked a start to Eric Khoo’s film career because he won the short film award with August.”


Eric Khoo:

“Actually without the Singapore short film festival, I have been telling everyone I would not be making films now.”


Portraying a desolate picture of the Singapore landscape, Mee Pok Man (1995), was made from services and film stock Khoo won for the Singapore short film competition. Shot for the shoestring budget of $100,000, it was hailed as a real Singapore film by Derek Malcolm of The Guardian and screened in over 30 film festivals worldwide.



“With this film, the subject matter was non-commercial and a bit, maybe, dark, so we pushed it, and I was very pleased because at the end of the day when we released it, the BFC (Board of Film Censors) didn’t delete any scenes. It was in its intact form. And we received the R(A) rating for that one.”



I  think it was also good because he didn’t take on an easy subject. The restrictions were because, you know, the sort of Mee Pok seller and prostitute story. These were not glamorous topics. Also Eric was looking at people disenfranchised, not considered acceptable in society.”



“I didn’t think it was a perfect film. I still don’t think it is a perfect film. It is definitely flawed. But it was interesting because it struck home as very real. It showed life in a HDB flat. It showed a very bleak side of Singapore youth that is there. I know it exists, we all know it exists, and is quite interesting. But to see it on the big screen is quite a revelation some how, and I think Eric Khoo captured that seedy, that desperate, bleak, quality of youth, which Singaporeans don’t want to even know about sometimes. I think he captured it very well.”


Adapted from the popular stage play of the same name, Army Daze (1996) marked Cathay’s entry into film making after 20 years. With down to earth humour and sharp studio marketing behind it, Army Daze proved that Singaporeans would pay to see themselves on the big screen.


Erlina Suharjono, Vice-President, Head Entertainment Division, Cathay Asia Films Pte Ltd:

“Well it started with Michael Chiang, the Singapore playwright of Army Daze talking with our CEO, Meileen Choo, about producing a local film. It was not until Michael Chiang invited her to the Army Daze stage play that she saw it would be a hit with the Singaporeans because its particular subject matter was really close to the Singaporean heart, National Service. There was a ready mass market appeal to it. People started to show interest with local films when Bugis Street went over one million at the box office in 1995 and Mee Pok Man received a lot of attention and reviews from the film festival circuits. Local TV programmes were also doing very well at the time. She felt the time was right to go into production and produce Army Daze the movie. She produced the movie; and it was released in November 1996; and it collected 1.6 million at the box office, and it was the highest grossing film at the time.”


First time filmmaker, Lim Suat Yuen, wrote The Road Less Travelled (1997) in New York where she was attending a film course. When returning to Singapore she decided to set the film locally and make the film in Mandarin.


Lim Suat Yuen:

The Road Less Travelled was about four young people trying to strike a balance between reality and achieving their dreams.”


Like Mee Pok Man, The Road Less Travelled was an independent film made on a micro budget but it represented a huge endeavour on part of its makers. Like Eric Khoo, Suat Yuen had also received cash and film stock at the Singapore short film festival to make her feature.


Lim Suat Yuen:

“During that time I believed that no investors would believe that films would make money. That showed we had to come up with our own money, some of it is from family. I was trying to gather the film project from these tight budgets so we had to shoot it in 21 days.”


Kenneth Tan:

The Road Less Travelled is about the singing movement, local writing. A certain flavour that will allow the film to travel, but uniquely and distinctively Singaporean. I found it entertaining, refreshing, real. I said to myself, if I had a group of visitors who knew nothing about the country or I were at the other side of the globe, and suddenly saw this film appearing on the screen, I would have absolutely, no reservations, no hesitations, absolutely about standing up and shouting to people this is a Singapore film.”


Singapore’s own true life horrors remained a source for movie makers. As with Medium Rare, the film God or Dog (1997) told the chilling story of killer Adrian Lim in a more authentic urban setting.  The end result was a convincing, if disturbing, insight into the mind of an Asian psychopath.


Eric Khoo continued to explore the engaging theme of urban alienation in his next film, 12 Storeys (1997), which took an unflinching look at life in the HDB heartland. Unadorned and hyper-realistic, on critic dubbed it a lyric poem to loneliness.


Eric Khoo:

“After I did Mee Pok Man, which is considered a blockbuster in Singapore, I was approached to do my next film. So here was a situation, the money was there but there was no script. So I spent about 9 months working with James Toh, co-author of 12 Storeys. How I got the story was that one night I was driving down some street, road, and looking at all these apartment blocks; and I thought to myself, my God, the stories happening in that building would be exciting to do something, almost 3 stories in a day. And at that time my budget was $300,000. I really could not go to town. I limited it to a few locations and the film was shot in 2 weeks.”


Lim Kay Tong:

“The majority of actors he used were people who had no acting experience or very minimal acting. There is a trend amongst the majority of filmmakers here to use fresh faces. I think they feel that there is more authenticity if they choose someone who is like the personality in the film. They feel they will get a more spontaneous performance. So you know, some of the more trained of us, the more professional of us, are out in the cold a little bit. It is the idea of cinema verite, of getting as close to reality as possible. I think a lot of directors feel that if they use ‘real people’ it is going to be more credible.”


If Mee Pok Man had earned Eric Khoo a visibility, 12 Storeys took Singapore cinema one step further by being invited to be screened out of competition at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival.



“It is not easy to get into Cannes. It is probably one of the most difficult as far as film festivals in the world.  Of the sorts of mediums in the arts, the thing about films is that it is probably the most accessible. That is recognised in the arts. The fact that it can travel, I think that really, you really, need Singapore filmmakers like Eric putting Singapore cinema on the map.”



1998 saw the release of Money No Enough starring TV comedian Jack Neo. Made on a small budget, it was a smash hit at the box office, grossing over 6 million dollars at the box office, it became the second highest grossing movie of all time in Singapore, just behind The Titanic.


Jack Neo:

“We knew this film was going to do something. Our estimate was based on $1.5 million because the best film in Singapore so far was Army Daze at $1.6 or 1.7 million. If the film can do 1.5 we would be very happy. In the end it came in $6 million so it was something very unexpected. We did not know it would do so well.”


Kenenth Tan:

Money No Enough, slice of life, man in the street. It was an example of film product that built a reputation based on word of mouth. And I think it was an important step in the progression of Singapore filmmaking. Rather than showing something, like 12 Storeys that was more philosophical, deeper, Money No Enough was about the everyday person in shorts and slippers. There was a lot of comic relief. There was a lot of what everybody in the street would laugh at, cry at, relate to. It was a very, very, easy film to watch.”



“Basically what I want is not try to promote dialect or anything. What I want is to show the realistic part of our society. This is how Singaporeans behave and this is the language they use.”


The film’s title, Money No Enough, reflected Neo’s use of the Singapore vernacular and was Neo’s key to reaching its audience.



“What I think is that each language has its own way of humour. Mandarin has its own. English has its own; and of course Hokkien has its own. We are stay here and most of our generation are still using dialect. Because of this, a lot of humour is in there.”


The overnight success of Money No Enough spawned other comedies, such as Lucky Number (1998) and Where Got Problem? looking at similar themes of money problems  and the everyday man.


Forever Fever (1998) was another celebration of the underdog. It paid homage to the 70s disco classic, Saturday Night Fever. Having begun his career a decade ago in London’s West End in M. Butterfly, acclaimed stage veteran Glen Goei had returned to Singapore for a different role.



“I certainly made the movie with a universal story in mind and I put in a lot of unusual elements, for instance the disco world, the use of disco classics, that is a way of transcending barriers. So, yes, made with the local market in mind, but with unusual elements that allowed it to travel abroad.”


Goei mortgaged his house to fund the film’s 1.5 million dollar budget. It paid off handsomely when Miramax Film Distributors of Oscar winning films, like Shakespeare in Love, picked it up for world wide release in a multi-million dollar deal.


Lim Kay Tong:

“If you look at stage directors, Ong Keng Seng’s Army Daze and Glen Goei’s Forever Fever, you will find, there is this exaggerated element to the comedy. You may not find it from someone from the film and television industry if they had made that. They created this slightly unreal sense that does transform you, cause then you think you are in a semi-fantasy world so this is what they contribute that gives you variety.”


To achieve the film’s slick and glossy look, Goei employed an established Australian art director and cinematographer with credits from Crocodile Dundee II and Priscilla: Queen of the Desert. It was a move that he saw as a necessary one.



“We had to recognise that we hadn’t made that many films here, so among our DPs and camera men there were very few who have the knowledge and that experience.”


The importance of technical talent is an issue that divides the local film industry.


The off beat Tiger’s Whip (1998), directed by Victor Khoo, mixed Zen philosophy and stand-up comedy.


Tony Yeow, Producer, Tiger’s Whip:

Tiger’s Whip was planned for the international market. We imbued it with universal appeal, so therefore we had an American actor for the lead. We didn’t have a local actor. People in the American market can relate to an American actor... We actually were prepared for it not to succeed in the Singapore market. The Singapore box office at the base of it we only have got 3 million people. We cannot sustain any film industry in any language except for the Chinese film, as proved by Jack Neo. A little bit of Cantonese, a little bit of Hokkien in it, and you may have a winner, but for any other film it is very difficult to recoup your investment you make in Singapore because the producer gets 20 percent of the gross collection. So if you spend $800,000, you need to gross $4 million, which is well nigh impossible!


The Teenage Textbook Movie (1998) directed by MTV producer Philip Lim took a step in the youth market and enjoyed only moderate box office, but was picked up by American cable broadcaster Cinemax.


Based on a popular TV character, Liang Po Po (1999) marked Raintree Pictures' maiden release. Whereas previously Singaporeans had only managed to play minor supporting roles in Hong Kong films, now this film featured a leading local cast with Hong Kong stars in cameo. Despite backing by the Singapore TV network, Raintree remains realistic about the challenges facing Singapore films.


Daniel Yun, CEO, Raintree Pictures:

“The film industry is wrapt in a lot of myth and mystery, so businessmen are very wary of films, so it took us a lot to take that one step further and set up a movie company. It is considered very high risk by TCS. We learned much from the production industry for a while. We thought that we should take the next step as a movie company - not a production house - a company that looks at movies as a business. It’s a tough business because if you apply the general rules of business to this business sometimes it doesn’t apply because I think this is a business whereby you can lose your pants. This is a business where, on a project basis, where you have a low budget movie and it can give you a home run of 100 million dollars if you do it right.”


Large film investment entrepreneurs are entirely unfamiliar to Singapore. The period drama Paradise Road (1997) cost over US$20 million to make and was co-financed by Andrew Yap of the YTC organisation with the Australian group Village Roadshow Pictures.


Andrew Yap, Executive Producer, Paradise Road:

“We want to be in the film industry. We are looking for entry points into the film industry as a business. Paradise Road gave use that entry point.”


While Shaw Brothers had financed Hollywood releases, Yap’s investment of $5million into the film’s total budget signified a major step for a first time investor from Singapore.


With film making in Singapore being a largely independent enterprise, the biggest hurdles facing filmmakers have been the ones of financing, infrastructure, and recognition. A situation that is gradually changing. The National Arts Council included film as an art form in 1997, paving the way for the Singapore Film Commission a year later, which provides both funding and support.


With films as colourful as the culture they embody, Singapore’s young cinema has in a short period produced works of international acclaim and box office success. Singapore filmmakers continue to defy the odds and define their unique vision.



In order to Prepare for this tutorial complete the exercise below before coming to class to discuss the topic. This exercise is just for background material.

1. Account for the rise of the Malay language film industry in Singapore during the 1950s and 1960s.

2. Describe the operation of the production of the Malay language films in Singapore. What type of films were being made?

3.Assess the reasons why the Malay language film making industry collapsed during the 1960s.

4. Give an account of film-making in Singapore from the 1970s to the revival in the 1990s. What were some of the constraints on the Singapore film industry?

Most of the readings from above and the material on images of the feminine in the Malay films would be of assistance in this tutorial. Much of this material you will find in the course notes.