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Lim Yu Shan (A0084624)

GEK 2020 Term Paper

W4

21. While 12 Storeys is a film that is highly critical of Singaporean society, it is not
wholly critical of it. Do you agree with this statement?
Discuss this statement, making sure you include some discussion of how the film
medium is used in relation to this statement.

Interweaving four stories together, 12 Storeys by director Eric Khoo is


undoubtedly a commentary of the socio-political conditions of Singapore society. It
highlights the weakening of social relationships that pervade the Singapore society
where the pursuit of economic progress had rendered us alienated from one another,
stripping us of the kampong spirit as we become trapped in a concrete jungle. Albeit
bold in his critique of the Singapore government, Khoo manages to bring across the
message in a subtle yet powerful manner through his usage of mise-en-scene. A
distinct example would be the character Meng who arguably can be perceived as a
symbol of the Singapore government, portraying the authoritative nature of the
government. The story of Lily also shed some light on the issue of othering and
often hostile attitudes Singaporeans have towards foreigners. Taken collectively, I
would agree that the film is indeed highly critical of the Singapore society. Although
there were some scenes that hinted at the existence of friendly relations among
neighbors, they were few and far between in comparison to the general pessimistic
tone of the film regarding the Singapore society.

Alienation and Lack of Communication


Home to majority of Singaporeans, the opening shot of a HDB block establishes
the setting in which the film takes place. The following montage of various families
further concretized the theme of the film, which is the life of Singaporeans and the

Lim Yu Shan (A0084624)

GEK 2020 Term Paper

W4

alienation they face. One of the shots in the montage showed a family watching the
television. If we were to take this shot at face value, one might plainly view it as a
family spending time together, partaking in an activity that is common to all.
However, if we were to look deeper into it, it actually reflects a sense of alienation as
well. Instead of interacting and communicating with one another, they were engaged
in an activity which deprived them of the interaction. Hence, they were emotionally
distant despite being together physically.

The character San San can also be seen as the personification of the theme of
alienation and lack of communication. Throughout the film, San San was portrayed as
being lonesome. Though some semblance of interaction seems to be taking place in
the form of her dead mother nagging at her, it was one-sided and all in her
imagination. What was more striking is the fact that she barely uttered a word in the
film and even when crying, she was silent. She was essentially alone in the world
where she did not have any family and even her adoptive mother had passed away.
Her isolation, coupled with the pain that was never verbally articulated, drove her to
thoughts of suicide. This perhaps alludes to the bleak future of Singapore society if
the current social conditions of alienation and lack of communication were to persist.

Government and Economic Progress


The film also offers a critical perspective of the Singapore government
through the character Meng. Meng was portrayed as an authoritative brother, whose
actions served to oppress and control his siblings. His conversations with his siblings
were also often one-sided. These various portrayals of Meng are reminiscent of
characteristics that are commonly associated with the government. His white clothing

Lim Yu Shan (A0084624)

GEK 2020 Term Paper

W4

further reinforces the idea that this character could be arguably viewed as a symbol of
the government. The critiques being levied upon the government through this subtle
portrayal served as a commentary on the style of government to rule with an iron
fist. Parallels can be drawn between the top-down approach of the government and
the one-way communication between Meng and his siblings. Also, similar to how
Meng control his family members, the government has also been actively involved in
controlling its populace.

For instance, the government has been and still is the key agent controlling the
future directives of the nation. The government has always been one of the main
agents championing for economic progress. In Singapore, the pursuit of economic
progress has historically taken center stage and prioritized over many other aspects of
society, including the environment. In a recent article from The Straits Times, the
tension between the economy and the environment was highlighted (Quah and Soh
2014), reflecting the currency of this issue in the context of Singapore. Often, the
government had to prioritized one over the other which gave rise to the concrete
jungle Singaporeans inhabit today. This too is alluded by the film. One of the objects
that appeared in most of the stories was money. Arguably, I view this money motif as
being reflective of the importance of money, which is indicative of the goal of the
countrys pursuit of economic development. Coupled with the shots of Singapore
skyline, it hinted at how our environment had transformed as a result of the nations
economic activity.

The top-down approach of the government is evident in the states imperative


to achieve economic progress at the expense of other aspects of society and this is

Lim Yu Shan (A0084624)

GEK 2020 Term Paper

W4

reflected in the film as discussed in the essay above. The film through its characters
and usage of mise-en-scene, portrayed this authoritative nature of the government.

Foreigners in Singapore
The film was also critical of the treatment of foreigners in Singapore.
Foreigners, be it foreign talents or those who are lowly skilled, have often been on the
receiving end of much criticism, and are often scorned by Singaporeans. In the case of
foreign talents, the common grievances locals have towards them are that they have
been stealing our jobs (Ho 2006). From another perspective, the film addresses
Singaporeans attitude towards foreign brides. It perpetuated the stereotype of
materialistic and greedy foreign bride by portraying Lily marrying Ah Gu for the sake
of money. These characteristics were reinforced by the clothing which Lily wore in
the film, which included showy and bright colored garments, and gaudy accessories.

However, the film might also provoke its Singaporean audience to question
their treatment of these foreigners, and whether our discontentment towards them is
justified. While we had been preoccupied with labeling foreign brides as moneygrubbers, we failed to understand their stories and their plight in making such a
decision to marry a foreigner, leaving them with nobody else to depend on apart from
their husbands. The character Lily is essentially an emotionally and sexually
unfulfilled being. In the scene where she was looking at a photograph of another man,
and her subsequent self-pleasing act, pointed to the fact that there was a lover that she
left behind to marry Ah Gu. Though she might be driven by materialistic gains, this
portrayal of Lily might make one sympathetic towards her plight. Her anguish while
engaging in the self-pleasuring act further shows the pain that she feels in a foreign

Lim Yu Shan (A0084624)

GEK 2020 Term Paper

W4

land. The film has essentially pushed us to reflect on our treatment towards foreigners
and if it was truly warranted.

Relationships between Neighbors


Up to this point, the discussion has been on how the film serves as a critique
of the Singapore society. To be fair to the film, there were instances whereby it
alludes to the fact that the state of social conditions are not as dire as it seems and
though minimal, some forms of interaction do exist. Also, the fact that the film only
consisted of four stories out of the numerous other possible stories that exist, one
could interpret the film as biased as it only highlighted the negative socio-political
conditions while not addressing the other end of the spectrum.

One of the scenes, which indicates that the society may not be suffering from
extreme alienation, is the scene of Meng conversing with his Malay neighbor. The
Malay neighbor had said that he would cook something good for Meng, which
indicated the existence of a friendly relationship between the two of them. However,
arguably, the strength of the bond between neighbors in a HDB block is definitely not
as strong in comparison to the kampongs of the past. As evident in the Reviving the
Kampong Spirit Forum organized by the Nanyang Technological University and
REACH, an interviewee lamented at the loss of kampong spirit together with the trust
and friendships between neighbors (REACH 2014). Also, new initiatives are also
being put in place to revive the kampong spirit (Heng 2014), indicating the lack of it
current neighborhood estates.

Lim Yu Shan (A0084624)

GEK 2020 Term Paper

W4

Conclusion
A better quality of life is often associated with economic progress. However,
the film 12 Storeys invited us to question this claim and see that this is not truly the
case. It is undeniable that Singapores economic progress can bring us material
benefits, but the same cannot be said for other aspects of society whereby alienation
and the breakdown of communication are clearly evident. Many of our natural
environments also had to make way for economic development. These changes might
be attributed to the works of the government whom has been at the receiving end of
many criticisms with regards to its dominantly top-down approach. It also brought
forth the question of whether our hostile attitude towards foreign brides is unjust or
too harsh.

Overall, the film was successful in illuminating the negative effects of state
driven economic development and Singaporeans harsh treatment of foreigners.
Coupled with the critique of the government, I would tend to agree that by and large,
the film is wholly critical of the Singapore society. Although the film only consists of
four stories out of the many which could possibly exist, and it is interspersed with
hints of hope whereby the society is not facing extreme alienation, they are minimal at
best in comparison to the general pessimistic tone of the film.

Lim Yu Shan (A0084624)

GEK 2020 Term Paper

W4

Reference
Heng, Janice. 2014. New Initiatives Aim to Revive Kampung Spirit in HDB Flats.
The

Straits

Times,

May

25.

Retrieved,

November

1,

2014

(http://www.straitstimes.com/news/singapore/housing/story/new-initiativesaim-revive-kampung-spirit-hdb-flats-20140525).
Ho, Elaine Lynn-Ee. 2006. Negotiating Belonging and Perceptions of Citizenship in
a Transnational World: Singapore, a Cosmopolis? Social & Cultural
Geography 7(3): 385-401.
Quah, Euston, and Christabelle Soh. 2014. Growth v Greenery: Where will
Singapores Priorities Lie? The Straits Times, March 4. Retrieved, November
1, 2014 (http://www.straitstimes.com/st/print/2128726).
REACH. 2014. Reviving the Kampong Spirit in Singapore. Singapore: REACH.

Filmography
Eric Khoo 12 Storeys (Singapore, 1997) 105 min.