Why is Singapore investing millions in its media industry?

PEPE DON’T PREACH - Pepe Diokno (The Philippine Star) - March 6, 2016 - 9:00am

From Dec. 2 to 6 last year, the Singapore Media Festival played host to the worlds of film, television, and digital content. Around 17,000 professionals attended, including the heads of Hollywood studios, and personalities such as David Beckham, Michelle Yeoh, Michael V, YouTube star Alfie Deyes, Brillante Mendoza, and Iranian master filmmaker Moshen Makhmabaf.

But behind the glamor that came with the aforementioned names and the glitz with which the red carpets were rolled out at Marina Bay Sands and Suntec City, is a name few people have heard of: MDA, shorthand for Media Development Authority of Singapore — a government agency. It represents a massive investment by the city-state in entertainment, with SMF as the tip of the iceberg.

Upon arriving at the festival, we had lunch with Joachim Ng, MDA’s director of industry operations. He oversees the agency’s strategy for film, broadcast, animation, music, interactive media, games, and publishing. Keeping in mind the Philippine experience — where there is little government support for media and the arts  — we asked Ng about why Singapore is going all-out.

PHILIPPINE STAR: How much funding does MDA receive and where does it come from?

JOACHIM NG: We’ve had two tranches of funding: S$230 million (around US$165 million) was allocated for the last master plan, which lasted for seven years and just ended. The allocation for the upcoming plan is approximately the same. This comes from the Ministry of Finance. It’s public funds. Every five years, we put up a five-year master plan and the Ministry of Finance allocates funding for us for industry development purposes.



It’s a big amount of money. Why is it so important for Singapore to develop its media?

Singapore is only 50 years old. It’s a very young country still. Actually, for the first 25 years of that time, there was almost no film industry. From 1965 to 1985, we had television — but only the national broadcaster and even then, they had very low levels of production. Our priority, when we became independent, was other sectors: manufacturing, electronics, the ports, and, of course, the financial industry. But as the country matures, it becomes very important for us to have a sense of national identity. So we began investing in film for that reason — culture and national identity.

(On the film front), we certainly would like to reflect Singapore’s identity on the global stage. At home, we have to start developing audiences when they are in school. As children, we should expose them to better films — good quality films. That is something that needs attention, how we nurture in a population a high level of appreciation for movies.

On the television front, the Singapore government puts a lot of money into producing what we call “public service broadcasts.” I believe that we fund 2,000 hours every year, which goes primarily into Mediacorp, our national broadcaster, in four languages — Malay, Chinese, Tamil and English — because we are a multiracial society. It is actually very challenging to cater to all of the cultures and languages, but that is something Singapore has to do because it is important to create or maintain a cohesive society. These programs will typically have national values in them — racial harmony, religious harmony, respect for parents. It plays a very big role in shaping the culture and behavior of our people. The challenge today is how do you impart values and still do it in a way that’s entertaining and compelling? I believe in entertainment with a conscience.

You spoke about a master plan. What does it involve?

Broadly speaking, the media industry is built on talent. You can boil it down, but the basic thing is talent. So we invest in talent, everything from the schooling to giving scholarships to providing a bit of funding for short films, and new talents’ feature films. We have a scheme that’s called the New Talents Feature Grant. New and young directors can get up to 250,000 for them to make their first and second feature films. And then on the more competitive and commercial side, we have production assistance that gives a subsidy of up to 40 percent of a budget, based on qualifying expenses. So it’s really the whole life of a filmmaker: from the time he’s in school all the way he becomes commercially successful, we support them.

Are there any trade-offs? I must ask about censorship, because while MDA funds productions, it also classifies and regulates the films that may be distributed in Singapore.

 (Author’s note: According to the MDA’s website, it’s not only films that fall under the agency’s purview, but also video games, the Internet, the press, plays, musicals, dance performances, art exhibitions, variety shows and pop/rock concerts. A number of titles have been banned for “undermining national security.” Artists, academics, and local commentators have described this atmosphere as being restrictive.)

Every country has their own regulations on films. Of course, the “C” word is “censorship.” No filmmaker likes censorship. But MDA, actually, has developed quite a strong relationship with the filmmakers even though we are regulators. Most of the filmmakers in Singapore, they are Singaporean, too. They also live here and they also grew up here. They understand what it is to live in a multiracial society. They are just like you and me and want peace and harmony. There few a filmmakers who are anti-government, but the majority tend to be quite reasonable people. While they want to push the envelope on the creative side, they know that there are certain areas that should not be portrayed in film because it will cause disharmony. But it’s a struggle.

Are there media agencies in other parts of the world that you look up to?

We have tremendous respect for South Korea, but they have invested in its media sector for decades. When you talk to the Korean government, they’ll tell you have been supporting the media for 50 years, and it’s only now that they’ve become prominent on the world stage. They will also tell you that while we enjoy the best Korean dramas and films, there is also a lot of crap that’s been produced and doesn’t come out (laughs). With media, you never know if you’re promoting a hit or a failure, so the important thing is to focus on the talent. Just help them. Even if the talent fails, it’s okay. Just continue to a point where they succeed.

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The Singapore Media Festival is made up of five constituent events, including the Singapore International Film Festival, the Asian Television, Awards, Screen Singapore (a series of talks on the cinema landscape), Asian Television Forum and Market (a venue for the television industry), and Digital Matters (a conference on the ever-changing digital content landscape). SMF appears to showcase the success of Singapore’s media industry, which, according to MDA’s figures, has generated 31.4 billion GSD in operating receipts. (This translates to a contribution of S$8.4 billion in nominal value-added to the Singapore economy.)

Singapore’s media industry includes international studios such as Disney. In a recently published interview in The STAR, Disney’s managing director Rob Gilby even told us, “I really love how the government has supported the industry. I think that’s very important to invest in creativity in the arts. It’s not a soft area. I believe in the value of creative economy in countries and I believe in the potential it provides for positive national identity, and pride in the good things about a country.”

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Tweet the author @PepeDiokno.

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