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National pride: Royston Tan talks about his LKY film for the National Museum of Singapore

Jasmine Alimin
Jasmine Alimin • 5 min read
National pride: Royston Tan talks about his LKY film for the National Museum of Singapore
Filmmaker Royston Tan’s commissioned film is a heartfelt tribute to our former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew, capturing his life, legacy, values and profound impact on the nation PHOTO: IMDB
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The past couple of years have been exhilarating for local filmmaker Royston Tan. Not only has he been enjoying success for his critically-acclaimed movie 24 — which received nods at both the Busan International Film Festival and Jogja-Netpac Asian Film Festival — he has also spent the greater part of this year choreographing Singapore’s National Day Parade (NDP), while simultaneously producing a short film on the late Lee Kuan Yew for the National Museum of Singapore.

Entitled LKY100: The Life and Legacy of Lee Kuan Yew (1923–2015), the three-minute film, presented in traditional 4:3 TV format, stitches together the former prime minister’s key messages primarily taken from various National Day Rally speeches over his storied career.

Known for celebrating Singapore’s multicultural identity and exploring the complexities of modern urban life, Tan was commissioned by the museum to produce this film as part of a digital trail which celebrates the 100th anniversary of Lee’s birth.

In an interview with Options, Tan says: “The brief to me was to celebrate Mr Lee’s legacy through his speeches. For me, it is really to look back on all the very important quotes he made and tell a story. Because it’s within three minutes, the challenge was to curate it carefully and balance the important messaging and the visual and emotive parts.”

Unlike the typical surrealistic treatment of his films, Tan was careful to keep the editing of this cinematic tribute simple, with just an overlay of music and some sound effects. “It’s very different from making a movie,” he adds. “I asked myself how to do this without being overly cosmetic or emotional. I told the museum that we should stick to our materials because they are powerful and let them shine as-is.

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“Apart from just compiling the footage, we need to see the context, the subtext first — and when you stitch them together — how it doesn’t stray away from the main narrative. Delivering its meaning in condensed form was a challenge, and we were very careful about this.”

Tan also made a concerted effort to showcase Lee’s dexterity and flair for languages, which conveyed his convictions and push for a united, multiracial society with equal opportunity. He says: “Mr Lee is fondly remembered as a charismatic speaker, and I wanted to capture his essence as a strong leader through the medium of his speeches.

“We wanted to show footage of him speaking in different languages, like English, Malay, Mandarin and Hokkien — which I didn’t realise he spoke until I started this project — to evoke that sense of multiculturalism that he has always advocated.”

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Tan deliberately showed the evolution of time through Lee’s messages — blended like they were one speech — in tandem with the nation’s transformation into the modern and metropolitan city that Singapore is today. Chronologically ordered, we also see Lee’s physical transformation from a robust, spirited leader to an older, wiser mentor.

A labour of love that took seven months and eight drafts to finalise, work on this project was man-hours intensive as it required countless days trawling through museum archives and Mediacorp Studios archives, unearthing speeches that fit well together. To make this happen, Tan hired two researchers, one producer and one sound designer who worked closely with the museum.

“We have a very good relationship with the National Museum. They put a lot of trust in us and believed in our vision for the film, so we were able to finesse this very quickly,” he says.

Pleased with the film’s outcome, Tan is extremely grateful that he has been given this incredible opportunity to revisit Lee’s speeches and witness the rise of Singapore through his lens. He hopes this film serves as a nostalgic and inspiring narrative for the older and younger generations to not take things for granted and continue creating a better future for themselves.

“When I was producing the NDP, a thought crossed my mind: without visionaries like Mr Lee, we wouldn’t get to live in this wonderful country and enjoy the celebrations that come with it. This is something that I am truly very grateful for.”

From now until Dec 31, the film is presented in the concluding section of the LKY100 digital trail in the museum’s Singapore History Gallery.

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This augmented on-site experience, which forms part of a greater exhibition called Semangat yang Baru: Forging a New Singapore Spirit, presents the historical and contemporary significance of Lee as a political figure, with key artefacts and multimedia pieces touching upon his life and values about Singapore’s journey.

Registration for the digital trail can be done by scanning a QR code at the Singapore History Gallery. It will unlock a map for you to follow where you can discover iconic objects like Red Box No. 3, containing Lee’s official documents, his barrister’s robe, or the podium he stood behind during his historic speeches.

Upon completing the trail, visitors can redeem a gift inspired by the iconic red box from the vending machine at the Singapore History Gallery exit on Level One. Admission to the exhibition is free for Singaporeans and permanent residents. ​

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