Jack neo main

Successful local director Jack Neo had the advantage of establishing himself on monopoly Channel 8 in the days before cable television arrived, but English-language film-makers lack such natural barriers. Image: ST

This is going to be an unpopular opinion: The authorities should mandate that time be set aside for local English music on the radio and that slots be created for local film-makers to show their work in cinemas and on television.

There, I’ve said it, and you may now raise your pitchforks.

I can understand why the notion of a reservation system would cause either outrage or irritation. For a long time, I was against it.

A reservation system, an idea that has been burbling in arts circles for some years, came to the fore again last month when Nominated MP Janice Koh raised it during a parliamentary session.

In support of radio quota, she said: “While I acknowledge that locally produced Chinese and Malay music have been given adequate broadcast exposure, the case is not the same for English language music.”

She praised cases of voluntary set-asides, such as on MediaCorp station Lush 99.5, but felt more was needed.

There is something weirdly anti-Singaporean about local content quotas. It runs counter to our sensibilities as an open port and a place where money not only talks, but also screams; not to mention how, as a state, Singapore has signed free- trade agreements with several partners, including one with global English-language content giant the United States.

Because, let us be specific, when we talk about local content protection, what we mean is protection from Hollywood and New York, Chicago and greater Los Angeles. It is specifically to stem the tide washing up from these global pop culture factories that walls in South Korea, China, France, Australia and Canada were principally erected.

The principle that local products or services that fall short of global quality should not hide under the skirts of the Government makes complete sense and the idea should extend to the labour force too (with checks to prevent employers depressing wage levels).

One reason I’ve come round to supporting quotas for local music and film is that I have realised it is wrong to put them in the same category as industrial widgets, such as buttons or garments or electronic chips.

A novel, a piece of music, a film or a television show is more like a process than an object. It is never truly finished and it can also die at any stage, including at the point of its birth in the mind of the creator. And most do die, because there is nowhere for that work to be shared.

As more than one film-maker has told me, nobody wants to make a film to be shown in his own bedroom. And except for the tiny number of commercial artists (cough, cough, Jack Neo), no one ever embarks on a film with any certainty of financial reward.

And in case Neo is held up as an example of a home-grown artist who pulled himself up by his own bootstraps, take note. He established himself on monopoly Channel 8 in the days before cable television arrived. He, like the other non-Englishlanguage performers, worked and continues to work in a market protected by the natural barriers of language and culture.

But even those barriers are falling, as demographics and taste change. He is 54. There is no film-maker younger than he is who comes close in boxoffice success, in any language. This is ominous.

I have nothing but respect for Neo and his uncanny ability to read the mind of the public, but his case shows how protection – the kind that was afforded to him by accident and circumstance in his early days – was as crucial to his current success as the innate talent he possesses.

A modest quota system that mandates just 10 per cent of time on radio, television or cinemas be given to Singapore works would be an enormous help, compared with today’s 0 per cent.

And if you think a small step like that would purely be symbolic, you would be right, but it would make a statement about our values.

The famed 100-website ban imposed by the Media Development Authority serves more as a statement of social values too, no?

If quotas came into place, my chief concern, and probably yours too, might be the cringe factor. Will we have to put up with utter bilge simply because it’s made in Singapore?

The Stalinist nightmare scenario would be having to watch a secondary school production of Othello every night when you switch on the telly, or hearing nothing but local emo kids making random bleeps and bloops on your car stereo.

The truth is that we are already there. The Stalinist control comes not from a quota system, but from software programmed to play certain songs at a certain time – from Western record labels and their deep pockets for marketing; from major studios manufacturing stars and formula action movies.

In short, the control comes from massive multinational conglomerates which can outspend local artists by a million, a billion times over. Much of it, by the way, is far from top-notch quality (hi, Justin Bieber).

Let’s not put gloss on it: Watching local English-language content take its baby steps might be painful and we might switch to another channel or cry in dismay at a bad note or an embarrassingly terrible line of dialogue.

But every now and then, something good will pop up and knowing you helped make it popular, and not some targeted viral marketing campaign hatched by New York hipsters, will make the enjoyment of it so much sweeter.

This article was first run in The Straits Times newspaper on April 2, 2014. For similar stories, go to sph.straitstimes.com/premium/singapore. You will not be able to access the Premium section of The Straits Times website unless you are already a subscriber.