Two Films, Two Faces of Asia - Only One is Crazy Rich

By Thomson Reuters Foundation 24 August 2018

KUALA LUMPUR/BANGKOK — Hit movie “Crazy Rich Asians” is grabbing headlines with its depiction of outlandish opulence but another Singapore film is making waves of a different kind by revealing the tawdry underbelly of Asian life.

Two hit films – two very different faces of Asia.

And analysts said this clash should sound an alarm, with the ascendant “Crazy Rich Asians” shielding a struggling underclass.

“It is a fun movie that celebrates Asian wealth. But it should also be seen as a warning, that Asia is losing its reputation for inclusive growth and sliding ever deeper into inequality,” James Crabtree, from Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“Most countries in the region are becoming less equal, and some alarmingly so,” said Crabtree, an associate professor.

“Crazy Rich Asians” topped US and Canadian box offices on its debut weekend and has already sparked talks of a sequel, winning headlines for its all-ethnic Asian cast living lavish lifestyles in the city state of Singapore.

But it is the seedy reality of life at the bottom – often hidden in business-centric Singapore – that is depicted in the movie “A Land Imagined,” which also debuted this month.

“It’s true that Singapore has the ultra rich side – the Singapore that people know,” director Yeo Siew Hua told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone from Singapore.

“At the same time, the income gap is large and the truth is that there is a very large base of low-waged working class and most of them are migrants,” Yeo said.

“As a filmmaker, I have a calling to give a voice to this side of Singapore that is not exposed cinematically.”

Missing Migrant

“A Land Imagined,” about the disappearance of a migrant worker from a construction site, offers a rare insight into the plight of Singapore’s relatively low-paid laborers.

The affluent Southeast Asian country counts on migrants – from countries such as Bangladesh, Myanmar and China – to fuel its powerhouse economy, and campaigners hope the film could spark a rethink around how they are treated.

“Singapore generally has a pro-business environment… we can do a lot more in tilting the balance more in favor of the workers,” Ethan Guo from migrant rights group, Transient Workers Count Too, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The film debuted at the Locarno Film Festival in Switzerland and bagged the top award, a first for a Singaporean film. It is due for release in late 2018 after touring the festival circuit.

Eyes East

By contrast, the success of “Crazy Rich Asians” reflects a growing interest globally in Asia’s newfound wealth.

The rapid economic growth of countries from China to India has lifted millions out of poverty. But it has also widened the disparities. Inequality has risen since 1988, says the World Bank, with millions struggling to afford homes, and thousands more forced off their land for roads and mines.

“We hear that faster GDP growth will trickle down and lift up everyone, but we are only seeing increasing marginalization and exclusion,” said Shivani Chaudhry, executive director at advocacy group Housing and Land Rights Network in New Delhi.

“For all the talk of poverty reduction, we are seeing more people pushed into poverty,” Chaudhry said.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said in a speech earlier this month that the government is reviewing its education, healthcare and housing policies in order to strengthen social safety nets.

“We should frown upon those who go for ostentatious displays of wealth and status… that is not the Singapore way,” he said in a speech in May.

The Singaporean actress Tan Kheng Hua, who plays the mother of one of the lead characters, countered that the film was a reflection of Kwan’s “specific perspective.”

She told The Washington Post: “It’s called Crazy Rich Asians, it’s not called Every Singaporean.”