Perfect Tales of Imperfect People

“天黑黑,要落雨,阿公仔,举锄头。。。。。。” sings a mother to her feverish child in a scene from Filial Piety, a TV commercial (TVC) from the Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports (MCYS). The haunting Hokkien folk tune fills the screen – and our hearts – with melancholy, perhaps even memories. This is how the Ministry reaches out to Singaporeans, moving them with a brand-new art of storytelling.

A single father struggling to please his petulant daughter. A eulogy at a funeral. A cranky old grandmother and her suffering daughter-in-law.

Such are the touching stories of imperfect people and families that MCYS has come up with to encourage Singaporeans to love their family. So who says government commercials are always preachy and politically correct?

For instance, Filial Piety, directed by Hong Kong’s David Tsui, shows an elderly woman complaining about her daughter-in-law’s cooking. Her son tries to pacify her and seems to ignore his wife.

Scenes from Filial Piety

This drew criticism from some netizens who felt the scene is implying that it is all right to disregard the feelings of one’s wife in order to please the mother.

Why not just show a happy, loving family to avoid such negative responses?

We want to portray a slice of life, and by nature, real life is not easy, real life is controversial and relationships are something that people have to work hard at,

says MCYS’s Director of Communications and International Relations Richard Tan Kok Tong.

The Ministry also respects the artistic freedom of its directors. For instance, acclaimed late filmmaker Ms Yasmin Ahmad – who directed MCYS’s TVCs Red Shoes and Funeral – was given full leeway to choose and direct her stories, and to select her cast.

Pushing The Envelope

Red Shoes, which shows the struggles a single father faces in bringing up his daughter, was originally rejected by MCYS for its single-parent theme. But Ms Yasmin pressed for the story to be made.

“Yasmin pushed the envelope to the extreme by using a single parent, which shows people how difficult it really is to strengthen a relationship between a father and a child. If we were to show a proper family pushing the baby pram in the park and having a picnic, what is there to talk about?” says Mr Tan.

Red Shoes has a scene in which the little girl in the story asks her father to buy her a bright red bra.


Ms Yasmin had brought along some red bras when she presented the storyboard to Minister for Community Development, Youth and Sports Dr Vivian Balakrishnan and Minister of State, Mrs Yu-Foo Yee Shoon.

“If they were going to be sticky about my ideas, I was going to whip (the bras) out to shock them. But they were cool about it, so (the bras) remained in my bag!” Ms Yasmin told TODAY newspaper in 2008.

Message Of Humanity

And unlike most national commercials which have voiceovers in English, Mandarin, Malay and Tamil, MCYS’s TVCs are made only in English and/or Mandarin, with accompanying subtitles in the other languages.

“As the Minister himself said, you can’t make a Chinese person speak Tamil. It just doesn’t sound right,” says Mr Tan. “Yasmin told me to have faith that the message of humanity, of family and community is so powerful and universal that it can transcend racial and language boundaries.”

The Malaysian director then went on to helm Funeral, in which a woman pays tribute to her dead husband in a eulogy by talking about his charming imperfections, such as snoring and farting in bed. It was also Ms Yasmin’s last TVC before she passed away due to brain haemorrhage in July 2009.


Funeral was launched as part of the Beautifully Imperfect campaign which encouraged Singaporeans to appreciate the flaws in their partners.

The use of a funeral-wake setting was a first for MCYS. The Ministry was initially concerned about the reaction of conservative Chinese Singaporeans, who might see funerals as a “bad omen”.

But MCYS went ahead with the idea, as it wanted a “non-typical” setting that will hook audiences immediately, explains Mr Tan.

Behind The Scenes - Production pictures of Funeral, with director Yasmin Ahmad (in blue) and her cast and crew.

Viral Successes

MCYS also uses social media to spread its pro-family messages. It broadcast a preview session of Red Shoes for bloggers back in 2008, and posted clips of its TVCs on YouTube and Facebook.

The strategy has managed to get Singaporeans to continue viewing and talking about the TVCs, even after they were no longer shown on TV.

The Filial Piety clip has received more than 217,000 views on both Facebook and YouTube and its Facebook page has more than 38,000 fans from 20 countries. Meanwhile, more than 19,000 Facebook users are fans of the Beautifully Imperfect campaign and clips of Funeral on YouTube and Facebook have attracted more than three million views.


Seeing how storytelling has been effective in reaching out to people, will MCYS continue to use this approach in later campaigns?

Not necessarily, says Mr Tan. For instance, the TVC for the Youth Olympic Games, released two months ago, is not a story but a 90-second clip of a visually impaired girl who shares her hopes of attending the inaugural games. The previous TVCs were three minutes each.

Beyond a successful campaign, policies may also need to be adjusted to spur behavioural change in Singaporeans, says Mr Tan. For example, to encourage more Singaporeans to marry and procreate, policies ensuring easier ways of getting housing and quality childcare services are important.

If these policies are not right, then no amount of campaigning is going to help as the cause of people not wanting to get married and have children may not be because they don’t want to, but because it is expensive to get housing and childcare (services).

Still, the TVCs have succeeded in starting discussions among Singaporeans, which is an important first step for policy changes to be made, says Mr Tan.

“It is through the conversations that you know what policies to change as people surface their concerns and fears.”

If anything, MCYS’s family campaign TVCs have definitely caught the attention of Singaporeans with their controversial storylines and realistic portrayals of flawed human relationships.

Behind The Stories - The MCYS team from the Communications and International Relations Division.
    Sep 8, 2010
    Chen Jingting
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