‘The Age of Terror’ Brings to Life Singapore’s Struggle Against Communist Terrorism

An interview with film director Dominic Ow

Film director Dominic Ow (R) posing with an actor in his three-part online series ëThe Age of Terrorí. 
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By Seah Loi Shun

Singapore is known for its public safety, yet its streets were once besieged with violence and terror during the 1950s postwar era.

Who were the people who caused the deaths of scores of innocent civilians? What were their methods? And how did they justify it?  Many of the answers can be found in the three-part online series, ‘The Age of Terror’. Drawn from real-life historic events, the drama brings viewers back to the terror and chaos of the 1950s communist insurgency, as Singapore struggled against communist terrorism.

Produced by local film-maker Dominic Ow and funded by the Ministry of Home Affairs, the emotionally charged series narrates the story of a Special Branch detective as he impedes the communist threat during the Malayan Emergency.

Dominic, 43, hopes The Age of Terror will increase awareness of Singapore‘s pre-independence history and the Malayan Emergency, a part of history that is less well-known to many young Singaporeans, including himself initially. He also hopes it will remind viewers that Singapore is not immune to terrorism.

Uncovering the Pre-Independence Days of Turbulence

While interviewing a former Special Branch detective who had fought against the communist threat in the 1950s, Dominic was surprised to learn about the violence and ideological struggles that took place. It was a side of Singapore’s history he never knew existed.

Dominic recalled that the history he learnt in school was “less a narrative than a series of data points – In 1819, Raffles founded Singapore; 1942, Singapore fell to the Japanese; 1945, the Japanese surrendered …”

He felt that Singaporeans should have a more holistic view of history, instead of being limited to what happened after 1965 – the year of Singapore‘s independence.

Fascinated by what he had learnt, Dominic researched into the communist insurgency and collected as much information as he could. These became building blocks for the film’s plot.

Singaporeís Past Experience With Terror

The series brings to life the climate of terror during the 1950s, when grenade attacks on police stations, arson, and cold-blooded assassinations of civilians and security personnel were daily occurrences.

One true incident, which was faithfully recreated in the series, is the shooting of a female rubber factory supervisor by the communists, in the name of “justice for ‘oppressing’ her workers”.

Following a spate of violence by the Malayan Communist Party (MCP), a state of emergency was declared in Singapore on 24 June 1948. Planning to establish communist rule in Singapore and Malaya, the MCP started to subvert law and order by controlling trade union activism and engaging in guerrilla warfare.

Gradually, with the colonial government gaining the upper hand, the MCP lost the guerrilla war in Malaya. They then turned to urban subversion in Singapore, which began in 1950. This was when the MCP carried out its campaign of arson and murders, and is the main setting for The Age of Terror.

The shadowy, callous communist killer in the drama takes after a real communist killer squad leader, Wong Fook Kwang alias Tit Fung.

The Special Branch was the intelligence arm of the police responsible for tracking down and containing the growing communist threat. In The Age of Terror, viewers witness how Special Branch detectives operated and the challenges they had to overcome in the fight against the communists.

The Malayan Emergency ended on July 31, 1960, leaving 11,000 deaths in its wake. In Singapore alone, at least 59 terrorist attacks were carried out between 1950 and 1956.

Drawing parallels to what is happening in the world today, the series aims to remind Singaporeans not to take our present peaceful times for granted.

Heart of the Story: A Father-Daughter Bond

While the subject matter of the series is terrorism, Dominic feels that the heart of the story is the relationship between a father and his daughter.

Dominic, who is also a father of two young daughters, explains that the main character – Special Branch detective Zhang Zhengguang – is father to a rebellious teenage girl Aihua. With the relationship strained by the era’s violence and ideological turmoil, the conflict is further aggravated by Zhang’s wish to protect Aihua, and Aihua’s exposure to left-wing ideology.

Growing Awareness

Shot in Malaysia with a professional cast, the series has been growing in popularity, with over ten thousand views on its Facebook page.

The film was screened to secondary school students and teachers during its series launch in March. Many were fascinated by the unknown world of the Special Branch detectives back in the 1950s. Dominic also says that the response from viewers in Malaysia has been excellent.

If the series hit rate exceeds a million, the production team plans to make another short film with the same subject content.

Making a Movie

Best known for producing ‘Every Singaporean Son’, a documentary series on national service, Dominic was also the producer of the black comedy ‘Red Numbers’. He thus surprised many with The Age of Terror, a work of a totally different style.

The Malayan Emergency ended on July 31, 1960, leaving 11,000 deaths in its wake. In Singapore alone, at least 59 terrorist attacks were carried out between 1950 and 1956.

The Age of Terrorí.
A scene in the three-part online series ëThe Age of Terrorí.

Dominic acknowledged that there were challenges involved in shooting his latest series. It was not easy to plan everything such that the actors and camera crew could all perform to their fullest potential, in addition to the limited time and budget constraints.

Production was sometimes hampered by unforeseen setbacks. For example, while shooting the crucial last scene, the jeep for the scene broke down and stalled in a drain. To make matters worse, the breakdown occurred in the middle of the night at a rural site.

It took the whole team one to two hours to get the vehicle out, with the aid of Dominic’s experience as a colonel in the Singapore Armed Forces.

The actors were also appreciative of Dominic for guiding them in the correct way to grip a gun. Overall, the whole team looked up to Dominic’s directorship, despite his relatively young age.

A graduate from the Department of Radio/Television/Film at Northwestern University, Dominic has been filming productions for the past eight years.  He looks up to the critically acclaimed director Krzysztof Kieślowski, who directed the film series ‘Three Colours Trilogy’.

“Krzysztof Kieślowski takes time to draw you into his film, which tells a very personal story,” said Dominic.

Watch The Age of Terror at www.ageofterror.sg or www.facebook.com/ageofterrorsg

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