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Featured Filmmaker: Seelan Palay

Seelan’s most recent video is a message by Dr Chee Soon Juan to President Obama on his inauguration day. Dr Chee is an opposition party leader in Singapore who has been jailed several times, made bankrupt and is yet facing multiple charges of defying local protest laws and other offences
Seelan Palay. Image via Flickr by Alexandra Crosby. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Name: Seelan Palay

Age: 24

Location: Singapore

About: Seelan Palay from Singapore describes himself as an “artist and activist”, his films having a strong focus on the socio-political climate in his home country. One of his most notable works is a 45-minute video exploring the reality of authoritarian Singapore.

Video history:

Recent work:

Seelan’s most recent video is a message by Dr Chee Soon Juan to President Obama on his inauguration day. Dr Chee is an opposition party leader in Singapore who has been jailed several times, made a bankrupt and is yet facing multiple charges of defying local protest laws and other offences.

Dr Chee reminded the US president of his words on International Human Rights Day in December 2008, when he had aligned the US with “men and women around the world who struggle for the rights to speak their minds, choose their leaders and be treated with dignity and respect”. This is because he wants, at the very least, a comment from Obama, positive or otherwise, on Singapore’s autocratic system and government.

Engagemedia spoke with Seelan Palay:

EngageMedia (EM): Tell us who you are as a filmmaker.

Seelan Palay (SP): I still refer to myself as an artist and activist, and that the socio-political videos I produce are more a part of my involvement in activism rather than art. And by activism I also refer to “raw/traditional/direct” means such as distributing flyers, lobbying, petitioning. engaging in protests and conducting other forms of civil disobedience.

Many times I meet filmmakers and other artists who would take great risks to produce work on such activities but rarely participate in those actions themselves. That’s not something I see as a bad thing because I understand their view that everyone has a part to play in bringing about social and political change, and that they feel they are most effective that way. But I feel that I have to do the things I do because there is such a small handful of people here that set an example for other Singaporeans to come forward and confront this authoritarian government. And I want to be that one more person to add to their efforts.

EM: How did you come to video as a medium? Why do you work with the moving image?

SP: I started out messing around with video cameras when I was making video art, and that’s when I realised the capacity video has to put words, sounds and images together to communicate ideas in a very quick, easy and direct way. And I think this is exactly what we need in today’s fast-paced society. Video also gives me a lot of space and flexibility to work with and weave reality and surreality. Video provides the capability to express my/our/the entire human experience in a matter of moments – it is the most moving of poetry.

EM: What are the main issues you address in your video work?

SP: Apart from directly addressing social and political issues pertaining to Singapore, I also look at the ideas and motivations of personalities, though expressing them in very simple ways. I am also very interested in topics such as linguistics, cosmology, paganism, animal/human nature, but those are expressed in very private pieces of video art. Are those issues? What is ‘my work’ and where do I draw which lines? A friend told me that everything is political, whether we choose to accept it or not. That’s something I think about often.

EM: What radicalised you as a filmmaker – or how did you come to work with these issues? Did it happen in the moment, or was it a process?

SP: I was radicalised before I became a filmmaker, and some tell me it must have been my working-class background that led me to what I’m involved in. It was a gradual process that probably started when I was 12 when I stood up and organized my classmates to go to the principal of the school to complain about a teacher that slapped a student so hard his spectacles broke. At the start, everyone was saying they were ready to do it. But when it was time, everyone backed out and seeing that my friend who got slapped backed out too. That is the clearest early memory I have of myself wanting to organise collective resistance against oppression and injustice.

EM: Tell us about your favourite piece of video you have made, in regards to social justice or environment.

SP: My favourite video work would be One Nation Under Lee; a 45-minute video that highlights the reality of authoritarian Singapore from independence until the present day. The private premiere screening of the film was raided by the authorities and the film has been “unofficially banned”. You can watch it online or download the entire film here.

EM: How do you think online distribution is changing the field of independent video making? How do you use online tools in your work?

SP: Online distribution is the best thing that has happened for independent video making, because everyone everywhere around the world can share their work with one another almost instantly.

I use online tools to promote my videos extensively, uploading them on websites such as Youtube, Vimeo and Engage Media. In a country such as Singapore where the media is controlled by the government and people are largely afraid to join protests or attend rallies, online video helps spread the alternative message. However, a recent proposal to amend the already repressive Films Act disallows even the filming of illegal events such as peaceful protests. Once that law is enacted, videos such as the one on our recent protest outside the Ministry of Manpower building will no longer be easily available.

For more Singapore political films, visit the blogs of two prolific filmmakers: Martyn See & Ho Choon Hiong.


If you know of any interesting filmmakers around Asia Pacific you’d like to see featured on, drop us an email at contact[at]