Pushing Boundaries In Film: Recounting SQ117

Rudy Tan sits across the table with sharp eyes and an energetic voice. His sporty physique gives away that he’s a tough guy. After three years in the School of Design, Rudy is all set to bounce back to his home of over 19 years – the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF).

Rudy’s story exudes inspiration from start to finish. Having a second chance at school, it was impossible for him to give up this opportunity. Pursuing the Digital Film & Television Diploma, balancing his family life, and reporting back to the Army during school holidays kept him a busy man - but Rudy’s got a fire that won’t burn out, a perseverance to achieve his dreams.

2WO Rudy Tan is a Warrant Officer in the SAF, in the Commando formation. He’s 40 this year and has been living the polytechnic life for the past three years. Under the Continuous Learning Academic Study Scheme (CLASS) offered by the SAF, Rudy chose to further his studies at Temasek Polytechnic, pursuing film and landing his final year project at the Singapore Discovery Centre.

And Rudy’s film is intense because it hits home instantly. Rudy and his team members took the plunge to reenact the SQ117 hijacking incident, where the professionalism and proficiency of the commandos allowed the passengers to emerge unscathed from the unfortunate episode.

When asked about the selection of storyline, Rudy replied, “It happened in Singapore on our national airline. The way the issue was handled, the way we reacted to it and the way we countered it, shows that Singapore can defend ourselves.”     

That idea blossomed into the making of the documentary “SQ117 - The Men behind the Masks.”


With a high clearance factor in all aspects of film-making, Rudy had to seek approval from the Ministry of Defence (MINDEF), Singapore Airlines (SIA) and Temasek Polytechnic to pursue his filming. All were supportive of his endeavour. MINDEF and SIA arranged for an empty 777-airliner to sit on a bay at Changi International Airport for overnight filming, and provided logistical support. The cast comprises TP students, staff, SAF personnel, friends and family.

To depict the scenario that occurred within the plane, he interviewed the then-SQ117 steward and passenger who shared their personal experience. The most memorable moment for Rudy was the interview with the real heroes – the men behind the masks. The story cannot get more real than this.

Rudy wanted to stick close to the actual events on 26 March 1991. Speaking to these courageous commandos who professionally prosecuted this mission allowed him to film with utmost accuracy. With their precise description of the hostage rescue mission, Rudy was able to seek out important details that he would then convey through his film.

Rudy, a driven director, together with his film team, have pieced together one of Temasek Polytechnic’s most reputable films. One thing for sure is that this was no easy task.

“We rehearsed and planned the whole script from A-Z, over and over again, each time achieving something more from the previous plan,” Rudy said.

Familiar faces graced the screen as the main cast members. There were a few scenes of military training that depicted the strenuous training which the commandos had to undergo, with the end-state purpose of defending Singapore.

Many challenges arose during filming, especially on the set of the empty plane.

“To film inside, I only had 10 extras with me and had to make the plane look like it was at a maximum capacity of 200,” Rudy said. “I had to work with the filming angles to make the plane look like it was filled with people; it’s all the camera tricks.”

Due to high security clearance and limited time, stress levels intensified as the crew had to manage with only a few cast members. From cockpit size, filming angles to the type of camera lens used, the team had to work meticulously to achieve the best film quality. Even under pressure, they managed to pull it off.

To ensure that safety was not compromised, extra precaution was taken during filming and professionally trained personnel were employed in several acts.

Many sunrises and sunsets passed. After the journey of adventure and exhaustion, coupled with continuous filming and editing, the crew emerged stronger than ever. Nothing was going to slow them down, not after coming this far.

But filming alone couldn’t do the job. They needed good actors to get into character. They wanted powerful dialogues and real emotions. The crew wanted to convey these emotions to their audience.

“We followed this technique of ‘method acting’,” Rudy mentioned. “That means, if you want somebody to cry, they would have to get into character, think of something sad and come out with real tears. The audience will be convinced of strong emotions, especially when they are real emotions.”

Singapore’s unfortunate incident had transformed to a proud victorious moment, and Rudy’s team was ready to get the message out through their film.

“This is an important mark in Singapore’s history,” Rudy said. “These are our people and our pioneers have been training all this while to defend us. I’d like to pay tribute to the Force for their 24/7 standby and 24/7 work daily, while we enjoy our peace. You are not forgotten.”

The filming journey is a complex and strenuous one, and aside from producing a good story, many memories were created and friendships forged.

A bond that is so priceless is what Rudy’s team has formed over time. They have learned that differences only bring them closer and allow them to learn more from one another. Being twice the age of students and learning in a polytechnic has its challenges, but for Rudy, the three-year journey was a memorable one with no regrets.

Rudy, while returning to his orderly and disciplined military ways, will always be a TP student at heart.

*SQ117-The Men behind the Masks is now screening at Singapore Discovery Centre.

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