Singapore’s Cosmopolitan Identity and Its Theatrical Shadow
Singapore’s Cosmopolitan Identity and Its Theatrical Shadow
Abstract and Keywords
This chapter studies the formation of Singapore's national identity and how it became central to all cultural activity. Singapore theatre's “coming of age” was demonstrated in the 1980s with the self-reflexive experimental dramas of Stella Kon and Kuo Pao Kun. As Singaporean theatre explored the nature of “Singaporeanness,” its trajectory was regulated by the police force's Public Entertainment Licensing Unit (PELU), which guarded the country's internal security by upholding taboos on discussion of race, religion, sexuality, and politics. The theatre challenges government presuppositions, but rarely adopts a confrontational approach. Playwrights began to distinguish between an “Old Singapore” of the 1990s, in which nearly everything was forbidden, and the “New Singapore,” where no one is sure about the limits of the acceptable.
In the Bugis Junction Shopping Centre, located in Singapore’s once famous red-light district, is a fountain. Nothing is visible but concentric holes in the ground from which spurt an amazing array of water formations—from leap-frogging droplets to ten-meter high columns; interlocking arches to hiccupping geysers. Its antics are the best free show in town. It is irresistible to children, who dash into its circumference and try to chase the elusive water. After the initial shock, they delightedly seek to be surprised again. It always catches them off guard.
The fountain enlivens the otherwise banal mall. Something happens here that seems to be missing in the rest of Singapore—spontaneity bursts to the surface of consciousness like the water erupting from beneath ground. Control seems momentarily relaxed. And yet, the water is computerized to perform ingenious tricks. The length of its program creates the illusion of endless novelty, suggesting the frequent slippage between freedom and containment, spontaneity and self-consciousness, constructed historical pasts and confidence in the present, and individual pleasure and communal obligation as they are manifested in Singapore—a prosperous, peaceful city-state erected upon what was once a Malay settlement, then a British colonial entrepôt built with the labor of indentured Chinese and Indian migrants, and now an independent country with a predominantly Chinese population.1
Before it declared independence from Malaysia in 1965, Singapore was the center of the lively film industry, with primarily Malay actors, Chinese producers, and Indian directors. This fruitful collaboration, which resembled the multiethnic makeup of bangsawan—the region’s popular urban theatre—suggested (p.152) a model for a local modern theatre. But when the split from Malaysia came, the theatre too fragmented along ethnic and language lines, between Malay, Chinese (Mandarin and Hokkien), and English troupes. While Malay-language theatre became the dominant theatre in Malaysia, it diminished in Singapore. During the post–World War II period, the Emergency (1948–1960), in which first the British and then the newly independent Malayan Federation (renamed Malaysia in 1963), fought a low-level war against communist guerillas (most of whom were ethnic Chinese), modern theatre in Mandarin was aligned with a leftist vision of social progress.
In contrast, the English-language theatre, which was till then frivolous divertissement performed by numerous expatriate troupes, began being appropriated by Singaporean writers to express local life. Occurring before the separation from Malaysia, the first local English production was based on Lloyd Fernando’s Strangers at the Gate (1958) and staged at the University of Malaya in Singapore. Lim Chor Pee, instrumental in setting up the Experimental Theatre Club in the 1960s, expressed the Club’s intention to perform local scripts relevant to and representative of Singapore’s multiethnic society, yet most of its initial productions were translated plays. In 1964 the Club staged his A White Rose at Midnight, which featured a group of Singaporean students abroad getting a new perspective on their city, a theme that would recur in later plays. Goh Poh Seng’s The Moon Is Less Bright (1964) staged by the Lotus Club of the University of Singapore was set in Singapore during the 1942 Japanese Occupation. Though based on history, it suffered a linguistic awkwardness from characters such as poor farmers speaking the Queen’s English because the local vernaculars were prohibited in official public discourse.
By 1966, the formation of Singapore’s national identity had become central to all cultural activity, as Goh stated: “A nation which ignores and does not encourage its theatre is, if not culturally dead, culturally pitiable; just as the theatre which ignores the drama of its people, and fails to register their trials as well as their triumphs, their tears and their laughter, has little right to call itself a national theatre […] We have a strong conviction that drama should be an instrument of social change, that this is only pertinent to our present social and cultural needs.”2
The Mandarin theatre was more radically socialist and influenced by events in China, as Kuo Pao Kun recalls:
we were also agitated somewhat by the Cultural Revolution [1966–1976], which was a very radical movement on the mainland […] And people (p.153) from my school, other groups and theatre companies fanned out into the working masses—the factories, the construction sites, even fishing villages, padi fields and plantations on the Peninsula to, so to speak, experience life and bring their experiences from what they found back for creative production.3
But the new Singaporean government saw this Chinese theatre fomenting communism, and repressed it. The end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976 also signaled the reduction of leftist fervor in Singaporean Mandarin theatre.
The English theatre was not taken up by the government as vehicle for its own political propaganda immediately after independence, and was even excluded from the government’s emphasis on retaining Chinese, Malay, and Tamil cultural traditions. Despite the presence of an English-educated elite, the majority of Singaporeans spoke neither English nor Mandarin (most spoke other Chinese languages, such as Teochew and Hokkien) and so neither language could serve to forge a common national identity. In 1970s, the government began promoting English, yet it was not until the 1980s that the society of poor immigrants began moving upward from manual labor to middle-class service sector jobs. English education in the public schools gave a uniform base to the younger generation of the upwardly mobile as it became the majority and dominant class.
As English was also the language necessary for Singapore’s increasingly global commerce, it became the accepted “neutral” language of the stage. It could include all races and religions, and it identified its users as belonging to a cosmopolitan-oriented group. A significant breakthrough happened when Singlish, the colloquial patois, was used on stage even though it was still prohibited in the media. This linguistic affirmation of a distinctly Singaporean identity increased the importance of live English theatre as the site for the expression of local life. Thus, while the theatres in Malay, Tamil, Mandarin, and other Chinese dialects play to, and rely on, their specific ethnic communities, the English-language theatre has emerged as the de facto national theatre of the multiethnic bourgeoisie.
Many of Singapore’s modern plays staged to popular and critical acclaim have also been published in English, allowing them to become better known both within and outside the city-state. They have been made more accessible to Western critique without requiring the linguistic expertise of difficult languages that theatre and cultural critics who write about other Southeast Asian theatres usually need. Singaporean playwrights and critics are also very informed of (p.154) both Western performance and its theoretical writing, which they use to evaluate local productions and their own cultural milieu. At the crossroads of East and West, like the city-state itself, Singaporean theatre plays a unique role in interpreting an Asian consciousness in a medium readily comprehensible to the Western world, as well as interpreting Western contemporary aesthetics to Asians. It is perhaps overly assiduous in its function as global cultural mediator between “Old” and “New” Asia, promoting itself the “Renaissance City” of Southeast Asia.
Jeanette Ng comments on how the five million Singaporeans have confronted the dilemma of incorporating and adapting the powerful cultures of China, India, Malaysia, and Britain to forge something of their own:
In the context of Singapore’s ‘imagined community,’ […] many factors would exacerbate the twinned prison-refuge forces of social mythology: a very small population and thus a confined paradigm of social reference; a paternalistic Government; the relative brevity of its experience of nationhood; a pluralistic population of immigrants, largely of Asian origins; and a seemingly cosmopolitan position at the crossroads of the East-West values debate that belies the nation’s introspective global-local anxieties. These factors create a form of cultural tabula rasa, in terms of Singapore’s national self-imagining.4
This cultural tabula rasa or “cultural orphan” syndrome, coined by playwright Kuo Pao Kun, that plagued Singapore in the 1980s by the twenty-first century is no longer at the core of how Singaporeans relate to themselves as the country has become a regional and global economic power. Initially, Singaporeans became aware of their common postcolonial heritage when they viewed it from outside. Britain, specifically London, was “a space that must be traveled to and left: Britain offers the former colonial nostalgic retrospection and touristic transcendence, but it is not a space of substantive identification.”5 This outside perspective appeared in 1970s plays that reflected upon the separations from Britain and the Federation of Malaysia, the consequences of ethnic divisions set up by the colonial government, and the assumption of power by the authoritarian People’s Action Party (PAP) whose one-party domination continues.
Singapore theatre’s “coming of age” was demonstrated in the 1980s with the self-reflexive experimental dramas of Stella Kon and Kuo Pao Kun. The 1990s comedies of Michael Chiang expressed the growing confidence of a society that could laugh at its unique foibles. In 1987 The Necessary Stage (TNS), a (p.155) socially committed company, initiated the practice of dramatizing social issues to elicit a more humanitarian world view, rather than affirm the pragmatism promoted by the government and traditional mores.
In the first decade of the twenty-first century, Checkpoint Theatre has been unearthing unique aspects of Singaporean history, while the small Spell #7 focuses its gaze even more narrowly on neighborhoods and site-specific pieces. Since 2000, W!ld Rice has produced sophisticated comedies that obliquely slice at government policies as well as present hip excursions into gay culture. TheatreWorks, Singapore’s flagship company since 1985, originally was in the forefront of fostering scripts by local playwrights and staging them for local audiences, but since 1997, when its artistic director Ong Keng Sen was tapped to direct the multilingual, pan-Asian, Japanese-funded spectacle Lear, it has been split between local and international productions. Lear was the cultural apotheosis of asserting Singapore’s economic status on the global stage, or as Rustom Bharucha notes, “The inscription of capital on Ong’s high-profile, big-budget intercultural spectacles like Lear almost flaunts its ambition and capacity to compete with the best in the world.”6
Singapore is unique among Southeast Asian states in that its “benign” authoritarianism under PAP rule has brought the majority of its citizens to a level of unequalled prosperity without conceding to democracy.7 Although the government’s control infringes on personal freedoms, it is more concerned about preserving intercommunal stability and its own legitimacy. Operating in this thoroughly managed environment, the English theater since the mid- 1980s has had an ongoing obsession with the status of Singaporean arts vis-à-vis the State: “unwittingly conscripted by the ideological apparatus of the media, and internalizing discourse, the artistic community has elected to style itself as diametrically opposed to official position.”8 This opposition, however, tends to keep theatre reactive rather than taking a creative lead; the State determines the territory of performance and the framework of its discourse, and, as it also controls funding, it has the power to enforce its will.
As Singaporean theatre explored the nature of “Singaporeanness,” its trajectory was regulated by the police force’s Public Entertainment Licensing Unit (PELU), which guarded the country’s internal security by upholding taboos on discussion of race, religion, sexuality, and politics. PELU vetted scripts and performances and was responsible for banning and cutting plays. There are numerous examples of the peculiarly Singaporean process that first bans, then allows, and finally awards performers and scripts. Kuo Pao Kun, who went to prison in the 1970s, became the doyen of Singaporean theatre and finally (p.156) received the Cultural Medallion in 1990, becoming a kind of living national treasure. Many playwrights have had their works temporarily banned—usually for transgressing the social/sexual morality of conservative “Asian values.” Plays with gay themes have been particularly susceptible, such as Russell Heng’s monodrama Lest the Demons Get to Me, about a transsexual caught in the sexism of traditional Chinese burial rites, which was written in 1986, banned in 1988, performed in 1992, and awarded in 1994.
Equally extreme was the case of TNS’s Off Centre (1993), about mental illness among youth. It was initially commissioned by the Ministry of Health, which shortly before its staging, withdrew its funding. Featuring a love story between two mentally unstable teenagers in which the male lead commits suicide, the play was deemed too dark to show young people. TNS staged it with its own money. Not only was Off Centre later allowed to be performed, but in 2007 it became the first locally written play to be included in the senior high school “O-Level” examination syllabus. In its delight at receiving this singular honor, TNS seems not to have considered the government’s about-face as another type of control and appropriation—the carrot of the carrot-and-stick approach.
Two genres were banned outright. In 1994 performance art was condemned because Joseph Ng at a week-long arts festival protested the arrest of twelve homosexual men by turning his back, then lowering his swimming trunks to snip off some of his pubic hair. His photo appeared on the cover of the New Paper and initiated an immediate crackdown. Though facing a prison sentence for “an obscene act in public,” Ng was fined 1,000 Singapore dollars and performance art was banned.9
Likewise, TNS’s introduction of Augusto Boal’s Forum Theatre, in which a plot is presented twice to allow spectators to suggest alternative endings, ran into trouble. TNS premiered the form with two short plays, “MCP” (Male Chauvinist Pig), about an outspoken career woman trying to deal with her MCP husband, and “Mixed Blessings,” regarding a marriage between a Chinese girl and an Indian boy. Not only were the subjects potentially provocative in 1993, but the form’s spontaneity circumvented the vetting process. Although TNS was initially very excited by the Forum Theatre’s potential in educational and community theatre, it was banned.
In 2003 the Media Development Authority (MDA), made up of bureaucrats and theatre professionals, took over PELU’s function of scrutinizing scripts and issuing performance licenses. In the same year, the Report on Censorship, while insisting that censorship was still deemed necessary by both the government and the general public, said it must reflect social changes, that a better-educated (p.157) public desired greater diversity in art and entertainment, and, to attract international talent (foreigners with skills necessary to Singapore’s development as a First World economy), Singapore could not appear too repressive and needed to offer high-class entertainment. Playwrights began to distinguish between an “Old Singapore” of the 1990s, in which everything was clear and nearly everything was forbidden, and the “New Singapore,” in which no one is sure about the limits of the acceptable. This new “light touch” allowed for more dialogue between diverse ethnic groups and greater freedom to express sexuality on stage. Both performance art and forum theatre were reinstated, but political criticism or anything construed as threatening to the State and its one-party system remained strictly out-of-bounds.
The theatre challenges government presuppositions, but rarely adopts a confrontational approach. The English-language theatre, in not reaffirming cultural ties like the theatres in the other languages, often represents the conflict between individual aspirations—usually expressed as “a dream”—on one hand, and traditional community expectations that are reinforced by government dicta collectively referred to as “Asian values,” on the other. Exploring national identity and expressing individualism that presses against the boundaries of the permissible remains a central paradox of Singaporean English theatre. In the twenty-first century, theatre often stages Singaporean life from the vantage of those people who are marginalized by patriarchal “Asian values,” namely youth, women, new immigrants, and gays. Tongue-in-cheek references to the variety of restrictions affecting Singapore life are so prevalent and oblique references to the government’s handling of social issues are so constant that the entire corpus of Singaporean dramatic literature resonates as political allegory, even though political issues are not addressed directly.
Theatre and National Adolescence
The emergence of Singapore as a nation provoked introspection about how to give a unifying national character to its diverse social makeup, a process that was personified by adolescents’ initiation into adulthood. The interrelation between the adolescent condition of heightened emotional, psychological, and intellectual awareness toward one’s environment without possessing the full wherewithal to deal with it and the nation’s own maturation process was explored in both Lloyd Fernando’s play Scorpion Orchid (1994), based on his novel (1976) of the same name, and Robert Yeo’s The Singapore Trilogy (2001).
Fernando and Yeo’s plays resemble the traditional bildungsroman, or the initiation novel, charting the maturation of a young person through the (p.158) transition from childhood innocence to adulthood’s consciousness of sexuality, mortality, and, perhaps most importantly in Singapore’s case, the realization that all relationships are political. When the individual’s political initiation coincides with a similar development occurring in the State itself, the ethical guidelines for both are being established for the first time. The adolescent character is subjected to both internal and external uncertainty that challenges all previously held values. In multiethnic Singapore the adolescent’s personal growing pangs became magnified when they were linked with the perceived social injustices suffered by his ethnic group.
Thus Fernando and Yeo’s adolescents are not only disillusioned rebels, but also embryonic citizens insisting on a voice in a society that traditionally acknowledged only the authority of elders. Their pursuit of a new equality is complicated by the moral ambiguity resulting from the undefined boundaries of the postcolonial state, which not only had to construct itself from a colony artificially created from a flow of immigrants, but also had to loosen the ties ethnic groups maintained with their home countries. As W. E. Willmott points out:
While other countries in Southeast Asia achieved independence in struggles that involved strong nationalist sentiment, Singapore was forced to become an independent state in the absence of any strong motivating nationalism. In Singapore, the state preceded the development of nationalism rather than emerging as its political consequence, and the state itself became the first major symbol of national identity.10
Scorpion Orchid’s plot is a microcosm of society in the throes of anarchy. Santi, a Tamil; Sabran, a Malay; Guan Kheng, a Chinese; and Peter, a Eurasian, meet in the hothouse atmosphere of an English-language college. In the absence of parents, the one authority figure is their British teacher, Ellman, whom they initially admire but later ridicule. Their colonial education and their growing resistance to its premises are all the boys have in common. Once they leave the school, they have not only outgrown its ability to guide them but also discover their friendship disintegrates under the pressures of social and political unrest during Malaya’s breaking away from the British Realty in the 1950s. Not only do the boys founder helplessly in the chaos of racial hatred and political power struggles, but Fernando situates the strife in the historical contexts of the first betrayal of the Malay rulers by the British and the aftermath of the Japanese Occupation. When the author rewrote the novel for performance in 1994–1995, however, he also subjected the four boys’ rites of passage to the eyes of (p.159) a later generation whose perspective on race and politics was less sympathetic to their narrow alliances: “Both racial nuances and the individual distinctiveness of each member of a race were lost in the blatant stereotypification. In this sense, Scorpion Orchid was ill-conceived and culturally insensitive.”11 To show that ethnic stereotyping remained a problem was precisely one of Fernando’s objectives, but the negative reactions suggest that either the theatre has found more nuanced ways to explore that conflict, or it has become more subtle in evading the persistence of such stereotypes.
Likewise, Robert Yeo’s Singapore Trilogy presents a continuum of political views whose context has shifted over time. Yeo takes up where Fernando left off and begins with the generation that underwent the trauma of a second rupture when the island ceded from Malaysia and became an independent state. Yeo’s trilogy maps the maturation of a group of students over seven years (1966–1974). The productions of the three plays, however, traverse an even wider period. Starting with Are You There, Singapore?, performed in 1974; One Year Back Home, performed first in 1980 and again in 1990; and Changi, performed in 1996 and in 1997, the Trilogy text documents one process while the history of its performances reveals another.
The generation portrayed was enmeshed in the process of forming a separate national identity through the dictates of a single-party government—the PAP led by Lee Kuan Yew. Yeo’s realistic multiracial dramas were the first English-language plays to depict conflicting political ideals, and because they ostensibly challenged one-party rule, actors were initially wary of appearing in them, and the first audiences were impressed by their audacity. In the Singapore Trilogy, the conditions of friendship are the same as that in Scorpion Orchid in that they are formed at school, but political, rather than racial, conflicts rend them.12 At the core of the entire Trilogy are Ang Siew Chye, a conservative young man who becomes a PAP member of parliament, and his more adventurous and liberal sister, Ang Siew Hua, who is loyal to her brother and in love with Reggie Fernandez, an idealistic and passionate Tamil Marxist. Their friendship is circumscribed not so much by the colonialist past but a nationalistic present that proves just as frail when they confront political differences at home.
In the second play, Chye, as the PAP candidate, manipulates the bonds of friendship to deceive Fernandez, who is the opposition candidate for the same district. Chye first tries to persuade Fernandez to join the PAP, and then accuses him of being a communist. When it appeared on stage, PELU and media critics focused on Fernandez’s anti-PAP rhetoric, when, in fact, Fernandez’s views are hardly threatening. In response to a deputy minister’s refusal to give the (p.160) 1979 production a performance permit, Yeo himself undermined Fernandez’s subversive potential:
If one reads the play cursorily, some of the speeches of Fernandez appear to be nothing more than anti-PAP tirades, but a close reading would reveal that Fernandez compromises himself unwittingly by his rhetoric. There is something simplistic and naive about his political views which affects his credibility. This is deliberate on my part and the average English-language playgoer would be aware of this.13
In 1981, director Max Le Blond said that some theatre groups were afraid to perform One Year Back Home because of its political content, but after watching the play in 1980, Fang Ke Hong had already concluded:
Yeo’s play, to a great extent, reflects the reality of Singapore’s political situation where Opposition parties are generally weak and ineffectual. But he is not saying anything very controversial or dangerous. Neither is he really taking a stand as to what kind of political situation we should have. If there is at all a stand, it is a politically ‘correct’ one which views the present system as the best possible under existing circumstances.14
The third play, Changi, named after Singapore’s prison that housed political dissidents and where Fernandez serves two years in solitary confinement as result of his “friend’s” accusation, begins with Fernandez returning from self-imposed exile in England to attend his father’s funeral. When he meets Chye again, the latter not only avoids taking any responsibility for his betrayal but proclaims the righteousness of his devotion to the PAP. None of the Singaporean critics questioned the legitimacy of Chye’s views when he declares:
“There is a father and his name is Lee Kuan Yew. He’s a force of nature, an irresistible wave of the future. You know, he came once to a party conference where delegates were waiting for him, and when he came, the delegates lined up parted in two rows like the Red Sea before Moses. What charisma! You can’t fight a force like that and if you can’t fight it, join it!”15
In his idolization of an all-powerful father, Chye perpetuates his own adolescence. That Yeo allowed Chye’s pontification to go unchallenged set a more sinister precedent than Fernandez’s flimsy barbs.
(p.161) Self-censorship affected the performers as well. Jameson Soh, who played Fernandez in Changi in 1997, averred: “So it’s really a play about friendship versus ideals and dreams. If my dreams do not follow, or if my friends oppose my dreams, who do I follow? Do I follow my dreams, or do I follow my friends? I think that’s essentially what the play’s about. It’s not about politics.”16 Thus the plays that were heralded for being the first in Singapore to stage conflicting political ideologies in the 1970s and 1980s, were, by the 1990s, “not about politics.”
The Singaporean Play’s “Coming Of Age”
Monodramas were important in the development of Singaporean theatre through their condensation and intensification of life embodied by a single character or the depiction of an era filtered through the perceptions of an individual consciousness. Highlighting the virtuosity of the performer, the Singaporean monodrama combines direct narrative address (both in and out of character) and shifting back and forth between presentational and representational forms of acting. Autobiography, literary allusions, historical reference, and imagined worlds are all interwoven. Kuo Pao Kun, who had formerly written and performed in the Chinese theatre, made his entry into English theatre with two monodramas, and Stella Kon, who had written several English plays that she was unable to get staged because of their large casts, triumphed with her first monodrama. Kuo’s No Parking on Odd Days (1986) and Kon’s Emily of Emerald Hill (1984) became iconic works that announced the arrival of the “Singaporean play” in that their characters had traits specific to Singapore’s environment and expressed themselves in the local vernacular with its linguistic code-switching. Popularly received and critically acclaimed, they have since become classics restaged by stars and students alike. They were both remounted with new twists in the twenty-first century by the Malaysian director Krishen Jit (1939–2005).17
The productions of Kuo Pao Kun (1939–2002), Singapore’s most influential dramatist, were often groundbreaking in their exploration of multiple Singaporean generations, and presented the underbelly of the PAP government-constructed Singaporean identity based on “Asian values.” Deriding Western-style democracy’s privileging of individual freedoms, Singapore’s PAP refashioned “Asian values” to mean loyalty to nation takes precedence over ethnic ties, and commitments to family take precedence over the rights of the self, with the latter shouldering all the burdens of a secular morality—hard work, honesty, and obedience—while sublimating all desire that cannot be satisfied by consumerism. According to Jeanette Ng:
(p.162) In Singaporean dramatists’ imaginary, the community-individual dialectic has become a central preoccupation, as the most immediate manifestation of tension and dissatisfaction with their society and lifestyle […] The repetitive, self-defeating gesture of protest against a stifling community and family is often frozen into an uncreative condition of stasis and futility, reflecting a curious reluctance or inability to repudiate the rules of society despite the paradoxical compulsion to do so.18
Kuo’s poignant No Parking on Odd Days, presented as dialogue between a father and his son, reveals how the father’s belief in the State is eroded into submissive compliance, which he passes on to his son who learns the lesson too quickly without struggling firsthand himself. The father confronts his first case of wrong ticketing with indignation, and on the second occasion, fights it up to the court, where the traffic judge acknowledges that though the sign that misled him was neither logical nor helpful, he had still parked illegally and must pay the fine. The State, right or wrong, will demand payment not only in monetary terms, but in complete compliance. The play begins with his third fining and, filled with renewed vigor because his son’s sense of injustice urges him on, he once again confronts the hydra-headed bureaucracy, but the result is the same—humiliation and compulsion—though this time the hurt is keener because his son witnesses it.
When the boy receives his first fine, he leaps over his father’s futile hopes and his own naïveté, paying up immediately to save himself the trouble of disputing its fairness. The father heartbreakingly realizes that he has assisted in selling his son’s soul, making him into a good citizen by crippling his spirit. Though he himself experienced nothing but frustration and failure, he senses it was preferable to the cynical and premature resignation of the son who shrugs his shoulders and says, “No use lah, dad. You know very well what. Kena, pay up, it’s part of our way of life. Ha-ha-ha-ha.”19
Kuo’s monodrama was radically interpreted in 2000 by Krishen Jit when he cast well-known actress Neo Swee Lin in the parental role as a single mother. Her financial and emotional marginalization in the patriarchal society more sharply defined the futility of her confrontation with the hegemonic power of the State. To further emphasize the point, Neo donned boxing gloves, both as emblems of male strength that she needs to “do battle” with the bureaucracy and to reinforce her stance as a fighter rather than a quitter. While the father enters into the fray blinded by his trust, she is prepared for an unequal contest (p.163) from the very beginning. She tries to inculcate her son with a fighting, rather than submissive, spirit.
When her son pays his fine without a murmur, she is shocked and disappointed; his desertion deprives her of her own reason to keep up a resistance. The final image of her alone and punching at shadows shows not merely her determination, but also the elusive omnipotence of her antagonist. Kuo’s play reveals the subtle undermining of the spirit through the accretion of small capitulations, but Krishen Jit’s interpretation suggested the necessity of displaying real bravery despite its apparent futility.
Stella Kon’s Emily of Emerald Hill, although premiering in Kuala Lumpur in 1984, has since been called “the quintessential Singaporean play.” Several actresses became identified with the part, but in 2000, Krishen Jit directed Ivan Heng—the artistic director of W!ld Rice—as the Peranakan (“locally born,” referring particularly to Chinese) matriarch.20 Though Neo Swee Lin’s character in No Parking on Odd Days altered the sex of the protagonist, Heng made a
Krishen Jit had previously directed Heng in M. Butterfly (1990), in which he played Song Liling, so female impersonation was less of a challenge than presenting the many facets of the woman who has come to epitomize Peranakan culture during its decline from 1930 to 1960. Also known as the Baba-Nonya, the Peranakan hybrid culture evolved from the Chinese men who settled in towns along the Straits of Malacca four hundred years ago marrying local Malay women. They later became rich serving as middlemen in the commerce of the British Empire. Often English-speaking, they preserved aspects of conservative Chinese culture while adopting the food, dress, and customs of their Malay environment. Peranakan culture is submerged in present-day Singapore, but still serves as the roots for an indigenous hybrid identity: “Emily’s a Chinese women in Malay dress, eats pork, studies French and dances the foxtrot. She’s a citizen of the world, an intercultural negotiation.”21
Emily both narrates and enacts the story of her life, discovering as a child the disadvantages of being a girl. Given the opportunity to control her destiny when she is married off to a wealthy man, she seizes it with a vengeance. She surpasses her rival sisters-in-law, and lives in a whirlwind of activity, organizing parties, contributing to charities, running a large household, furthering her husband’s career, overseeing her children’s education, and yet, perhaps, never finding the appropriate way of exercising her full abilities. She becomes the mistress of the family mansion, Emerald Hill, but her need to dominate drives her husband into the arms of another woman, her son to suicide, and her other children to emigrate. Emily smothers them in controlling “love.”
The play does not merely resurrect a vanished society, but as Jacqueline Lo remarks, “it is the first Singaporean play by a woman to focus solely on the female experience.”22 Kon’s script allows the performer to remain visible under the veneer of the character without stepping out of character: “we are aware of seeing the actor who sees and reacts to us […] we are aware of the metacharacter Emily who is highly conscious of the surveying gaze of the players in her life (including the audience)… .”23 Given the foregrounding of gender construction by the character herself, Jeffrey Twitchell-Waas suggests she is the perfect vehicle for the female impersonator:
If an actor/actress can play Emily well, he/she will endear her to audiences, but this raises the question of whether Emily is anything more than an actor/actress acting solo. The numerous characters who have parts (p.165) in Emily’s life, as refracted through her narration, are never more than cardboard figures (even Richard [her son]) because her sense of self-justification is too strong. Again, this can be mitigated by considering the demands forced on Emily by the patriarchal context, in which to survive women are compelled to be actresses by denying themselves of selves.24
(p.166) Heng, discovering the visible seams of constructed femininity, played this mutual awareness with a finesse that tempered the camp, taking care not to parody the character, though flaunt her he did. Heng, whose grandmothers were Peranakan, researched household customs as well as the conventions of the Peranakan theatre. In the 1930s, when the conservative Straits Chinese society did not want women displayed in public, female impersonators reigned:
Today a baba stage play still requires at least one female impersonator in a major role. The actors impersonate ‘faithfully’ without parodying their female counterparts as to do so would only serve to ridicule and belittle their own women folk. The roles they assumed were stereotypical family types—domineering matriarch, cruel mother-in-law, fragile heroine, innocent daughter-in-law, Cantonese maidservant.25
Emily, however, is a fully fleshed-out character incorporating nearly all of the above, in addition to being modern and cosmopolitan. Heng created an ultraglamorous woman and his excessive feminine gesture emphasized his virtuosity. In Jubilee Hall at Raffles Hotel, Singapore’s upper-crust venue, Heng delighted his hip young audience when, during the intermission, everyone was required to vacate the theatre and walk to the lobby. Emily suddenly appeared in the crowd, transforming the foyer into a marketplace by accosting members of the audience as if they were fish vendors or neighbors. She became everyone’s archetypal mother. She was “Emily” in quotes, stepping off the stage yet remaining in character—the comic postmodern Heng always visible behind the female Nonya veneer. Emily paradoxically represents both her privileged past as well as its cost to her as an individual. She evokes both the beloved and feared mother whose misplaced ambitions doom her own children, who, like many Singaporean youth in the twenty-first century, wish to escape their filial obligations to pursue their own dreams.
The Rise of Singaporean Comedy
Along with Singapore’s emergence as a global economic power in the 1980s, there was a sharp rise in affluence and a discernible middle class. At the same time the theatre experienced a parallel development with the writing and production of a few plays that displayed a new high level of competence. By the early 1990s the theatre was attracting lawyers and executives who wrote plays as an avocation. Singaporean yuppies were English-educated or otherwise (p.167) influenced by the West, highly status-conscious, as well as increasingly alert to local distinctions that differentiated them from Malaysians, Westerners, and other Asians. They were moving out of a postcolonial mindset and taking pride in their own cultural fusions, such as the cuisine and hybrid language, the camaraderie of enforced intimacy in a small dynamic country, and even acknowledging the humor in the absurd extremes of government intervention in their lives. Contemporary dramas geared toward this class assumed a greater cultural importance because the stage helped to define and identify it. The ability to laugh at one’s values and aspirations as an affirmation of them is a particularly middle-class “coming of age” phenomenon. The rise of local comedy demonstrated that Singapore’s middle class felt confident enough economically and ideologically to indulge in self-ridicule, especially when it was written and presented by those who were highly successful by its own materialist standards.
Clever witty comedies identified the idiosyncrasies of Singaporean yuppie life and allowed the audience temporary relief from the strain of being successful:
Higher educated people demand a higher standard of living, which means more leisure time, greater purchasing power […] One of the essential needs of such people is the management of frustration, the management of personal relationships with people. And with the fall of religion, the removal of religion from the realms of state and cultural activities, what do you have? Mainly the arts. As an expression of frustration. As a device for communication with others.26
Michael Chiang’s popular comedies offered self-reflecting glances that were light and frothy, serving less to critique than to embrace Singaporean foibles. And although Chiang stopped writing in 1997, his comedies set the tone of many plays to follow—the clever tease of appearing to broach taboo subjects without really doing so. Chiang, a journalist by training, was the CEO of the Singapore Broadcasting Corporation’s Caldecott Publishing, and the chief editor of two entertainment weeklies, when he began writing plays for fun. The media quickly asserted that he had tapped a Singaporean sense of self, and did more to further its development of that than the serious questioning of “identity” in earlier plays. Chiang became the most commercially successful playwright—bringing in audiences of 20,000 over a three-week run. He held up a distorting mirror to his Singapore audience, who could enjoy laughing at themselves without feeling any compulsion to change:
(p.168) Michael Chiang belongs to his country and more than anything, that accounts for the deep appeal of his plays which bring Singaporeans together in celebration of the intrinsically Singaporean […] Chiang is very much a man of his times and place. His rhythm is contemporary, his sense of envisioning his people and his society is instinctual and improvisational. He gains strength and authority from the alertness with which he applies his own peculiar sense upon his society. The result is an uncanny fusion between the writer and his audience.27
Ong Keng Sen, the artistic director of TheatreWorks, which produced all of Chiang’s plays, remarked on their formula for success: “it’s either the huge laugh or the tears; the average person out there wants to laugh or cry in the theatre.”28 Chiang accomplished his brand of humor and pathos by the incongruous use of comic language in melodramatic situations. Several of his comedies are also musicals, the songs contributing to the sentimental aspect in the “tears and laughter” formula.
- In addition to his comic touch, Chiang had an unfailing ear for reproducing the rhythms and color of Singlish: “Few playwrights have been as adept as Chiang in seizing the idiosyncrasies of the Singapore tongue and indeed the tongue-in-cheek temperament favoured by the island society.”29 Singlish’s streetwise-snappiness and informality drawn from Malay and Chinese dialects makes it an ideal medium for fast-paced comedy. It is an organic counter-response to the government’s attempts to control and standardize every aspect of expression. Singlish was banned from state television, and the stage was the first place where Singaporeans could hear Singlish put to creative use. It both unified classes and ethnicities through speech that was uniquely Singaporean, as well as embraced the local linguistic diversity. In Army Daze (1987), Chiang exploits the shared experience of all eighteen-year-old males, who are conscripted for two years of National Service that most spend in the Army, to show that the Malay, Chinese, and Indian recruits have no trouble understanding each other:
Ya, ya. Better not waste time. Must prepare, tomorrow morning got inspection.
Teo Ah Beng:
Ya lah, must kiwi the boots. Can borrow me your cloth?
Ya, no problem. You better kiwi quickly. 11 pm lights off. Is your name really Ah Beng?
Teo Ah Beng:
Ya what. So how you find today? The makan not bad, Malcolm, hoh? The sweet sour pork quite good. Sweet and sour pork? I thought it was mutton curry.
Muslim cookhouse, assam fish also taste like mutton curry.30
With Singlish as the common denominator, Chiang adds comic twists, for instance, using “Ah Beng,” a flashily dressed Chinese gangster-type, a common butt of jokes, as the name of a geeky fellow with the opposite characteristics. When they use the Malay word makan for food, the boys reveal they do not know what they have eaten: the famously diverse multiethnic cuisine has been reduced to indistinguishable army canteen grub.
From the beginning of his writing career, Chiang poked fun at Singaporean materialism and status consciousness; its obsessions, such as kiasu—the notion of being the “best”—and some of the uniquely Singaporean institutions, such as the Social Development Unit, which helps well-educated young people socialize, marry, and produce the right kind of high-IQ offspring. When he was simply having a good time, no one came close to Chiang for tapping the pulse of his audience’s lives and expressing it with wit and verve. But when he and his collaborators attempted to address more provocative or “adult” themes, they exposed unconscious contradictions.
A couple of Chiang’s plays are romantic comedies, in which the boy and girl are happily reunited after their melodramatic adventures. In Private Parts (1992), however, the happy uniting of the heterosexual couple is deflected because the “girl” happens to be a transsexual. It was with Private Parts that he first attempted to wed a farcical situation and surface humor with an ostensibly serious purpose, to preach tolerance for a marginalized group.
Set in the future (1997), the plot revolves around three transvestites—two men and one woman—who go to a clinic for sex changes, where they meet a talk show host. The trio express themselves in glib one-liners that make it impossible for them to engage as anything but sexual stereotypes. A brief flirtation occurs between the talk show host, Warren Lee, and Mirabella (none of the transsexuals have last names).31 Lee invites Mirabella and her two friends to appear on his show to tell their side of the story and thereby educate the Singaporean public. The opportunity is wasted, however: the dialogue vacillates between witticisms and banal clichés about needing respect and understanding.
After the talk show fiasco Mirabella seeks Lee once more to ask whether he could have loved her. By phrasing the question in the past conditional tense, she precludes the real challenge of the present. He answers that yes, he “could have,” but the time and place was not right, though he never explains why. (p.170) The author’s own evasion of Mirabella’s challenge relieves the audience’s conscience in that it, like Warren Lee, could engage in a show of sympathy and open-mindedness without taking any real risk. Chiang confessed that “originally the play was going to end on a very bitter note because I wanted people to feel guilty about the way they react to others.”32 But the play ultimately fails in its claims for serious consideration:
The main problem was that the script oscillated wildly from comedy to angst. The comic parts succeeded brilliantly and had the audience roaring with laughter […] but the easy laughs made the transition to more serious matter difficult. The serious sections were too weak to achieve that lofty ideal.33
The actors playing the transsexuals all felt obliged to publicly distance themselves from their characters, further undermining the play’s intent. “It’s a frightening thought, a very frightening thought,” said Koh Boon Pin, who feared he would be associated with Mirabella.34 In the 1994 restaging, Gerald Chan, as Mirabella, repeated the disclaimer: “The play is about humanity and unconditional love, regardless of one’s sexual orientation. It’s not that I like cross-dressing or anything!”35 The play’s pretension to seriousness was also undermined by Chiang’s choice of a minority whose very exoticism made it easily exploitable dramatic material. To try to make their plight the subject of public sympathy was therefore a dubious undertaking, especially when Chiang himself revealed that he was on unfamiliar ground.
Dancing with the Censor
When TheatreWorks produced Chiang’s musical Mortal Sins (1995), about censorship, it had just presented another play that brought the subject of censorship to the fore—Undercover (1994) written by Tan Tarn How, an associate director of the company. On the surface, both plays appear to challenge the government’s censorship policy as repressive and absurd, but in the end, they undermine their own claims to seriously confront the detrimental effects of censorship.
Purporting to investigate the inner workings of PELU, Mortal Sins dissolves the political into the personal by focusing on the sympathetic exchange between two women, a repressed censor and an exploited stripper. After being touted in the media as a “brave new work that seeks to touch [a] deeper nerve in Singapore psyche,”36 the musical deftly skirted the issue of censorship, giving (p.171) the appearance of critique while at the same time avoiding it. The choice to make a musical about censorship could have allowed it to be mordantly satirical, but it opted for sentiment and sensation.
Jacintha Abisheganaden played Jackie Atria, the unsympathetic Chief Censor (a post that does not exist) bent on cleaning up the filth she finds everywhere, cheerfully described by a black leather–clad chorus. But on her thirty-sixth birthday, she dreams of a return to the 1960s, to Eden’s Nightclub, where she encounters Rosie, the stripper (Wendy Kweh). The female alter egos strike a chord, for though both have reached the top of their “professions,” both long for something more fulfilling. Jackie, the puritan “feminist,” and Rosie, the titillating “liberated” woman, however, are both parodies, as is the high-tech totalitarian environment of televisions and surveillance cameras. Inevitably, their friendship changes their perspectives—Rosie helps Jackie cast off her mental corsets and Jackie persuades Rosie that she is worthy of a more dignified life.
The new “seriousness” of the production was in its lack of a happy ending. Rosie, when she attempts to leave her profession, has acid splashed on her face, and Jackie, waking from her dream, gets no release: “The devastating moral of this story is that society has a predetermined course that, once set in motion, cannot be changed by anyone who may want otherwise. This is most obvious in the final scene, when Atria is crushed by her dreaming.”37
Dreaming is a recurrent metaphor. Rosie and Jackie meet in a dream world—into which the pressures of the 1990s violently intrude. Moreover Ong contends that the play is a “reinforcement of the fact that the country was built on a dream, but where are the dreams now?”38 Supposedly challenging the censoring of individual dreams, Chiang once again retreats: “I had to take a calculated risk, but by the end of the play it is obvious that censorship is not the issue any more.”39 Instead, Rosie speaks from the grave to proclaim that it is a “mortal sin” not to listen to and follow your heart—the message that the theatre constantly repeats to counteract the mantra of duties to family, state, and “Asian values”—without getting on the wrong side of the government.
Likewise Tan’s Undercover purported to satirize the workings of the Internal Security Department (ISD) but its satiric thrusts were all self-deflected. Taking place in an unnamed country, the ISD attempts to frame Qiang, a social do-gooder, by infiltrating his charity group. Because the officials in the ISD need to justify their existence, they consider anyone working on the defects of the social system as potentially subversive. They send in an attractive female spy to join the charity, which, for some unknown reason, is staging a play about the (p.172) threat of police interrogation. In rehearsal, Qiang remarks on the paradox of their play, and by extension, of Undercover itself:
Qiang: The [Our] play is saying that ‘they’ don’t tolerate dissent, right […] let’s say they allow our play to be performed […] that would demonstrate that they are not intolerant of dissent. And since the play’s premise is that they are intolerant, the premise would fail if they let it through […] by censoring the play, which is an example of dissent, they would be shown to be intolerant of dissent, and the play’s premise would be borne out […] if the play is banned, there would be no play to speak of. If there is no play, then there is no premise.40
This technique of preempting government censure is the flip side of the government’s co-opting any potentially subversive play by openly supporting it. Most plays are not banned outright, but cut because banning usually draws more attention to the production. By switching its focus to the love story between Qiang and the spy, the play used comedy not to satirize the government’s control over its citizens, but to trivialize the threat, and thereby avoid any adverse consequences—a result of the prevailing self-censorship that Craig Latrell says affected this production:
I think that the theatres themselves […] play a sort of game, trying to see how far they can go without incurring the wrath of the authorities: the recent TheatreWorks production of Tan Tarn How’s Undercover went so far as to construct a ‘fiction’ of a theatre company being infiltrated by so-called ‘Internal Security people.’ TheatreWorks even included a program made up of file folders of ‘personnel,’ yet they were careful to frame the whole enterprise as comic fiction, thereby sidestepping any serious issues that might have been raised. Apparently, getting away with it was the point of the exercise. This to my mind constitutes a sort of coy aesthetic hide-and-seek, and it is ultimately cynical because it deliberately uses the lure of public liminiality to sell tickets without actually engaging in serious discussion.41
At the time they were writing these plays, both Tan and Chiang were editors and writers in the state-owned media and were appropriate frontmen for the government in its desire to appear tolerant when real dissent was still not tolerated. Nonetheless, Undercover attracted the attention of the National Arts (p.173) Council (NAC) and was considered the most problematic play of 1994 because of its implied reference to Operation Spectrum (1987), when the Internal Security Department arrested and detained without trial twenty-two Roman Catholic social activists, accusing them of belonging to a Marxist conspiracy to unionize Singapore’s foreign workers. Thus, the infiltration of the “liberation theology” Catholic charity group and its members’ relationship with the politically critical theatre, Third Stage, created very real antecedents for the play’s farcical premise and would have been in the minds of some spectators.42
In contrast with TheatreWork’s “playacting,” some troupes have had real confrontations when they uncompromisingly undertook to dramatize sensitive social issues. There was no humor or music in Tamil writer Elangovan’s harsh rendering of an Indian Muslim woman’s experience of divorce in the mono-drama Taláq (1998). One of the most hard-hitting of Singaporean dramatists, Elangovan frequently addresses the forbidden topics of race and religion; his scripts are filled with violence and profanity, expressing an explosive anger. Taláq raised hackles among conservatives in the Indian community, brought in the mediation of government officials, provoked an outcry from the arts community, and attracted local and international press coverage. Acted by Nargis Banu, the real-life model for the protagonist Nisha, her own story provided context as well as the text. Married to an abusive husband and unable to receive redress from either community councils or the government, she turned to Elangovan, who “became her sympathetic ear as well as the agent who would help her tell her story to the world.”43 His reconstruction of Banu’s tale—combined with similar stories from eleven other women—was a 90-minute plea for help, an unrelieved tale of abuse and misery that directly assaulted the spectator’s sense of justice.
Taláq means “divorce,” which, in some Muslim sects, a man need only utter three times in order to divorce his wife. Brought up in strict purdah in India and arriving in Singapore to be a kitchen slave to her husband and in-laws, Nisha endures abuse until, as she recounts, “My son grew up and I went to work for the first time in my life. Working life helped me to realize my freedom and regain my individuality.”44 She also discovers her husband’s numerous infidelities, and when she confronts him with them, he responds both with violent rape and his first taláq.
What finally moves her to take a stand against him is not his violence, but his religious transgression in taking a second, non-Muslim wife. When she accuses him of haram (the forbidden), he responds with a second taláq. When she discovers she is pregnant from the night of the rape and tells him, (p.174) he returns to her side, saying he will give up the woman if she will give up the child. After she has complied, he accuses her of aborting his child and delivers his final taláq. She is left with no recourse, but demonstrates her resistance at the end of the play by taking off the heavy black purdah and stepping into a green light, green being the color of Islam, intending to signify, according to Elangovan, that she removes unjust custom to follow real religious principles.
The play does not criticize the aberrant behavior of one man, but condemns the inaction of the entire community. Sponsored by the Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE), it was performed in Tamil with English subtitles without incident in 1998. Staged again in Tamil in 1999 under the auspices of the Indian Nrityalaya Aesthetics Society, both the actor and the playwright received hate mail and calls for the play to be banned. This set off alarm bells with the authorities, who requested a preview before it could be licensed to be staged again in 2000, this time in Malay, and then in English, directed by Elangovan’s wife, S. Thenmoli, of Agni Koothu (Theatre of Fire).
The NAC, which had funded both the second performance and the play’s publication in English and Tamil, invited representatives of PELU, the Drama Review Committee (DRC), Majlis Ugama Islam Singapura (MUIS), as well as the all-male South Indian Jamiathul Ulama (SIJU),45 which had made the complaint—without having seen the play. Thenmoli insisted that representatives from AWARE be present, but the NAC refused, stating “The objections to this play arose specifically from racial and religious sensitivities. It was therefore not necessary at this stage to involve AWARE,”46 thereby eliminating gender from the discussion. The two performances were cancelled, the proposed closed rehearsal for “documentation purposes” was prevented when the theatre was locked, and S. Thenmoli was arrested. Her impassioned defiance then became the target rather than Nisha’s predicament. Both women were blamed and punished when they tried to speak out against the unfair manipulation of regulations underwritten by “Asian values.”
Banning the play silenced those who questioned who had the right to represent an ethnic minority. It was also government capitulation to the demands of the most intolerant members of that community, but by claiming that it averted outright violence, the government reconfirmed its contention that only it can diffuse disagreements that people are incapable of resolving themselves, reinforcing the perception of civic immaturity. The PAP leadership needs incidents like the fracas surrounding Taláq to prove that if it were to relax its vigilance, ethnic violence would again erupt.
(p.175) Like Taláq, many Singaporean plays are directly shaped by their creator’s or performer’s life, giving voice to an individual perception. Two other plays that center on the Muslim woman show the shift in Singapore’s relationship with the outside world. The wealthy English-speaking Mrs. Siraj in Huzir Sulaiman’s Occupation (2002) suffers little deprivation during the horrendous Japanese Occupation because of extended family support and religious practice. Rosnah, in Haresh Sharma’s play of the same name, encounters difference and has the boundaries of her cultural identity reconfirmed by her experience in England. Both characters are contained by the domestic role of women stipulated in “Asian values,” but both also find personal strength within the family-dominated structure; they move against the tide toward Western individualism.
Huzir Sulaiman of Kuala Lumpur transplanted to Singapore, where he co-founded Checkpoint Theatre in 2002 with his wife, actress Claire Wong. His monodrama Occupation was commissioned by the Singapore Festival to present during the sixtieth anniversary of the Japanese Occupation of Singapore (1942–1945). Despite the carefully crafted and highly self-conscious postmodern opening and the play’s structure of fragmented perspectives interspersed with historical data, the personal narrative of Mrs. Siraj is its emotional center. Based on his grandmother, she was performed by Wong, who displayed great virtuosity in portraying all five characters. The play intertwines two philosophical and historical concerns: the personal—what constitutes a good life, and the political—what is the appropriate response to wartime atrocities of the past during the present era of rapprochement: “ … these are my family stories […] But the overriding interest and direction of my work regarding occupation has been the idea of writing history: how we recreate history from sometimes conflicting, sometimes inaccurate and anyway highly personal accounts.”47
Structurally, the play begins where it ends—the first time Mrs. Siraj’s fingers touch those of the man she will marry. From this intimate connection, Sulaiman sets off a rippling of concentric circles emanating from the briefest touch to current international relations. The seventy-year-old widow, the subject in an oral history project, tells the interviewer, Sarah, of her “occupation” as if it were an adventure, the mild discomfort of an overly enforced purdah. Sarah envies the older woman, not merely for the comfort of inherited wealth and family support, but more for her comfort with herself: “Her occupation: loving, being loved, across the roofs and scribbled scraps, minutes whispered, hours lost in girlish dreams of kind embraces, gentle looks, her days of whimsy and confinements, courier cooks, and rooms of food, and this and that and all that. I want to shout at her: Where is the horror?”48
(p.176) Sulaiman’s Mrs. Siraj represents the human necessity of keeping alive memories at a time of increasingly rapid generational difference, to provide a counternarrative to the prevailing trends toward the incompleteness that Sarah feels from lacking the essentials of a good life, not the “five Cs” that prevail in contemporary Singapore—cash, car, credit card, condo, and country club membership—but those that governed Mrs. Siraj’s life—contentment, compassion, charity, clarity, and calm. Sarah yearns for the deeper sense of security based on having one’s place in a community rather than in overly organized, highly competitive stratified society governed by nouveau riche values.
Yet just before the premiere opened, the producers somewhat undermined the play’s critical objectives when they stressed that the show would be “very alive, personal, psychological and fun—sparky, vivid and light—basically the story is: amidst trial and extremely difficult conditions, people still fell in love and got married.”49 At the last minute, they seem to retreat from the paradox of Mrs. Siraj finding happiness during the Japanese Occupation, while Sarah, in a peaceful prosperous Singapore, feels dismal psychological detachment.
The Necessary Stage’s monodrama Rosnah (1995) staged the story of a young woman who comes to realize the dimensions of her Malay Muslim identity by being outside the country. Haresh Sharma, resident playwright of TNS, which was founded by Alvin Tan in 1987, co-devised Rosnah with Tan and actress Alin Mosbit, who played Rosnah after the three of them attended workshops in Glasgow. The role, drawn from the performer’s experience, confronts both the constraints of traditional custom as well as the uncharted challenges of individual freedom when she leaves home for the first time to study in London (elided with Glasgow). Her identity crisis begins in her “neither/nor” sense of nonbelonging marked by the repeated refrain, “Transit. I’m in transit. You know, where you change plane […] where you can’t move because your hand luggage is so heavy … transit … where the coffee is so expensive. Yah, that’s where I am. But I sit here for so long, I forget already where I’m going.”50
While abroad, Rosnah’s national identity is subordinate to her Malay Muslim roots, which she demonstrates by singing Malay songs, uttering Malay pantuns or axioms, referring to Malay female warriors, and longing for her family. Although criticism of Singapore’s ethnic minorities is taboo and inter-ethnic relations are often deemed too sensitive to stage, satire of Westerners, Western society, and so-called “Western values” is an easy and acceptable foil to Singaporean virtues. Rosnah’s inability to adapt to British life is contrasted with her Malay classmate, Muslinda, who embraces swinging London with abandon. Nonetheless, for both girls the site of cultural contestation is an English male.
(p.177) Rosnah, bemoaning her loneliness, sits in a park feeding pigeons, when suddenly she is set upon by them, and “rescued” by Stephen, a thirty-year-old philosophy student who falls in love with her. We see little of this “love,” however, for Rosnah presents the relationship as a dilemma about how to tell her parents of her ang mo (“red-hair,” meaning “Westerner”) boyfriend. When she tells him he must convert to Islam if he wishes to marry her, he refuses to do so, calling her demand unreasonable. She responds that reasonable or not, it is necessary. His stance, however, is not portrayed as another’s legitimate point of view, for his refusal comes on the heels of Muslinda’s recounting of her “date rape” by another Englishman. The two actions are positioned appositely, as if Stephen’s rejection of institutional religion is somehow linked to the immorality of the other man.
In the 2006 production, Sharma updated the external details of the play, such as interpolating a Malay student’s personal account of the 2005 London Underground bombing, but did not go deeper in examining Rosnah’s predicament—which suggests not an individual quandary, but a more fundamental dilemma arising from the Singaporean puritan ethic that allows for so little expression of personal desire. The play leaves little room for the female individual’s place in contemporary society between the “immoral” Maslinda and the domestic Rosnah.
The “Oriental” Shakespeare
In the 1990s Ong Keng Sen, artistic director of TheatreWorks, became the only Singaporean director to transcend the city-state’s borders and become an internationally known figure. C.J.W.-L. Wee writes that Ong’s productions now ask, “Who is the Singaporean in relation to the rest of the world?”51 Ong became a major creative force in Southeast Asian contemporary culture when he directed a trilogy of Shakespeare-titled works in which he employed traditional performers from other Asian countries and modern actors from Singapore: Lear (1997, 1999), Desdemona (2000), and Search: Hamlet (2002). These and other intercultural productions were the outgrowth of “The Flying Circus Project,” which began in 1994, and have continued on a smaller scale. Funded by the Ford Foundation and the Asian Cultural Council, the initial gathering included 150 artists from all over Asia who came to Singapore for four weeks, where “different cultures, aesthetics, disciplines, and individual personalities encountered each other in a series of training classes, workshops based on improvisation, and reinventing traditional art forms, discussions, and lectures” in a “‘cultural negotiation’ with no view to end-product or final presentation.”52 Nonetheless, (p.178) the artists formed the talent pool upon which relationships were built for Ong’s later intercultural productions.
Though the emphasis on “nonproduct” process continued to underwrite much of Ong’s work, Lear, which launched his international reputation, was a polished finished product and also the most critically successful. Despite being funded by the Japan Foundation and featuring Chinese, Japanese, Indonesian, and Thai performers, Lear was heralded by Singapore as the city-state’s own cultural “coming of age” on the global stage. The other two productions, given more limited exposure, were billed as “unfinished” works.
Rustom Bharucha, who observed the process throughout, praised Lear for changing the flow of influence by “reversing the dominant circuits of inter-cultural exchange and suggests that although Lear was performed in Europe and Australia, its priority was the dissemination of intra-Asian work in Asia itself.”53 But he criticized many things that surfaced in the production:
The reduction of the characters into abstractions, essences, and archetypes is further enhanced by their explicit identification with specific forms and traditions of acting, and Ong cannot escape the charge of cultural essentialism, in his forthright identification of Noh theatre, for instance, with the age and dignity embodied in the figure of Lear […] at every level, there are assumptions being made not only of the innate qualities of specific forms but of their correspondences to the essential qualities of the characters themselves.54
Ong made a different claim, saying that it was a “talking back to colonial powers,” not an indigenous new direction but a reaction to a dominant orientalizing aesthetic. The result, however, was not so much an exercise in “talking back” but in asserting “we can do it, too.” His declaration indicated a conscious looking-over-the-shoulder for international recognition.
Though Singapore took great pride in Ong’s role, the only other Singaporean contribution was the addition of a chorus of “Earth Mothers,” quite extraneous to the central action and to Bharucha, an irritating distraction from the highly skilled traditional performers: “Often the performer’s virtuosity impressed in spite of all the intercultural noise going on around it, suggesting a deep lack of ‘intercultural’ interaction between tradition and its postmodern exploitation.”55
In both Lear and Desdemona Ong was criticized for oversubscribing meaning to the convoluted plot reversals and layered character relationships; portentous symbolism was artificially ascribed to the arcane and abstract gestures of the (p.179) modern performers and the decontextualized traditional theatrical forms. The Asian orientalist spectacles exoticized “Old Asian” arts for consumption by New Asia, but Ong, aware of such critique, attempted to preempt it. In Desdemona, for example, one of the cast members writes in an e-mail projected on a screen, “I always feel that once we get onto the festival market, we are almost always consumed as Asian Exotic […] will the festival market be interested in the work of a culturally schizophrenic Singaporean if there were no inclusion of these traditional Asian art forms or performers? Is Desdemona simply an instant Asia for the festival circuit?”56 Ong poses the question but feels no compulsion to answer it. William Peterson draws a parallel between Ong’s and the PAP’s controlling tactics: “By ‘laying bare’ the process with such apparent candour, however contrived, there is an extent to which any further discussion of these vital issues is circumvented. To admit complicity in a conflicted process is somehow all that is required, and debate on these issues is effectively silenced.”57
While Desdemona was only performed in Singapore, Search: Hamlet never was. Commissioned by the Danish Face-to-Face Theatre, the latter was first staged in the Kronborg Castle at Elsinore at Ong’s request, and then in Copenhagen. For the Danish public, however, his performance took place against the backdrop of a fractious debate. Just before it was mounted, German director Stefan Bachmann, who had been commissioned by the Danish Royal Theatre to stage Hamlet, caused a scandal by using an actress with Down syndrome in the role of Ophelia. The other Danish actors in the cast complained that the girl’s mumbling was unintelligible, and accused Bachmann of exploiting people for his experiments. They walked out in the middle of a rehearsal, the performance was cancelled, and Bachmann left Denmark, calling it a provincial backwater.58
The publicity surrounding the cancelled Hamlet did not hurt Ong’s production, and yet no one asked similar questions about his use of traditional Asian performers, or mentioned that they spoke in their native languages—unintelligible to Danish audiences. Perhaps his being a Singaporean Chinese rather than German protected him, or Danish audiences expected not to understand an Asian work. Again, Ong posed the problem to preempt his critics:
I wonder: Am I using traditional arts only to gain personal recognition for my own projects? Am I buying ‘Asian art’ just like Europeans and Americans before, fascinated by otherness? Am I the new colonizer in Asian disguise, vested with the financial strength and confidence of Singapore.59
(p.180) Ong wrote the Search: Hamlet script with the cast, which included a Balinese topeng dancer, a Malaysian modern dancer, and a Thai khon dancer along with actors from Japan, Sweden, United States, and France. No single actor played Hamlet, and the character was split among them all. In addition, the performers were not constrained by their traditions; for example, the topeng dancer did not wear a mask. Their costumes, too, suggested Asian traditional costumes without being authentically accurate, thus the rewritten text and presentation style converged to create a pastiche of Asian exoticism. Moreover, by making “process” his stated modus operandi for his multicultural experiments, Ong abrogates responsibility for the final product:
for an entire week, all the artists explored intimately the architecture of Kronborg […] In particular, the lower casemates were haunting; we tore our trial paper costumes and brought these rags into the finery of the ballroom. From this simple exercise, we realized the frailty of human nature and our attempts at concealing these vulnerabilities in the public self. Carlotta voiced one of the strongest remarks about this time; ‘how do we give the audience the feeling of the search that we went through in Kronborg in April?’60
The audience is remembered only as an afterthought. The emphasis on “process” excludes the audience that has served as a pretext for engaging in the creative activity. A paying audience, however, expects to see the distillation and culmination of process, but by calling the performance “a unfinished work,” Ong confuses good theatre that is always “unfinished” because it is always alive with a reluctance to commit to meaning, to communicate with the audience, and to consider its response seriously.
The Betty Hansen Teatret invited Search: Hamlet to open its 2002 season in Copenhagen, which focused on “the foreign presence in Denmark” to help native Danes understand the 2 percent of the population that is foreign-born, most of whom are Muslims from Middle Eastern countries. Exotica depicting Southeast Asian and East Asian classical arts, especially when there was no real exchange between performers and audience, did not clearly serve this purpose. The most dominant presence on stage was the Swedish actress Charlotte Engelkes, who, as the Story Teller, gave a Scandinavian frame to the Asian performance and, in the absence of Hamlet, took on the narrative role.
Yet Svetlana Klimenko suggests that Ong’s production did serve a useful purpose in the current Danish transcultural quest because it challenged Danish (p.181) possession of the Hamlet story as one of its national myths by eliminating the central hero and allowing all the characters to embody a “state of Hamletness.” “The idea that we might search for Hamlet—i.e. for the split, dissolved Self—in anyone was projected onto the audience by means of splitting the integrity of the play and dissolving the identity of the author.”61 Dividing Hamlet’s persona among the actors to imply spreading it among the diverse immigrant groups in the Danish public body is an interesting idea, but eliminating all Asian cultural distinction to do so is more problematic. Ong’s attempt to juxtapose Asian tradition with Asian contemporaneity is an important project, but it is difficult for spectators outside of Asia to appreciate the complexity of those interactions.
Ong’s works, by detaching specific art forms from their cultural contexts, perpetuate an image of the undifferentiated Asian spectacle, just as many Asians indulge in the myth of an undifferentiated traditional Europe of castles and princesses, perpetuated by tour operators. Intercultural theatre exists on the uneasy cusp between fantasy and reality—the excursion of the imagination into mythical realms, on one hand, and the representation of real people living in an interconnected contemporary world, on the other.
Search: Hamlet revealed Ong as quintessentially Singaporean in his adroit management of other Asian cultures for both Western and “New Asia” consumption. He uses postcolonial discourse to promote his works as political challenges, while at the same time evading anything remotely subversive. They are apt representations of Singapore’s promotional image as the cutting edge of Asia’s “face.” Concern for “face”—the all-important mask of appropriate appearance that conceals and protects the Self—underlies his Shakespearean productions, which challenge the “right to representation,” but are themselves open to the same charge. Ong positions himself as a viable and reliable re-presenter of New Asia. Re-presented to whom? To Asia itself, or posing as a challenge to Western perceptions, even while conceding that the West will perceive what and how it wants. He says his work “is about Asians having the choice not only to reinvent ourselves but also to reinvent the worldview of others. Without the reference to a standard this reinvention would not be a political action, hence my insistence on ‘appropriating’ Shakespeare to say something else.”62
The Danes, however, interpreted Search: Hamlet for their own particular cultural purposes, which will always have less to do with Asia than with Denmark. This is not a criticism, but acknowledgment that all cultures practice self-reflective ethnocentric tendencies because the flow of understanding—however outward in appearance—always returns to the Self. And thus, Ong’s Search: Hamlet cannot fully answer his own question, “Who is the Singaporean in relation to (p.182) the rest of the world?” when no Singaporeans were in the cast and it did not play in Singapore.
Theatre as National Ornament
The Singaporean theatre operates in a glass box, ostensibly free and flourishing, but always contained within invisible internalized proscriptions. Unlike some countries where censorship curtails the theatre but stimulates the public’s eagerness to read between the lines, Singaporean theatre self-censors. With large portions of the populace still preferring to attend performances of their ethnic music and dance, or Western-style commercial musicals, dramatists have had to create a desire, if not a need, for local contemporary theatre. Although local theatres have grown in range and numbers over the decade, they do not have broad enough audience support to be self-sufficient and still depend on government approval and largesse, which is awarded not always on the basis of artistic excellence, but on some assessment of the work being “appropriate.” Such an evaluation marginalizes art by dictating its role categorically, and not allowing it to permeate the unconscious life of the community or consolidate a common culture from within.
Singapore has been uniquely fashioned by singular visions, first by the British governor Sir Stamford Raffles and then Lee Kuan Yew, whose PAP still controls the collective dream. In Homesick (2006) by Alfian Sa’at, which premiered in the Singapore Theatre Festival, one of the characters cries out, “I don’t want to live in an old man’s dream with no room for dreams of my own!” voicing the yearning of many a Singaporean, including those dramatists that are amplifying that urge on stage. The desire to dream one’s own dream is not only at the core of a generational dilemma, but also symptomatic of a deeper malaise caused by the juncture of modernity and tradition, when the former has been enforced with undue haste and heavy-handedness, and the latter, stripped of its continuity-affirming nurture, has been rendered into a constricting shell inadequate to inform the future. The government stymies theatre’s potential not only through censorship, but by circumscribing and limiting its function within the society. Its inconsequentiality in most people’s lives, as well as being shut out from politics, prevents the theatre from being a serious forum for any topic, and subjects dramatists to paternalistic guidelines that mire them in indefinite youthful rebellion. The repercussion of such inequitable power-sharing is that the theatre is defined by the State instead of its own internal necessity.
The manipulation of power in Singapore is both overt and subtle so that one cannot always determine whether dramatists are pulling their punches (p.183) through unconscious self-censorship or are having the rug pulled out from under them by insidious maneuvering. As Kevin Chua contends:
There lurks moreover a constant possibility that all dissent might be incorporated back into the system: dissent now commodified. One wants to ask whether these iconoclasms are expressions of real transformation rather than unconscious acting-outs or surface transgressions, pinpricks rather than deep cuts. We often hear the charge that iconoclasm is more reactive than creative, surfacial [sic] rather than deep, mere griping instead of criticism.63
Lurking below the surface is a master plan that belies the spontaneity of the fountain at the Bugis mall. The children play, the adults smile indulgently, and then shop some more—the quintessential image of the Singaporean good life. The theatre, like the opposition parties, punctures the hegemonic vision of the State, trying to make space for individual dreams, a few ripples on the placid surface. (p.184)
(1) The apocryphal legend about the founding of Singapore, “Singa” (lion) “pura” (city), relates that a Malay prince saw a strange animal and was told it was a lion. The island has never been the home of lions, but this has not deterred the Singaporean Tourism Board from inventing the symbol of Singapore—the Merlion—from a lion’s head and fish tail.
(7) The widening income gap became a serious social issue with a report in 2006 saying that the poorest 10 percent were getting poorer. De Clercq, “Income Gap Tears at Singapore Fabric.”
(12) Robert Yeo stated his intention for a multiethnic play: “For years, multi-racial Singaporeans have acted in plays which are ethnically homogeneous. I’ve accepted this for 20 years, but now, I’m not going to sustain that kind of dramatic illusion any more.” Yeo, “A Playwright’s Reality.”
(13) Ban, “Interview with Robert Yeo,” 28.
(16) Soh, “Arts Arena: A Focus on the Political Play Changi.” A similar change occurred in the Mandarin theatre: “In the early 1970s audiences of up to 20,000 witnessed highly political huaju [spoken drama] Chinese-language plays that took a strong oppositional stance toward the ruling PAP, but the mid-1990s the country’s intellectual elite were afraid to even publicly discuss culture.” Peterson, Theater and the Politics of Culture, 50.
(17) Both Lloyd Fernando and Krishen Jit lived in Kuala Lumpur (KL); Scorpion Orchid was featured at the Singapore International Art Festival (1994), and Jit not only brought his KL productions to Singapore, he frequently directed Singaporean performers. Both contributed to the artistic flow between the theatres in the two cities.
(20) Leow Puay Tin (the first Emily) and Margaret Chan (the second and longest performing) “negotiated the spaces between the Scylla of Emily’s passion for life, her warmth and energy; and the Charybdis of too cold and controlled a rendering of the character. Margaret steered perhaps a little too close to the former, Puay Tin moved in the other direction.” Le Blond, “Notes,” 170.
(27) Utih (Krishen Jit), “Fusing Truth with Humour.” According to Paul Rae of Spell #7, Singlish has been limited to comedy: “It’s about fun rather than insight, but has the potential for more sophisticated written expression.” Paul Rae, interview with author, Singapore, July 2, 2006.
(31) This scene is a rather clever parody of As You Like It. Warren is having difficulty with his girlfriend, named Rosalind, and confesses the problem to Mirabella, who cajoles him into pretending that she is Rosalind.
(60) Ong, Search: Hamlet. Helen Grehan commented on how much more riveting the rehearsals were than the performance, and supplies possible reasons, but also questions the apparent lack of concern for the audience in Ong’s “process.” Grehan, “Theatreworks’ Desdemona,” 122–123.