Singapore’s discomfort zone

George Wehrfritz & Sonia Kolesnikov-Jessop

Four directors discuss the evolving role of theater in exploring sensitive issues like sex, race and politics

From their digs in a row house in Singapore’s historic Little India, W!ld Rice founding director Ivan Heng and his team are plotting their next provocation. On Aug. 6, the theater troupe will open its second Singapore Theatre Festival, a biannual event launched in 2006 to coincide with the city-state’s national-day celebrations, where they plan to “make public a lot of conversations we’ve been having in private,” says Heng.

Those conversations touch on race, sexuality and even politics—topics censors sanitize in Singapore’s newspapers, films and television programming.Local playwrights, directors and actors have earned the city a strong reputation for edgy stagecraft, and helped create an arts culture that stands out in Southeast Asia for its vibrancy. Part of the appeal is Singapore’s status as the region’s political, religious and cultural crossroads-a nexus that informs many of the stage plays set to premiere at the festival this month.

Theater’s non-mainstream status also affords it more space for expression compared with other mass media, and censorship guidelines, points out Amy Chua, the director for media content at the Media Authority Development, have evolved over the years in tandem with the community’s standards.

Heng and three other leading lights of the festival recently sat down with Newsweek’s George Wehrfritz and Sonia Kolesnikov-Jessop to discuss the evolving theater scene. Heng, a lawyer by training, is an acclaimed actor and director. Eleanor Wong is a legal scholar when she’s not writing plays. Ken Kwek is a former political reporter for the Singapore Straits Times, the main local English newspaper. Alfian Sa’at is a poet and writer. Three of them have worked in the occasionally embattled Singapore theater business since it first took off, and their dynamic discussion reflects that story, quite a drama in itself.


Newsweek: Singapore has gone on the branding offensive to cast itself as a hip, happening and increasingly open city. How has that been expressed in theater?

Ivan Heng: Eleanor and myself started in the late ’80s …

Eleanor Wong: The year I recall is 1985. A short-play competition identified a few people, and from there things started happening.

Heng: The idea of indigenous Singaporean theater was magnetic, and brought so many people to the theater …

Wong: I wouldn’t exaggerate how many people. It was magnetic precisely because people had not seen such things happening before. In those days you would write a play and practice for months and then it would run for two afternoons in the Shell Theater to 200 people.

What subjects were permissible in the 1980s?

Wong: In the very first short-play competition there were entries like mine, which made fun of a certain political party that was always dressed in white. People were writing about anything that interested them, about the Singapore identity and all those questions we asked growing up as a nation.

When did the “out-of-bounds markers ” become visible?

Alfian Sa’at: There was a theater company called the Third Stage, and for them the idea was that theater in Singapore would go through different stages. First you have a lot of British plays. Then you have actors trying local adaptations. In the third stage you have indigenous theater. They did works like “Esperanza,” which dealt with the issue of foreign workers-specifically maids-in Singapore. [In 1987], two of them were rounded up as part of a so-called Marxist conspiracy and under the Internal Security Act accused of all these wild things …

Wong: No, no, no. The irony is that what they were accused of was not at all wild. Even if they had done what the government said, it seemed to me there was nothing at all wrong about it.

Sa’at: That was quite disturbing, and if I’m not wrong, [then prime minister] Lee Kuan Yew said something along the lines that he considered the so-called conspirators dangerous because he couldn’t understand why some of them, who were lawyers, would give up good jobs to earn $400 to $500 a month, in social work, for example. For him, the only kind of people who would do these things were conspirators, communists and dissidents, people who were willing to sacrifice very pragmatic concerns for their ideals.

Heng: For revolution!

Wong: That sounds like a good thing. We’ve all been so brainwashed …

So you grew up under that shadow?

Sa’at: In a way, yes. I was mentored at the Necessary Stage [theater company], and at one point they became quite paranoid. They talked about seven-year cycles. In 1987 there was this Marxist conspiracy, and in 1994 the Necessary Stage members were accused of being Marxists [after taking] and using theater for political ends …

Wong: … by employing a foreign theater methodology.

Sa’at: That originated with the Brazilian Marxist theater practitioner Augusto Boal. They took just a few workshops with him in New York. Their status as a company was quite imperiled.

Ken Kwek: After a certain period of relative prosperity and political stability, the government decides we’re going to push money in the arts. And then these guys go out but somehow the PR exercise collapses … [in] the cycle of clamping down and opening up …

Heng: Undesirable elements!

Kwek: Western influences. All the rest of it. It’s very cyclical, the mood of it.

Wong: If it’s a seven-year cycle, this is the year something is supposed to happen.

Sa’at: Yes, in 2000 the Elangovan play “Talak” was banned.

It seems like theater and the Internet are areas where sensitive subjects can be discussed most openly in Singapore.

Kwek: The government tends to draw a very strict line between what it calls the mainstream media and alternative media. And certainly, theater in Singapore is an alternative media. So theater has a unique advantage born of a disadvantage.

Wong: If I could interject, after the 1987 chill and theater was shut in a corner, I think it found its other major meaning, which was to explore a lot of personal issues. It did that really well, and this latest wave [of creativity] comes on the back of that.

Explain that in the context of your play ” JBJ. ”

Wong: At one level, JBJ are the initials of J. B. Jeyaretnam, the first opposition leader after the ruling PAP had established its dominance and run Singapore essentially without any opposition in Parliament. JBJ came along and won one seat and was, I suppose, a thorn in the side of the government. He was eventually removed by investigations into his party, its financing, etc. So the title of the play is “The Campaign to Confer the Public Service Star”—which is one of the highest public-service awards one can give in Singapore—”on JBJ.” The play is a bit of a satire. The real JBJ does not actually figure in it, but what I wanted to look at was the phenomenon of a JBJ. The sense of apprehension that came across almost everyone when I mentioned the title was fun. And the fact that there were cabs going around Singapore with “I Love JBJ” posters on the sides of them also just made me happy.

Heng: Two hundred taxis!

Were there things in the play that you were surprised that no one said anything about?

Wong: Even the title. We were not sure that having even the initials JBJ in the title wouldn’t scuttle the play before anyone had a chance to see it. In fairness to everyone in officialdom, the play was submitted for vetting and came back uncut. My sense is that there has been some movement.

Kwek: I actually almost take it as a mark of how well we’re doing when [a script] comes back with questions, because that means we’re doing our jobs. If it comes back totally uncut it means we’re not pushing hard enough.

Wong: All of us have been in situations where there have been cuts before. So the question is, have we changed our behavior very much? And honestly, I don’t think so …

Your unhappiness would only be justified if you truly felt that some of us had stopped trying to explore where those lines were.

Kwek: Cherian George uses this wonderful phrase “calibrated coercion,” and I think it more or less sums up the government’s approach, which is “you never fire the gun, but it is good to have it.” Party politics with a big P is dangerous ground. And I don’t think it’s particularly interesting, either. It is more interesting to see how the country is engaging with sensitive issues that aren’t a capital P. The death penalty. Immigration. Freedom of the press, which is an issue because there’s huge discord between our level of economic well-being and the space for robust discussion in the mainstream media. Playwrights are trained to straddle that divide.

What about sexuality?

Sa’at: Sexuality isn’t just sexuality. When you’re talking about homosexuality, for example, it is political, isn’t it? Because the homosexual act is something that’s legislated against in Singapore; you’re entering political territory when you talk about a homosexual in Singapore. Religion also comes in, because much of the chorus of disapproval of homosexuality comes from people who hold strong religious views.

Heng: Both Eleanor and Alfian have written trilogies about homosexuality and the very oppressive law. I do feel that because we’ve made these ideas so public people may say, “My goodness, that’s an actual gay person on the stage, in the flesh, and these are my sisters and my brothers and my uncles and my fathers.”

To what extent do your stage portrayals of sexuality leak into television?

Wong: It’s impossible to tell cause and effect. In 1992, when we did “Mergers,” there was a gasp in the audience because just as the lights went down two women were leaning towards each other to kiss. In 2003, when we staged it again, people were coming in droves. So they understand parts one and two of my trilogy, which is the personal story about why love should not be hemmed in. But they don’t understand part three, which was no longer living like second-class citizens. What happened in between? All kinds of popular culture—television programs like Ellen DeGeneres, “Will & Grace”—made homosexual issues known. Were we part of that? I really, really hope so.

Yet the local authorities recently fined one broadcaster for showing two women kissing, and another show for ” promoting the gay lifestyle. ”

Wong: We can’t look at these things in a linear way. You’ve got increasing awareness, but with it inevitably comes pushback. Because those who didn’t know you were around didn’t care and were happy to go on thinking gay people don’t exist. Today, no one can quite say that, but there are still people who don’t like it.

Ken, race relations and media manipulation are central themes in your play ” Apocalypse: Live! ” about the aftermath of a 9/11-style attack in Singapore that leaves an ethnic Malay general with a chip on his shoulder in command. What would you like your audiences to come away with?

Kwek: We have this unspoken law that you don’t touch race or religion in Singapore.

When you talk about race you are really talking about the Malay Muslim minority and its relationship to the rest of Singapore. And there are also foreign-policy concerns because Malaysia and Indonesia, which are Muslim countries, are at our doorstep.

Wong: In my view this will be the last area to open.

If you touch it in any other way than ” There are four races, and we ‘ re all dancing around doing the festival thing, ” hairs are going to stand on end.

Kwek: We do try to raise the issue, but it’s more like sneaking in a scene here, a character there. That’s the nature of how we feel compelled to operate.

If you were to write what you want, be as provocative as you want, write characters that reflect the issues as you see them in front of you, how would society react?

Sa’at: This is very interesting to me. When I did “Homesick” and I had the character say the name “Lee Kuan Yew” onstage, being provocative was something I battled with. I nearly acquiesced to being a lot more subtle, but I decided that I’m sick of plays that skirt around the issues in an allegorical kind of way. “Once there was a garden and a gardener called Lee …” or whatever. I decided I was just going to have the character shout his name onstage.

Kwek: With the one provisory that it’s not defamatory or can’t be construed as such.

Sa’at: So [the character] said something about, you know, how Singapore was just one man’s dream and how she feels like she’s living out this whole over-determined project, and the audience actually gasped and that was …

Wong: No! They gasped because she said “… and this one man is Lee Kuan Yew. Do you know Lee Kuan Yew?” She said that outright. It was fine until then. Everyone knew who the one man was!

Sa’at: It was like something was being breached, that collective gasp.

Wong: That’s our job, right? Hopefully to evoke the gasp. I believe it behooves us to be calibrated not by coercion but by love for our country and to be careful, too. It’s easy to say we can push. But we have to push so that the audience is ready or not quite ready. We have to find that space to push them enough so they go “Oh, OK, I need to think about this.” Or “This saddens me. This offends me and I need to think.” But it cannot be “this saddens or offends me to the point that we have to fight.” It’s a strange space to find.

Heng: Theater provides a safe discomfort zone. As our writers become more sophisticated, they are not doing plays that whack you over the head but rather present a plurality of views. In the best plays people in the audience say: “I think this character was right, or that character was right” and actually choose a point of view. Through this interaction, this exchange of ideas, we move forward. In Singapore, where we have had a one-party government for a long time, it’s up to us as artists and citizens to engage in formulating what kind of society we want in the future. If we shut up about it, we only have ourselves to blame.

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