Fear of Writing: A commentary on political art and censorship

~by: Jewel Philemon~

Local playwright, Mr Tan Tarn How, returns to the world of theatre after a hiatus of ten years with his latest full-length play, ‘Fear of Writing’.

The respected writer, who has written several critically acclaimed plays such as ‘The First Emperor’s Last Days’, ‘The Lady of Soul And Her Ultimate “S” Machine’ and ‘Home’, said that he wanted to write a play about the difficulty of writing political plays and thus, Fear of Writing was born.

“This play is about the complacency of the average Singaporean, of theatre audiences and practitioners because there is no danger, no real change enacted by our works. It is about the commercialization of theatre; hijacked as entertainment rather than being an engine of change. Can we find a real political theatre, where the audience goes in X and comes out Y? This is the difficulty in writing this kind of work in this day and age, hence the long gap between my last play and this one.” says Mr Tan.

Mr Tan’s career of writing plays began in 1989, when he wrote a short play titled ‘In Praise of the Dentist’. He has since written 9 plays over the span of twenty-two years.

He was also the head writer of popular local period drama, ‘Growing Up’, as well as ‘VR Man’, an action hero series. Mr Tan also worked for the Straits Times from 1987-1996 and 1999-2005 as Science and Technology editor, Sunday Review editor, Life! Deputy Editor, senior political correspondent and also a foreign correspondent based in Beijing and Hong Kong.

Mr Tan is currently working as a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Policy Studies.

On his motivations to writing this particular play, Mr Tan says, “Artists are supposed to hold a mirror to society. What if the society is not looking into the mirror in the way that the artist hopes they would? And what if they only see it as a diversion, an entertainment, a commodity? Then what is the point of the art?” Because there is no conversation! An artist is supposed to have a conversation, not with themselves, but with society. Where is the problem – well, firstly, is there a problem at all?”

“Maybe in our modern day society artists are no longer allowed to have that role. So is there a problem with the art form? Or is the art itself? Its inability to evoke that kind of a response? Is it a problem with the audience or is it a problem with soc? Or is it a problem of modern day existence? In this entertainment drenched society. So I wanted to explore that”, he adds.

Wanting to explore what artists can’t write was another thought which spurred him.

“Even before this election, some people would say actually there are no limits. Whereas my contention is that, there are limits. I don’t mean limits which are in place in sort of liberal or advance societies. Of course you can’t write plays about inciting hatred or inciting violence or things like that. But the limits which are put in place which are special to places like Singapore where limits are somewhat arbitrary. So I mean limits that are here that are not in other well functioning societies elsewhere. So I wanted to attest that there are these limits and I want to attest that there still are these limits despite what happened in the previous general election”, he contends.

So what is ‘Fear of Writing’ all about?

“Well Fear of Writing is about fundamental change, the role of political art, and it is about the fact that we are not able to somehow reflect on things in a way other than a very narrow consumerist, materialistic or pragmatic prism. It is about a lot of things. Ultimately it is a commentary about politics, political art and censorship“, Mr Tan describes.

“I think all my plays are different, they feel different at least to me.” Says Mr Tan when asked how Fear of writing is different from his other plays,

“But I guess this one, is different in the way that it sort of attempts to reflect on theatre as a form and to see whether the old theatre is enough. So it is in that way an experiment. It is in a way unlike all the other plays where they aren’t experiments in form. It is an experiment in the genre of theatre.”

Fear of writing is staged by Theatreworks. For more details on the performance click HERE.

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