By Alfian Sa’at
So I sent an excerpt from my play ‘1987’ for publication for an anthology. Just the beginning 10 pages. The play deals with how a family copes with the revelation that the father was an ISD officer who interrogated and possibly tortured detainees and coerced them into making false confessions. For me the play is about the human capacity for self-delusion, and how when coupled with power it becomes a project of sustaining that delusion at all cost. It is about how violence is rationalised. Here’s a sample from it:
“Jack: But you’re trying to make me feel guilty, aren’t you? What if I tell you, so we can just drop this right now, that there’s no guilt over what happened.
Jennifer: There’s no guilt?
Jack: None whatsoever.
Jennifer: Why the detachment? Why can’t you just say ‘I have no guilt’?
Jack: Fine. I have no guilt.
Jennifer: But you’re guilty.
Jack: I already said…
Jennifer: You’re guilty of subjecting detainees to long hours of interrogation. Of making all these empty promises that they would be released if they signed false confessions. Of blasting the air con at them.
Jack: Don’t play with words like that. It’s unbecoming. When you use the word ‘guilty’ like that you mean ‘culpable’. When I used the word ‘guilty’ I meant ‘remorseful’.
Jennifer: So you admit to torturing detainees.
Jack: (Laughing) Air-con is torture?
Jennifer: Isn’t it one of the best kinds? You don’t even have to touch them. It’s torture by remote control.
Jack: You think I put them in a meat locker? Do you know what’s the lowest temperature on the air con? 14 degrees. That’s higher than a June night in Australia, yes?
Jennifer: Please Dad, they were just wearing T-shirts and shorts. You had a thick sweater.
Jack: And I had coffee. And cigarettes. And I could walk out of that room any time I wanted to. They were detainees. We don’t give detainees sweaters.
Jennifer: You beat them.
Jack: She’s just repeating allegations.
Jennifer: She was slapped four times. You knocked off her glasses. In May 1987. Dad, this was just two months after I was born. You had a baby at home. How could you do those things and then come home and what…looked at me? Did you look at me sleeping? Carried me in your arms or talked to me in some baby language? Didn’t you think those detainees had fathers too?
Jack: Everything in its place.
Jennifer: What does that mean?
Jack: It means what it means. If you were in one place you had to deal with one situation. If you were in another there was another situation to deal with. I know that you’re making a charge of inconsistency or at worst some kind of hypocrisy but if you drop those notions you’ll see that it was a simple case of adaptability.”
The piece was rejected from publication, based on the following reasons: that it would put the funding body in a difficult position, that the funding body would have to explain itself to other ministries, that timing was bad because the powers that be are now on the defensive after ‘To Singapore, With Love’, that it was in violation of funding guidelines which state that works should not “undermine the authority or legitimacy of the government and public institutions, or threaten the nation’s security or stability” (basically the government has to be exempted from criticism, which means that artists and writers have to operate in a more constricted space than forum complaint letter-writers).
Someone might probably say to me, ‘well, what did you expect?’ The thing is, I don’t have any expectations of reprisals when I write, because to anticipate censorship is the beginning of self-censorship. I have to admit that I’m a really bad student of censorship–I have collected many anecdotes of other censored works and artists, which should provide me with a picture of how parameters are policed in this country, but there has been no ‘lesson learnt’ for me. Because how can you even dance when you’re haunted by tripwires?
So the plan is: re-submit another piece. I’m thinking of a short story about a writer who’s been told that his work has been rejected from publication. It will be a story about how censorship becomes rationalised, the careful vocabulary by seemingly well-meaning people who say ‘you have to understand’ and ‘we’re in a difficult position’ and ‘we’re trying to protect you’ and ‘know how to pick your battles’, with their pained, empathetic smiles. It will be a story about the human capacity for self-delusion, and how when coupled with power it becomes a project of sustaining that delusion at all cost.
And of course if the story is rejected, then I don’t have to be part of the anthology.
This article was first published on Alfian Sa’at’s Facebook page. We thank Alfian for allowing us to reproduce it here.