Singapura – The Musical, overly simplistic depiction of Singapore history from a foreigner perspective

Scene from Singapura The Musical (Singapura The Musical)
Scene from Singapura The Musical (Singapura The Musical)

By Terry Xu

I have been skeptical over the critical reviews on the musical on Singapore’s independence, thinking how could it be so bad. But I was proven to be so wrong after viewing it last night.

“Singapura, The Musical” is an enjoyable piece of musical for anyone who know nuts about Singapore’s history but an absolute piece of artistic abomination for those who lived in that era or reads Singapore history.

This is an ambitious production to showcase Singapore’s independence, but sadly, it is an overly simplistic depiction of Singapore history from a foreigner perspective based on the official narrative by the Singapore government.

Contrary to the common criticism about the Filipino performers. Credits have to be given to the casts of the musical for their strong vocals, their outstanding effort to immerse in their roles and maintaining their composure as technical glitches surround the set even till this day. However, one can only squeeze so much from the talented artists to make a musical that is bad as Singapura look good.

Ok, maybe I am just too critical on the musical from my perspective of what the musical should be as a Singaporean. So perhaps, let us examine if the musical matched the synopsis.

“Singapura: The Musical takes the audience through a journey of love, hope, and new beginnings while exploring the strength of the human spirit during the formative years of Singapore’s history from 1955 to 1965. Through the eyes of ordinary men and women, audiences will witness how hope and youthful determination transcend the struggles of everyday life during this time period as Singaporeans strive towards a better future for themselves and their loved ones. Their passion and drive sees them dreaming, hoping and creating – against all odds – a place where they can truly call home.” – Synopsis of Singapura

After reading through the above passage, it can be concluded the musical is indeed a failure. The words, “hope”, “determination” are barely observable from the whole musical whereas the words, “Kopitiam” and “Consequences” are the only words that kept ringing in my head after the show.

The musical fails its attempt to immerse the audience into the sequence of events that brought about the independence of Singapore. While the music arrangement is good and catchy, the lyrics for the musical at many parts felt forcefully inserted to make “sense” and throws words, “communism”, “terrorists”, “Hock Lee”, around without proper context.

One such example, is when British Officer, Flynn questioned why are British a leech to Singapore. A student replied to him, “Where were you during (the) Hock Lee (bus riot)?”. Students in the scene clapped and I couldn’t get the reference to how that made sense.

“I needed to know how the average ordinary Singaporean was feeling when so many of these events leading to Singapore’s independence were unfolding. So, I flew back to Singapore and, with the help of another friend, met with various ordinary people now residing in Johor Bahru, Kuala Lumpur, Tokyo, Hong Kong, and Singapore. Despite their advanced years (70 yrs old-90 yrs old), they had vivid memories of that significant decade (1955-1965).

That was when I realized that their private stories were just as interesting as the ones written in history. They were stories to inspire others. Stories of courage….stories of hope. For almost 50 years, their stories remain untold….unless we share them with the world.” – Ed Gatchalian, Creator and Composer of “Singapura The Musical”

While the creator of Singapura, the musical, Ed Gatchalian had said on many occasions that stories of Singaporeans living in that era were painstakingly collected and referred to in the production of the musical. One has to wonder what kind of stories did the librettist; Joel Trinidad based on for the script and lyrics of the musical.

If one’s intent is to create a Les Miserables or Miss Saigon, one will look for stories of individuals that inspire or stories of those who sacrificed for the greater good. Instead, we are being shoved with a family that seems to be running from everything at the first sign of trouble, hardly something we want Singaporeans to be known worldwide for.

Lee May and Lynn (credit to Singapura The Musical)
Lee May and Flynn

The illogical nature of the setting has to be highlighted, Lee May’s parents are Chinese, own a coffeshop, the father also drives a bus since 1940s, Lee May studies at an English University in 1961 where she meets British Officer, Flynn.

I have a problem with the choice of pairing the lead with a British in the musical. No, it is not about the interracial relationship I am having issues with but is there any special point in this arrangement? Especially since the relationship between the two takes up probably one-third of the whole show.

For no apparent reason, halfway through the show, Lee May falls in love with the dashing young British officer. To me, it stinks of reference to a Sarong Party Girl.

Why am I watching a musical of Singapore that has a couple professing their love for each other and singing about the challenges that they would face as an inter-racial couple. Was that a significant part of Singapore culture/history?

When one has the intent to push a musical depicting a country’s history to the global stage, one has first to ensure its historical accuracy and relevance.

Barisan Sosialis* was omitted from their objection of the merger with Malaysia. Instead United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) was inserted to take their role for the objection of the merger.

Operation Coldstore** was unmentioned for the whole musical, which is noteworthy given that the fear generated from arrests of opposition political leaders resonate within citizens even till today after 50 years.

Lim Chin Siong, the charismatic Chinese leader of Barisan Sosialis, co-founder of People’s Action Party (PAP) and worthy political adversary of Singapore’s first prime minister, Mr Lee Kuan Yew was also omitted from the musical which is meant to depict the period between 1955 and 1965. Instead, we have a figure dressed in white, no doubt a representation of Mr Lee in his early days as a symbol of PAP throughout the entire musical.

The sheer fact that the above few were not depicted in the musical deemed it deserving to be condemned to oblivion for a half-hearted attempt to masquerade as a story of Singapore.

Singapura, The Musical is now showing at the newly furbished Capitol Theatre from 22 May to 7 June, tickets from $65 to $175. Tickets can be purchased from this link.


 

* Barisan Sosialis –  now defunct Singapore political party, was formed on 29 July 1961 and officially registered on 13 August 1961 by left-wing members of the PAP.

**Operation Coldstore – A security operation launched in Singapore on 2 February 1963 in which at least 111 anti-government left-wing activists were arrested under the Internal Security Act and detained without trial.

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