By Kirsten Han, with Cindi Loo in Kuala Lumpur
Everyone knows that it’s Singapore’s Golden Jubilee by now, but SG50 marks not just the 50-year anniversary of a new beginning but a parting of ways between two countries: Singapore and Malaysia.
Another Country is the second of five productions in local theatre company W!LD RICE’s imagiNATION 2015 season. A co-production between Singapore and Malaysia, the show brings together literary works from writers on both sides of the Causeway, performed by a fine cast of versatile Singaporean and Malaysian performers.
Although our parents and grandparents were briefly compatriots, my friend Cindi and I were born in different countries; she in Malaysia and I in Singapore. Our friendship is ten times shorter than the Jubilee, yet after Cindi saw Another Country in Kuala Lumpur in early June it felt fitting to share this review in the spirit of cross-Straits conversation.
The first half of the show looks at Singapore. Titled Sayang Singapura and curated by W!LD RICE’s resident playwright Alfian Sa’at, we see a potted history of Singapore as performed by five Malaysian actors.
It’s a history that, unlike what Singaporeans are used to, doesn’t flinch from more difficult periods of our history. Homage is paid to political detainees and exiles – the understated performance of Francis Khoo’s song Fifteenth of February should touch even the most apolitical – the place of women in society is examined, and same-sex relationships aren’t hidden away.
“I tried to turn away from the tired idea of Singapore and just watch the multiple facets of what Singapore is and was,” Cindi said.
“I can relate to the fact that you have colonial laws which you insist on keeping, which is quite similar to the many many pre-colonial laws we still have, like the Sedition Act,” she added. “But I can’t relate to the sense of uptightness that Singaporeans put up with, then presumably they let loose in Malaysia… I don’t know if I find that insulting or not!”
While Singapore’s half was largely chronological, Malaysia’s half, Tikam-Tikam: [email protected] 2, gave audiences the chance to choose the order in which scenes would be performed. Curated by playwright and performer Leow Puay Tin, this format comes with a time limit of one hour, meaning that every show will see scenes dropped as actors run out of time. A typical kiasu reaction would be to yearn to see the missing scenes, but the beauty of the tikam-tikam is the tantalising thrill of possibilities left unexplored.
I went into the Malaysian half feeling a little lost; without the straightforward chronology of the first half I thought my tiny knowledge of Malaysian history would make it difficult for me to get the references. But as the scenes went on so many things struck me as familiar, from the way people speak, through the love for Hainanese chicken rice to the bewildering frustration of dealing with ill-informed foreigners and their misconceptions of Asians.
Cindi too felt that the Malaysian segment did not provide as clear an account of Malaysia’s history and development. “But what I like is that there are moments when the settings of Malaysia and Singapore intertwine, for example when there are scenes about Singaporeans visiting Malaysia,” she said. “You get the feeling that we are same same but different. It’s interesting when the Malaysian/Singaporean events intertwine and then that makes you realise how easily we can blend with each other.”
These shared experiences are clearly found in the curated excerpts. For example, Emily of Emerald Hill – recently performed as part of the Esplanade’s showcase of 50 Singaporean plays – is listed in the Malaysian half. When asked, Emily’s playwright Stella Kon pointed out that the play had been first staged in Malaysia, and has over the years been performed there over 300 times. With the narrative set in the 1950s, before Singapore’s independence, Malaysians too feel they have a claim over the story.
There are crossovers among the artists, too. The late Krishen Jit – a director who ten years ago had been one of the theatre practitioners to come up with the concept that eventually led to Another Country – is revered as a leading light in Malaysian theatre, but also cited by many in Singapore as having had a profound impact on their practice. Both directors of Another Country, Jo Kukuthas and Ivan Heng, are also known in both countries for their work.
When discussing the production Cindi and I found yet another thread to unite us despite our mild geographical differences: politics.
“One poignant scene [in the Malaysian section] was the one on our Federal Constitution, where their talk about the need to protect the Constitution was not matched by the actors’ actions. It made you feel like all the talk about defending democracy is bullshit when all this is happening, just like what Malaysia is going through right now,” said Cindi.
“And you just feel so angry as a young Malaysian because all this happened before I was born and I was thinking, ‘What the heck were Malaysians doing and why did no one stop this?’”
It was a feeling I could very much identify with as I watched the Singaporean excerpts. As we moved away from scenes written in the 60s, 70s and 80s into those penned in the 90s and early 2000s I found myself still watching references and stories about Lim Chin Siong, the Internal Security Act and the fear of political engagement. It was almost as if our artists and writers, in trying to reflect society’s hopes and dreams, found themselves continually stuck in past traumas, unable to move on because of questions left unanswered and injustices still waiting to be set to rights.
And just like Cindi, I as a young Singaporean thought, “Why are we still dealing with this? What have we Singaporeans been doing?”
In our almost-daily chats throughout our friendship Cindi and I have continually found common ground in which our nationalities seem inconsequential. Apart from the occasional argument about whether mee siam should be dry or soupy our struggles and frustrations with our countries have by-and-large been familiar to the other. We feel alike in many ways, yet when we visit each other in our respective cities we find ourselves always eager to go home again, because sometimes it’s “same same” but other times it’s “different”. Such is the special relationship of our two countries, and such is the reality that Another Country managed to depict.
Another Country will probably never tour. It’s hard to imagine it resonating with audiences outside of Singapore and Malaysia. But that doesn’t seem like such a bad thing; there is something warm and comforting about the thought of having a story – one that transcends the official narratives we’re all fed – to call our own.