Thursday, 21 September 2023

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The LKY Musical: The history of Chinese men’s Singapore

Photo: Metropolitan Productions
Photo: Metropolitan Productions

First things first: The LKY Musical should never have been more than a working title for a production of the scale I saw tonight. It is an even less imaginative name than the name Lee Kuan Yew allegedly wanted to call his wartime black-market stationery gum, and according to the musical he wanted to call it Stationery Gum.

Now that that’s out of the way…

The LKY Musical looks amazing. The stage is beautiful, full of movement and light. Dividing the space into three storeys and nine cubes allowed for quick scene changes across time and space, and the use of sound and video projection kept things fresh and dynamic.

Yet despite these fantastic aesthetics I could never lose myself in the story that was unfolding. As if told by a history teacher worried about not covering the entire syllabus before the O Levels, the story jumped from one moment to the other over a span of a quarter-century, from Lee’s time in Raffles Institution in the 1940s to the day of Singapore’s independence on 9 August 1965.

Adrian Pang flawlessly performs each scene involving Lee, but there’s simply too little time to get immersed in the place and time or examine events and choices with any depth.

How, for instance, did Harry go from that Raffles boy convinced of the benefits of getting an overseas degree in Great Britain to that determined lawyer who was so anti-colonialist he chose to shed his English name and be known only as Kuan Yew? Apart from the fact that he felt let down by the British during the Japanese Occupation (and later apparently discovered racism in England) the musical doesn’t bring us on the journey of this transformation.

Sharon Au, who plays Mrs Lee (affectionately referred to as “Choo” throughout the show), is somewhat miscast: her singing is often drowned out by the orchestra or other characters, her dialogue clunky. But it doesn’t help that she has remarkably little to work with: although the musical was billed as a love story between Lee and Choo, it is hardly the case.

It’s established early on that Choo has both the street-smarts and academic chops to rival, even beat, Lee in many ways, but she’s generally portrayed as little more than his most reliable cheerleader, editing his speeches, picking his ties and listening for news about him on the radio.

There’s no point at which we see Choo having her own career, even though Kwa Geok Choo stayed in legal practice for over four decades. In fact, Lee once said that he would never have been able to enter politics if his wife hadn’t been the main breadwinner for the family. Not that you would have known it from The LKY Musical.

It is this neglect of Choo’s life as a brilliant woman as opposed to an appendage of her determined husband, as well as other erasures, that troubles me most. I left the theatre feeling as if I had sat through a history lesson almost entirely told by – and involving – English-speaking Chinese men.

Choo is the only female character in the entire show; there are no other women in the cast. Both Malaysian Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman and Cabinet Member S Rajaratnam make relatively short appearances in the musical. Every other character of note is a Chinese man.

More specifically, English-speaking Chinese men. Even though much is made about how unionists like Lim Chin Siong and Fong Swee Suan were important to the PAP because of their ability to mobilise the Chinese-educated masses, both characters speak in English the entire time. Hokkien – the dialect in which Lim gave his fiery speeches – is only used for comedy effect by Sebastian Tan’s character of Koh Teong Koo, a rickshaw puller and Lee’s faithful friend.

At one point in the show, Lim Chin Siong accuses Lee of trying to change him into “an Englishman”, but the accusation lacks its punch because Lim has already made every single one of his speeches onstage in British-accented English.

Benjamin Chow’s portrayal of Lim is so charged with passion and zeal that Lim often becomes the most interesting character onstage, but it could have added a richer layer to the show if the audience were treated to how Lim’s speeches might have sounded in their original Hokkien. With Mandarin surtitles provided on screens on either side of the stage throughout the evening, surely Hokkien segments with English surtitles would not have been too much of a difficulty?

And as for the controversy over whether the government had interfered in the production of the musical, all I can say is that even though nuances and prickly historical events were skipped over, it felt more like an issue of time than state censorship. The major omission that stood out for me, though, was the failure to mention that the referendum ballot on the question of merger had been engineered so that every option would be in favour of Malaysia’s formation; a fact that significantly dampens Lee’s declaration of meeting the Barisan Sosialis “head-on” and “winning over the people” in his campaign.

The LKY Musical provides an entertaining night with a solid cast, beautiful production design and pleasant-although-forgettable music. But ultimately the show’s lack of proper representation of women, ethnic minorities and languages makes it difficult to see that diverse, equal, socialist Singapore Lee claims to be fighting for.

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