By Wong Chee Meng
Who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past. – 1984, George Orwell
How should Manifesto (9-20 March 2016) by Drama Box and The Necessary Stage be remembered, in the afterlife of its ‘exploration of socio-political issues’ – to borrow what MDA has cited in its imposition of an R18 rating? Hopefully it will be for driving this point across: ask not why art has to be political; ask instead why politics will not leave the arts alone.
Art is by nature political, as any debate on social values, expressed in amplified voices or suppressed writings in a public arena, is political. Whoever says art is all about beauty, either lives a cushy and privileged life in the mainstream of our cultural diversity, or has chosen to turn one’s back on the treacheries of human strife, to cultivate one’s aesthetic pursuits like a spiritual practice enclosed within a sanctuary. Meantime, politicians who say artists should not meddle in politics are also likely to engage artists for propaganda during national day performances and other occasions.
As a saga on the struggle and political entanglement of idealistic artists in multicultural Singapore, Manifesto may be understood in the first instant as an attempt to re-enact cultural memory of the 1950s, when Singaporeans were already learning how to live in social harmony through appreciation of one another’s ethnic cultures. Chinese students might be learning Indian dance in all earnestness, conversing with others in a seamless mix of Malay, Hokkien and Mandarin, and finding common entertainment in Malay horror movies. This contrasts sharply with a Singapore of the present day, where despite the ubiquitous use of ‘good English’ as lingua franca, society appears to be fragmented, rife with racism and religious bigotry.
Such dramatic juxtaposition alone between the first two scenes would have been enough to subvert any simplistic SG50 narrative about Singapore’s independence as an aftermath of racial riots and Konfrontasi, before the play weaves in any reference to Operation Coldstore during merger, the a dark episode when the leftists were removed from participation in Singapore’s development. It is a stark reminder that Singapore harps on being a multiracial society only because it has developed without regard for another perspective of social equality.
This is not a play that sees the mission of an artist as fighting propaganda with counter-propaganda; the character of the detained leftist MP, Tan Siok Dee (Goh Guat Kian), has been rebuffed for suggesting so much in an early scene as a young playwright. The play does not glorify her character, yet one cannot help empathising with her for being written out of history.
As a metanarrative on the politics of arts and culture, the play is clearly too self-conscious and nuanced to purport any definitive historical truth or to manufacture any heroic figure. Even the resemblance that the centrestage of the set design bears to a roll of white background in a photography studio seems to be a disclaimer that the past enacted here may well be seen through the rose-tinted lens of this generation’s own projection.
Yet, while maintaining such distance of objectivity, the production finds some inventive means to demonstrate the chilling effects under an iron fist of political control, of how easily social memory may be manipulated and dismantled. The single cleverest device has to be the odd pattern of speech among characters of the 1980s, where they would fall short of completing the sentence, as if they are stumbling on some social taboo or they cannot even trust their memory of facts any more. These are young participants of a progressive theatre workshop in Manila, otherwise dressed in colourful fashion, as if they are ready for some aerobics session to the music of Madonna. But the cat seems to have caught their tongue whenever they talk about social engagement through networks of the arts or religion, about political surveillance of the ‘Internal Security Body’ in Singapore, in a reflexive action as natural as it is mechanical.
That epitomises so perfectly how silence has grown like a cancer, in a country gripped by a political climate of fear, such that social memory of the community is steadily lost because individuals no longer trust that others will respond to their stories sympathetically. It is such conditioning of self-censorship that adds another gate of control to censorship in the newspapers and other media, leaving artists and activists alike atomised. Why do we accept such reticence as the norm? Some among the audience may feel glad that a play like this may now see the light of day, something impossible one or two decades ago. But this writer here for one has to confess to being so disturbed by its reflection of the socio-political reality, to even long for a day when people can turn the table around, to share their personal experience of ‘lim kopi’ sessions, however minor it might have been for you and I. As one character questions at some point in the play, what is the government so insecure about? Or as an art installation outside the black box ventures in asking, as seen during the tour in the intermission: who is there to check on the government in turn?
The story of the 1980s in Manifesto ends with the suicide of writer and activist Jonathan Ong (played by Neo Hai Bin), which some may understandably find a tad too melodramatic. But it is arguably a convincing ending for an atomised activist who has been broken in spirit through persecution, discredited in the eye of the public due to a forced confession and estranged from one’s fellow activist by political manipulation. His last words in absentia, through the visuals of a black and white video marred by TV statics, were a hopeless plea to humanity, from a young activist who had followed that rainbow in living life to the fullest, only to be brutally and utterly crushed.
Much is to be remembered for in this multidisciplinary production that shuttles back and forth in time, with heavily layered and carefully constructed stories filled with moments of joy and moments of doubt in the lives of artists and activists. There is the dizzying speed of a simulated forum theatre, where a diversity of views on role of the arts in society is immediately overwhelmed by taxi drivers and housewives who find progressive arts irrelevant. There is also a scene on a Christian sponsor taking offence at a video artwork in which the image of Jesus Christ is “morphed into other so-called gods”; her confrontation itself is in turn projected onto a rotating image, as if to suggest that one man’s kaleidoscope of cultures is another’s nightmare of the world turned topsy-turvy.
The ill-fated love story between the Chinese visual artist Ping (Neo) and the Malay actress Som (Siti Khalijah Zainal) back in the 1950s and 60s is probably a major crowd-pleaser, as it evokes nostalgic rural landscapes in Nanyang-style paintings and old Pontianak movies, and even features some sweet crooning by actress Siti. The moment when Ping expresses his wistful longing for the sense of freedom in landscape paintings, in the flowing rhythm of Malay words like pokok-pokok (trees) and burung-burung (birds), one could easily be struck by how an inter-ethnic love like this could be all so natural. It takes a more discerning spectator to see a hint of uneasy structure of power between the struggling artist and the emerging actress.
But if there is one scene that best encapsulates Singapore’s cultural identity from the time of merger and secession to the present, it has to be Siok Dee’s video apology to her sister-in-law Som for objecting to their marriage, half a century after Ping has disappeared in Indonesia. Unlike in the 1950s, Mandarin has become the mode of communication for her. It is as if the inter-ethnic solidarity of the 1950s was just a phase best forgotten, like all other ideals once associated with the Chinese-educated. Nothing left to say, all apologies.