Playwright and PhD student in Southeast Asian Studies, Ann Lee, reviews W!ld Rice‘s Another Country in an essay for The Daily Seni.
Whenever art as industry is harnessed to national objectives – such as helping to rebuild a people’s faith and confidence (consider the Edinburgh Festival after WWII) or restoring values besides financial stability (consider the Singapore Arts Festival after the country’s image as ‘the Geneva of Asia’ loomed large and boring) – what happens to art in terms of truth, beauty, healing, change, or just plain human expression at least as old as the 40, 000 year old world’s earliest cave hand prints?
Well, they can still all come together in a manifestly artful production that moves the human spirit.
Consider Another Country, commissioned by Singaporean theatre group W!ld Rice for the 50th anniversary of Singapore, featuring Singaporeans and Malaysians respectively interpreting written texts from literary, archival and media sources.
Texts are ‘curated’ by playwrights Alfian Sa’at and Leow Puay Tin and interpreted by directors Ivan Heng (Artistic Director of W!ld Rice) and Jo Kukathas (Artistic Director of Instant Café Theatre) using their cast of Singaporean (Sharda Harrison, Gani Karim, Janice Koh, Lim Yu-Beng, and Siti Khalijah Zainal) and Malaysian (Ghafir Akbar, Sharifah Amani, Anne James, Alfred Loh, and Iedil Putra) actors.
What of audiences that have seen the show during the Malaysian run at the Damansara Performing Arts Centre? It seems the answer is simple enough. Night after night, they have given standing ovations.
But just what is it that has moved hearts and minds so?
First, it’s worth noting that W!ld Rice is probably the ‘rebel gentleman’ of all state-supported theatre companies in Singapore – the team is known for going against the norm but through commercially savvy, dashingly cut productions.
Artistic director Ivan Heng’s sensibility doesn’t so much punish with ‘show and tell’, but cucuk with show and play. Trivial without trivializing, it’s a main-main type of affair– he flirts, we’re flattered, there’s a coming together. He bares his soul, and once, even his ass for a production of George Orwell’s Animal Farm.
This is the same accomplished actor, director, producer and writer recently awarded the Cultural Medallion, Singapore’s highest accolade for excellence in the arts, which might be a paradox for some (‘schoolmarmish Singapore’, etc). But Another Country harbours a number of paradoxes that nevertheless hold true.
To state in the program that Another Country is part of Wild Rice’s ImagiNATION series that ‘celebrates Singapore’s golden jubilee’ is to suggest that Another Country also ‘celebrates’ the separation of Singapore and Malaysia. After all, one country has not become so except without the other (and it’s thanks to Sabah and Sarawak that Malaysia exists).
The ‘celebration’, however, is obviously ironic given that the separation was a largely traumatic one, judging from footage of ‘strongman’ Lee Kuan Yew‘s tearful announcement.
For Ivan Heng to say he took the ‘peace’ between Malaysia and Singapore as the main idea in developing Another Country, he might well be labelled naïve, if not mawkishly sentimental. Let’s face it: there have been bitter fights and tit for tats between both countries.
Many nation states have seen much worse ethnic and political division in the name of keeping peace (consider the fate of the tutsi in Rwanda and communists in Indonesia). As experienced by many, ‘peace’ comes at a very high cost in the calm of self-censorship and the disquiet of detention without trial.
Again, Malaysian audiences gave standing ovations night after night. What gives?
If it’s because the show markedly sets out to explore a ‘reunited’ Singapore and Malaysia – an imaginary universe, with humour emphasized in its pre-publicity videos – then this show might be a sweet and gentle departure from the harsh civil war of words going on in real Malaysian life about, say, ethnic chauvinism, religious tussle, and the fate of a national airline (just what Tunku Abdul Rahman and Lee Kuan Yew were concerned about). If so, then here we have theatre as healing, or at the very least, relief and distraction.
But are the chosen texts only sweet and gentle ones concerning peace? Since none of the playwrights, directors and performers are old enough to have witnessed the great separation of yore, we now enter the interesting realm of what historian Jay Winter, among others, has called ‘the rhetoric of remembrance’ and the distinction between history and memory.
The performative act of remembrance, says Winter, is an ‘essential’ way in which collective identities are formed. When individuals and groups ‘express or interpret or repeat’ a script about the past, they ‘galvanise the ties that bind’ the group together and ‘deposit additional memory traces’ about the past that each of us carries with us.
But if so, then what texts do the playwrights choose to speak to us, and how would the directors and performers have our individual and group memories ‘relived, revived and refashioned’? 
Part One – Sayang Singapura
Without giving the whole game away, ‘Sayang Singapura’ comprises 35 mostly literary text excerpts from the 16th century to present day, chosen by W!ld Rice resident playwright Alfian Sa’at and performed by the Malaysian cast.
The oldest excerpt is from Sejarah Melayu/The Malay Annals, the genealogy of Malay rulers and account of the rise of Melaka that Malaysian or Singaporean schoolchildren don’t necessarily know much of. Unsurprisingly, Leow Puay Tin uses the same reference in her compilation that is performed by the Singaporean cast in the latter half of the show.
Both playwrights’ choices neatly serve to remind that while Malaysia and Singapore lasted for two years as a single country, they share a very long, pre-colonial history – long before Stamford Raffles even!  While Singapore celebrates turning 50 this year, Jakarta celebrates its 488th anniversary. Each to her own history.
Sa’at’s choices, ranging from the mournful to the transcendent, were performed in strictly chronological order, with titles, dates and images projected on a large screen behind the actors.
As director, Jo Kukathas is arguably the most experienced and innovative, award-winning director of the Malaysian contemporary stage, and certainly the most experienced female one. Her directorial characteristics include a generosity of spirit, concern for accessibility, nurture of young talent, and an inventive, constant agitation of status quo.
Another Kukathas characteristic, however, is a sometimes indulgent love of text that leaves her vulnerable when it comes to duration – Kukathas-directed plays can occasionally go on for too long. This ‘achilles heel’ is born perhaps of a remarkable stamina and love for theatre that few can match. Still, the most important distinction of this section was the assured choice of actors to play any role.
Her actors played characters irrespective of race, gender and religion, going against ‘segregated casting’ that sees only the Indian play an Indian role, or a man playing a man’s role. The resulting living, breathing, constant, contradicting state of the ensemble (like subatomic particles) is the most outstanding accomplishment of Kukathas and her cast. There was a fluent yet unpredictable expression of plural identity and difference – it might even be said that the ensemble hit the holy grail of a new aesthetic of modern Malaysian performance.
On the night I attended, one of many audience favourites included “Happy and Free”, an anthem commissioned by the Ministry of Culture, Singapore, at the time of union between Singapore and Malaysia. For all the youthful exuberance of the Malaysian cast (including the young at heart, Anne James), it wasn’t possible to convey the anthem’s earnest optimism. As the cast beamed on, smiles and choreography fixed, singing in perfect unison, we heard the lyrics and could not but laugh at the innocence!
Happy and free? Separation came just two years after this anthem.
Now, 50 years later, among the Malaysian audience at least, memory includes violence meted at the highest offices (consider the brutal black eye in custody or the murder of a Mongolian translator), so removing a citizen’s innocence forever, except in an imaginary sphere. Here again, was theatre as healing.
Lots of audience laughter also rang out in ‘The English Language Teacher’s Secret’ by novelist and poet Catherine Lim, with the cast as Form One students who come to the slow but beautiful realization that their paragon of virtue and discipline, their English language teacher (Anne James ‘on cruise’), was in love and just can’t hide it! Sweet innocence again, lost to a more adult awakening.
A personal favourite was the excerpt from the late Kuo Pao Kun’s Mama Looking for Her Cat not only because there was little English, but because it saw Alfred Loh’s old-soul face easily make for a grumpy old man speaking in Hokkien and Anne James as an agitated old woman speaking in Tamil. Both characters attempt to communicate with one another but with comedic misunderstanding. Not everyone had to be fluent in either Hokkien or Tamil to understand the scene as the communion of theatre and the universal language of mime were inclusive enough.
I confess ignorance of many of the Singaporean texts but these will surely strike more resonant chords with audiences during the show’s run in Singapore. Besides, being unfamiliar with the texts meant many new ‘finds’ within certain lines of the performance.
The new words and garble of the newscasters (oh those easy targets, ha) in Tan Tarn How’s Fear of Writing were funny and original. The small and tender observations in Cyril Wong’s ‘crossing j.b. (for S)’ were touching. Watching the performance of LCS: In Memoriam written by the late Tan Jing Quee, it was possible to feel loss and a sense of mourning even without any understanding of Lim Chin Siong, the dominant figure in anti-colonial struggle and a political detainee of postwar Singapore.
The ride of emotions and thrill of new finds were brought to life by the performers, and individual highlights surely include Ghafir Akbar whose any-minute-now bursts of energy and stillness (and unlikely resemblance to actor John Turturro) make him very watchable.
In Lim Chor Pee’s Mimi Fan Sharifah Amani showed little complacency from being in the films of the late Yasmin Ahmad and held her own in both ensemble and individual roles. Although some moments, as in Elangovan’s Talaq, she might trust herself more deeply to do less, not more, with that gloriously malleable, beautiful face.
Charged and committed, with a voice of real grounding, Alfred Loh seemed to gather the most strength from audience reaction. An affectionate after-image remains of a half-dressed, hairy self with a somewhat hangdog expression, yet all his characters were alert and believable.
Iedil Putra in character as the loving boyfriend to his male partner in Cyril Wong’s ‘crossing j.d (for S)’ sealed the deal that he is a rare actor with a fine balance of daring and sensitivity. His portrayal withstood the audience’s initial giggles, apparently nervous laughter at seeing two gay men be romantic with each other.
Though tagged as a ‘veteran’ actress these days, it’s plain to see there’s a lot more energy, fun and conniving yet in Anne James, even if there were moments when she relied on voice range to take her where, previously, her body might have gone too. Her face in repose uniquely manages to be at once stunned and furious, still and in despair – perhaps a reflection of all that has come to pass, if only for audiences of a certain age.
Part One ended with a satisfied sense of the ride having come to a stop. The anticipation however quickly builds up as it’s time to go again!
Part Two – Tikam-tikam: Malaysia@ Random 2
Out came the Singaporean cast in light white casual tops and trousers, rolling in a neat white board of Leow Puay Tin’s selected text titles.
The break in proceedings allowed for more relaxation as Janice Koh led cast mates into the audience and charmed us to choose the order of texts they will perform. This ‘tikam-tikam’ style of choice has by chance been a part of Puay Tin’s method, at least since the Five Arts Centre’s production of ‘Family’ (1995). It’s a clever adaptation from a childhood game, and one that draws attention to ‘the performative’ as a whole where ‘text’ means anything we read in a play – from costume to sound – not just the script.
Leow’s range of texts was also overtly literary, with many excerpts from the canon of Malaysian short stories, novels and poetry by Usman Awang, Sri Delima, Lloyd Fernando, K. S. Maniam, and Shirley Geok-lin Lim. Contemporary works by Jit Murad, Adlin Aman Ramlie, Mark Teh and Beth Yahp were also included as were other interesting ‘finds’ from non-fiction sources, interviews and notes: we are talking Amir Muhammad’s ‘120 Malay Movies’, ‘Lu Siapa?’ by the late painter Datuk Syed Ahmad Jamal, and ‘The Myths that Cloak Our Theatre’ by the late Krishen Jit, mentor and supporter to many of the production’s protagonists.
Ivan Heng’s direction was deft, utilizing more light and sound to create a wide variety of intimate and wide spaces between floor and screen, as well as moods and character to support his actors. Generally older and more experienced than the Malaysian cast, the Singaporean cast had a different set of energies and pathos.
Experience came through in certain, sure portrayals of deep reflection. A personal favourite was Janice Koh’s superlative portrayal in Shirley Geok-lin Lim’s Among the white moon faces: memoirs of a nyonya feminist. Here was a breathtakingly nuanced performance of complex emotion to convey the duty of looking after a mother who does not love you.
Being more familiar with the Malaysian texts, it was often just a delight to see them off the page and on the stage. Respect and understanding underlined consistent touches of irreverence needed to get to the heart of each text and in so doing, reach the hearts of viewers too.
Crowd favourites from Part Two included Leow Puay Tin’s own Ang Tau Mui, the toilet cleaner whose first, if not only pleasure, is a delicious meal with pork. If we’re going by loudest laughs, then winners of the night would be Mark Teh’s Daulat: Long Live and Lim Boo Liat’s Moonrat: Tikus Bulan that tickled to the point of bellyache due in large part to Siti Khalijah Zainal’s exquisite comic timing and irresistible stage presence. She had the audience eating out of her hand.
Many of the solos were outstanding, but this was also due to the superbly focused ensemble core provided by all five actors. Their commitment and precision kept them wholly in the moment, perhaps best exemplified by the three Singaporean actresses showcasing circus agility to form a tembusu tree for Ee Tiang Hong’s same-named text.
Gani Karim played the Malay roles with aplomb and authority while Lim Yu-Beng’s onstage modesty and generosity belied a powerful presence even when he played ‘elephant’. For deepest silences, Sharda Harrison found memorable pathos and clarity to free her sex worker character in Lloyd Fernando’s Scorpion Orchid.
At the end of Part Two, the Malaysian cast came back on, smiling to greet their Singaporean friends and colleagues. It was a utopian moment of peace and harmony, coming just short of a Hollywood happy ending but by now, we had all travelled too far together not to be able to give grace to the performers, if not ourselves, for all given and received.
Eyes were refreshed, ears re-tuned, hands held and hearts healed by the show’s many points of inclusion that attendees could accept or reject, dream or weep about, or simply laugh away. There was also excellence in terms of stagecraft.
The show didn’t just criticize; Another Country dared to create. There was room to believe in the impossible, however naïve and romanticized it might be in this time of cynicism and schism.
Krishen Jit would surely have been pleased and proud of Heng and Kukathas for being so explorative with their ‘counter conduct’, while perhaps also being kinder to audiences.
What strikes home is how so much history (of the Left) remains hidden and still off-limits after all this time. With no real peace of mind about what happened between the post-war and independence period, coupled with a lack of transparency regarding events in the present, it might well be said that peace in our time is possible only through selective amnesia if not willful naivete.
But there is hope.
As Winter writes, “it is moral to listen, because in doing so, we affirm that moral thinking is not only possible but that it can survive even the most horrific crimes… Performances can bring us closer to those who have suffered, though it is unwise to suggest that their wounds are healed thereby.”
Judging from the standing ovations, viewers were moved enough to be taken to ‘Another Country’ and they will now live with memories ‘relived, revived and re-fashioned’ for another day.
Another Country will continue its run at the Drama Centre, Singapore from 25 June to 11 July, 2015.
 See Karin Tilmans, Frank van Vree and Jay Winter (eds) Performing the past: memory, history and identiy in modern Europe (Amsterdam University Press, 2010)
 Sejarah Melayu was Stamford Raffles’ (among others) chosen title even though in the oldest existing copy of this text, known as Raffles Manuscript 18, the author (unknown) refers to the title as Sulalatus Salatin (in Arabic) and ‘Sala-silah peratoran segala Raja Raja (in Malay). Considered to be a 19th century copy of a 17th century text, this genealogy of rulers was a standard genre in early modern Southeast Asia to help establish the legitimacy of rulers – including it may be said of Raffles himself whose finding the text was an influence (though not sole) in his choice to claim or otherwise ‘rule’ Singapore and not elsewhere. Today, there are at least 32 versions of the Sejarah Melayu, identified by their copiers or by the collection in which they are deposited. See Ruzy Hashim (2000), ‘Bringing Tun Kudu out of the shadows: Interdisciplinary approaches to understanding the female presence in the Sejarah Melayu’ in (ed.) Barbara Watson Andaya, Other pasts: women, gender and history in early modern Southeast Asia (University of Hawaii Press), p. 109
All pictures obtained from Another Country’s Facebook page and taken by Wong Horng Yih.