KUALA LUMPUR, May 20 — Ever wondered if our neighbours down south feel the same way about us as we do about them?
The examination of this very question is at the crux of a theatrical text exchange between Malaysia and Singapore. Timed as Singapore celebrates 50 years of independence this year (or some would see it as the 50th anniversary of Singapore’s exit from Malaysia), theatre makers from both countries join forces to explore our shared history in Another Country.
In this collaboration, redoubtable Malaysian actor-director Jo Kukathas directs her fellow Malaysians in performing a selection of Singaporean plays. Her Singaporean counterpart, Ivan Heng, will do the reverse and direct Singaporeans as they perform texts by Malaysian writers.
The multi-racial cast of ten actors represents some of the best talent from both sides of the Causeway, including Malaysia’s Alfred Loh, Anne James, Ghafir Akbar, Iedil Putra and Sharifah Amani and Singapore’s Sharda Harrison, Gani Karim, Lim Yu-beng, Lydia Look, and Siti Khalijah Zainal. The Singaporean texts are curated by Singaporean playwright Alfian Sa’at, while the Malaysian texts are curated by Malaysian playwright Leow Puay Tin.
If anything were possible, would the two playwrights want Singapore and Malaysia to be reunited? For Alfian, there are some compelling reasons for this "reunion" for Singapore. “A bigger domestic market, the possibility that mandatory conscription will be scrapped in Singapore, more land (we are facing a severe land crunch, and some of the repercussions of this is escalating property prices and destruction of built heritage) and maybe most importantly, population replacement.
"Only around 60 per cent of the resident population is made up of Singapore citizens and PR’s, with the rest being foreigners. The government has completely failed in trying to improve the fertility rate, and their immigration policy has come with a high social cost – rise in anti-foreigner sentiment, competition for transport and housing.”
Puay Tin recalls a story she heard of how Lee Kuan Yew “cried” when Tunku “kicked” Singapore out of Malaysia. “Only Malaysians ever repeated that story to me,” she says, “and it was implied that the crying was a kind of play-acting or that it was played up for his own political reasons.
"In the process of looking for new texts for Another Country, I found a two-minute video clip on YouTube… I was surprised and moved by his sincerity, his youthfulness, and most of all, by his vision of a united nation. But that time has passed. For me, Singapore is another country, but one which I feel at home in as a visitor – I don’t feel like a stranger in the way I do in Thailand or the Philippines or Indonesia. It is a place that is convenient, efficient, and safe.”
Singaporeans and Malaysians are notorious for taking pot shots at each other. Alfian says, “I believe every nation in the world makes fun of its neighbours. Look at the UK and France. Or the US and Canada. And honestly I think it’s stereotypes like ‘kiasu Singaporeans’ and ‘lepak Malaysians’ that force us to take a harder look at our flaws.”
For Puay Tin, our shared history still resonates till today. She explains, “We understand one another only too well and we don’t always like it. We can ‘read’ each other. That’s when we say ‘that is so Singaporean!’ to put some distance between us, to disclaim our kinship and common humanity when it comes to things we don’t like in ourselves or in our kind.
"This one-upmanship was at work when the issue was Singaporeans being fined for urinating in lifts or not flushing toilets or throwing sofas out of high-rise buildings. Singapore is a such ‘fine country’ – but if it has helped them to get cleaner public toilets, why can’t we do the same?”
Puay Tin had a very good experience of curating Malaysian texts for Singaporean actors. She says, “In the first incarnation of Another Country, called The Second Link directed by Ivan Heng, the actors worked so well and hard at the text; they knew how to work with language. They displayed a high level of professionalism.”
In curating literature from Singapore for Malaysian actors, Alfian felt the challenge was more for the Malaysian actors in interpreting the Singaporean texts. He says, “Can they perform them with innocent bodies or will there be some commentary on these texts just by virtue of the fact that they are Malaysians? Will they attempt to connect with the texts in ways that will also provide a commentary on Malaysian society? I guess you’ll have to watch the play to find out!”
Another Country will premier in Malaysia at Petaling Jaya’s Damansara Performing Arts Centre (June 4 to 14, 2015) before continuing its run at Singapore’s Drama Centre Theatre (June 25 to July 11, 2015).
Tickets (Tier 1/Tier 2): Adult (RM80/RM60); senior citizens and disabled (RM70/RM60); students (RM35 both tiers)
June 4 to 14, 2015
Tue-Sat 8:30pm; Sun 3pm; no shows on Mon
Damansara Performing Arts Centre, Empire Damansara, Jalan PJU 8/8, Damansara Perdana, PJ
Tel: 03-4065 0001, 03-4065 0002