As Singapore approaches its fiftieth birthday, many tributes either warm our hearts by celebrating the Singapore spirit and identity, or move one to tears by reminding us of the painstaking efforts that went into the making of Singapore.
Amongst the tributes from the arts scene is a delightful gem called Another Country, which combines laughter, tears, geography and critical thinking. Another Country is a collaboration between Singapore and Malaysia; the Singapore segment is titled Sayang Singapore, while the Malaysian segment is titled Tikam Tikam: Malaysia@Random 2.
The former is directed by Ivan Heng, curated by Alfian Sa’at and performed by the Malaysian cast comprising of Ghafir Akbar, Sharifah Amani, Anne James, Alfred Loh and Iedil Putra, while the latter is directed by Jo Kukathas, curated by Leow Puay Tin and performed by the Singaporean cast constituting Sharda Harrison, Gani Karim, Janice Koh, Lim Yu Beng, Siti Khalijah Zainal.
One of the main goals was to recognise the respective histories and cultures of these two entities, and celebrate the commonalities that we share, often more than what we are aware of or expected. The deliberate switch in cast – Singaporean cast performing the Malaysian story, and Malaysian cast performing the Singaporean story – serves to model cross-cultural interaction and understanding, not purely prompted by economic realities, but by inextricably overlapping memories, lifestyles and identities.
The respect for text resounds clearly through the entire performance. With selected texts spanning from a hundred years ago up until the present day, Another Country was a no doubt a gratifying feast for the literary lover.
Though its first run has ended, here at KRC, we take a long term view with regards to the local arts scene and have reason to hope for a second run in the next few years. Here are a few tips, dear readers, when that time comes:
- Laugh as much as you want when you get the chance to.
The first example would have to be the scene from The Malay Annals depicting various animals and Siti Khalijah Zainal stealing the show with her infectious energy as the King Boar. Exult in communication without words in Kuo Pao Kun’s Mama looking for Her Cat, where an Indian lady speaking Tamil and Chinese man speaking Hokkien tries to communicate to each other, and seem to be looking for the same creature.
While it comically depicts the commonalities we have in spite of the lack of common language, it also highlights the inherent challenges in nation-building when so many people come from different cultural and language backgrounds.
- Because there is no lack of tragic, sombre scenes…when you may find it hard to crack a smile, or breathe.
The oppression of the wife in Elangova’s Talaq which is disturbing precisely because it reminds us that there is domestic abuse going on that remains silent, or Suchen Christine Lim’s Fistful of Colours which reminds us of the sad, pitiful fate of women in the past who knew that by getting married they were simply replaying the tragic married lives of lonely, neglected wives not unlike who their foremothers had once been.
The scene Scorpion Orchid humanises the proverbial prostitute, a trade which was also prevalent in our neighbouring nation, such that even when a man wishes to rescue her from her situation, her self-awareness and self-hatred causes such paralysing shame that rejects entirely his goodwill.
Politically, LCS: In Memoriam depicted the pains and helplessness when the alternate narrative of Singapore and its heroes, who played a role in building the nation, got silenced and buried.
- You will not escape the universal theme of poignant, unrequited love.
In Mimi Fan, a free-spirited young lady rejects a marriage proposal due to her preference for freedom over commitment, must have spoken to many once-broken hearts.
The English Language Teacher’s Secret was an amusing, light-hearted piece on the teacher falling in love and her class discovering it.
A Common Story by Kassim Ahmad also spoke of one of the bittersweet, coming-of-age stories of the colonial times – a Malay graduate having his perspectives changed by socialist sentiments in Singapore, falling in love with a Chinese girl but having his heart broken in the end, eventually, and ultimately choosing to return to his Malaysian hometown to rediscover his soul.
- Be prepared for honest portrayals of the political frustrations between and within both Singapore and Malaysia
The euphoric scene from Happy and Free embracing merger, was laden with irony, for it was not long after that when the fateful separation of the two territories occurred. The spat between the Malaysian traffic police and Singapore driver in Highway by Claire Tham, painted a realist picture of the complicated feelings that undergird corruption, shocking us with the change from initial dignified assertion of power, to the moment of eventual grudging resignation to economic realities.
Daulat: Long live by Malaysian Mark Teh was an appealing crowd favourite, judging by the amount of laughter and cheers – a seemingly effortless stream of ironic blessings to the corrupted authorities.
- Have fun celebrating Singaporean and Malaysian identity
The solo performance of Janice Koh in Ang Tau Mui definitely made a deep impression – a Malaysian Chinese village lady in love with pork and adamantly unapologetic in expressing her feelings for it, may very well even put us to shame in our expression of ardour for local cuisine.
Arthur Yap’s Two mothers in a HDB playground undoubtedly reflects the petty yet amusing daily competition that goes in between every mother in every neighbourhood in Singapore’s economy-obsessed years.
Watching Elvis lived in Katong and Forever Singlish generates a genuine Singaporean pride for the ground-up organic culture which every Singaporean will identify with, knowing that there has always been local culture not reproduceable or oppressed by the government, as much as they might have tried.
Apart from the apparent emphasis on cultural intersection by the Malaysian cast playing the Singapore story and the Singaporean cast performing the Malaysian story, the structures of the Singapore and Malaysian story certainly did not escape one’s attention.
Sayang Singapore was a strict, typical historical narrative, while that of Tikam Tikam: Malaysia@ Random 2 was literally of Tikam Tikam, when during intermission before the Malaysian segment, the audience was allowed to choose the order of the scenes, resulting in a different order every night. At the end of the Tikam Tikam exercise, the Singaporean cast conveyed that they would attempt to perform all the scenes in their entirety and see how much they could accomplish practically in an hour.
I could not help wondering if this alluded to the serendipitous, messy and relatively free nation building process which Malaysia has, as compared to the rigid, structured and restricted interpretation of nationhood which Singapore has come to be famous for.
Overall, Another Country was an ambitious, sincere and endearing piece of work, not least because of the moving performances by the cast, but also the applaudable feat of curating more than a century’s worth of works. While one may heave a sigh of relief after watching such a long piece of work – especially if not accustomed to lengthy theatre performances – it would also be likely that audience members had never experienced the flavours of Singapore and Malaysia in such a bold, overwhelming yet captivating manner before.
The commonalities that Singapore and Malaysia share, should certainly not go forgotten – as expressly depicted in the demonstration of cooking Hainanese Chicken Rice in the Chef’s Secret, which Singapore claims to be its dish.
Perhaps some of us will be driven to explore more of the shared cultural space between us, and cultivate closer ties. Let’s hope that the second run will come soon. Before that, if one is intrigued to know more about Singapore and Malaysian history, simply revisiting or discovering the performed texts will be a hell of a ride.