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Home / Culture and Society / Arts / Interview: Alfian Sa’at of Wild Rice’s Malaysia-Singapore Theatrical Collaboration ‘Another Country’ on Amos Yee and Singapore Theatre
"The ‘political’ is still a taboo, and the idea of what constitutes the political is really wide."

Interview: Alfian Sa’at of Wild Rice’s Malaysia-Singapore Theatrical Collaboration ‘Another Country’ on Amos Yee and Singapore Theatre

Alfian Sa’at‘s latest designation is curator of the Singapore texts for Another Country, a Malaysia-Singapore collaboration running at the Victoria Theatre from 25th June to 11th July 2015.

We asked the prolific playwright questions about being a minority in Singapore, censorship in theatre, and his visit with Amos Yee.

Alfian Sa'at

Could you tell us what you’ve been up to so far in 2015?

So far I’ve been working on the plays ‘Another Country’ as well as ‘Hotel’, our Singapore Festival of the Arts commission.

You also recently curated texts for ‘Another Country’, Wild Rice’s newest play. How did you go about making your choices? Was it difficult deciding which texts to include and which ones to leave out?

It was actually more difficult to decide which texts to leave out, because I’m such a fan of Singaporean literature and there are many writers I was very fond of. And there was a also a balance that I tried to strike. On one hand, I felt that I should include some of the pioneering writers (those who wrote Singapore’s first novel, or first play, for example), but on the other I didn’t want the play to be something canonical, which can be a bit didactic. I also wanted to surprise the audience with some lesser-known works.

What can the audience expect from ‘Another Country’?

I think they can expect a celebration of Singapore writing, through performance. And I hope that some of them might be piqued by some of the writings to pick up a book by one of the authors featured.

You are very vocal about many issues. What are your thoughts about Singapore, in a nutshell – its good points, and its flaws?

Good points – clean, efficient, predictable, orderly
Bad points – sterile, robotic, boring, autocratic

And what are your honest feelings about our neighbour, Malaysia?

I like the people but I don’t like the government.

In July 2010 in an interview with Malaysia’s The Sun Daily, you said you weren’t happy living in Singapore. What are your feelings today? Do you prefer living in Singapore or in Malaysia? 

I like shuttling back and forth. When Singapore becomes too much of robot-land then I go over to Malaysia to get some contact with humans. But when the humans there start getting on my nerves then I go back to Singapore.

For a minority living in Singapore, there are many hints of racism still around, such as blatantly racist comments online or minorities not being featured on the covers of most local magazines, etc. Do you sense any improvement on this front in recent years? Or has it gotten worse in your opinion?

I think some people are closet communalists – meaning that they’re not racist among their friends but if they’re in trusted company then you’ll hear racist comments and jokes. The Internet has actually lifted the lid on some of these attitudes because some people are still adjusting to social media and can’t quite distinguish between public and private speech. So in that sense we might get the impression that we’re hearing more racist stuff these days, although I suspect the racism has been there all along.

The good thing is that when something goes public then you can witness the social censure, people calling something out as racist, for example, people articulating majority privilege, etc. So I think these discussions are a healthy development.

Let’s talk about theatre and censorship in Singapore. From your experience, has it gotten easier to stage thoughtful and/or truthful albeit controversial socio-political plays? OR has it gotten even harder?

To be fair, I think it’s much easier now than in previous decades to stage plays that deal with gender and sexuality issues. Of course you’ll get slapped with a rating, but I think these developments are in line with a growing awareness that something like homosexuality, for example, is not some kind of mental illness that needs to be cured, or that exposure to neutral or positive depictions of homosexuality will not turn you gay.

However, the ‘political’ is still a taboo, and the idea of what constitutes the political is really wide. So, for example, if some dignitary from China is visiting Singapore, then a play you are putting up about say, the Tiananmen Square massacre can be ‘political’ (even though you had no idea about this visit). Or if bilateral relations with Malaysia are not so good, then your play about Malaysia gets ‘political’. Right now because of Lee Kuan Yew’s death they’re beginning to get very nervous about the unofficial accounts of the ISD sweeps like Operation Coldstore and Operation Spectrum…these legacy anxieties then become ‘political’.

You recently talked to Amos Yee, Singapore’s recent headlining teen who might be facing some serious sentencing soon. After you and your Wild Rice mates met Yee, he seemed to badmouth you and your friends in his blog thereafter. Any regrets on meeting him? Any thoughts about him or words to him that you’d like to offer?

We invited Amos to watch the play ‘Public Enemy’. After the play he told us very directly that he didn’t like it. Actually his aesthetic taste leans more towards foreign works, and he felt that in the play we had damaged the work by ‘localising’ it within a Singaporean setting. Even though he had once produced a video about Singlish, he actually hates Singlish and has this American accent which he picked up from movies and television. So he has a bit of a cultural cringe when it comes to Singaporean works.

But you know, that’s really fine. Amos is under no obligation to like something just because he was given free tickets to it. I know later on he called some of us ‘horrible artists’ but ‘exceptionally nice’ people. And to be honest I don’t have a problem with that. It’s an opinion. It’s what free speech is about. But if he had said that one of us had touched him or something, then that would not be a reasonable exercise of free speech. Because free speech should not include slander or hate speech. So I have no regrets meeting him, if only to try observing what makes him tick.

It’s quite clear when one looks at online comments, that Singaporeans largely feel that a fellow Singaporean (no matter how loyal/patriotic he/she is) shouldn’t be allowed to complain about anything in Singapore – as if it shows a lack of gratefulness. Yet extremely loyal and highly patriotic Americans, Australians, Brits, etc who complain don’t face the same grief about being ungrateful from their people. Any thoughts on this strange Singaporean phenomenon?

I guess it’s insecurity. The Americans and British have much longer histories and I suppose are seen as less fragile as societies. And maybe they think a smaller population has little room for a diversity of opinion. But I actually think it’s the inability to deal with criticism and dissent that makes you fragile.

In conclusion, this being the year Singapore turns 50, what are your hopes for this country, for yourself, and for theatre in Singapore?

I hope that Singapore turns into a kinder place to live in; as a Singaporean myself I hope to contribute to that by always being mindful about being kind to others, and as for theatre, I hope that ticket prices get more subsidised and that it becomes more affordable for everyone!

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About Sharmila Melissa Yogalingam

Ex-professor, Ex-phd student, current freelance critic, writer and filmmaker.

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