on W!LD RICE’s Merdeka (Raffles must fall)

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I enjoyed Merdeka last night and would happily watch it again tonight. It’s good. However an American friend, caught between an impulse to stand and the fear of imposing peer pressure, asked me afterwards whether Singaporean audiences give standing ovations. I said sure. I’ve stood up to applaud Ian McKellen and Kevin Spacey in Singapore.

I believe Alfian, Glen and all the rest should aspire to those heights—especially when they are charging me $14 for a tiny drop of wine—so there is still quite a long way to go. Treat my below comments with that benchmark and perspective in mind. Also, pardon my ignorance on many things, I am not a theatre critic, just an armchair busybody.

I will focus on two things.

Acting

They impressed with their seamless change of roles, their singing, their power, their passion. I could watch each of them for a long time. Perhaps my main critique is that there seemed to me to be very little character development over the course of the two hours.

I would have liked to see the members of the reading group growing, maturing in some way, as they took on one chapter of history after another, as they revelled in some group realisation about Singaporean history and identity. As each told their story, the others became aware of new facts, sure. But there was not enough sense of wonder, of discovery, of change in the person (that cute little Chinese romance aside).

For instance, the seeming reconciliation of differences between the two actresses, Chinese and Malay, seemed terribly forced, especially the awkward apology from the Malay lady for her earlier snide “Chinese girlfriend” comment. I liked the initial, off-the-cuff, fiery comment—not the mawkish, tailored-for-strawberries retreat.

I have no experience in the craft of playwrighting, but I wonder if part of the issue is an over reliance, especially in the beginning, on large chunks of recorded text, rather than the individual character’s own voice.

Then again, perhaps there is so much fine detail packed into the play, which is necessary, which is informative, in this history-starved and -biased country of ours. So perhaps I am asking too much, I should be happy that each took on so many roles, that each served as wonderful interlocutors of history.

merdeka group

Story

At at a high level, I believe an important missing ingredient is the complicity of Singaporeans in colonialism. To put it glibly, the reason Raffles CAN’T fall is that we have all become Raffles. We are all the children of Raffles.

There was not enough in this play about how “the Singaporean” evolved from the early 1800s to be a handmaiden to the British, a bupati, a willing participant to foreign enterprises, EIC and otherwise, as we, collectively, exploited Asia.

To use a traditional decolonisation lens, the abuser and the abused, is inappropriate for Singapore. Other ex colonies, the Indias of the world, had sizeable indigenous populations with rich cultures and definable identities before the colonialists arrived. Singapore, like Mauritius, did not. Raffles may not be the “founder” of anything, but he certainly sparked the creation of “the Singaporean” as we know today. (Controversial assertion: please see notes and comments below for fuller picture.)

Singapore, as a trading hub of the British Empire, was the varnished administrative center, a glittering front that sheltered its inhabitants from tragedies elsewhere. Singapore, and Singaporeans, became rich off colonialism.

Not all of us, for sure. Yes, it is important to remember the fallen and the beaten and the skeletons paraded around town, especially given our whitewashed dominant narrative. But Singaporeans must ask the question why the colonial-era abuses in Singapore were negligible compared to those elsewhere, not least in Jogya just years before Raffles landed here.

I stress this not only for introspection and historical appreciation but also because not much has changed. Singapore, the Switzerland of the East, continues to preach about incorruptibility at home while gleefully welcoming (suspected) drug lords from Myanmar, bigots from Zimbabwe, absconders from Indonesia. We routinely underpay and abuse Bangladeshis and Filipinos—or ignore their abuse en route to Singapore—appeasing our conscience with neoliberal yarns about providing opportunities to the downtrodden.

Every time the Indonesian haze blankets us, we fall back on ignorant, superficial critiques of corrupt governors and lazy farmers—rather than taking aim at the real power mongers, the ones domiciled in Singapore itself: the unscrupulous palm-oil companies engaging in land grabs, and their bosses (I don’t believe all are unscrupulous but some surely are.)

Decolonising the mind, for Singaporeans, should not simply mean a rejection of the West or Western figures or the use of the name “Raffles” around town, but a rejection of the exploitative attitudes that still run through us all.

But then again, that would also imply a fundamental reform of core practices—free and open trade!—that make us economically successful, that were the very basis for the entrepôt.

Perhaps we are not yet willing to look so closely at ourselves, at what we’ve become.

Not even W!LD RICE.

***

Notes:
On the creation of “the Singaporean”. There are at least two important, perhaps overlapping, caveats here worth further exploration: the extent to which the Orang Laut, as part of a broader maritime geography, comprised a cohesive “Singaporean” or “Straits” identity; and the extent to which pre-1819 Singapore was already part of a Malay-led commercial network that perhaps, among many other things, already had exploitative elements around South-east Asia.

***


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***

Finally, here’s a piece I wrote for Nikkei Asian Review on Singapore’s bicentennial commemorations, with some related thoughts.

15 responses

  1. Great to read this Sudhir. Brings up a lot of issues. But I will refrain from comment.

    Where can I read the script of the play? I can’t see it unfortunately. But can you get access to it?

    I just ordered the book A Malaysian Journey by Rehman Rashid was my brother in the UK recommended it – RASHID worked at the ST with my bro. in law. I thought if your bike trip immediately. Have you read it?

    Best

    R

    On Thu, Oct 31, 2019 at 10:52 PM Musings from Singapore wrote:

    > Sudhir Thomas Vadaketh posted: ” I enjoyed Merdeka last night and would > happily watch it again tonight. It’s good. However an American friend, > caught between an impulse and the imposition of peer pressure, asked me > afterwards whether Singaporean audiences give standing ovations. I said” >

    • Hi Regis! Great to hear from you. Not sure where you can read the script actually. You might want to try writing to Alfian and W!LD RICE?

      I love Rehman’s book! It inspired me. A Malaysian friend lent it to me before I set out on my bike trip.

  2. From Alfian on FB:

    Thanks for this, Sudhir! The issue of characterisation has been raised a few times, and my response to that is that I’m trying to explore a form that blends lecture, re-enactment, debate, speech, anthem, song, meta theatre, etc. In choosing between ‘a drama about history’ (where one would track characters arcs and developments) and ‘history as theatre’ (where maybe my focus was more on how texts can be performed), I opted for the latter. Brechtian methods have informed my thinking about the work, where I try to avoid using the actors as surrogates (or points of intimate identification) for the audience’s own journey. That kind of distance, according to Brecht, provides the audience with room for their own critical reflection and prevents them from vicariously resolving their own issues via the characters. But this is of course ultimately subjective and theoretical; it might work with some audiences and less so with others because we have different modes of spectatorship.

    As for the point that ‘we are all Raffles’, I agree that we must examine our own complicity in colonial practices, including our bizarre obsession with being ‘first world’ and our attitude towards those we deem ‘third world’. But I am not sure it would be accurate to say that indigenous Malays and Orang Asli in Singapore who found themselves dispossessed and outnumbered also ‘became Raffles’. And I’m not entirely comfortable with the idea that Singapore did not have a “sizeable indigenous populations with rich cultures and definable identities”. How much is sizeable, and do we take into account that Singapore was part of a larger Johor-Riau territorial empire? Who gets to decide how ‘rich’ a culture is? All this has the taint of a colonial discourse of Singapore as terra incognita and therefore ripe for the supposedly unobtrusive colonial footprint.

  3. Great review. But I’m a bit frustrated by the suggestion of Singapore as terra nullius. Too often, the violent colonial dispossession and disenfranchisement of Singapore’s Malays (then part of the Riau-Lingga empire) has been erased. Normally, this erasure would come from the typical orientalist historiography. But it has also surfaced in the recent surge of local decolonizing work, where it is couched under the critique of compradorship & neo-colonial bougie rule. Sure, this critique is valid, but it seems to be applied rather sweepingly.

    Just to clarify, the colonial experience of Malays were as every bit as violent and repressive as other colonial endeavors. And numerous academics have credibly demonstrated that—from William Roff to Carl Trocki to Imran Tajudeen to Farish Noor to Lily Rahim to Michael Barr to Anthony Milner, and so on and so forth.

    • Apologies. I did not mean to suggest erasure or that the experience was not as violent and repressive. Simply that there was not, as I state, “sizeable indigenous populations with rich cultures and definable identities”. (In Singapore specifically, not surrounds. If there is research that shows this pre-1819 notion of “the Singaporean”, would love to see….)

      As such, I do not believe that the colonial/decolonisation comparison between a territory like Singapore–just Singapore, not including other bits of the region–and other large colonies is coherent.

      And the reason, I hope it’s clear, that I want to point it out is that I believe there is not enough admission, from the PAP, from Singaporeans, about our own complicity in this city state’s accumulation of wealth over the past two centuries (as unjustly as the spoils were distributed). There is a tendency (among some) to push all the blame to the British for what occurred during colonialism. And that, in turn, hinders a proper appreciation of what we are today.

      But I accept Alfian and your critique of my position (if I’m reading it right): that the risk is that we end up becoming apologists for colonial rule and ignoring the Malays who were actually here and who were–let there be no doubt–persecuted.

      Will need to caveat and explain better. Thanks.

      • *Repost. Accidentally posted it as a non-reply*

        Totally agree with you on both our historical & contemporary complicity with (neo) colonial processes and extraction.

        Not to say that you’re arguing this, but I would suggest that it is not useful or historical to see ancient (or precolonial) Singapore as simply the self-contained national unit that we know it today. Historically, the Malays & other indigenous Nusantaran peoples saw the island of Singapore as just one of the many rooms in a big maritime house that stretched from Aceh to Riau. That was the dominant indigenous conception of land, of sea, of home, of space back then.

        To isolate precolonial Singapore island & say that it lacked “sizeable indigenous populations with rich cultures and definable identities” is akin to looking at a person’s kitchen, and determining that the entire house is empty because the kitchen happened to have lesser people in it than the living room.

        I think we need to remember that out of all the ethnic communities of our current citizenry, it’s the Malays that remain shackled by colonial structures and racialization. The continuity between coloniality and postcoloniality is unbroken for Singapore’s Malay masses. To the Malay masses, particularly its proletariat, the British were simply replaced by the PAP’s Chinese executive and to a lesser extent, its selected Malay proxies and a prejudicial Chinese-majority.

  4. Thank you Sudhir for this objective analysis and brilliantly written piece. May I post it or Facebook please?

    Amy Daniel

    On Fri, Nov 1, 2019 at 10:52 AM Musings from Singapore wrote:

    > Sudhir Thomas Vadaketh posted: ” I enjoyed Merdeka last night and would > happily watch it again tonight. It’s good. However an American friend, > caught between an impulse and the imposition of peer pressure, asked me > afterwards whether Singaporean audiences give standing ovations. I said” >

  5. Totally agree with you on both our historical & contemporary complicity with (neo) colonial processes and extraction.

    Not to say that you’re arguing this, but I would suggest that it is not useful or historical to see ancient (or precolonial) Singapore as simply the self-contained national unit that we know it today. Historically, the Malays & other indigenous Nusantaran peoples saw the island of Singapore as just one of the many rooms in a big maritime house that stretched from Aceh to Riau. That was the dominant indigenous conception of land, of sea, of home, of space back then.

    To isolate precolonial Singapore island & say that it lacked “sizeable indigenous populations with rich cultures and definable identities” is akin to looking at a person’s kitchen, and determining that the entire house is empty because the kitchen happened to have lesser people in it than the living room.

    I think we need to remember that out of all the ethnic communities of our current citizenry, it’s the Malays that remain shackled by colonial structures and racialization. The continuity between coloniality and postcoloniality is unbroken for Singapore’s Malay masses. To the Malay masses, particularly its proletariat, the British were simply replaced by the PAP’s Chinese executive and to a lesser extent, its selected Malay proxies and a prejudicial Chinese-majority.

    • Yup. Agree. I do certainly think it’s problematic to view Singapore in isolation when it comes to colonialism. Yet when people do, then a measured view is important. What was here, and what was not. Who benefited, who didn’t. Thanks again!

  6. “Other ex colonies, the Indias of the world, had sizeable indigenous populations with rich cultures and definable identities before the colonialists arrived. Singapore, like Mauritius, did not.”

    I beg to differ. There was a thriving Malay community that was part of and descended from the Majapahit empire (I’m quoting it loosely) according to sources in the academic thesis “The myth of the lazy native” by Professor and Principal research fellow at the National University of Malaysia (and before that, Professor and Head of Malay studies at National University of Singapore) . That’s a compelling read, especially if one wants to know about Temsek and Singapura pre and during British presence. To not acknowledge that is to akin to adhering to the current narrative of “Singapore was an untamed wild jungle full of (insert degoratory term here) natives before the Brits (thank goodness) came. Not acceptable if one wants to present a rationale voice.

    • Sure. I agree. Singapore’s population had ups and downs over that 500 year period pre 1819. So there certainly were people here when Raffles came. Some 1,000 odd people, if I’m not wrong. Certainly no fishing village. I don’t meant to imply that they were uncultured natives, and I don’t want to defend any British atrocities against them.

      By 1821 immigrants had swelled the population to 5,000 and by 1824 to 10,000. Within five years the indigenous, if that’s how they might have identified, were well in the minority. A new colonial port city identity was being formed among Singapore’s new inhabitants. (Based on what I know.) Which makes the demographic profile and identity different from many other colonies. That was really my main point. Sorry for any unintended slurs.

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