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