Playwright Chong Tze Chien's Charged faces racism head-on

Charged unfolds as a probe after a Chinese soldier (Tan Shou Chen) kills his Malay colleague (Yazid Jalil) before killing himself. Chong Tze Chien felt the army was an ideal setting for the play, as a hotbed of personalities and culture clashes. Char
Charged unfolds as a probe after a Chinese soldier (Tan Shou Chen) kills his Malay colleague (Yazid Jalil) before killing himself. PHOTO: SINGAPORE THEATRE FESTIVAL
Charged unfolds as a probe after a Chinese soldier (Tan Shou Chen) kills his Malay colleague (Yazid Jalil) before killing himself. Chong Tze Chien felt the army was an ideal setting for the play, as a hotbed of personalities and culture clashes. Char
Chong Tze Chien felt the army was an ideal setting for the play, as a hotbed of personalities and culture clashes. Charged can be found in the book Chong Tze Chien: Four Plays.PHOTO: ST FILE
Charged unfolds as a probe after a Chinese soldier (Tan Shou Chen) kills his Malay colleague (Yazid Jalil) before killing himself. Chong Tze Chien felt the army was an ideal setting for the play, as a hotbed of personalities and culture clashes. Char
Chong Tze Chien felt the army was an ideal setting for the play, as a hotbed of personalities and culture clashes. Charged can be found in the book Chong Tze Chien: Four Plays (above).PHOTO: EPIGRAM BOOKS

Life picks a classic of Singapore's English-language theatre and tells you why it matters in this 14th instalment of a monthly series

Play: Charged (December 2010)

Playwright: Chong Tze Chien

What it is about: Over Chinese New Year at an army camp, a Chinese soldier, Russell, shoots his Malay colleague Hakim, then kills himself. The play unfolds as a Rashomon-type investigation into the tragedy, and the two soldiers' families, colleagues and friends - as well as the country at large - must deal with the interracial prejudices and panic that come crawling out of its wake.

When playwright-director Chong Tze Chien was doing his national service, one of his platoon mates abruptly went absent without leave. This army buddy of his had already racked up several run-ins with officers during his enlistment. The group was close to finishing its time in the army, but during one of the final exercises, he "took off".

Chong, 40, says: "The whole exercise was cut short because they couldn't find him. When they confronted him, there were two things floating around: He couldn't take it and wanted to malinger, and he said, in his defence, that he had seen 'something' that told him to go home.

"We never got to the bottom of it. But he was punished and made to do something like seven guard duties."

That incident formed the seed of Russell's story, which tells of a young man who is fraying, mentally and emotionally, at the seams.

There are three different possibilities that explain Russell's and Hakim's deaths in this "howdunit", told from the perspectives of three soldiers who are interrogated by a senior investigation officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Victor de Souza, who happens to be Eurasian. Each of these versions of the truth tears into various racial sensitivities and asks hard questions about the inviolability of NS.

The army, Chong felt, was the ideal setting for a play to dig deep into issues of race and social class. He envisioned a "twisted" take on Michael Chiang's feel-good Army Daze (1987), which has since made its way into Singapore pop culture as one of the definitive plays that captures the army experience.

Chong says: "The army is a hotbed of personalities and culture clashes - it provides a lot of rich material for stories." But while Army Daze champions the bonds between soldiers, regardless of skin colour and with a great deal of warm and fuzzy comedy, Charged takes these tropes and runs in the other direction, towards tragedy.

Chong and director Zizi Azah, 35, met in late 2009 to discuss various ideas, and after mulling over these possibilities, Chong sat down and churned out the first draft of Charged in under a week. Zizi read through it and found it "too polite".

She says: "It ended quite nicely with their two mothers hugging and having a press conference - but it was too nicely tied up. It didn't push or face racism head on, or the ugliness of racism, the things we are afraid of, which is why people avoid talking about it.

"When he wrote the next draft, it was brilliant because it said all of the things we are so afraid of talking about. We know that it happens below the surface.

"If we don't talk about racism, it becomes ignorance, and then we have lost the battle. You'll have people being racist without even knowing that they are racist."

In the final version, the supposedly neutral character of Victor, who implies he is selected to pursue the investigation because of his race ("They chose my colour - it's neutral in this quarrel"), reaches a violent, climactic breaking point of frustration and anger after several fruitless rounds of questioning and lets loose a shocking, expletive-ridden tirade that shreds his calm, clinical exterior.

Chong, 40, says: "This conversation has always been buried and swept under the rug... But to put it on a platform like this will suddenly give everyone a jolt. They are made aware of the others in the same room as them, hearing it together, having a shared experience - when that happens, I think that's when both sides are confronted by their own demons and their own hypocrisies.

"And that's a conversation that is long overdue, because the rhetoric in Singapore is, you don't go there because it's a ticking time bomb. But the conversation needs to start, because it's about disarming the time bomb."

Cast member Yazid Jalil, 27, who was nominated for a Life Theatre Award for his performance as Hakim, echoes this sentiment. Depending on who is narrating the series of events, his character goes through diverse incarnations - from a ruthless, aggressive gangster to a lazy but harmless young man.

Yazid feels that ignoring difference can be detrimental to all involved: "This issue of class difference doesn't come up in the army unless you probe deeper. Because everyone is the same in the army, everyone is in uniform, it's almost like you don't have an identity. We are soldiers first, we follow orders first, and then we are individuals second.

"Whether we have problems with one another due to class, race or upbringing, we all want the same thing, to book out and ORD. I think that can be quite dangerous." ORD refers to reach the operationally ready date, that is, to complete NS.

Unlike his troublemaking character, Yazid was a section commander during his NS days, responsible for soldiers from diverse backgrounds. He had just completed NS when he was cast in the role at age 22. He says he did question why he could not take up certain vocations in the army, and sometimes visited camps where there were no Malays in sight.

"It's very interesting how true Tze Chien's writing was," he says. "He's not from Hakim's background, he's not even Malay, but he can write it so well. It's very easy for a writer or creator to paint someone in a very stereotypical or one-dimensional way. But when you read the script, the more you explore it, the more you start to peel out these layers."

Zizi adds of Chong's handling of the material: "There are people who say that, oh, non-x cannot talk about x's problems. But why? That makes no sense. Then we shouldn't watch French films, or anything from Hollywood, and just live in our own little bubbles. The fact that it's Tze Chien who wrote this, and who captured it so wonderfully, is testament to the greatness we can achieve if we celebrate one another."

Former Life theatre critic Adeline Chia wrote in her review of the play: "Chong does not treat his material with kid gloves and confronts difficult questions that are often buried below politically correct platitudes about race. Sentiments such as: Malays are lazy and stupid. Malays are not given high posts in the army because of the fear of their possible allegiances with Malaysia or Indonesia." She called it "rock-solid writing" and the play won Best Original Script at the Life Theatre Awards in 2011.

Zizi, then Teater Ekamatra's artistic director, says she found its position as a "minority" theatre group quite "advantageous" in producing and presenting Charged. It was passed by the Media Development Authority (MDA) without cuts and rated R18 for coarse language and mature content.

She says: "Maybe if some other company had done this play, it might not have been approved. Because we are a minority, we have the privilege of talking about racism. It's the whole idea of - because we are assumed to have faced racism, therefore we can talk about it... Because our audience is niche enough, we are able to go into spaces that mainstream theatre can't. We are able to go into grey areas with a lot more fluidity."

The diverse cast for Charged included seasoned actors such as Rodney Oliveiro as Victor, Serene Chen as Russell's mother and Aidli 'Alin' Mosbit as Hakim's mother.

Zizi recalls the rehearsal process was full of a wonderful camaraderie. The ensemble shared their own stories about racism faced during NS, but there was a session when the group collectively told "really bad racist jokes - but we were all laughing about it".

She says: "That's the way to deal with it. With humour, camaraderie and true connection. It didn't become a pity party."

Actor Tan Shou Chen, 33, who played the part of Russell, deeply enjoyed the close-knit experience that "put race under a magnifying glass", even though performing the play was physically challenging with a great deal of "violent" choreography. His audition for the show required him to perform Russell's mental breakdown. He says with a chuckle: "It was such a difficult scene - I don't know what I did, I can't remember what I did!"

Excerpts of Charged were performed for the Esplanade's The Studios: fifty season - a mega celebration of Singapore theatre earlier this year. The play was also revived to packed houses at the Man Singapore Theatre Festival 2011, organised by theatre company Wild Rice.

That same year, a collection of four plays by Chong - including Charged - was published by Epigram Books. The book had its funding by the National Arts Council revoked before its publication.

The arts council also did not want its logo on the play's programme booklet and Ekamatra "waited a long time" before it received an arts entertainment licence from the MDA.

Zizi says: "I think they were worried because at that time they were not sure how the audience would accept it - whether the audience would take it in a mature way when we had conversations, which is, of course, how it turned out. We had post-show talks every night and deep and meaningful conversations about who we are as Singaporeans.

"I think the general fear is that if you talk about race issues, you're opening a can of worms. But if you talk about race issues in a measured, considered, humane way, it will do good. The blinkered fear is what holds us back."

•Follow Corrie Tan on Twitter @CorrieTan

•Chong Tze Chien: Four Plays, which includes Charged, is available from Epigram Books at $24.90. The final instalment of this 15-part series will be published at the end of next month.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 28, 2015, with the headline 'Facing racism head-on'. Print Edition | Subscribe