I've gone from angry young man to hardened battle axe: Alfian Sa'at

Prominent playwright Alfian Sa'at received the Young Artist Award in 2001. ST PHOTO: JASON QUAH

SINGAPORE - Prominent playwright Alfian Sa'at has written a new work for The Substation's September festival - and its title is a bit of a mouthful.

The Death Of Singapore Theatre As Scripted By The Infocomm Media Development Authority Of Singapore, part of the arts company's SeptFest 2022, is a performance lecture that looks at how theatre has been regulated in the city state.

"One of the starting points for it was a play, Merdeka, which I did in 2019. It got an Advisory 16 rating - I was quite mystified," Alfian, 45, tells The Straits Times.

Merdeka explores Singapore's colonial legacy and was written by Alfian and Neo Hai Bin. According to the IMDA website, the play was rated Advisory 16 with Some Mature Content "as the content includes some racial stereotyping and references, references to violence and coarse language".

Alfian continues: "I looked at the script again and wondered if I was stereotyping certain races. There was a character, a Malay character, who was basically saying that the fact that he didn't know certain bits of history made him internalise a lot of racial stereotypes about his own race, about being Malay. When people say, for example, that Malays are into short-term gratification, they don't have long-term considerations - and he compared it to the sultan selling off the island... (But) I think that moment is an anti-racist one."

The Death Of Singapore Theatre is directed by Irfan Kasban, stars Farah Ong, and runs at T:>Works in Mohamed Sultan Road from Sept 1 to 4. As of the morning of Aug 31, its rating had yet to be advised.

In the show, an artist addresses an IMDA officer.

Alfian says: "I always had a sense that I'm denied my first audience because of this whole 'having to vet the script' thing. "Because of IMDA's intervention, the first audience of my play is the censor. The sense I'm getting is that the censor is eavesdropping on the dialogue I am having with my audience. What I am trying to do now in this play is to change that. I want the audience to eavesdrop on a dialogue I'm having with the censor. The censor doesn't really have a voice in the show."

Alfian says he was also puzzled by the R18 rating for Manifesto, a 2016 production by The Necessary Stage and Drama Box which looked at the role of artists in history and politics.

He would like to press for "greater accountability" from IMDA, and ask the question: At what age are you deemed mature enough to access something political?

"For me, you become mature not by being shielded from these difficult issues, but by encountering them, having difficult conversations with other people. (In Singapore) there's such an overestimation of the artist, paired with such an underestimation of the audience."

Alfian, long a vocal critic of socio-political issues in Singapore, rose to prominence with works such as One Fierce Hour (1998), a debut poetry collection featuring the poem Singapore You Are Not My Country, and his debut book of short stories Corridor (1999), and the Asian Boys trilogy of plays (2000-2007). He received the Young Artist Award in 2001.

Asked about his early reputation as an "angry young man", and how he thinks he has changed since, the soft-spoken playwright says with a laugh: "That label is a bit unfortunate, I feel, because of the image it conjures: that I'm probably walking around with a raised fist all the time, and always raising my voice in public."

"Sometimes there's that expectation that when you age you mellow - that ideals are only for the young. But there are also instances where the older you get, the less you care about being persecuted, getting blacklisted or getting into trouble. I've gone from angry young man to hardened battle axe."

Besides The Death Of Singapore Theatre, September will see the premiere of Alfian's other new work Pulau Ujong, which deals with the climate crisis, environmental history and people's relationship with nature.

The play's title, which means "island at the end" in Malay, is an old name for Singapore. It will be staged by Wild Rice, which took Alfian in as its resident playwright in 2004.

Pulau Ujong premieres at Wild Rice @ Funan in September 2022. PHOTO: COURTESY OF WILD RICE

Like Cooling Off Day - Alfian's response to Singapore's 2011 General Election - Pulau Ujong is a work of documentary theatre. He interviewed people such as a climate scientist, an ecologist and a sustainability strategist.

"Sometimes I think I should have just called it Cooling Off Day Part Two, because it is literally a warming planet," he adds wryly.

He was careful to find the right tone for the work because of the fatigue surrounding environmental messaging.

"Some people react with climate anxiety, even climate grief. I don't think this is very helpful in the long run. It can be quite paralysing."

His play, he adds, will hopefully nudge people to revaluate their relationship with nature - and "re-enchant" them.

With a nod to the degrowth movement, which calls for radical rethink of economic growth, he says: "Does the economy need to rely so much on endless consumption?"

"In the past whenever we talked about the future of Singapore, I would think of it in geopolitical terms. After doing this play, I'm thinking in terms of, will there be this island - the physical island itself?

"The question flips. It used to be - if we are not economically competitive, we will die out. But now, if we don't scale back on growth at all costs, we might also die out."

After The Death Of Singapore Theatre and Pulau Ujong, Alfian will go on the Kyoto Writers Residency and spend a few weeks working on short fiction.

He adds: "Of course poetry is always at the back of my mind somewhere, but I think, slowly lah slowly."

  • The Death Of Singapore Theatre As Scripted By The Infocomm Media Development Authority Of Singapore is sold out.

The show has been rated Advisory 16 for "some mature content and coarse language". 

Book It/ Pulau Ujong

Where: Wild Rice @ Funan, 107 North Bridge Road, Level 4
MRT: City Hall
When: From Sept 15 to Oct 2, 7.30pm (Tuesdays to Saturdays) and 2.30pm (Saturdays and Sundays)
Admission: Tickets from $20
Info: Wild Rice's website

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