A Class to unite a nation

Noor Effendy Ibrahim (left) and Tan Wan Sze (right) play teacher and student in National Language Class.
Noor Effendy Ibrahim (left) and Tan Wan Sze (right) play teacher and student in National Language Class.ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE

spell#7's revival of National Language Class explores issues of language and identity in Singapore

In 1959, the year Singapore attained self-rule, artist Chua Mia Tee marked that milestone by painting a Malay man teaching nine Chinese students his mother tongue.

Chua, who was awarded the Cultural Medallion only last year, called his work Malay Language Class, but others later retitled it National Language Class to underscore, perhaps, that Malayan leaders had chosen Malay to unite Singaporeans, who spoke different tongues.

For many years, Chua's painting hung in the office of Mr S Rajaratnam, the country's pioneering Minister for Culture. It is now displayed at the entrance to the Singapore section of the National Gallery Singapore. On the blackboard in Chua's painting are two queries in chalk: "Siapa nama kamu?" (Malay for "What is your name?") and "Di mana awak tinggal?" ("Where do you live?")

In 1959, these queries could seem interrogative to the Chinese as there was then the hidden guerrilla war known as the Emergency in which communists, who were mostly Chinese, terrorised the Malays, who lived near their hideouts or were policemen and soldiers.



    spell#7 and Buds Theatre Company

    National Gallery Singapore/Last Friday

So, for some Chinese, the language of sovereignty was also the language of their nemesis.

This fact did not escape Briton Paul Rae, who captured these under- currents in an original production titled National Language Class. It was first staged at the inaugural Singapore Theatre Festival in 2006.

The two-person play, which focuses on the disquieting interactions between the painting's Malay teacher and one of its five female students, was a hit and has now made a comeback here.

Seasoned dramatist Noor Effendy Ibrahim was the teacher, in an assured, oft-tender performance embodying his community's readiness to help others. Thus, he lacked the bile needed to embitter his muttered assertions of identity, such as "I am Utama" (utama being Malay for "the most important"), early on in the play. Tan Wan Sze as his student was all fresh-faced earnestness, but she lacked the guile to make her character resonate.

The writing was very clever indeed, with pointed metaphors in such words as "tinggal" (reside) and "tingkap" (window). The student keeps confusing these, leading those who knew Malay to muse: Did Chinese denizens like her really see Malaya as their motherland or was it merely a window of opportunity for them?

The minutes zipped by, thanks to Rae's precise direction, as teacher and student kept going through the motions, with the teacher's mounting frustration with his inattentive student and the latter's creeping fury at compromising her identity.

"Night is approaching," the teacher laments at the end, as hope, and the lights, dim.

Those unfamiliar with Malaya's complex race relations might surmise, wrongly, from this neat play that all Chinese resented learning Malay. Not so. Bazaar Malay was their lingua franca for seven centuries.

So, while this play may have been inspired by a painting, it is not the whole picture of Singapore society.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 25, 2016, with the headline 'A Class to unite a nation'. Print Edition | Subscribe