Jam-packed tour of Singapore history

A smarter version of The Bicentennial Experience, this play points to flaws in accepted narratives about Singapore

If Merdeka were an essay, I would give it an A+ for diligence and smarts. As a play, I would grade it a qualified B, as there are gaps in characterisation, which is sometimes given up in favour of information dumping.

The dumping is deftly packaged as entertainment. For newcomers to the lesser known aspects of Singapore's deep history - both ancient and contemporary - Merdeka is like a smarter, more thoughtful version of The Bicentennial Experience's stripped-down popcorn history lesson.

The script by playwrights Alfian Sa'at and Neo Hai Bin is indispu-tably well-researched and well-pieced together. The ensemble cast throw themselves into lengthy recitatives and recreations, as well as a few moving songs, with commendable energy.

The audience is expected to jump right in and catch up, a refreshing show of faith that people will be quick enough to follow. There is no easing into this jam-packed whistle-stop tour of Singapore history once the six actors enter.

There is barely an acknowledgement of the set-up - they have formed a reading club named Raffles Must Fall, which gives the playwrights all the excuse they need to dive deep into assorted indigenous texts, questioning received wisdom about Singapore's history.

The discussion plunges right into an exchange about racial classifications and the colonial lens through which Singaporeans perceive race.

There is a playful self-reflexivity to the script. The actors acknowledge the CMIO (Chinese Malay Indian Other) nature of the colonial lens and how the cast itself fits neatly in this categorisation. There is the Eurasian book club instigator Francis (Brendon Fernandez), the Chinese undergraduate Jared (Chong Woon Yong) and civil servant Siew (Zee Wong), the Malay banker Norman (Ghafir Akbar) and visual artist Liyana (Umi Kalthum Ismail), and the Indian history teacher Anushka (Rebekah Sangeetha Dorai).

 Brendon Fernandez, Umi Kalthum Ismail (seated on floor), Chong Woon Yong and Ghafir Akbar.
The ensemble cast throw themselves into lengthy recitatives and recreations with commendable energy. From left: Brendon Fernandez, Umi Kalthum Ismail (seated on floor), Chong Woon Yong and Ghafir Akbar. PHOTO: ALBERT LIM KS

  • REVIEW / THEATRE

  • MERDEKA

    Wild Rice

    The Ngee Ann Kongsi Theatre/

    Last Saturday

But Norman proclaims he is half-Arab, Liyana says she is Javanese and Jared declares himself half-Hokkien, half-Teochew, immediately puncturing the neat racial boxes.

These sly moments help leaven the play with needed lightness.

The best thing about Merdeka is how it literally brings history to life and how some of these stagings point to flaws in traditional accepted narratives about Singapore's founding, independence and self-image.

The best example is the comic reenactment of the stabbing of First British Resident William Farquhar by trader Syed Yasin. The incident takes on an edge of farce as the play's equivalent of a crime scene reenactment shows up glaring gaps in the historical narrative, signposting possible edits and omissions that could have happened for a multitude of reasons.

  • BOOK IT /MERDEKA

  • WHERE: The Ngee Ann Kongsi Theatre @ Wild Rice, Level 4 Funan, 107 North Bridge Road

    WHEN: Till Oct 27, 7.30pm (Tuesdays to Fridays), 2.30 and 7.30pm (Saturdays), 2.30pm (Sundays)

    ADMISSION: $20 to $70 from Sistic (call 6348-5555 or go to str.sg/J3X6)

    INFO: Advisory 16 (some mature content)

This is where Merdeka shines brightest: where the meticulous readings of historical texts by the playwrights coupled with the medium of theatre come together in a magic moment where the urgent issues of flawed narratives, colonial assumptions and intellectual curiosity are encapsulated in a moment of performative brilliance.

More than an independence war cry, "Merdeka" is a necessary call for intellectual rigour on both the part of artists and audiences, and a compelling reading of the historical gaps which need to be explored for a fuller representation of the Singapore story.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 14, 2019, with the headline 'Jam-packed tour of Singapore history'. Print Edition | Subscribe