Merdeka tackles tough questions

Multilingual play Merdeka, written by playwright Alfian Sa'at (left) and co-directed by Glen Goei (right), looks at how Singapore's history is being written as it weaves together stories from across 150 years, told from the ground.
Multilingual play Merdeka, written by playwright Alfian Sa'at (left) and co-directed by Glen Goei (right), looks at how Singapore's history is being written as it weaves together stories from across 150 years, told from the ground.ST PHOTO: GIN TAY

New play by playwright Alfian Sa'at explores whether Singapore has truly decolonised and why that is important

Singapore may have gained its independence from the British more than 50 years ago, but has it truly decolonised?

This is among the questions playwright Alfian Sa'at wants to ask in his new play Merdeka, which opens at Wild Rice's new theatre in Funan mall on Thursday.

In it, six Singaporeans form a reading group, Raffles Must Fall, and meet in a private museum library to examine and re-enact texts which tell stories that diverge from the colonial narrative.

The group's name is inspired by Rhodes Must Fall, a decolonising protest movement that begun in 2015 against the University of Cape Town's statue of 19th-century colonialist Cecil Rhodes, which spread to other South African universities.

The play, directed by Glen Goei and Jo Kukathas, is a multilingual one in which English, Malay, Mandarin and Tamil will be spoken. Its full title contains words that mean "independence" in all of those languages except English.

It stars Chong Woon Yong, Rebekah Sangeetha Dorai, Brendon Fernandez, Ghafir Akbar, Umi Kalthum Ismail and Zee Wong

Merdeka is very much a bicentennial play, maintains Alfian, 42, in that it asks questions about how Singapore's history is being written.

When the flurry of activities to mark 200 years since British arrival kicked off this year, his concern was that Singapore was going to be seen purely as a poster child for where colonialism had worked.

  • BOOK IT / MERDEKA

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

    WHEN: Thursday to 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 bit.ly/2Kj3T05

    INFO: Advisory 16 (some mature content)

"I thought it was quite important to find other narratives to counter that narrative and also to explore whether we have truly decolonised in Singapore and why that is important."

Working with playwright Neo Hai Bin, he conceived a script that weaves together little-known Singapore stories from across 150 years - "indigenous stories, subaltern stories, history told from the ground and not from the top".

The play draws on texts such as 19th-century Bugis-Malay scholar Raja Ali Haji's chronicle Tuhfat al-Nafis (The Precious Gift) and uses multimedia such as video footage of the Rani of Jhansi regiment, a fighting force of Indian women in South-east Asia during World War II, some of whom trained in Waterloo Street.

There are also the stories of merchant Syed Yasin, whose body was hanged in chains after he stabbed British Resident William Farquhar, and the Chinese students who took part in the 1954 protests against the National Service Ordinance passed by the British.

"All these texts are academic, from the archives. It's not like we made them up," says director Goei, 56.

"These are all stories of common Singaporeans which we haven't heard from and aren't often excavated."

Merdeka joins a number of plays tackling colonialism and unheard Singapore stories during the bicentennial, including Drama Box's Tanah.Air, also co-written by Neo, which opens next week, as well as The Necessary Stage's Civilised in May and Miss British, part of the Esplanade's Studios season in April.

It is not, says Alfian, a controversial play. He has of late been mired in controversy after Yale-NUS College cancelled a module on dialogue and dissent that he was meant to lead last month.

Merdeka, he says, is "only controversial if we think we're still living under colonialism".

He adds: "If we did not decolonise completely and there were instruments of the colonial state being used by the Government, then yes, the anti-colonial would be seen as dangerous. But only in that sense would it be controversial."

Correction note: The story has been edited for accuracy.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 08, 2019, with the headline 'Merdeka tackles tough questions'. Print Edition | Subscribe