New play takes on topic of colonialism

The cast (clockwise from top) Ghafir Akbar and Lian Sutton (in pigtails) from Malaysia, Siti Khalijah Zainal and Koh Wan Ching from Singapore, and Edith Podesta from Australia.
The cast (clockwise from top) Ghafir Akbar and Lian Sutton (in pigtails) from Malaysia, Siti Khalijah Zainal and Koh Wan Ching from Singapore, and Edith Podesta from Australia.PHOTO: THE NECESSARY STAGE

The Necessary Stage's (TNS) latest play Civilised deals with the fact that even today, historical narratives tend to equate the arrival of colonial forces with "civilisation" or a better way of living.

But is it right to say that Christopher Columbus "discovered" America or that Stamford Raffles made Singapore great?

Civilised takes on colonialism past and present, and runs from May 15 to 26 at The Necessary Stage Black Box. It is the 120th play written by the company's resident playwright Haresh Sharma and is directed by its artistic director Alvin Tan. Tickets are almost sold out.

Despite the timing, Civilised was not created in response to Singapore's bicentennial celebration marking Raffles' arrival. It started as a cross-cultural project with an overseas theatre company that was later shelved. The intent was always to explore colonisation past and present and beyond the Little Red Dot, according to Tan and the company's general manager Melissa Lim.

Lim adds: "We were also thinking of how China uses economic might to wield power over African countries. It was very, very consciously looking at not just Singapore."

Sharma says: "What stood out for me is the fact that we are living very 'colonised' lives, often without even knowing it."

  • BOOK IT/ CIVILISED

  • WHERE: The Necessary Stage

    Black Box, B1-02 Marine Parade Community Building, 278 Marine Parade Road

    WHEN: May 15 to 26. Limited seats available for May 16, 8pm

    ADMISSION: from Sistic (call 6348-5555 or go to sistic.com.sg). Limited seats

    RATING: R18 (mature content and coarse language)

He adds: "When we think of colonisation, we usually talk about England, France and so on colonising countries in the past. But there's so much more to it. What kind of 'legacy' does the coloniser leave behind? How does the newly independent country pick up the post-colonial pieces?"

Tan notes that the legacy of colonial rule remains in the laws, language and customs of the post-colonial nation. For example, Singapore's penal code was inherited from the British system, as are those of many other countries formerly under British rule. Why were the laws of the colonial power retained rather than having new laws written for the new nation? "Convenience and pragmatism is not an excuse," he says.

The legacy of colonial rule also plays out in the histories of the cast, which includes performers from Australia (Edith Podesta), Malaysia (Ghafir Akbar and Lian Sutton) and Singapore (Koh Wan Ching and Siti Khalijah Zainal).

Podesta, 39, is the descendant of Italian immigrants to Australia and grew up learning of both the horrendous treatment meted to the First Nations of Australia by the colonial authorities, as well as the fact that Italian immigrants were looked down on, rather than embraced.

Sutton, 27, recalls making a conscious decision when he was very young to speak like his English father, rather than his Malaysian Chinese mother, because of how differently he was treated when he used the British accent.

He notes that his father, who loves Malaysia, still exhibits signs of colonial pride on occasion. "Where is that coming from, this idea that we wouldn't have toilets or roads if it wasn't for the British?" he adds.

Tan speaks of "decolonising" theatre here. Theatre-makers have aimed to do this for several decades now, including through intercultural and multilingual theatre and embracing Singlish on stage. At the same time, he recalls conversations with the late theatre doyen Kuo Pao Kun, where Kuo contended that decolonisation was near impossible - even Singlish is a relic of colonial rule.

What then is the answer?

Lim says: "It's better that we acknowledge we are colonised and decolonise in any way possible."

Sharma adds: "Civilised, as with many TNS plays, provides more questions than answers. But the journey will be riotous and fun for the audience."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 02, 2019, with the headline 'New play takes on topic of colonialism'. Print Edition | Subscribe