Classic Singapore plays #2 - Are You There, Singapore?

In its 50-year history, Singapore's English-language theatre has had its share of memorable plays. Life! picks the classics and tells you why they matter in this second of a monthly 15-part series

Play: Are You There, Singapore? (written in 1968, staged in 1974)

Playwright: Robert Yeo

What it's about: The first of Yeo's Singapore Trilogy, the play blends heated debates about Singapore's state of government with the coming-of-age story of a group of Singaporean university students studying abroad in London. The main characters, brother and sister duo Chye and Hua, together with their friends Richard, Fernandez and Sally, undergo a sexual and political awakening of sorts as they compare the openness of London society with their conservative home country. As they navigate an unruly demonstration at Trafalgar Square and an unplanned pregnancy, they learn more about Singapore - and themselves.

One of Singapore's first political plays in English, Are You There, Singapore? might never have seen the light of day if not for some fortuitous house-cleaning.

Robert Yeo, 74, now better known for his poetry and prose, wrote the play in 1968 after soaking up the sights and sounds of London, where he had obtained his master's degree in education. He handed it to a few directors on his return to Singapore but no one seemed interested. So he put it on the back burner.

While he travelled to Thailand for a two-year stint with the South-east Asia Ministers of Education Secretariat, the manuscript of his first play was left collecting dust beneath papers and books in the home of the late George Thomson, director of the Political Study Centre at the University of Singapore.

Thomson unearthed it only a few years later in 1972, when he was packing to move to a new home, and mailed it to Yeo, who was pleasantly surprised by his first attempt at drama.

Things proceeded quickly after that. Prem Kumar, president of the Experimental Theatre Club, agreed to direct it for the University of Singapore Society, and the show opened in July 1974 at the Cultural Centre.

The play marked one of the very few Singapore voices in the 1970s, after an initial burst of effort to create some sort of national theatre had simmered down to a lukewarm, slow burn.

"Theatre was at that period, I would say, still colonised - a part of it," Yeo says. "There were directors who showed no sympathy for Singapore plays. Goh Poh Seng was on to other things and Lim Chor Pee had retired from playwriting. So no one would give the Singapore play its due. There were producers who just wanted to do Anglo-American plays."

In that sense, the 1970s felt like a period of manoeuvring for English- language theatre, preparing the way for the flurry of activity that would occur in the 1980s, when pioneering theatre companies such as Act 3 and TheatreWorks would emerge.

But at that point, the future looked bleak. The pullout of British troops in 1971 meant that a huge chunk of English-language expatriate theatre and its audience would go with them.

The late Malaysian director Krishen Jit described the early 1970s as "a near drought in significant indigenous playwriting in English". This was a marked contrast to Singapore's Chinese contemporary theatre practitioners in the same era. They saw the arts as a tool of social change and Chinese theatre was full of verve and deeply politicised, with a revolutionary bent.

The late dramatist Kuo Pao Kun wrote his ardent early plays in Chinese during this period and, together with his choreographer wife Goh Lay Kuan, set up the Practice Performing Arts School in 1965. One of its alumni was prominent Chinese-language playwright Han Lao Da, whose xiangsheng (crosstalk) plays were very influential.

But academic and playwright Quah Sy Ren notes in his foreword to SCENES: Singapore's Contemporary Mandarin Plays Anthology, that Chinese-language theatre was also dealt a blow when the Government cracked down on those involved in so-called "subversive activities" in the 1970s. Kuo was one of those detained under the Internal Security Act in 1976.

Yeo's play dovetailed with these developments by picking up on the growing activist student population both at home and abroad. The main characters in Are You There, Singapore? end up thrown headlong into these discussions, whether by choice or by chance.

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Yeo says: "There was the sense that from 1966 to 1968, the years after separation from Malaysia, there were great things happening in Singapore, that the most significant thing in our history was happening. It must have been very exciting, the early years of creating a new nation - and I felt that I was missing out on something. Because I didn't take part in the earlier years."

He recalls the new national anthem, the speeches in school about nation- building and the importance of religious harmony: "Of course, it was government propaganda, but I believed in it because I think we had no choice but to create a new nation. There were other people who were pooh-poohing it, like the character of Reginald Fernandez in my play. He's an Anglophile who didn't believe in the People's Action Party's propaganda.

"But there was this sense that something terribly important was going on in Singapore. It would take years to complete the process, and the time I was in London I wasn't a part of it. Hence the title, Are You There, Singapore? - sort of looking back with longing at this small island, asking: Are you still there?"

In this excerpt from the play, the characters of Richard and Hua discuss their ties to home:

"Richard: ... I always get the feeling, reading The Mirror, that something exciting is always happening on that little island. Eh, what do you say, Hua?

"Hua: Yes, feel the same too. London's fun, but not exciting in the same way. I somehow do not feel involved... The only time when I felt really involved was when I was a school debater. I remember once when we debated against MGS and we were proposing and the subject was 'Singapore has no future except as part of Malaysia.' I really felt with it. I felt so hot after speaking, I had to loosen the school tie."

One of the problems early English- language theatre faced was the awkward nature of the Singapore English lexicon. Playwrights were undecided over the voices of their characters and whether they ought to speak in pristine Queen's English or the more colloquial vernacular that most Singaporeans were comfortable with. This inevitably reflected the same sort of questions Singapore had over what its native tongue should be.

And while Are You There, Singapore? focused almost exclusively on the English-educated elite, Yeo demonstrated a surer grasp of the idiosyncrasies of Singaporean English than his predecessors. It would be more than a decade till the multi-lingual breakthrough of Kuo's Mama Looking For Her Cat (1988), where several languages (including English, Malay, Mandarin, Tamil and the Hokkien dialect) were used on stage in Singapore for the very first time.

Nevertheless, this play still made use of an English that was a great deal more accessible to the public.

This was clear to actor Lim Kay Tong, 60, who was completing his national service at the time and eager to work in theatre. He landed the role of Chye through an audition. He says: "The play came off the page well and was an easy read - the dialogue flowed naturally and lent itself to a conversational delivery.

"Speaking the local vernacular - Singlish accented - was not difficult, because the lines were constructed the way real people spoke. So the rhythms were essentially Singaporean."

The play was a success - it was well reviewed and its three-night run was sold out. They drew a nett return of $7,000, no small feat at a time when theatre was still viewed as a luxury commodity and not a bread and butter necessity.

And serendipitously enough, Yeo would meet his wife Esther Leong on the set of the play - she landed the role of Hua after responding to an audition call in the newspapers.

In a sense, the characters in Yeo's first attempt at drama were still not entirely fleshed out and seemed to be constructed as conduits for various political and moral ideologies, each character acting as a foil to their diametric opposite. But Are You There, Singapore? paved the way for Yeo's subsequent plays in the Singapore Trilogy, One Year Back Home (1980) and Changi (1997), each growing in craft and characterisation and lending a three- dimensional voice to the political challenges that Singapore was facing.

New buds were beginning to poke out of the theatre desert.

Singapore's first Festival of Arts, a precursor to the Singapore Arts Festival (now the Singapore International Festival of Arts), was held in 1977.

That same year, the Ministry of Culture organised its first National Playwriting Competition and also set up various committees to promote different art forms, including drama. Yeo, incidentally, sat on the drama committee. The late philanthropist Li Lien Fung's play The Sword Has Two Edges was also produced in 1977.

And while the question of "Are you there, Singapore?" might have lingered in the air for several years, the answer - though slow in coming - was a resounding yes.

Follow Corrie Tan on Twitter @CorrieTan

The Singapore Trilogy is available from Select Books for $19.90 (before GST).

The next instalment of this monthly series will be published at the end of next month.

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