Former journalist Tan Tarn How worked at the Straits Times for 15 years. How has his newsroom experience – including brushes with censorship – inspired and informed his new play, Press Gang?
- Tarn How (centre, seated) with the cast and director of Press Gang!
(L-R) Oniatta Effendi, Rei Poh, Benjamin Chow, Ivan Heng, Tarn How, Shane Mardjuki, T. Sasitharan and Amanda Tee
I wanted to write a play about how the Singapore media works after leaving journalism in 2005, but never got around to doing it. One would have thought that, by now, things would have moved on and the issues would have changed. Apparently not. So, when Ivan Heng suggested that I should write it, I thought that perhaps it was time.
Not much research. Just checking that the situation in the newsroom is still the same as when I left... and finding out from my former colleagues that it is worse!
What's your process as a playwright?
A long gestation period of a year or sometimes longer, followed by a relatively quick – and largely painful – spurt of getting the script out.
Is this the first time you’re working with Ivan, who is directing Press Gang?
We have been working together on political issues, such as censorship, as part of an arts advocacy group – Arts Engage – for a number of years. Ivan also directed the very first reading of The Lady of Soul and Her Ultimate S Machine (1993) – he helped bring out the comic possibilities of that play. Press Gang is the first time we have come together on a full-fledged production of one of my plays. It has been a most wonderful experience!
- Tarn How and Ivan consulting with our photographer, Zak,
as they recreate the buzz of a newsroom in our photoshoot!
You were a journalist yourself, working with the Straits Times in various capacities for several years. What was that experience like?
I loved the decade and a half in total I was with The Straits Times. Well, mostly. I experienced a whole gamut of roles: I was a political reporter, a leader writer, a foreign correspondent, a deputy editor of Life!, and a columnist.
It was sometimes frustrating, often challenging and always exciting. It was also occasionally scary: wondering whether the “powers that be” would react negatively, and suffering the consequences – like being placed in cold storage or castigated publicly – when they did.
What were the most rewarding aspects of working at the Straits Times, and what were the most challenging?
The challenge and the excitement came from getting stories done quickly, getting them right and getting them out. It was also rewarding to find meaningful stories that no one else was chasing. I have journalism in my blood, I think. Because of the kind of media and media controls we have, one of the fun – and sad – aspects of the job was finding out about things that could not be published.
How has your time at the Straits Times affected the ideas and issues you tackle as a playwright?
Some of my plays draw directly from what I learned as a journalist. For instance, The Lady of Soul and Her Ultimate ‘S’ Machine is a satire about a nation’s abortive search for ‘soul’.
One theme that comes up quite often in your work – including Fear of Writing and Press Gang – is that of censorship, especially self-censorship. What is it about this theme that resonates with you?
Living anywhere, particularly in politically illiberal societies like ours, confronts you with the question of whether you should say and do what morally needs to be said and done at pain of suffering the consequences. The way in which we respond to censorship is a test of our humanity.
In Singapore, there was a great liberalisation – first with the Tommy Koh Censorship Review Committee of 1993, and also with Mr. Goh Chok Tong and the Internet. (On a scale of 10, we went from a 1 to a 5 or so). But, since about 2013, the space has shrunk and the old ways have crept back. Look at what happened to Alex Au and Roy Ngerng, and what’s happening now with New Narratif and PJ Thum.
The worst thing is that these are only the publicly known examples of censorship. Our lives are actually infused with censorship in ways that are obvious to us, but also in many ways that are not. I hope Press Gang captures some of this.
Press Gang makes its world premiere at the Singapore Theatre Festival, running from 5 to 15 July 2018. Visit www.singaporetheatrefestival.com for more information!