Force of Nature

How do you write a play about the climate crisis in Singapore that isn’t all doom and gloom? Find out in this interview with playwright Alfian Sa’at, who shares his inspirations as well as what he hopes audiences will take away from Pulau Ujong.
Alfian Sa'at at Fort Canning

What is Pulau Ujong about?

Pulau Ujong is a work of documentary theatre, and what this means is that I interview people, and then I edit, rearrange and reassemble the transcripts from these interviews into the text of the play.

This is not my first time doing documentary theatre; one of the first verbatim pieces I did was Cooling Off Day in 2011. I sometimes joke that I should have called this play Cooling Off Day Part 2, because it’s partly about a warming planet and climate change.

Is it fair, then, to call Pulau Ujong a play about climate change?

I think the climate crisis is part of the work, but it’s not the entirety of the work. To me, I would prefer to describe Pulau Ujong as a piece that examines our relationship with nature. The climate crisis, naturally, features quite a lot in the play because it’s what happens when only a certain form of relationship is dominant – when humans think that we have mastery over nature, when we think that nature is there to be manipulated or ruled over, something we control and extract from. But there are so many other ways for us to have a relationship with nature.

What inspired you to write this play?

One of the things that inspired me was an image – specifically, a photograph from the National Archives that shows Minister Goh Keng Swee chopping down a tree in 1962. I was so shocked to see this old photograph because it runs counter to all the images I had growing up of dignitaries and trees. Singapore is a garden city, right? So they’re always planting trees! They’re not chopping them down. I later discovered that Minister Goh was chopping down this tree at the official opening ceremony of the Shell refinery on Pulau Bukom. I remain fascinated with that image to this day, because I feel it marks a certain moment in our history when we exchanged carbon capture, which is the tree, for carbon emissions, which is a Shell refinery. It struck me as the beginning of our journey towards a much more carbon-intensive economy.

Minister Goh Keng Swee officiating at the launch of construction work of Shell refinery at Pulau Bukom
(Photo: National Archives of Singapore)

Tell us more about the process of writing this play.

I conducted many interviews with people who I felt had interesting relationships with nature. I spoke with climate activists, climate scientists, biologists, horticulturalists, bird-watchers and more. And some of them are so interesting to me because, sometimes, when you have some very specific interests, you get a little bit nerdy, a bit obsessed. These were the voices that I wanted to capture in the play, to answer questions I myself had, like, “What does the world look like to a botanist? What does the world look like through the eyes of a bird-watcher, or a climate activist?”

But I also went a little further than that. I actually have “interviews” in this work, too, with non-human or more-than-human subjects – and by that, I mean plants and animals. So apparently I’ve interviewed a banyan tree and pepper and gambier plants; I’ve interviewed Ah Meng, the Singapore Zoo’s famous orang utan, as well as a queer hornbill. So you should definitely come and see how these “interviews” played out!

What was the research process like for this play?

With a lot of my plays, I become a complete bookworm. I go through a lot of books to try to really understand the situation better. In the process of researching for Pulau Ujong, I read books on environmental history and the climate crisis. I also read books on theatre and the environment – especially on the current trend of eco-theatre, which focuses on making theatre in more sustainable ways.

Some of the books I found really helpful include This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs The Climate by Naomi Klein and The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable by Amitav Ghosh. I also read books on environmental history in Singapore by Timothy Barnard.

What unsettled you the most while you were doing research for this play?

Quite a lot! Like the fact that we’re actually not on track to mitigate climate change, coupled with a general apathy or even numbness to what should be a climate emergency. That’s why, most of the time, I use the phrase ‘climate crisis’ rather than ‘climate change’, just to try to underline the gravity of the issue.

The prospect and reality of species extinction – that’s scary for me too. The biodiversity we have all around us has survived through years and years of evolution. To think that we are actually wiping it out, in the blink of an eye in which humans have existed on this earth in geologic terms? We are undoing so many centuries of nature’s work!

Last but not least, the thought of Singapore’s vulnerability is unsettling to me. When I was growing up, Singapore’s vulnerability was always spoken of in geopolitical terms. We were told that, if Singapore doesn’t do well, if we’re not economically competitive, we might be reabsorbed into or have to re-merge with Malaysia. But, these days, I feel Singapore’s vulnerability is a far more physical one. We are an island. If sea levels are rising, islands are some of the most dangerous and risky places to live in. We’re building sea walls to try and adapt to this situation, but I don’t think we’re doing enough. If the catastrophic, worst-case scenarios actually happen, I’m not sure that we can ‘tech’ our way into finding solutions.

What surprised you the most while you were doing research for this play?

The fact that a lot of my interviewees had such a remarkable sense of humour. I sometimes wondered whether this was a kind of coping mechanism. Because you have all these facts and data on hand, which don’t spell out something very optimistic for the future, so maybe you develop a sense of humour to avoid falling into climate grief or climate anxiety. I really found that, as individuals, they were very funny and so resilient, and they were still holding faith that, somehow, humanity will wake up and realise the scale of this problem, and that there might yet be a collective and global effort to save the planet.

What challenges did you face while writing this play?

One challenge is the scale of the issues. There are so many aspects to the climate crisis and the environment. You can talk about the fossil fuel industry, or deforestation, or species extinction, or sea levels rising. How do you range over so many topics yet, at the same time, keep it manageable?

Also, even though it’s a global issue, it was so important for me to ground it in Singapore, because I feel that many Singaporeans think climate change is too big an issue, and Singapore is too small to make much of a difference. At the same time, there’s a belief that climate change will affect poor and vulnerable countries, whereas Singapore has enough financial resources and a very competent government that will be able to help us ride out the storms, literally. I hope I challenge some of these common misconceptions in Pulau Ujong.

Another challenge that I faced in writing this play was in deciding how to communicate some of these ideas to an audience. Should I go with statistics? Because facts and figures and hard data can be very persuasive. The quantitative work being done by data scientists is all very important. For me as a theatre-maker, though, who’s been telling stories my whole life, I think we need to tell one another stories too. Because I feel that, if you tell the right story, people will internalise it and carry it with them and, somehow or other, that knowledge could translate into action.

What do you want audiences to take away from watching Pulau Ujong?

Like many people, I have what is called ‘plant blindness’. I walk by plants and trees every day – and yet, I’m unable to identify what they are. And this is a question I ask in the play: “Why do I live in this world, and yet am so apart from it?”

This is not a show that is alarmist. It’s not a show that’s going to guilt-trip you. It’s a show that I hope will invite audiences to re-evaluate their relationship with nature. I would like people to leave Pulau Ujong really thinking and feeling that the world is miraculous, and I think that’s one way in which we can learn about our duty to protect and preserve it. Because it really is deeply, deeply miraculous.

Alfian with Environmentalists at Sungei Buloh
Alfian with Environmentalists at Sungei Buloh

Interview By: Shawne Wang

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