What have you been doing in the rehearsal room (or outside of it!) to get ready for Merdeka / 獨立 /சுதந்திரம்?
Brendon Fernandez: We all went to the Bicentennial Experience (macam field trip!). It was quite surreal for me, because I did some of the voiceover for the exhibition. At the time of recording, I didn’t question the official narrative regarding Singapore’s founding – I just accepted it as fact. But, having to listen to the official narrative played back to me in my own voice, after having read Alfian and Hai Bin’s script – I felt quite implicated!
Rebekah Sangeetha Dorai: Visiting the Bicentennial Experience and experiencing the sense of erasure that occurred within that exhibition was very uncomfortable for me. Granted, we can’t put everything in. But we should have been given a truthful and fair account of our past. Not being able to see that felt like someone had carved a hole in my lineage and history.
Ghafir Akbar: I’ve been talking to random people I meet – other foreigners, taxi drivers, kopitiam uncles, 7-11 staff – to find out what they think about what is happening around them. We’ve talked about the haze, the Singapore River, other foreign workers – just to get a sense of how much of our own lives are reflected in the stories we are telling in Merdeka / 獨立 /சுதந்திரம்.
Umi Kalthum Ismail: I’ve been reading The Myth of the Lazy Native by Syed Hussein Alatas to get more insight into the roles I play in Merdeka / 獨立 /சுதந்திரம்.
Chong Woon Yong: Rehearsals have been challenging. Technically, it involves going in and out of different roles all the time. Artistically, it’s about finding the truth and authenticity in the circumstances of these characters – the sacrifices they made are deeply human, but most of their stories have been lost to history.
Zee Wong: The entire cast and stage management team have been furiously researching, sharing articles, videos and other information with one another during rehearsals and in our WhatsApp chat. We are determined to do justice to these people and their stories.
Merdeka / 獨立 /சுதந்திரம் examines colonialism and its legacy in Singapore. How have you found these themes resonating with you personally?
Brendon: It’s fascinating, and also quite painful, to see how decisions made hundreds of years ago still impact our lives today. Things like policies based on racial prejudice, and the myth of colonialism being a civilising force.
Sangeetha: We can never know who we could’ve been without our colonial legacy. Most argue that we would’ve been set on a course for the worst – but I beg to differ. That we still prop up masters of colonialism (like Stamford Raffles) year after year, instead of upholding the local men and women who toiled to build the country from scratch, leaves me deeply despondent. But there is much we can do – and that begins with dismantling our old ideas of who Raffles was and what he means to us.
Ghafir: Diving deeper into the texts in Merdeka / 獨立 /சுதந்திரம் has given us a new context for looking at colonialism and important historical figures in our past. Raffles is more than just an icon of modernism. He was known in the region to be a more ambitious man. The character I play encourages others to seek answers from non-western sources: to view history through the eyes of the oppressed, rather than the oppressors. Immediately, your point of view changes.
Umi: While trying to find my character, I felt like I was excavating a lot of pain and heartache. Because so much of Malay history has been buried. And if they take away our history, what do we have left? Poverty among the indigenous people all over the world is still prevalent today, and that’s a holdover from colonialism, when most – if not all – our land was taken away from our ancestors.
Woon Yong: Working on this play has really driven home how the legend of Raffles lives on to this day. He’s in our history textbooks. He’s standing next to the Singapore River. He’s still here, every day, when so many other stories and personalities are not.
Zee: I’m excited that we are telling a version of history that centres marginalised indigenous voices. This is so needed! I’ve been conflicted about what to do with what we’ve learnt through Merdeka / 獨立 /சுதந்திரம். As my character Siew says, “We have all this material. What do we do with it?” I’m still unsure. How do we, as a society, truly move forward together unless we address the inaccuracies and atrocities in our past? And how much is enough?
What have you learnt as an actor from your experience of working on Merdeka / 獨立 /சுதந்திரம்? What has surprised or challenged you most?
Brendon: This is the first play I’ve done on a thrust stage. Learning to keep three angles alive at the same time is definitely a new challenge! Also, I have little to no musical talent. This is not a new discovery for me, but attempting to play very simple percussion while also singing is really shining a light on my ineptitude!
Sangeetha: Stories! I love the stories featured within this show. The difference between a history textbook and a play like this is that a textbook shows you what happened in history at a particular point in time. The play, however, shows you the people affected by history. We feel for the characters. We cry with them. We laugh with them. We want the villains to fall and heroes to rise. It is challenging moving through all these stories and emotions, but I’m so happy and glad to be able to do it as an actor.
Ghafir: It was challenging to juggle all the characters and the skills required to play them! It has also been exciting to work in the new WILD RICE space. Everyone is learning the intricacies of the theatre. It is a marvellous space for a show like this: grand ideas, in an intimate space.
Umi: I have learnt to channel my anger into my storytelling and work as a drama educator. As a person, I have overlooked a lot of the injustice done to the natives in Singapore and the region during the colonial era. But, in playing Liyana in Merdeka / 獨立 /சுதந்திரம், I’m helping to reclaim our history by bringing these people and these stories back to life.
Woon Yong: Many of the stories and personalities in Merdeka / 獨立 /சுதந்திரம் are obscure or buried, as they don’t fit our national narrative, and were unknown to me. It was challenging to research these historical figures and events, because information and accounts about them are often not readily available or are in languages I can’t access. At the same time, because little is known about them, it was exhilarating to be able to take some artistic license in presenting these people on stage with truth and conviction. To me, theatre is always about stories that present and confront difficult truths. As an artist, I am happy to be a part of the team to present an alternative perspective on our history.
Zee: It has been both a joy and an insane challenge to flow fluidly from character to historical character! We basically never leave the stage throughout the show. It is an intense show to perform, but I really look forward to meeting an audience with it.
Why do you think people should watch this show?
Brendon: If you’ve ever suspected that the story of the sleepy fishing village that was suddenly discovered by a band of benevolent colonialists who just happened to be sailing by was just a little too convenient to be true, this is the show for you!
Sangeetha: Come la! When will you ever see a history that’s not in any museum or Bicentennial Experience? It’s time we learnt real history. This might be your first time, and hopefully it won’t be your last. ????
Ghafir: At its core, the play allows you to experience a more colourful, less sterile history of Singapore. It perhaps also asks you to swallow something rather bitter about our past. But, as we’re told when taking medicine: “If it’s bitter, then it must be good for you!”
Umi: Everyone should watch this show to experience another perspective of Singapore’s history. To watch us argue and reclaim our history. To understand our roots so that we can move into the future with a better self identity.
Woon Yong: Just like the motley group in Raffles Must Fall, I hope that watching Merdeka / 獨立 /சுதந்திரம் can be the start of many conversations. I found the Bicentennial Exhibition rather nauseating: the Raffles myth is the foundation of much political power in Singapore. If we want to change the system in Singapore some day, perhaps we need to first start with challenging these conventional official narratives that are force-fed to us.
Zee: It’s a rollicking rollercoaster ride through Singaporean history that the government doesn’t want you to see!