Interview with Alfian Sa’at: Cook A Pot Of Curry

When it comes to his work and his art, W!LD RICE’s resident playwright Alfian Sa’at has never been afraid to speak his mind. His newest documentary play, Cook A Pot Of Curry, examines the hot-button issue of immigration.

Currently, one out of four Singapore residents are born outside the country. By 2030, the population is projected to hit 6.9 million, with 55% of residents born in Singapore. Based on testimonies gathered from a series of personal interviews, Curry explores the impact of this influx of immigrants and foreign workers on the Singapore identity.

We spoke to Alfian about his play-writing process and what surprised him while he was doing research for this play.

Tell us about your new play Cook A Pot Of Curry.

We came up with the idea after doing Cooling-Off Day two years back. It’s a new-ish thing for me, doing verbatim or documentary theatre, where the material – the actual text of the play – comes from interviews I do with other people. In a sense, it does make you a little insecure as a playwright because you ask, ‘Where is my voice in this piece?’ But, after doing Cooling-Off Day, I realised that the playwright does have his own point of view, and that’s reflected in the structuring of the voices and in the editing of the transcripts.

With Curry, you’ll be working for the first time with Glen Goei as your director.

To do this play with Glen is quite special. I’ve seen a lot of Glen’s stuff over the years for W!LD RICE, and we’re colleagues and friends. But I’ve never had the opportunity to work with him at all. So this is going to be quite special.

How did you find the people you interviewed? For Curry, you must have spoken with foreign immigrants here, whether or not they’re PRs.

Some of them are through referrals from friends. I also shot off an e-mail to the National Integration Council and asked if there was anyone they thought might be interesting. It turns out they have these volunteers called National Integration Champions – basically people who will be the first point of contact for immigrants. They lead these foreign immigrants on their citizenship journeys – you know, visiting museums and the Parliament House, attending grassroots activities etc.

So they possibly become better citizens than us – some of these things we don’t do because we live here!

Exactly! It’s a bit worrying because a lot of people avoid these grassroots activities – some of them just don’t think it’s very cool, since community centres have that reputation, and then some of them are also quite sceptical about the nation-building agendas that are a little bit blatant for their comfort level. But the foreign immigrants are exposed to these things, which could be a way of grooming a certain kind of constituency to possibly think a certain way politically. It does give some credence to some people’s suspicions that bringing in new immigrants is potentially an attempt to cultivate a certain vote bank.

Is that something you felt came through quite strongly in your discussions?

Yeah, there’s a sense of that. For many people who come here, what they understand about Singapore is based not so much on their relationship with fellow Singaporeans but to the government. There’s this sense of people wanting to come to Singapore because of the system, not because of the people. They don’t say ‘Oh, the people are so kind and gracious’. It’s not the same as people saying that they like to go to Japan because there’s so much social grace and civilities there.

When they come to Singapore, it’s because of the system and, in my conversations with some of them, they are quite admiring of the system that’s in place here. They admire the safety, the efficiency. I don’t think they see the other sides. I think you have to live in Singapore for quite a while to see that the flip side of efficiency is faceless bureaucracy, a lack of a certain human touch. The flip side of security is loss of privacy, and sometimes excessive surveillance. With the new immigrants coming in, they see those particular good sides and I think that’s a cause for worry because they might have a one-dimensional picture of Singapore.

Alfian Sa’at

Do you think it depends on where the foreign immigrants are coming from? There are foreign immigrants who have been naturalised and lived here longer – they might go ‘I know what it’s like here, but I would still rather have this, with all its attendant problems’?

That’s true. But it does lead to a certain kind of relationship of gratitude – the sense of having fled a worse system for a better one, and so feeling as if they should support the status quo rather than agitate for change.

In your interviews, was there anything that surprised you?

Of course. Sometimes you have expectations – for instance, you’d think that someone from China, who’s so used to what you think is an authoritarian system, would think that everything is business as usual when they come here. In fact, maybe it’s a little better than what they experience in China because at least there are elections. But you realise from talking to some of them that they do feel the importance of participatory democracy, and they do feel that if they are given that right, they would like to see political contest. They won’t just support the incumbent based on a certain track record.

On the other hand, I have spoken to some people from India who have had that kind of experience in democratic processes from when they were young. In their school system, they’re even taught to have local mock-up elections. Actually, I’ve found that they get quite fatigued by the chaos of that system and they come here and ask, ‘Well, the system works, so why should I rock the boat?’ Democracy, or political contest, for them, is messy and doesn’t necessarily result in the best outcome. For them, it’s a bit of a popularity contest – there’s a whole lot of showmanship without necessarily resulting in deliverables. Some of them are a bit disillusioned by that, and here, in Singapore, they think that if there’s that particular track record, that’s where they’ll veer towards [in the voting booth].

You’ve been in the business thirteen years. Singapore has changed quite a lot politically in that time, particularly in the last general election. How do you now approach writing your plays in this very different context?

It’s really hard to judge sometimes. Once the government realises that it’s not always setting the agenda, when they’re sort of scrambling, the tendency can swing either way: towards greater control, or towards loosening up and allowing for valves where the pressure can be released. It can go either way and unfortunately, I don’t think there’s a very consistent line that they take. I get the sense that they’re making it up as they go along. I do think they are adapting, they are changing, they are trying their best at this point of time to listen a little harder, to not think of the public as unnecessarily demanding.

As an artist, it’s important not to be opportunistic about these things. I try not to say, ‘Oh, they’re not as formidable as they were before, I see the chink in the armour, I can start doing my whole dissident thing’. It’s not about that in your art-making. It’s not about capitalising on perceived weaknesses in the censorship regime to get your point across. For me, what matters is staying true to the work.

For W!LD RICE and for myself, we’ve always said what we wanted to say, with integrity. The issue with W!LD RICE is that a lot of theatre companies also do edgy, political work but they do them in black boxes, so the reach is limited and easier to contain. I think the authorities have had a very hard time with W!LD RICE because it operates on the idea that you can be so-called commercial and at the same time political. It’s difficult to categorise it. The boundaries have been blurred and it’s so hard to discipline us this way. That’s why we got our funding cuts lah.

But W!LD RICE has had its funding reinstated for the coming year, which marks a heartening change…

It’s a good sign! But it also depends on who’s in charge…

Find out what Alfian thinks about revisiting Asian Boys Vol. I and The Optic Trilogy here.

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