National Service with a Smile!

Malaysian actor Alfred Loh would not ordinarily consider himself to be patriotic. But he’s found that performing in Another Country might well be his version of national service. Alfred shares with us his thoughts on this labour of love, and its importance and value as a piece of theatre.

Does Another Country mark your first time working in Singapore?

It’s not my first time performing on a Singapore stage. I did it once very early on, when I started out as an actor. In 2009 or 2010, I was part of one of the shows that came to Singapore as part of Causeway Exchange, a festival that aimed to do what Another Country does as a show. I got to perform in the Arts House, which was a nice experience.

I only really started working with Singapore artists last year, when I joined Lim Yu-Beng for 2 Houses – the play he wrote, directed and staged in Penang for the Georgetown Festival. 2 Houses was a great experience; it was one of the highlights of the year for me. I’ve since begun to find that I’m developing this love affair with Singapore!

What does it mean to you to perform in Another Country?

Bright Ong, who is a JB-born, Singapore-based actor, said that doing 2 Houses felt like his version of national service. I’m not very patriotic, but I do feel that performing in Another Country is, in a way, my duty to my country. It’s very clear and very obvious that this is a labour of love, and also a labour of patriotism, on everyone’s part.

What challenges did you face in putting up this show?

As a performer, it was tough not to be awed by the sheer scale of the work – the enormity of the task at hand. I still remember when Ivan came up to KL for a workshop, and we felt like we had to do 30 lifetimes’ worth of academic study to do justice to the texts! There were other problems, too, of course – it’s just more difficult to collaborate when you’re geographically separated. And I heard about some tech issues as well, like lighting challenges encountered during the bump-in phase in KL.

And yet, I think because Another Country is done with so much love, everything just fell into place very naturally and very easily. The challenges you encounter are made trivial very quickly because of how on board everyone is.

Alfred, with Sharifah Amani, Ghafir Akbar and Iedil Putra, in a moment from
Petition to the Colonial Governor for National Service Exemption

The show played to standing ovations and packed houses in KL. Is that when you realised you were involved in something out of the ordinary?

I began to suspect it when I watched the Singaporeans perform for us. When they arrived in KL and we had the first of our combined rehearsals, we put on our half of the show for them, and they performed the entirety of all their Tikam-Tikam pieces for us. That’s when it really sank in, that our show has a lot to offer.

That’s a beautiful moment, when it clicks and you realise that you have a very good show – and a very good show that is also a very important piece of theatre! You really couldn’t ask for anything more. You know all the wonderful, noble ideas that people talk about when it comes to theatre – that theatre is supposed to move, to reflect, and to change? If anything, this show is the noblest example of it that I have experienced.

That must be an incredible feeling.

When you’re charged by that spirit, when you realise that you really do have something on your hands, your crusade becomes justified and you really start to fly that flag! [laughs] I’m not normally very active in promoting my own shows, but I wanted every single one of my friends to watch this show. I want every Malaysian – I want every Singaporean – to watch this show!

And I don’t think it will appeal to only audiences from Malaysia and Singapore. I had a group of friends who were on holiday from Norway and Sweden, who came and watched Another Country in KL. They felt it was a good show and they totally understood it. I think that’s because it’s so human. We’re telling stories about neighbours, and neighbouring communities, and everyone has a point of relation to stories like that.

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