Power and the Politics of Language

Alfian with his good friend and trusted collaborator, Jo Kukathas, who will perform in HOTEL

Writers are acutely aware of the importance of words and the power of language. Alfian Sa’at, W!LD RICE’s Resident Playwright, chats with us about power and authority in HOTEL, and how a multiplicity of languages brings out these themes and ideas in W!LD RICE’s two-part epic.

How did the concept for HOTEL come about? As a writer, what appealed to you about the concept?

I’ve always wanted to do a play that explores our very rich diversity, and this SIFA commission seemed like a great opportunity. The premise of setting it in a hotel room was an exciting one for us, because space in Singapore is something that is always contested and evolving; what turns a ‘space’ into a ‘place’ is very often the result of human activity. And, in a hotel room, every guest that checks in brings with him or her a certain social background and libidinal energies, and leaves behind traces of memory.

Tell us about the process of working on HOTEL.

The workshops with the cast were very fruitful, and made me appreciate the fact that, within our country’s borders, there is already a lot of intercultural exchange going on. A few of our cast members, for example, are of mixed heritage, and their experiences contributed to one of the play’s discourses – that of our ‘rojak’-ness and hybridity. It was also very inspiring to hear non-English languages spoken during the improvisations – whether these were Cantonese, Malay or even Japanese.

Table it for discussion!
Alfian, the cast and creative team at a table read for HOTEL

What were some of the challenges you faced in crafting the narratives, which cover a hundred years of history?

There’s a lot of research to be done, especially for the pre-1965 segments. I think the way our history is being written is such that our colonial and Malayan histories are deliberately de-emphasised, or the characters and entities from such periods are conveniently caricatured as ‘the Other’ or even the ‘villains’ in the country’s quest for nationhood. So the challenge for me was to research the lesser-known aspects of our history, and sometimes to question the orthodox narratives.

How does the Post-EMPIRES theme of the Singapore International Festival of Arts factor into HOTEL?

The play is a document of the ebb and flow of the power of different empires – whether the British or Japanese, for example – and how these events have left their marks behind in our society. Language plays a big part in our play – the dominant lingua franca is always a function of power, a clue as to who’s really in charge at whichever historical juncture. At the same time, the play also questions whether we’ve ever achieved any real form of decolonisation, as certain colonial attitudes – towards the exploitation of migrant labour, for example – are replayed in modern-day Singapore.

What do you hope audiences will take with them after watching HOTEL?

One thing that I sometimes hear is that there are very few stories that one can tell in Singapore, because the population is relatively small and the island’s small size makes experiences quite homogenous from one end to another. But I think one should not confuse state-driven programmes to engineer social conformity with actual conformity on the ground. There are many stories that one can imagine unfolding at any single moment, but it might mean imagining beyond one’s own comfort zone, beyond the languages and spaces that one is familiar with. In HOTEL, we try to share eleven such stories with the audience.

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