Write On!

Another Country is a celebration of the words, wisdom and writers of Singapore and Malaysia. We spoke to Alfian Sa’at and Leow Puay Tin, our curators / playwrights, about the texts they selected and what Another Country says about Singapore, Malaysia and ourselves.

Tell us about Another Country. What can we expect from this production?

ALFIAN SA’AT: I think, first and foremost, it’s a celebration of the literature from both Singapore and Malaysia. But, when I say ‘literature’, it’s not something we’ve limited to the canonical or orthodox texts – you will find within our selection excerpts from songs, letters to the press, interviews, newspaper articles, etc.

There is also, of course, the added dimension that these texts are ‘exchanged’ – meaning that a Malaysian cast will perform the Singaporean texts that I have curated, and a Singaporean cast will perform the ones Puay Tin has curated. I think this is one of the best ways we can try to understand the ‘other’ – acting always begins with this act of empathy. So, to me, it’s something that is fundamentally true to the idea of a ‘cultural exchange’. I hope the actors can experience some of the pains and joys of being citizens in ‘another country’. Hopefully, so will the audience.

LEOW PUAY TIN: From the Malaysian side, there will be diverse voices talking about many different things in many different ways – from an Orang Asli folk tale of how the animals in the jungle got rid of their bully of a king, to a song from the classic musical Uda dan Dara that speaks the grief of a young woman at the grave of her love, to the late theatre director Krishen Jit reminding theatre-makers that it is ultimately for the audience that we have created performances. The different pieces of text comprising extracts from both literary and non-literary sources will be performed in a sequence that is determined by chance (tikam-tikam). That is, every performance will feature a different configuration of texts performed in a non-repeatable sequence.

This production celebrates the concept of PEACE between two countries. How do you think this production will bring out that theme?

ALFIAN: To me, ‘peace’ is not simply the absence of conflict. Peace-building requires active processes – building networks, sharing experiences, recognising commonalities. On a people-to-people basis, I think it’s really necessary for the citizens on both sides to resist getting dragged into the kinds of bilateral spats that flare up occasionally between the two countries (whether they’re about water agreements, territorial quarrels, Causeway tolls, etc). I think it’s possible to construct a nationalism that doesn’t depend on turning your neighbouring country into a bogeyman, or from propagating a superiority complex. We have to begin from a position of humility – that we have much to learn from each other, and that whatever problems the other country has cannot be divorced from its demographics, its history and its political system. I think we tend to think of Singapore’s small size as a liability, but it’s also an asset when we think of how easy it can be to micro-manage the economy and conduct social engineering. Power doesn’t diffuse as easily, and the country has the infrastructure of a city. And we should know by now that it’s not a system that can be easily transplanted to another country – various parts of East Malaysia, for example, are still inaccessible by land.

PUAY TIN: I think we have to be at peace to have peace, and that we find our peace in different ways. I hope Another Country will give pleasure to all the people who come to see the show, and that their minds and hearts can be rested and refreshed with the beauty and truth of what they see and hear.

The show features a selection of texts taken from the works of renowned Singaporean and Malaysian writers. Tell us about the curation process – how did you go about selecting the texts that will be performed?

ALFIAN: I think any act of curation is a reflection of the very specific tastes of the curator, and it was no different for me! I began by looking through some Singaporean writers whose works I was very fond of – we should always begin with our favourites! – and these included writers like Arthur Yap, Haresh Sharma, Boey Kim Cheng and Cyril Wong.

Then, I looked through the selection and tried to see if the spectrum was diverse enough. I wanted there to be a fair amount of women writers, which is not difficult, actually, because though much of our current poetry is written by men, the women dominate our novels and short stories – Claire Tham, Catherine Lim and Suchen Christine Lim, for example. I also wanted to make sure that we had ethnic minority writers, so I looked at Elangovan, Gopal Baratham and Kassim Ahmad.

I also wanted there to be some room for works which were a little more esoteric, a little obscure, so that the audience can be brought on a journey of discovery. So I read through very old newspapers published in Singapore, such as ‘The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Adviser’ (concentrating on the 1920s); I listened to Malay songs from the ’50s; I read memoirs of the Japanese Occupation, not just from Singaporean survivors but also the Japanese, such as Mamoru Shinozaki’s ‘Syonan—My Story’.

Actually, there is a point in the curator’s work when you realise that curating is also an act of exclusion and, with some sadness, you have to accept that your bag of treasures is already full. I think one of the themes that Ivan picked up from the selection is this idea of ‘sayang’. In Malay, it means ‘love’, but there is also another meaning to it, which is ‘alas’ or ‘what a pity’. And I think we’ll hear echoes of this ‘alas’ in the performance, when we rediscover how much cultural richness there was in Singapore, before certain policies – whether to do with moral hygiene or cultural streamlining – made us less multi-dimensional as a people.

PUAY TIN: I have chosen texts which have appealed to me for one reason or another. I can’t always explain the particular appeal though. But they have done their magic by invoking feelings and thoughts, lighting up the imagination, and opening up the mind and heart. For instance, the passage by US-based Malaysian novelist and poet Shirley Lim of the short time spent with her aging and estranged mother in Singapore is searingly honest in her observations of herself and her mother. The writing is simple and yet so beautiful and evocative. Or a little poem on the Malay folk dance, the ronggeng – it is no longer performed in ‘real life’ anymore; that time has passed. And yet, the poem’s longing for the other, the beloved, is still with us.

I’ve also tried not to abuse the privilege of curating this project by choosing only what I like. I’ve also selected texts that I think others will enjoy or find interesting and thought-provoking. Some of the texts are from sources very well-known to the audience, such as Stella Kon’s Emily of Emerald Hill. But other pieces come from much less familiar sources, such as An Introduction to the Constitution of Malaysia by Tun Suffian, the former Lord President of Malaysia. I hope the extract from the Constitution will turn out to be no less pleasurable and evocative than the extract from Stella’s play.

Were there any challenges you faced while selecting the texts for this production?

PUAY TIN: There is so much good writing out there – what to put in is always a problem. So the selection is only a tiny drop in that vast ocean of thinking and writing that has been going on for centuries. The Malaysian texts in Another Country are not meant to be ‘representative’ or ‘canonical’ in function or aspiration. They are simply a random collection of texts on ‘Malaysia’ or written by ‘Malaysians’ – broadly speaking, of course, as they also touch on earlier historical and cultural formations, like Malaya.

ALFIAN: Copyright! Even though some of the texts are around one minute long, it was important to seek permission and clear copyright with the authors. Some of the authors were more than happy to let us use their pieces for free but, ultimately, we felt that we needed to work out an arrangement to ensure that the featured authors are paid. I can state for a fact that it would be a lot cheaper for us to commission a play by a single playwright – it would be a quarter of the cost we’re paying to secure copyright from these close to 40 different writers. But, when you believe in a project, then you have to tighten your belt somehow and try to find the money for it.

What do you hope audiences take home with them from watching this show?

PUAY TIN: I hope they will leave with a feeling of satisfaction, that the time has been well spent.

ALFIAN: I think this production, at the very least, will provide some insight into the complexities of life in ‘another country’. The best way to know a country is not through headlines, but through its people. And, if you don’t have the opportunity for that, the next best way is through its literature and art.

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