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Thinking and Talking about Arts and Culture in Southeast Asia

The frenemy’s handshake: The Singapore Trilogy as political theatre

By Clarissa Oon

(2,650 words, 8-minute read) 

My phone vibrated one night, with a notification that Singapore political party Workers’ Party (WP) was premiering a live video on Instagram. Curious, I tuned in – digital and social media being the default, on-tap mode of infotainment during the pandemic. It turned out to be an “office tour”, via live video feed, of LO Pritam Singh’s office in Parliament House, LO being shorthand for Leader of the Opposition. As the camera followed Pritam around his relatively spartan office, matter-of-factly introducing everything from his favourite snacks to framed photos of election rallies, I thought about how the institution of the LO – a feature of the Westminster parliamentary system that Singapore inherited from the UK – would have been totally unreal here up till the whirlwind 11 days of the July 2020 general election. An unprecedented 10 opposition politicians from WP were elected to the 93-seat Parliament dominated by the People’s Action Party (PAP), after which Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong conferred the LO title on the WP leader in recognition of the electorate’s desire for more diverse representation. 

This “office tour” – a bit of show-and-tell for millennial and Gen Z audiences on Instagram – was not without some symbolism for a political culture that has been so irrevocably shaped by the PAP. It made me think of an enduring triptych of theatre works about one fictional Singaporean’s journey from an idealistic overseas student who “hopes to be the leader of the opposition in Singapore” – as the firebrand Fernandez is described in Are You There, Singapore? – to opposition politician contesting a by-election (One Year Back Home), before winding up as a political detainee and exile (Changi). Written by one of the country’s pioneer English-language playwrights Robert Yeo, the three plays premiered separately between 1974 and 1997. They were revived for the first time as an entire trilogy in a single 2½-hour-long production in March this year, with newly dramaturged scenes by Yeo’s millennial collaborators and a new ending written by the octogenarian playwright. It was then that I watched the three plays for the first time, in person in a darkened theatre with masked audience members several handspans apart from one another. I had only read them off the page two decades ago. 

After last year’s general election, I re-read The Singapore Trilogy and found the plays, particularly the first two, flawed but also eerily prescient; there were lines that seemed straight out of the here and now. Interestingly, who should pick up the works for production but a group of 20-something theatre practitioners, The Second Breakfast Company (“founded by youths, for youths”, says the blurb on their website). The company’s recent live production of the trilogy, a filmed version of which will soon be released as video-on-demand, was a massive dramaturgical exercise, condensing “almost seven hours of material to just two hours” as dramaturg Dominic Nah puts it in the programme notes, but remains surprisingly faithful to Yeo’s realist setting and his main characters, from costumes and furniture channelling the 1970s to the 1990s as the onstage action moves through these decades, to reassigning lines from minor characters to major ones so that much of the dialogue and feel of the original scripts remained intact. This approach, Nah says, is aimed at “allowing audiences to discern the relevance of Robert’s writing for themselves”. Indeed it makes the plays pacier, more engaging than the original scripts and at least two out of three of the central characters – namely Fernandez and the love of his life, Hua – more compelling. However, it also remains bogged down by some of the plays’ weaknesses. The side plot of Hua’s fling with an Italian man, her decision to keep the baby and the ensuing fuss made by her parents remains uncomfortably melodramatic and sexist in its treatment. That aside, The Singapore Trilogy asks probing questions of Singapore’s sociopolitical culture but stops short of broaching others, and what remains unspoken deserves further analysis. 

The Singapore Trilogy by The Second Breakfast Company
Photo Credit: Gordon Khoo

 

The primary character of Reggie Fernandez is loosely based on former trade unionist Michael Fernandez, a friend of Yeo’s who was detained without trial under the country’s Internal Security Act (ISA) from 1964 to 1973. One of the strengths of the trilogy, courtesy of its third play, Changi, lies in its straight-up, sometimes harrowing dramatisation of the costs of detention without trial as a weapon against political activists, including the interrogation methods used to extract televised confessions of guilt. It is an experience that few other Singapore plays have delved into, among them Tan Tarn How’s more satirical Undercover (1996) and The Necessary Stage’s intergenerational drama on minority Malay political participation, Gemuk Girls (2006). Historically used against leftists, detention without trial for reasons of national security remains on the books, but in the last 30 years, has only been used on suspected terrorists, and not peaceful dissenters against the political establishment. In spite of this – or perhaps because of this, as some observers such as media analyst and longtime political commentator Cherian George have noted – the PAP government has actually become more entrenched over the years, not less, and one election doesn’t fundamentally change that. In its latest incarnation, The Singapore Trilogy has a partial, if incomplete, answer as to why that might be so, and I do wonder if The Second Breakfast Company’s aims of making the works relevant to their generation might have been better served by a more radical deconstruction and updating of the texts.

Before going into the impact of Yeo’s plays today, it is worth looking at the ripples they created when first staged, particularly the middle play in the trilogy, 1980’s One Year Back Home, arguably Singapore’s first English-language political play. I was just a kid when One Year Back Home premiered, selling out its three-night run after an uncertain 18-month wait for a licence from the authorities. I was not in the audience at the time to watch the verbal sparring of two newbie politicians, WP’s Fernandez and his friend-turned-enemy, PAP’s Chye. One who saw the play back then was the Singapore novelist and playwright Ovidia Yu, who recently wrote: “What (Yeo) presented on stage was no anarchistic call to revolution but a respectful, rational and intelligent take on how this society is not perfect because the people running it are human and therefore not perfect. Because he wrote realistically about Singaporeans and the Singapore we live in, he made it possible for us to see ourselves. And he opened up the way for us to write about ourselves.” Fernandez makes the point repeatedly that the country would be better off with opposition representation instead of an all-PAP parliament, and when the play was first staged in November 1980, there were indeed no elected opposition MPs. Ironically, by the end of the play Fernandez is taken away for questioning by the police for inflammatory “pro-Communist” remarks made in his election campaign. With the benefit of some hindsight, one can see in Yeo’s Fernandez shades of the late J. B. Jeyaretnam, the combative politician known for taking up the cudgels for civil liberties, who would later be bankrupted by numerous defamation suits filed by his PAP opponents. Under the WP banner Jeyaretnam became post-independence Singapore’s first opposition Member of Parliament after defeating his PAP opponent in a 1981 by-election in the constituency of Anson. Barely months before that fateful by-election, Fernandez in One Year Back Home suffers the opposite outcome on stage.

In my book Theatre Life!: A history of Singapore English-language theatre through The Straits Times (1958-2000), I cited One Year Back Home and its less obviously political precursor Are You There, Singapore? as among the milestones of the 1970s and 1980s, when original English-language drama was just finding its wings in a developing nation. About the rites of passage of Chye, Fernandez and others as students in London, Are You There, Singapore? is also on a list of classic Singapore plays selected by theatre critic Corrie Tan for The Straits Times in 2014. But history – and theatre history – does not move in a straight line, and connections and conversations need to be wrought afresh between classics and the contemporary. For many years, Yeo’s plays were forgotten; if they were staged, it was as part of larger retrospectives of Singapore theatre and not as standalone productions in their own right. When I first read the published version of The Singapore Trilogy two decades ago, what jumped out at me was the overly talky, sometimes stilted dialogue and melodramatic moments in the first two plays. But when I re-read the scripts after last year’s general election, I found uncanny echoes of some of Fernandez’s lines in real-life WP campaign messages in 21st century general elections. The following taunt from Fernandez, “All I’ll be saying to my electorate is this: elect me and I’ll raise hell in Parliament. It’s been awfully quiet there, except for the noise made when MPs slap one another on the back and say ‘Well done’,” made me think of former WP leader Low Thia Khiang’s 2011 comparison of his party to a “co-driver” who “is there to slap the driver when he drives off course or when he falls asleep and drives dangerously”. 

The Singapore Trilogy by The Second Breakfast Company
Photo Credit: Gordon Khoo

 

Which brings us to The Second Breakfast Company’s production of The Singapore Trilogy. While bolstered by some strong performances from the young cast – including actor Shrey Bhargava as Fernandez – as well as the decision to stage the three interlinked works in one sitting with the most powerful work Changi as its spine, the trilogy has some limitations worthy of further unpacking. The biggest, to my mind, is how nothing in the script nor actor Casidhe Ng’s wooden portrayal gives any clue why an establishment diehard like Chye would stick out a friendship with a political dissident through thick and thin, for any other purpose than to be the villain of the plot and to ensnare him. This is critical because the majority of the audience watching the play is Chye – we have tacitly or otherwise accepted the PAP’s domination in exchange for other things. That such a pivotal character remains a cardboard cut-out to the end makes the trilogy – and Fernandez’s struggles to be heard – more removed. In the original Changi there are two haunting moments which have been retained in the 2021 production. One is when Fernandez, who is banned by the authorities from involvement in Singapore politics, decides to exile himself until such time “when Mr Lee Kuan Yew is no longer around”. The other is when Chye talks about the “charisma” of the late founding prime minister, describing him as the “father” of the party and “a force of nature, an irresistible wave of the future”. “You can’t fight a force like that and if you can’t fight it, join it,” Chye tells Fernandez. In a post-LKY era of Singapore politics, these lines beg to be unpacked, if not in Chye’s back story in the script, then in other elements of stagecraft. With LKY’s passing, what is the “force” driving Chye’s political beliefs? What has shifted, or not, in 21st century political discourse, activism and participation? These are huge questions which the production does not ask.

Essentially, the state’s old playbook of coercion and co-optation remains relevant even if the toolkit has changed. Detention without trial has been replaced by new and not-so-new weapons against dissenting views: from the broadly-worded POFMA (Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act) empowering the government to issue correction or takedown notices online against a “false statement of fact” which is in the “public interest” to be corrected, to defamation and other lawsuits against activists and critics. But because The Singapore Trilogy hinges so much on the experience of detention without trial as a trigger of conflict and emotion, the audience has to work much harder to see the immediacy of the issues. Another way in which the production tries to bring that home is through the relationships between characters. Fernandez accuses Chye of ostensibly turning his mother and Hua against him, by being there for them and providing for them in his absence due to detention and exile – this in itself is symbolic of how the PAP delivers the goods and guarantees political and socioeconomic stability over civil liberties. There is an added layer of symbolism in Fernandez’s Malayalee-speaking mother. The only non-English speaking character in the production, she is shown imploring her son in their mother tongue to stay on the straight and narrow and refrain from getting involved in politics, compounding his guilt and isolation. The question is whether the metaphorical pull of both “father” and “mother” figures is enough for the audience to see themselves in both Fernandez and Chye and to internalise the issues.

The Singapore Trilogy by The Second Breakfast Company
Photo Credit: Gordon Khoo

 

In her book The Roots of Resilience: Party Machines and Grassroots Politics in Singapore and Malaysia (2020), political scientist Meredith L. Weiss studied politics at the grassroots or constituency level in the two neighbouring countries to look at the process of “authoritarian acculturation”, and how patronage and clientelist relations at the local government level are key to the widespread acceptance of and buy-in for the dominant political parties and their ideologies. This grassroots level is also where the current generation of WP politicians have built up their base. However electoral gains by the opposition in both countries – which have for decades competed within a single-party dominant framework – are by themselves insufficient to engender real change. The key issue, which The Singapore Trilogy hints at but does not explore fully, is how people on the ground have imbibed this culture of authoritarianism to the extent of not taking seriously the Fernandez-type outliers who push hard against it. 

The post-LKY climate offers the opportunity for all parties to reimagine the playbook to accommodate political diversity and open debate between those who disagree, for the greater good of society. Beyond the overwhelming pressure on Fernandez to fall in line, I would have liked to see the issue flipped around to ask, what temptations does someone like Fernandez offer Chye? How does coming face to face with an old friend-turned-antagonist, at different junctures, chip away at Chye’s convictions, even if they ultimately serve to strengthen them? Without giving away too much of the ending – and Yeo has rewritten the ending of Changi for this year’s production to put more focus on the dilemmas facing Fernandez – I would have liked to see more of the stakes for Chye when both men try to strike political bargains with each other. 

Despite its shortcomings, The Singapore Trilogy more than does justice to a trilogy of great significance and impact; it is a work which finds a parallel across the causeway in Malaysian playwright Kee Thuan Chye’s 1984 Here & Now. Premiering in Kuala Lumpur in 1985 over five nights to packed houses, Kee’s openly political play was, like One Year Back Home, a landmark for English-language theatre in this part of the world for daring to represent issues never aired before on stage or other public fora. Adapting George Orwell’s novel of double-crossing and totalitarian indoctrination into the Malaysian context of institutionalised racial discrimination, 1984 Here & Now remains relevant and on-the-pulse, and was restaged in 2016 in a Mandarin translation by Malaysian director Loh Kok Man. I recently read the published script of 1984 Here & Now, which interestingly also has an open-ended final scene like The Singapore Trilogy, putting a choice before the audience. How will Fernandez choose? How will we choose how our societies are structured politically, beyond likes, clicks, shares, and “one man one vote” every four or five years? And perhaps even, how would establishment types like Chye choose? There are no easy answers, but both Yeo and Kee take justice and fairness as their compass, and use words to fight the habit, ignorance, greed and fear which imprison us.

 

Selected bibliography and further reading:
Cherian George (2020) “The art of calibrated coercion”, Air-Conditioned Nation Revisited: Essays on Singapore Politics. Singapore: Ethos Books, pp. 37-44.
Kee Thuan Chye (2004) 1984 Here & Now. Singapore: Times Editions.
Meredith L. Weiss (2020) The Roots of Resilience: Party Machines and Grassroots Politics in Singapore and Malaysia. Singapore: NUS Press.
Ovidia Yu (2021) “Influence of One Year Back Home”, Robert Yeo at Eighty: A Celebration, ed. Ismail Talib. Singapore: Epigram Books, pp. 58-60.
Robert Yeo (2001) The Singapore Trilogy. Singapore: Landmark Books.

Acknowledgements:
My thanks to Singapore poet and writer Yeow Kai Chai for commenting on an earlier draft of this piece.


The Singapore Trilogy by The Second Breakfast Company can be watched as video-on-demand from 8 August 2021. More details will be released soon on Facebook or their website.

A live staging of The Singapore Trilogy took place from 11 to 21 March at Stamford Arts Centre Black Box, and was reviewed on the ArtsEquator theatre podcast. Check it out here

Clarissa Oon has been writing on the arts in Singapore for over two decades. A former journalist with The Straits Times, she is currently a communications professional at Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay.

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