Thinking and Talking about Arts and Culture in Southeast Asia
Goh Guat Kian and Siti Khalijah Zainal in Underclass by The Necessary Stage and Drama Box.

“Underclass” twists the knife in your middle-class guilt

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Spoiler Alert: If you’re planning to watch Underclass, please note that this review discusses certain plot points.

By Corrie Tan

(2,200 words, 11-minute read)

You know that auntie. You’ve waved her off at the hawker centre, or maybe you’ve apologised, under your breath, because “I already have tissue”. You’ve plotted paths of avoidance around her in the crowded mouth of an MRT station. You’ve seen her sitting on the sidewalk every day on your way to the office, come haze or monsoon, hawking perfect rows of Kleenexes. Maybe you’ve stopped, once or twice, because your conscience has twisted itself into impossible shapes coming up with excuses for not giving her that extra one dollar. In The Necessary Stage’s Black Box, that auntie is here, limping up the stairs and begging you to buy a pack of three. The cornered audience members look around, probably wondering if they’ll get their two dollars back after the show. (Spoiler: they don’t.)

The Chinese title of The Necessary Stage and Drama Box’s relentless, searing Underclass is 贱民. Jian min, synonymous with the dalit caste – the untouchables. It’s a provocative title in a country bred on the belief that everyone and anyone has the equal opportunity to get on the path to success, and that we’ve all collectively sprinted out of the developing and into the developed. Our first prime minister’s memoir may have helped cement this in the Singaporean vernacular; “from third world to first” has become one of the big slogans of our constructed history.

Many of us would not consider our lives – or many Singaporeans’ lives – “precarious” in the way the precariat (“precarious” + “proletariat”) is often defined, this underclass of people existing without security in a way that affects their material and psychological welfare. It needles us that this class of people might exist, whether it prompts a self-righteousness that they have not been able to succeed where we have succeeded (and therefore they must be at fault), or a guilt that we haven’t been able to do more for them (and therefore the fault is on us).

 

From left: Yazid Jalil, Brendon Fernandez, Goh Guat Kian and Siti Khalijah Zainal in a scene from Underclass.
From left: Yazid Jalil, Brendon Fernandez, Goh Guat Kian and Siti Khalijah Zainal in a scene from Underclass. (Image: Tuckys Photography)

 

Underclass comes after Manifesto, Drama Box and The Necessary Stage’s collaboration in 2016. The plays seem to exist in the same universe, and there’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it reference to a character Goh plays in the previous production. Manifesto examined the political role of the artist and the role of art in shaping a country’s history; Underclass attempts to situate the entire problem of inequality in Singapore for an ostensibly middle-class audience with the means to attend a performance. The productions rely on similar devices: the inexorable march of time, numerous characters, self-reflexive characters, an uneasy relationship with the audience. Both productions also tackle enormous, almost impossible topics. But I felt the weight of Underclass a lot more – where Manifesto imagines a future and rewrites a past, Underclass is about the right now. It’s an impossible undertaking, and the creative team knows it. This may be the most ferocious and depressing work they’ve created. You can feel the production stretching at the seams in its attempt to understand the state machinery, a system we’ve created as complicit individuals. You can feel the performers on the brink of giving up.

The characters in Underclass prod at that middle-class self-righteousness and guilt while also examining the policies of the state. Whose responsibility is it to lift the underclass into the class above? The bleak satire begins with a chorus of voices offering aphorisms from all parts of the spectrum:
– “Every dollar counts. But if you just give one dollar, you are cheap”
– “Please do not feed the poor. They will bite”
– “Those who are privileged have earned it. The rest are not working hard enough”
On one level, Underclass tells the story of Lin Xin Yi (an astonishing, heartbreaking Goh Guat Kian), a hard-working secretary who’s tossed out of her job and out of her three-room flat after she suffers a stroke and is caught in-between financial support brackets. Keep the house and she doesn’t qualify for a certain stripe of state subsidies as she struggles to make ends meet; sell the house and she’s quickly sucked into a downward spiral of poverty as the system fails her at every step. Orbiting around Xin Yi are a chorus of characters reacting in various ways to her narrative, from a CEO to a minister to an ex-convict to a harried nurse, including the other actors (Brendon Fernandez, Siti Khalijah Zainal, Yang Shi Bin and Yazid Jalil) playing versions of themselves.

Xin Yi, still recovering from her stroke, is thrown from impossible choice to impossible choice, bumped from low-paying job to lower-paying job, from case worker to case worker. She’s converged on by opportunistic politicians from the “People’s Right Party” and the “Workers’ Independent Party” – one constantly exploits her for photo ops, the other gives her a handout that might be read as a bid to get votes. Underclass isn’t sentimental in telling Xin Yi’s story, neither does it milk the audience for sympathy. Many of Xin Yi’s encounters are deliberately surreal, their black humour jolting us out of any emotional wallowing. While she’s waiting to see a doctor at the hospital, another patient sing-chants his long list of medication. There’s a wild dance-off between politicians vying for votes.

Set against Xin Yi’s fall is the hammy politician Desmond Olsen’s (Brendon Fernandez) meteoric rise to power, a composite character satirising the personality (and media gaffes) of several recognisable 4G ministers and parliamentarians. Olsen clashes with Yang Shi Bin’s Tay Han Guan, a nod to the socialist old guard, who stands for a markedly different approach to inequality. You may agree or disagree with how characters are portrayed depending on where you stand in the political spectrum, but Underclass understands how inequality can be used as a political tool in a country where what is municipal is also what is political, where upgrades to housing estates are as much carrots as broader social policies – and how this can be exploited by parties vying for power as much as these policies brand themselves as non-partisan.

 

Yang Shi Bin (left) as an opposition politician and Brendon Fernandez (right) as a rising minister in a scene from Underclass.
Yang Shi Bin (left) as an opposition politician and Brendon Fernandez (right) as a rising minister in a scene from Underclass. (Image: Tuckys Photography)

 

Apart from Goh, playing Xin Yi from start to finish, the other actors take on the parts of reflexive commentators who make their stances on poverty and inequality clear. Some are suspicious of the intentions of their own characters, others try to strong-arm their characters into changing the outcomes in some way (with mixed – but often worse and unsustainable – results). Xin Yi becomes their experiment. Do we create well-meaning but short-lived social enterprises? Do we raise taxes? Do we give a needy stranger an EZ-link card? Do we buy food for low-income friends? Xin Yi doesn’t want their pity, doesn’t want the angbaos pressed into her palm, doesn’t understand the safety net she’s tumbled out of and the scarcity trap she’s fallen into, or how she’s held up as an exemplar of “resilience” and “dignity” in the national narrative that has co-opted her when almost every step of her journey has been decidedly humiliating and undignified:

CASE OFFICER: I understand. But we have to follow regulations. Usually the government only helps with severe cases. Yours is not a severe case. You are not poor.
XIN YI: I am not poor.
CASE OFFICER: You are not needy.
XIN YI: I am not needy. [in Mandarin] Needy means what?
YUAN: [in Mandarin] Needy… means you need help.
XIN YI: —I needy. I needy. I cannot work. I cannot—

Singapore often valorises “self-reliance”, that we can pull ourselves up on our own strength, get better jobs, lift our families from the low-income bracket by working hard. In this sense, Underclass has proved to be remarkably prescient, tapping into a much more visible discussion of inequality in Singapore. Its timing is fortuitous, given that the creative team couldn’t have predicted how the recent President’s Address or the MPs’ debates would go. Minister for Education Ong Ye Kung’s spoke in parliament earlier this week on universal welfare and its possible “impact on motivation” on “passive recipients of welfare”. “Making handouts easy and unconditional is not dignity,” he said. “Self-reliance is.”

Associate Professor Teo You Yenn’s book This is What Inequality Looks Like (2017) gives us a language to discuss inequality in our “first world” country. She dismantles the myth of meritocracy and the narratives we’ve created as to how success is defined and how our social norms have come to define us – including the script of “self-reliance”. It’s not just about the individuals who can’t keep up, she suggests, it’s deeply entrenched in how every single one of us in Singapore strives to get ahead. Philosopher Judith Butler, in her writings about precarity, suggests that “when we ask what makes a life livable, we are asking about certain normative conditions that must be fulfilled for life to become life”. What is a “livable” life in Singapore – and how are some of us barely living? Food and shelter alone barely constitute a “livable” life, and as A/P Teo writes in her book, to live with dignity is as essential and vital a part of living as the bread and butter that keeps us alive.

 

From left: Yang Shi Bin, Goh Guat Kian and Brendon Fernandez in a scene between Xin Yi and her case worker in Underclass.
From left: Yang Shi Bin, Goh Guat Kian and Brendon Fernandez in a scene between Xin Yi and her case worker in Underclass. (Image: Tuckys Photography)

 

This is also where Xin Yi’s shame enters the picture. The shame of not being able to get by on self-reliance, and the desire to be seen as someone who is working hard and making do just like everyone else – except that she isn’t like everyone else, which begins the cycle of shame anew. Xin Yi’s shame is also our guilt, as viewers – and actor Yazid Jalil sharply singles out this middle-class guilt in a confronting monologue where his low-income character and his middle-class self jostle for attention. Is he performing in Underclass in the vague hope that it will effect change? Are we watching Underclass to assuage our guilt at having done nothing? Do any of The Necessary Stage’s or Drama Box’s attempts at forum theatre have any effect if they don’t make the transition from the stage into reality?

The reason why Underclass also doesn’t feel didactic or prescriptive is because it doesn’t claim to have the solution to inequality. The systemic failures it examines aren’t only at the infrastructure level – they’re also at the mindset level. This means that the production doesn’t allow us to throw all responsibility onto the state, but that we as individuals are complicit in perpetuating problematic norms.

What Underclass addresses, on a meta level, is how difficult it is to produce a socially-engaged work that doesn’t resort to poverty porn or sentimentality in order to get an empathic response from the audience – or, more than that, prompts the audience to actually do something after. Underclass is a collision of the idealism that a single theatre production has enough force to transmute its ideas into practice – and the skepticism that the audience will be entertained but inert, patting themselves on the back for having watched a fiery, political piece of theatre, a fire rapidly extinguished as they leave the theatre, go out for supper and continue in the routines of daily life.

I can’t bear to say more than this about the stunning final third of the production: as Xin Yi silently and stoically dismantles the cardboard structures that make up the set and collect them to be recycled, the other characters continue to speak over her and about her. Where Manifesto left its ending open to interpretations of hope, Underclass doesn’t. I don’t think the play could have succeeded without Goh Guat Kian turning in, to me, one of her best performances to date. It’s a performance that crushes the soul. Xin Yi is the only non-reflexive character, because this is her reality. She can’t choose to step outside of herself the way the other actors/characters do, who can readily escape the fictions they’ve created. We can leave the theatre and return to our comfortable homes, our steady jobs, our insured health. Where can she go? All the data telling us that Singapore is still faring pretty well compared to other countries, or that the state is doing what it can to support the needy – how does this stand in the face of the lived experience of a person whose children have abandoned her and who must rummage through the trash to get a meal?

Xin Yi’s experience, laid bare for us, can’t be reduced to numbers on a page. I’ve rarely seen a play reduce an audience to such a thick, uncomfortable silence. You could feel the questions lingering in the air, and it felt almost disrespectful to applaud. We filed out of the theatre quietly, past the stacks of cardboard boxes, the empty water bottles, the overflowing rubbish. How has it come to this? Where did we go wrong? What can we do now?

 

Yazid Jalil and Goh Guat Kian in a scene from Underclass.
(Image: Tuckys Photography)

 

Further reading:

Judith Butler. (2009) “Introduction: Precarious Life, Grievable Life” in Frames of War: When is Life Grievable?, London: Verso.

Cara Feinberg. (2015) “The Science of Scarcity”, Harvard Magazine

Kathryn McNeilly. (2016) “Livability: Notes on the Thought of Judith Butler”, Critical Legal Thinking

Teo You Yenn. (2017) This Is What Inequality Looks Like, Singapore: Ethos Books


Underclass《贱民》by The Necessary Stage and Drama Box runs from 16 May to 3 June 2018 at The Necessary Stage’s Black Box. The entire run is sold out.

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