Location: Substation, 45 Armenian St, Singapore 179936
Guests: Russell Heng, Sasi Thiunalan, Jian Hong, Heng Leun, Souk Yee, Suan Tze and Alfian Sa’at
Co-host: Terence Chong
Food: Chicken, rice, fruit, chocolate cake
The dinner in Singapore co-hosted with Terence Chong, focused on political theatre in 1984. The guests were Wong Souk Yee and Chng Suan Tze, both members of the theater group Third Stage in 1984 and arrested in 1987, Russell Heng, playwright, former academic, civil society and gay rights activist, T. Sasitharan (Sasi), art critic, co-founder and director of Intercultural Theatre Institute and three younger generation guests: writer, poet and playwrite Alfian Bin Sa’at, artistic director of Drama Box Kok Heng Leun and artistic director of The Theatre Practice Kuo Jian Hong.
The group discussed what it meant to develop an anti-state narrative along with stories of censorship, arrest, aesthetic camoflage, the subsequent defacto banning of forum theatre (from 1994-2004) and Singapore’s current relationship to civil disobedience and public space. They also reflected on the sense that there was a promise of change in the air at the time and the way in which political theatre was one of the only vehicles for talking back to the state. The Philippine Educational Theater Association (PETA) was, and still is, a big influence on some of their work. There was also discussion about the role of Shell as a sponsor of theatre in the 1980s.
Read the contextual notes for more information about Singapore in 1984.
Listen to the Singapore Dinner
Total running time: 1:29:16
- Introductions (5:46) Listen
The group introduce themselves and what they were doing in 1984.
- PETA (8:41) Listen
Souk Yee talks about the importance of the Philippine Education Theater Association to her training and Heng Leun talks about how he uses PETA techniques in his teaching today.
- Student activism (5:05) Listen
There is a discussion between the different generations around the table about the meaning and practice of student activism in the 1980s.
- Township plays (3:04) Listen
Sasi describes his work on African Township plays he was doing at the time in Singapore and the significance of ‘aesthetic camouflage’.
- Third Stage (2:56) Listen
Souk Yee describes the background to the name Third Stage and the role of Singlish as the vernacular language in their work at the time and Alfian introduces the notion of the third stage in the writings of Marx and Fanon.
- State+Oil (4:36) Listen
Souk Yee and Suan Tze discuss the approach they took to their plays, the audience reactions and State support they had. Suan Tze talks about working with the staff of Shell on a play and Sasi describes the significant role of oil sponsorship of theatre in the 1980’s.
- Theatre as education (2:29) Listen
Russell discusses the political changes that were happening in 1984 and Suan Tze talks about her experience of PETA and the important role of art in educating people.
- 1987 arrests (4:37) Listen
Souk Yee describes the charges made against her and her arrest in 1987 and the map that Internal Security showed her depicting where they had put her on a network of supposed ‘Marxist conspirators’ with Tan Wah Piow on the top. She was told the plays themselves were innocent but that she was being controlled by others, such as Tan Wah Piow, to cause unrest through her plays. She also talks about her meeting with Tan Wah Piow in London
- Sex (1:57) Listen
Russell asks about whether Third Stage addressed the issue of sex in their plays.
- Being preachy and subversive (2:19) Listen
Russell and Alfian talk about telling political stories and give feedback on Third Stage’s 1986 play ‘Esperanza’. Sasi relates it to Anthony Chen’s recent film ‘Ilo Ilo’.
- Voice to the underdog (2:12) Listen
Souk Yee reflcts on performing ‘Esperanza’ to domestic workers and the group talk about the issue of taking theatre to the factories and how the government were ‘nipping things in the bud’.
- Marxist Conspiracy (3:24) Listen
Alfian interprets the irony of ‘Esperanza’ being like a script for the ‘Marxist conspiracy’. Sasi reflects on the arrests, the role of theatre with a conscience, effecting change in society and how the plays that were used against them were in fact funded by the state, how funding was not a shield against the wrath of the state. Russell talks about the role of internal security.
- Internal Security (3:25) Listen
Russell goes reflects on the role of Internal Security, and that in 1984 there was a promise of change in the air and that there is a different threshold of risk today. Nowadays, he suggess, funding is used as a weapon to put people in their place. Sasi talks about the issue of doing things that are counter to the State narrative and the exercise of power through a hierarchy of terror.
- Broader political context (4:22) Listen
Russell, Souk Yee, Sasi, Suan Tze and Aflian discuss the broader political context in the mid-late 1980s and the role of the Workers Party and Law Society and the shift away from detention to defamation.
- Losing the idealistic edge (6:21) Listen
Sasi reflects on the capitalist mechanisms and superstructure that underpinned things, and the loss of the idealistic edge. They were so focused on fighting an undemocratic regime but the threat was somewhere else. He talks about the need to focus on a higher ethical principle and how there had been a co-option of political theatre and the loss of the radical edge.
- Being a Marxist (2:34) Listen
Sasi talks about the issue of calling yourself a Marxist publicly at the time and the labels that were given to people.
- Talking back to the State (5:10) Listen
Russell talks about how theatre was talking back to the State at the time (more so than academia). Terence ask about the issue of political scrutiny being brought to the sector. Sasi reflects on the chilling effect the arrests had, but also sympathy. Is there a need for theatre to take this role today in a more democratic society? Alfian talks about the way art can go where politics fears to tread and Jian talks about the increasing political diversity in theatre.
- Theatre today and outsourcing censorship (5:10) Listen
Jian talks about political theatre today and how things change when theatre becomes your profession. Terence asks if conventional plays can still stir things up like they did then. Jian talks about current resistance against the ‘content assessment’ of theatre being outsourced to theatre practitioners themselves and the issues of internalising the censorship process.
- Forum Theatre ban (2:47) Listen
Terence and Heng Leu discuss the de-facto ban of Forum theatre from 1994 and 2000.
- Public space and civil society (5:21) Listen
Heng Leu talks about the lack of public space. Alfian talks about his one-man demonstration application to the police. The group discuss the process of booking Speaker’s Corner in Singapore and the recent bus fare hike demo. Russell talks about managing censorship, and the weak role of civil disobedience and defiance in Singapore today. Terence talks about the right to be angry in civil society.
- Spectre of ’87 (3:47) Listen
Alfian and Heng Leu talk about the ghost of 1987, conspiracy theories and the seven year cycle of repression. Heng Leu talks about how he has shifted the way he teaches – marxism and materialist dialectics are now at the core of his teaching.
- Endings (3:33) Listen
Alfian asks is it better to not know and the issue of inheriting fear. Souk Yee talks about her pride in the younger generation, that they don’t live in an atmosphere of fear unlike her generation (who still whisper when they mention the ISD). Jian talks about the need to work out our relationship to changing civil society and Russell reflects on the need for political diversity. Alfian remarks that we need to come prepared and in solidarity.