Fear or Writing, Fear of Being

May 14, 2015 § Leave a comment

Photo from Espanade at The Studios: https://www.facebook.com/esplanadethestudios?fref=ts

My edited notes for forum on Fear of Writing? The Development of Political Theatre in Singapore at the Esplanade:

Of course we should not be allowed to say, to write everything that comes to our head. We should not be allowed to call for murder or arson or assault. But the limits matter, the limits are the points of contention. In other words, there are just laws and unjust laws.

The artist’s fear is not just that of censorship, but of worse. Indeed, censorship, though painful, demeaning and an act of violence against the artist and disrespect against the thence-deprived audience, sometimes reduces fear of other kinds of punishment because it means a certain sanction, however grudging, of whatever remains. However, this not always so, as censorship is often just the first of many feared punishments arbitrarily inflicted on the artist for even daring to challenge the status quo.

Is there any fear of writing in Singapore? There are two categories of fear. There is the fear of losing x or of suffering y. Of losing our job, of losing our standing, of losing our freedom, of suffering funding cuts, of not getting a scholarship, of not getting that promotion, of not getting into university or of our children not getting into university, of getting red-flagged or black-listed, of being censored, of being censured, of getting into any kind of small mess and inconvenience in our already complicated-enough lives that don’t need any more complications.

Then there is the second category of fear that both arises from and can result in the first category of fear coming true. The fear of writing, of painting, of creating, of producing, of directing, of acting, of making videos about dead people, and (these things extend beyond the field of arts to everyone) of saying you Like something such as a video about dead people that the government or the mob might not, of coming together to do things, of being seen to be doing things, of being seen to be with certain people or to have certain friends, of publishing online or in academic journals, of speaking in Hong Lim Park or in the classroom to your students or to your fellow students, of suggesting alternatives, of resisting, of expressing the precious things that are deep down inside us. This category is that of the fear of living according to what we truly believe in. It is the fear of being.

Not everyone fears everything. Not everyone has fears in the first category, fear of consequences. Furthermore, not everyone fears to do things in second category because she fears things in the first, the fear of consequences. Unfortunately, we have among ourselves precious few of these people. I don’t deign to count myself amongst them, far from it.


The forum was chaired by Janice Koh
Speakers: Ivan Heng, Alvin Tan, Robert Yeo and myself.
9 May, Sat, 4pm, at Open Stage, library@esplanade,
Synopsis: Despite our relatively brief theatre history, the Singapore stage has had no shortage of plays and performances that have courted controversy or compelled the use of the censor’s red pencil for their political content and commentary. How has political theatre in Singapore changed and developed over the years, if at all? What is the role of political plays here, and how effective or impactful have they been as a forum for reflection and transformation? What is the relationship between the artist, the State and audiences? In a place where artistic content continues to be regulated through licensing and funding, how have our theatre-makers found ways and strategies to be heard? Can art really speak truth to power? Is there a fear of writing? In a panel discussion moderated by Janice Koh, playwrights Robert Yeo and Tarn Tan How, together with theatre directors Ivan Heng and Alvin Tan, come clean on the subject.

Esplanade Studios 50 Production of ‘The Lady of Soul and Her Ultimate “S” Machine’, and reading of ‘Machine’ and ‘Fear of Writing’

May 14, 2015 § Leave a comment

The Lady of Soul and Her Ultimate “S” Machine


Includes interview of director Zizi Azah Bte Abdul Majid.

Cast: Crispian Chan, Dominique De Marco, Shafiqah Effandi, Gene Sha Rudyn, Prem John, Farez Najid, Rizman Putra, Lian Sutton



“Tan Tarn How’s satire Lady Of Soul still sings the Singapore blues”, by Corrie Tan, May 8, 2015, The Straits Times


“Tan Tarn How’s political play from the ’90s continues to resonate even today”, by Mayo Martin, Today, May 9, 2015

Machine and Fear of Writing


Directed by Goh Boon Teck.

Cast: Andrew Lua, Terence Tay, Amanda Tee & Zee Wong

Courtesy Zee Wong

Courtesy Goh Boon Teck

Photo courtesy of Andrew Lua

Machine by Orangedot Productions

July 18, 2013 § 1 Comment


by Orangedot Productions
Co-produced by Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay

Date  18 Jul 2013, Thu – 20 Jul 2013, Sat
Time  8pm (1hr 40mins, no intermission)

Appliance repairmen Rex and Heng turn up at the home of two listless friends Lina and Kim, and proceed to “fix the washing machine”. But things are not what they seem as a spiral of events soon leads the four into the uncharted territory of the heart.

Performed by up and coming actors, Julian Low, Eden Ang, Oon Shu An and Seong Hui Xuan, this chilling production takes a hard look at love, sex and romance, and explores the timeless theme of predator and prey in the need-want-desire game of relationships.

Written by Tan Tarn How, who won Best Script with this play in the 3rd DBS Life! Theatre Awards in 2003, and directed by Jeremiah Choy, who was nominated for Best Director for Machine in the same Awards.

Watch interviews with the director and cast here.

(This post is backdated.)

Fear of Writing: The smell speech

September 30, 2012 § 2 Comments

Actor (as Writer): I once lived in a place which was almost perfect. It was beautiful in many ways. It was safe and clean. People were nice and polite. All the services one could want were a handy distance away. I had a nice job. The only problem was there was a faint almost imperceptible smell hanging in the air all the time. It was just the slightest hint of an odour, actually, always wavering just below or just above the limits of my ability to sense it, so sometimes I could smell it for sure, however weak, and sometimes I could almost not smell it, if you get what I mean, so I couldn’t tell whether the smell that I couldn’t smell was there or not, or was just a trick of my memory or mind. I don’t know if I am making sense in saying that something can be utterly subtle but also blindingly evident at the same time.

The smell was of rotting flesh. It made me want to throw up. It was repulsive, when you think about it, especially when you try to imagine its source.At first, I thought it was just me, that perhaps there was something wrong with me, with my nose. I even thought that perhaps I was the source of the smell, and at one time, I took out all my belongings and started sniffing them one by one. And I turned my house inside out, looking for some dead, slow decomposing animal. And, of course, I sniffed my body, very intently, very hard. But there was nothing that suggested that any of these things was the source.

At first it seemed to be just me. No one seemed to be noticing it. I scanned the newspapers, but there was nothing written about a strange smell going round. I thought I was going crazy. But then I started to notice that a few people also seemed to be suffering the same problem. I would for instance catch a person taking a deep breath for no reason, with a puzzled look on their faces, and then doing it again, as if trying to catch hold of some shadow in the air that they were not sure was there at all. I caught a few people sniffing themselves. Or looking at people near them with their noses crinkled, wondering whether to stop breathing so as to end the horrible smell or to breathe in harder to see if it was really there and coming from someone.

They were the exceptions. I never dared or thought to ask any of them if they were experiencing the same thing as me. I was too frightened to find out either way. These people as I said were rare. But they proved to me that the smell was not the creation of my imagination but a fact. Most people went on with their lives totally oblivious to the odour of decaying meat that pervaded the air.

What had made them immune? Were they the lucky ones to not notice the reality? Or were they pitiable in not even knowing that they were constantly steeped in this putrid vapour that hung about them all the time like an invisible blight? I, of course, was otherwise so comfortable that I didn’t think of leaving. And I think that was also true of all those who were like me.

Later when I left the place because of circumstances outside my control, I thought about the nature of imperfection. There is first the imperfection of the material, and it seems to me that these can be tolerated. A television that does not give a perfect picture, or clothes that are less than totally fitting, a car that makes a rattling noise. Then there is the imperfection of the spiritual. And it seems to me that such imperfections, no matter how small are intolerable. That is, we would be less human if we see these imperfections and do nothing about them.

After I left that place of the rotting flesh, I also thought hard about those people who could not detect what was at certain times so obvious, no matter how faint. What had made them lose their ability to smell? Or what had made them unable to smell it in the first place? And again I go back to the question of what it is to be human, truly, fully human.

Fear of Writing by Tan Tarn How is published by Epigram Books.

Get your copy at Select BooksKinokuniya or other good bookstores.

First Emperor’s Last Days

September 13, 2011 § Leave a comment

Video clip from Theatreworks’ original production
Performed at Victoria Theatre, Singapore, 13 -14 June 1998

September 7, 2011 § Leave a comment


An absurd play

Written by Tan Tarn How
Directed by Ong Keng Sen

Premieres on 1 September 2011

[book tickets]

Tel 67377213 / Email tworks@singnet.com.sg

NEW PLAY: Fear of Writing

September 6, 2011 § 1 Comment

Fear of Writing portrays a playwright’s creative handicap—the writer’s block—under intense anxiety and scrutiny. Through this crisis, Tarn How uncovers the existentialism of self-censorship and freedoms in Singapore. An urgent provocation of the country’s boundaries—as bound to art, artist, citizen and humanity.

Fear of Writing proposes a theatrical parable for the politics of today, a future for the Singapore dream:

“This play is about the complacency of the average Singaporean, of theatre audiences and practitioners because there is no danger, no real change enacted by our works. It is about the commercialisation of theatre; hijacked as entertainment rather than being an engine of change. Can we find a real political theatre, where the audience goes in X and comes out Y? This is the difficulty in writing this kind of work in this day and age, hence the long gap between my last play and this one.”  –  Tan Tarn How.


Performance Details

Date / Time : From 25 August 2011, 8pm nightly
Venue : 72-13 Mohamed Sultan Road Singapore 239007 (MRT: Clarke Quay)
Tickets : $35
**Early Bird Discount: We urge you to book your tickets now with the Early Bird Discount at $25 per ticket.  For students and NSF, tickets are at $10. No booking fee applies.

To purchase tickets, please call 6737 7213 or email tworks@singnet.com.sg



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