Thinking about the election

How should we think about how the election will turn out? What follows is one way.

  • How to tell if it is a good result for PAP? The two key indicators of how well the PAP does will be measured by:
    1. Total percentage of votes obtained
    2. Number of seats not lost (since the number of MPs will rise by two)

There are four combinations:
Up-up is good for the PAP; down-down is bad; up-down and down-up will be harder to weigh.

  • The basic question about the last election that helps understand this election is:Why did the swing voters swing against the PAP? There are three possibilities:
    1. Bread and butter issues: Population growth, causing related problems of transport, housing prices, jobs, sense of being overwhelmed by foreigners)
    2. Democratic issues: People want more Opposition in Parliament for more accountability
    3. Values issues: Ministers’ salary, relative subsidies for citizens versus foreigners, elitism, ministerial salary, equity and equality. It is hard to tell how much the values issues mattered.

Certainly, all three sets of issues are related: Some people could have swung because of one or the other, but some could have also swung because they felt that the PAP government was not listening to them on the bread and butter and the values issues and the only way to be heard was to have more Opposition MPs. Liberals seem to think that most of those who swung did so because of the desire for more Opposition, but is it wishful thinking?

  • In the coming election these are the questions to ask about how the vote will turn out:
    1. Have the bread and butter issues been tackled enough? The following is one assessment; many would disagree. Housing prices have eased (though it means that people who bought some time ago before the government cooling measures might be miffed at paying higher). Public transport is less crowded (But is it better on the road for drivers too?) While the number of foreigners has increased (the measures have been aimed at reducing the rate of increase) there seems to be perception that it was not as bad as before. Handouts have been generous: Pioneer generation package plus this and that. Will those who swung against the PAP swing back?
    2. Was the demand for accountability satisfied? Do people who swung because they wanted more Opposition feel now that there are enough Opposition MPs? Do they feel that the Opposition MPs have done enough for them both at the grassroots in the Opposition wards and nationally for all voters?This is a hard call.
    3. Do people who swung because they felt that the having more Opposition MPs was the only way to get heard on bread and butter and values issues now feel that voting in more Opposition MPs still remains the only way to get heard.
    4. Have the values issues been solved:Do people feel better treated, and has elitism abated? The gap in the subsidies enjoyed by Singaporeans versus foreigners (in school fees and government polyclinic fees, for instance) has increased. Tougher action has been taken against some privileged/elite people (for example, the 18-month jail sentence for the doctor who AWOLed to enrolled in Cambridge University.) Softer policies have been rolled out that focus on the main the street, such as the huge infusion of funds for community arts: Arts For All. The Jubilee Year celebrations might leave an after-glow for the PAP.
    5. Will there be a black swan? These include:
      1. People saying or doing the wrong things:
        PAP candidates lost in the following instances when it said or did something misjudged: Mr Lee Kuan Yew telling Aljunied voters in 2011 they will repent in Workers’ Party were elected; Mr Lee in 1984 comparing Mr Chiam See Tong’s paltry O level results against his PAP rival Mr Mah Bow Tan; Dr Seet Ai Mee in 1991 when she washed her hands after shaking hands with a fish monger.
      2. “Things” happening:
        The MRT breaks down several times during election week. Shock events which help pull people gravitate towards one party or other.Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s death?
  • Fielding of X Factor candidates:
    This especially true for the Opposition, which could stand out with candidates who capture the imagination, such as Chen Show Mao. Tin Pei Ling had a negative X factor though she is said to be very popular now on the ground, enough to be fielded in a single ward constituency this time.

I am not a politics specialist, so these are merely observations of someone who is trying to make sense of what is happening. One way to learn more is to talk to other people, from experts to players and average folks. So far, the people I have been spoken to don’t have a consensus, or even a majority, view about why the swingers swung, whether the issues have been resolved, and who will win or lose on both the voting percentage and number of seats measures.

Every election is interesting, but this election will be particularly so.

On the “Malay Problem” by Isa Kamari and Queerness in Singapore by Ng Yi-Sheng

“The Malay Problem – The Myth Of The Lazy Native Re-Visited” by Isa Kamari and “Background Vocals: Queerness and Singapore Mainstream Culture” by Ng Yi-Sheng

Cultural Medallion winner and novelist Isa Kamari gave a presentation recently in Hong Kong on the historical and present situation of the Malays in Singapore. (More about Isa here and here.) His spoke about how the myth of the “lazy native” in the past has become the ‘Malay problem’ today. He was part of a panel which included Ng Yi-sheng, Cheo Chai-Hiang, Lee Weng Choy and myself. We were there at the invitation of visual arts space Para Site curator Lim Qinyi, who is mounting an exhibition on the history of Singapore’s visual arts in September. The exhibition is titled A Luxury We Cannot Afford and goes from 18 September to 18 November, 2015. Yi-Sheng also gave a presentation on LGBT history in Singapore titled Background Vocals: Queerness and Singapore Mainstream Culture. Here are the slides and the notes. Hopefully there will be a more integrated essay version.

Isa’s presentation follows after the pictures:

Isa and Qinyi

Isa and Qinyi

Yi-sheng and Qingyi

Yi-sheng and Qingyi

Talk and Panel Discussion
Organised by PARA SITE
Quarry Bay, Hong Kong
28 June 2015




By Isa Kamari

  1. The Myth of the Lazy Native

In 1966, the sociologist and researcher Syed Hussein Alatas began pondering the question of why Western colonialists had, for four centuries, considered the natives of Maritime Southeast Asia to be generally lazy. His research eventually produced The Myth of the Lazy Native, a book which was published in 1977. In the book, he cited one instance of a “denigrating” view of the natives, when a German scientist suggested that the Filipinos made their oars from bamboo so they could rest more frequently: “If they happen to break, so much the better, for the fatiguing labour of rowing must necessarily be suspended till they are mended again.” Syed Hussein criticised such beliefs in the book as ranging “from vulgar fantasy and untruth to refined scholarship.” He also asserted that “[t]he image of the indolent, dull, backward and treacherous native has changed into that of a dependent one requiring assistance to climb the ladder of progress”

Syed Hussein wrote and published another book in 1971, Thomas Stamford Raffles, 1781-1826: schemer or reformer?. It is an account of Raffles’ political philosophy and its relation to the massacre of Palembang, the Banjarmasin affair, and some of his views and legislations, during his colonial career in Java, Sumatra, and Singapore.

Let us see whether such notion or image of Malays persists in post-colonial Singapore and whether Raffles’ scheming and colonial policies have planted and entrenched the myth in the lives of the Singapore Malays till today.

  1. The Malay Problem – Definition

At this juncture, I would like to introduce to you the phenomenon of the ‘Malay Problem’.

Malays who are a minority in Singapore poses a strong challenge to the Singapore Government. It is a fact that in the development of Singapore history, Malays are relatively backward in the economic, social and political spheres. As an under-privileged lot in a country dominated by the majority Chinese who are aggressive in the economic field and who are agile and resilient in the modernization process, the presence of Malays poses complex challenges and instil tension in inter-racial relations (Betts, 1975). This phenomenon has been rightly or wrongly called the ‘Malay Problem.’

  1. The Malay Problem – The Causes

Scholars and cultural observers of Singapore Malays have attributed the Malay Problem to three main causes:

  1. British colonial policies – which focussed on the preservation and stabilization of the traditional Malay way of life. The British colonial government practised policies which prevented Malays from active participation in Singapore’s economic development. The British chose to give Malays marginal roles in this sphere. According to Turnbull (1977), Malays were peaceful and hardworking as fishermen, boat hands and woodcutters. Malays were generally not exposed to the demands of the capitalist economy.
  2. Exploitation by other immigrants – the political cultures of the Chinese and Indians were strikingly different from the Malays. This political culture had been nurtured and developed through centuries of hardships faced by these communities which provide the survival skills of tenacity and ever being ready for challenges (Clutterback 1984). They were well known for their dedication and steadfastness in amassing wealth. Slowly but surely the Chinese gained the monopoly in the economy while the Indians rose to the high ranks in the administration and judicial positions (Sukmawati, 1995).
  3. The socio-cultural system of the Malays – Focus and spreading of series of values which emphasized the mosque, home and family. The general perception is that Malays as lazy and lacking of initiative to improve their lot. Competition with other communities was not instilled in their minds. There was general absence of desire to amass wealth and be successful in their careers. It was also said that Islam as practised by the Malays also resulted in them accepting their fate which is generally backward. They can only hope that their fortunes would be better in the hereafter. They avoided worldly affairs and lived a simple existence (Sukmawati, 1995).
  4. Singapore Malays from 1950s till 1990s

To understand whether the above causes are valid and had an impact on the lives of Malays and inter-racial relations in Singapore, and consequently perpetuated the Myth of the Lazy Native, let us do a quick scan on some of the salient issues and challenges faced by Singapore Malays during the period just before Independence till about 1900s:

  1. 1950s

The issue of division of power in post-colonial days between the Chinese and Malays arose. Racial sentiments known as “Malay Nationalism” were at the forefront.

  1. 1960s

Nationalism and racial sentiments slowed down the country’s development before 1965. Political conflicts arose when the two countries merged. Singapore was finally separated from Malaysia. This heightened the racial sentiments amongst the Malays who then realized that they had become the minority in a country dominated by the majority Chinese.

Many Malay families were moved from the kampongs to new and modern housing estates. This move was to dismantle the ethnic groupings and forced the Malays to integrate with other ethnic groups. Many Malays were unhappy because their social ties at the kampongs had been severed.

Many Malays were working at the lowest-rangking jobs and brought home low wages. There were many obstacles such as lack of preparation and training, lack of English language proficiency, lack of technical skills, and social and religious restrictions which close their job opportunities in the civil and private sectors (Athsani 1970).

In family planning, the “Stop at Two” campaign was launched in 1966 by the government. The purpose was to limit the size of the family to enable every citizen to have better living conditions at the HDB flats. However Malays in general prefer to have big families.

In 1968, 100 Malay intellectuals and activists gathered to discuss the problems faced by the backward Malays. The Central Council of the Malay organizations, Majlis Pusat, was formed to tackle the Malay Problem.

  1. 1970s

The income gap between the Chinese and Malays became prominent. Young Malays were not conscripted into the Army or Police, which were their traditional occupation. Malay teenagers were also not called up for National Service, but they were not officially excused from it either. This created a problem for these youths as many employers refused to hire them for the fear that they would be called up for NS at any time. Cries of discrimination were heard from the Malays who felt that these policies favoured the Chinese.

The heightened attempt to integrate the different communities at the HDB estates had caused the Malays to be in a dilemma. They realised that they had to integrate with other communities because of national interests, but at the same time the realization of their backwardness and alienation also deepened, within the dynamics of development of a system based on meritocracy (Betts, 1975).

In 1970, Majlis Pusat organised a seminar “The Malay Involvement in 25 Years of National Development of Singapore: Achievements and Challenges in the 21st Century”. It was at this seminar that the Malay Problem was discussed, especially in the fields of education, employment and housing.

  1. 1980s

The 1980 Survey revealed a disappointing status of the Malays in the educational and economic fields. Malays occupy the highest percentage in primary education and lowest percentage in secondary and post-secondary education. 63.5% of Malays did not complete secondary education, and 42% failed their Primary School Leaving Examination, PSLE. There were only 679 Malay graduates (Sukmawati, 1995).

The Survey also revealed that the Malays occupied the lowest number in technical and professional jobs. Malay professionals constituted 6% of professionals, compared to 12.2% Chinese and 11.3% Indians. In public administration and management, Malays only constituted 0.7% compared to 6.8% Chinese and 6.4% Indians. In contrast Malays constituted 67.8% of factory workers.

The Malay MPs gathered to find a solution which was more systematic, integrated and effective to the problem that had plagued the Malay community. A self-help group, The Council of Education for Muslim Students, MENDAKI was formed, which focussed on the field of education to uplift the Malay community.

The PM elevated the status of the ‘Malay Problem’ from that which was faced by a specific community to that of a national level. The Malay Problem had clearly hindered the progress of the country.

Other social issues like drug addiction and high level of divorce rates amongst Malays also came to the forefront. It clearly undermined many efforts to uplift the community.

The promotion of Mandarin also irked the Malays. Many felt that the status of Malay as a National language was threatened. Many Malays also felt that the criteria of proficiency in Mandarin in some jobs also favoured the Chinese.

The imposed quota of ethnic groups at the HDB estates, and that of 20% Malays in national schools, and the rather relaxed policy on immigration of Chinese from Hong Kong and mainland China also created suspicion and worry amongst the Malays.

  1. 1990s

Goh Chok Tong took over as Prime Minister in 1990. The administration of Singapore which was based on the tripartite bond between the workers’ union, the administration, and the government in the management of the economy was expanded to the management of ethnic relations. Politics became corporatist as the government elites formed tendencies and programmes to administer Singapore society based on ethnic groups, including those involving the economy, politics, religion or race (Brown, 1993). Self-help groups based on ethnicity were seen to be the effective way to elevate the achievement of the different communities. Thus some adjustments to the cornerstone policy of meritocracy were made so that some form of ethnic balance was achieved in all sectors. The implementation of the original meritocracy principle seemed not to work well.

Malays performed better in education and other fields although there was still lack of Malays in the high-ranking jobs. They were seen to have participated more in national development. They were no longer perceived to be marginalised. That was the official position of the Government which declared that there was no longer a ‘Malay Problem’.

The question was and still remains whether this is true.

Let us move next to my novels.

  1. The Novels


The novel relates the founding of Singapore in 1819 from the perspective of the indigenous Malays in contrast with the official versions which are either told by those in power or by the British colonialists. Important colonial characters like Raflles, Farquhar and Crawfurd were confronted by the likes of the Muslim saint Habib Nuh, silat master Wak Cantuk, Sultan Hussein and Temenggong Abdul Rahman. The famous Malay intellectual Munsyi Abdullah who worked for the British as a translator and scribe also played a major role in the narrative. Raffles in particular is portrayed as the merciless schemer who exploits the weakness of the Malay leaders and community to ensure that his British imperialist vision is securely planted in the region with Singapore as the base, just as it is deliberated by Syed Hussein Alatas in his book.

What is important to note in the narrative is the exposition that some of the major policies and actions of the British colonialist have a great and far-reaching impact on the local Malays which translates into some aspects of the Malay Problem faced by the community in modern Singapore. Policies such as segregation of the different communities, and the conscious move to restrict Malays to the lower ranks of administration, and the encouragement for them to be involved in occupations like agriculture and fishing and not get involved in trade and commerce, have created and perpetuated a backward community in post-colonial Singapore.

Part of the blame also rests on the Malay leaders as depicted in the novel through the characters of Sultan Hussein, Habib Nuh, Wak Cantuk and Munsyi Abdullah, for failing to offer viable and effective solutions to uplift the community from backwardness.


It is the story of the Orang Seletar who is the indigenous people of Singapore. The story spans 3 generations and relates the fate of the boat people which lived on the rivers and shores of the island. Arising from the need to build a dam on the Seletar River, a group of them have to make a choice whether to live inland and be assimilated with the mainstream society, or forced to move away from their homes if they were to continue with their living on the waters.

The main character, Rawa chooses to move to the estuaries in Johore, while his daughter Kuntum marries Lamit, a Malay man and lives inland. Kuntum has to adjust to living in a shipyard workers’ barrack at Sembawang before moving to a Housing Development Board, HDB flat in Yishun. She also has to work as a factory worker to earn extra income to support the family and their modern lifestyle. Both Lamit and Kuntum have a son, Hassan who becomes very close to his grandfather after visiting him at Kampung Bakar Batu in Johore. Rawa then has to live with them at the HDB flat after his wife Temah dies. Hassan has an ambition to be a naval architect and loves rowing the canoe. Rawa tries his best to impart the values of the Orang Seletar to him while not stopping him from immersing himself with modern education and lifestyle.

Through the lives of Rawa, Kuntum and Hassan, the story is related from the perspective of the indigenous people of Singapore which have to face the onslaught of fast-paced development of the country since separation from Malaysia in 1965 till the 1990s. The issues faced by the Malay community in general form the background of the story.

A Song of the Wind

It is a ‘growing-up’ story of a young boy named Ilham who lives in a kampong located in the midst of a Chinese cemetery. The background of the story is Singapore in the 1960s till 1990s. It is a time of great challenges for the Singapore Malays as related in my earlier deliberation on the Malay Problem.

The community at Kampong Tawakal is multi-racial. The Chinese landlord has a provision shop which is patronised by his tenants comprising of Chinese, Malays and Indians. Ilham grows up with a group of close multi-racial friends amidst the squalid conditions of the kampong.

Despite the poor and deprived background, Ilham manages to top his class in primary school. His family then moves to the HDB flat at Ang Mo Kio when Ilham enters secondary school at Raffles Institution, a premier school in Singapore. His family then faces the challenges of living in a modern city. Since his father does not earn much as a gardener, his mother has to work as a housemaid to support the family which has grown to 8 from the 6 when they were living in the kampong.

When he is at secondary school, Ilham becomes acquainted with a religious teacher through a schoolmate. During that time, at the world scene, the Iranian Revolution has just taken place. Unknowingly he gets involved in an alleged clandestine group and is confronted by the authorities. He is interrogated by the Internal Security Division, ISD but released with a warning not to be involved in such underground activities again. He is finally arrested and detained under the Internal Security Act, ISA when it is seen by them that he has not learnt his lessons.

Again the narrative of the book is from the perspective of the Malay community facing the various political, social, economic and religious changes during the development of Singapore from a third world country to that of a modern city.

  1. Conclusion

From the discussion above, The Myth the Lazy Native in colonial days seems to have been preserved and transformed as the Malay Problem in modern day Singapore. While there are many attempts by both the Government and the leaders of Malay community to eradicate it from the psyche of the Malays, and from the perception and portrayal of the community by others, some policy decisions by the Government seem to have entrenched and propagated the myth further. Whether it is a reflection of a series of deliberate or strategic moves by the Government or not, deserves a concerted study, but suspicion and restlessness of the Malay community linger. These insecure feelings are further heightened by the recent policy of bringing in throngs of Chinese and Indian immigrants from mainland China and India respectively, to achieve a target of 6.5 million citizens by 2020. Amongst many Singapore Malays, their status and importance as the indigenous people of Singapore seems to have been challenged. Many feel that they are strangers in their own homeland. Many also feel that the Government has somehow given up on the under-performing Malays and resorted to bringing in immigrants from abroad to support the economy, at the risks of disintegration of the social fabric.

Having said that, in my novels, I have attempted not only to tell the story of the under-privileged Malays, but also offer windows of inspiration, hope and aspiration for progress and development through the portrayal of characters which run contrary to the downward progression of the community in general. Characters like the 3 friends, Ramli, Sudin and Ajis in 1819, Hassan in Rawa and Ilham in A Song of the Wind are symbolic and emblematic of the constant struggle and initiatives of some Malays to uplift their community through the assimilation of positive values brought about by modern living without compromising those which are crucial for the preservation and growth of their identity as Malays. They not only learnt painful lessons from the past but are firmly rooted to the present and have a hopeful vision for the future.



  1. Athsani K and Dzaffir R. 1970. “Singapore Malays and Employment opportunities” in Sharom Ahmat and James Wong (eds) Malay Participation in the National Development in Singapore. Majlis Pusat.
  2. Betts, R H. 1975. Multiracialism, Meritocracy and the Malays of Singapore, Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
  3. Brown, D. 1993. “The Corporatist Management of Ethnicity in Contemporary Singapore”, cap 2 in Rodan, (ed). Singapore Changes Guard. New York: St. Martin’s Press.
  4. Clutterback, R. 1984. Conflict and Violence in Singapore and Malaysia 1945. Singapore: Graham Bash Pte Ltd.
  5. Isa Kamari. 2013. 1819. Kuala Lumpur: Silverfish Books.
  6. Isa Kamari. 2013. A Song of the Wind. Kuala Lumpur: Silverfish Books.
  7. Isa Kamari. 2013. Rawa. Kuala Lumpur: Silverfish Books.
  8. Sukmawati Sirat. 1995. “Trends in Malay Political Leadership”. Phd Thesis. University of South Carolina.
  9. Syed Hussein Alatas. 1971. Thomas Stamford Raffles, 1781-1826: schemer or reformer?. Singapore: Angus and Robertson.
  10. Syed Hussein Alatas. 1977. The Myth of the Lazy Native. Singapore: Cambridge University Press.
  11. Turnbull, C. M. 1977. A History of Singapore 1819-1988. Singapore: Oxford University Press.

Fear or Writing, Fear of Being

Photo from Espanade at The Studios:

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’

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


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

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.

NEW PLAY: Fear of Writing

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


Press: Fear of Writing

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READING: The First Emperor’s Last Days

TheatreWorks would like to invite you to a reading of THE FIRST EMPEROR’s LAST DAYS written by Tan Tarn How and directed by Ong Keng Sen. TheatreWorks premiered The First Emperor’s Last Days  in June 1998 at the Victoria Theatre. The play imagined four writers tasked – under detention and surveillance – to pen a posthumous biography of a country’s first great ruler.

Read by Lim Kay Tong, T Sasitharan, Lim Yu-Beng and Karen Tan, it is on 27th August 2011 (yes, the day of our Presidential Elections). Time is 3pm and venue is 72-13, Mohamed Sultan Road.

The reading is in conjunction with TheatreWorks’ premiere of Tarn How’s new work, FEAR OF WRITING, his first in ten years!

At the same time, this marks our efforts to introduce Singapore writings developed by TheatreWorks to new audiences whom may not have read or seen these  works onstage.  Such works bring into focus the dilemma of playwriting in Singapore under nationhood, the state and cultural policy.

Please send your RSVP to KC. Ring him on 6737-7213 or email him at

ST Article: A harvest of political plays

Clarissa Oon
The Straits Times

One of Singapore’s best-known playwrights recently expressed his disillusionment with writing political plays, saying in an interview with The Straits Times that political plays here are “no longer transformative” and “have lost their edge and danger”.

Tan Tarn How, whose name was practically synonymous with political satire and allegory in the 1990s, makes a comeback with a new play next month.

In private conversations, several others in the arts community have voiced similar sentiments to me over the years: that political theatre has become merely crowd-pulling entertainment. This view merits debate, particularly with the ongoing success of the Man Singapore Theatre Festival, where plays explicitly about politics, race and religion are sold out.

I disagree that theatre here has gone soft. On the contrary, I think the climate is right for plays with strong socio-political themes to thrive: hungry audiences, a gentler regulatory environment, corporate sponsors taking a risk, and playwrights at the peak of their powers.

If the momentum continues – and I hope it does – we could arrive at a theatre scene not much different from cultural capitals such as London and New York, where the measure of a good play is not just in what it dared to say, but how well it did so.

The three-week festival of new and restaged plays, ending on Sunday, is presented by home-grown theatre company Wild Rice. Its sponsor is global fund manager Man Investments, which also lends its name to the prestigious international literary Man Booker Prize awards.

The local plays which have sold out their five-day runs at the festival are the national service thriller Charged, inter-religious family drama Nadirah, and Cooling Off Day, a docudrama about the May General Election. The first play was written by Chong Tze Chien, and the latter two by Alfian Sa’at, both National Arts Council (NAC) Young Artist Award recipients.

Cooling Off Day, which I reviewed last week, manages to relive a watershed moment for political participation here with the kind of crackle and immediacy that you can only get with stripped- down live theatre.

Alfian and the veteran cast capture a range of voices, including ah peks and makciks, opposition figures and former political detainees, in vignettes notable not just for their unflinching honesty but also humour, compassion and insight.

If I was impressed by Cooling Off Day, my jaw dropped after reading the script for Charged, a searing, vulgarity-strewn piece taking off from the most extreme, racially loaded scenario imaginable – an investigation into the deaths of a Chinese and a Malay soldier, one having shot the other.

The play was first staged by Teater Ekamatra last December and ended its run at the festival earlier this month. Its script is one of four by Chong recently collected into a book by local publisher Epigram Books. Charged blows out the window at least two out-of-bounds markers that Singapore playwrights are thought not to be able to cross – racial sensitivities and the inviolability of national service.

It is a complex and layered interrogation of the interracial ignorance and prejudice that simmers in society and in national service barracks. It looks at how people sweep certain things they do not want to confront under the “race” carpet – issues that may really be about class divides or a basic level of humanity and decency.

There are two other politically themed works worth looking out for by other theatre companies. One is Tan’s The Fear Of Writing, a new play about self-censorship staged by TheatreWorks, which runs next month.

The other is Gemuk Girls, Haresh Sharma’s biting tragicomedy about the effects of political detention without trial on one Malay family. To be revived in November, it was first produced by The Necessary Stage to critical acclaim in 2008.

Apart from The Fear Of Writing, which has not yet received its licence from the Media Development Authority (MDA), all the other plays have been passed without cuts. Gemuk Girls and Cooling Off Day were given advisories for mature content and recommended for audiences aged 16 and above. Charged had an R18 rating for mature content and coarse language.

This reflects the MDA’s move in recent years away from censorship to age-appropriate ratings, although one could argue the NAC’s cut to Wild Rice’s annual grant for “disparaging public institutions” represents another form of censorship, given how other funding bodies take their cue from the Government.

This is why Man’s sponsorship is so significant. It signals the entry of a global sponsor responding more to a base of liberal yuppie consumers rather than an official government line.

Theatre here has a history of pushing the envelope, and has been given some latitude to do so because of its limited audience reach. The ups and downs of the theatre scene have thus depended partly on the development of its playwrights, and partly on the loosening and tightening of the political climate.

One high point was in the mid-1980s, when Kuo Pao Kun wrote some classic plays, and before the detention of key members of young drama group Third Stage for allegedly being part of a Marxist plot to overthrow the government.

Another peak was in the early-1990s, when playwrights such as Tan Tarn How, Eleanor Wong and Haresh Sharma won audiences and rave reviews.

Chong Tze Chien and Alfian Sa’at could be said to represent a third generation of writers, now in their 30s. In the last few years, theatre appears to be enjoying a new harvest of plays by them and others.

The challenge for playwrights has always been to find a fresh language to talk about society in all its complexity, against the homogenising rhetoric of top-down social engineering. I think great strides have been made in the writing, and I see audiences flocking to watch socio-political plays not simply to taste forbidden fruit, but to feed the soul.

The sensitivities of talking about race and religion in the public domain have been so ingrained that audiences look to drama for more debate and nuance about unspoken tensions. I am an optimist: May the illuminations in a darkened theatre counteract closed minds and knee-jerk prejudices.

ST: Bring back good plays

Clarissa Oon
SPH – The Straits Times, Life!
23 Jun 2011

A recent post on The Guardian’s theatre blog has the catchy heading, ‘Do we stage too much Shakespeare?’ It goes on to question British theatre’s overdose of Hamlet. In older and more established cultural cities such as London, dusting off a successful or iconic script is the order of the day.

Without going into chaotic extremes, encore productions are also becoming increasingly commonplace here. Some sniff at this as a lack of fresh ideas; I tend to think of it positively, as a sign of the growing maturity of some Singapore playwrights that make their best works worth returning to.

The restaging of well-received plays is not a new phenomenon, but seems to be happening more often in the past two years – perhaps because there is finally a substantial body of work to go back to, after more than 20 years of professional theatre development. There is something bittersweet about resurrecting past plays, an act of not inconsiderable labour compared to the snap rewinding of a film reel.

Age has something to do with it. A core group of full-time directors, writers and actors has spent nearly half their lives treading the boards. They are getting older and hence, conscious of the need to educate young audiences and artists of Singapore’s performance heritage.

Due to the transitory nature of the form, a play may only live for a few days. Once it has proven itself, it needs to be revived every few years to become part of the collective cultural imagination. Otherwise, ‘if we have no sense of what has been done, it is very difficult to move forward’, as Singapore Arts Festival general manager Low Kee Hong puts it.

The festival has led the charge in restaging seminal Singaporean works, with theatre practitioner and sociologist Low making it one of the fixtures of the programme since he took over at the helm last year.

While the tendency with restaging a play is to update or give it a radically different spin, at least two recent festival productions have kept faith almost note-for-note with the original, allowing their forgotten creators to be heard. Last year’s Emily of Emerald Hill saw a grand-motherly Margarte Chan reprise the classic role she first played as a young woman, leaving the script much as Stella Kon wrote it. At this year’s recently concluded festival, it was the turn of Conference Of The Birds, late director William Teo’s pan-Asian take on an ancient fable. Jeremiah Choy filled the director’s chair but kept the texture of the production close to the one in which he had taken part as a performer 20 years ago.

The new Conference had its weaknesses but I liked that it was an unabashed homage to Teo. Singapore drama went through a pan-Asian phase during the 1990s and early 2000s, as part of a search for its own language. Teo was ahead of his time in fusing different Asian performance idioms into an improbably lyrical, syncretic whole. Choy’s production brought that home to me and a new generation that missed out on Teo’s works.

Restagings dominated the theatre calendar last year with quite a few companies celebrating 10- and 20-year anniversaries, including English-language theatre group Wild Rice which revisited its past hits such as the pantomime Cinderel-lah! and comedy Boeing Boeing.

More comebacks are in store with the resurfacing of three critically acclaimed plays. The Necessary Stage will bring back its political drama Gemuk Girls in November, while two plays exploring inter-racial tension – Chong Tze Chien’s Charged and Alfian Sa’at’s Nadirah – will be restaged as part of the Man Singapore Theatre Festival next month.

It has always made economic sense that plays with legs should run and run. In the United States, a good play typically makes a cross-country journey from regional theatres to off-Broadway before finally winding up on Broadway.

Theatre makers here have found ways of telescoping that journey. For example, Nadirah and Charged were small productions first staged by Teater Ekamatra in 2009 and 2010 respectively. They will now play to a wider audience as part of the Singapore Theatre Festival, Wild Rice’s platform for home-grown writing.

That playwrights such as Haresh Sharma, Tan Tarn How, Alfian and Chong have launched or will soon publish collections of playscripts can only encourage more revivals of their works.

Restagings make better practitioners – and audiences – out of us. A cracker of a script can only improve upon successive outings, as long as it is not milked to death – we have probably had enough of Singapore theatre’s favourite Peranakan matriarch Emily for a while, following two different revivals over the year.

With a restaging, audiences who did not see the play the first time around also get to plug that missing piece in the contextual jigsaw of arts appreciation.

As a theatre reviewer in the early parft of the last decade, I watched every show in town. Away from the scene for the past six years, restagings became my way of sifting out the enduring from the forgettable, and I suspect many audiences choose what to watch in the same way.

As a civil society observer with an interest in history, I am looking forward to Gemuk Girls, a powerful play about a political detainee’s family, first staged to rave reviews in 2008.

There are two other plays I would love to see revived. One is theatre doyen Kuo Pao Kun’s Mama Looking For Her Cat, a groundbreaking 1988 multilingual piece that has not been staged as often as his other landmark works such as The Coffin Is Too Big For The Hole, Mama is a sensitive critique of how society treats its elders, written in spare, economical prose that bears further interpretation. I last saw a version of the play staged in 1998 by Toy Factory and have no doubt it would resonate today – witness the recent expose of abuse in an old age home.

Another play which deserves a comeback is Tan’s Machine, a smart, dark riff on postmodern love, which won the Life! Theatre Awards Best Script in 2003. A total of 800 people saw the play, according to Tan. It was subsequently revisited by a different director in a low-key two-night production four years later.

Surely it deserves to be seen by more folks? Bring it on again, I say.