First Emperor’s Last Days

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



An absurd play

Written by Tan Tarn How
Directed by Ong Keng Sen

Premieres on 1 September 2011

[book tickets]

Tel 67377213 / Email

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

Online Media


Newspaper Articles

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.

Re-staging of The Lady of Soul and Her Ultimate ‘S’ Machine



[click to enlarge]

My playwright’s message: One has the nagging feeling that the label of “classic” some have attached to this work is not fully deserved until it has been produced a few more times. Nevertheless, in this society of the new and the disposable, having the play resurrected for its third staging can be nothing less than gratifying.

I wrote this in the early 90’s, when I was rather innocent, having thought that “art” had the capacity to change society. Society has changed since then, but not always for the better and not by any measure because of the arts. We – or I – thought rather naively that the audience wanted more than song and dance, more than entertainment. But it has come to pass that song and dance is what they really – and largely – wanted. Artists today are in the unenviable position of talking about a variety of things to an audience which seek only one thing, a good night out before they go on to supper at Newton or Adam Road and the rest of their lives-as-usual the next day. Not to denigrate ABBA, whose songs I can sing along to, admittedly rather badly, as happily as anyone else of my vintage, but it is rather symptomatic of our present time and place that a government minister no less could inveigh a gathering of theatre companies to stop indulging themselves with work that is too deep but to instead “do” Mama Mia!

My immense gratitude to Casey, Robin and Jeremiah – and of course also to the hardworking students of the NUS Theatre Studies Class for putting on the show.

Singapore Malays, Iraqi War and national interest

I have been having discussions about an article written by a scholar on the position of the Malays in Singapore, which also peripherally touches on the Iraqi war. That made me think of 2003, when I wrote three commentaries in the Straits Times (I was reporter on the Political Desk then) on the marginalisation of the Malays, the Singapore’s stance on the Iraqi war, the internal security detentions without trial of the Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) suspects, and the national interest of Singapore.


Here they are:


Suspected terrorists deserve an open trial.


The Straits Times, 27 January 2002


By Tan Tarn How.


WHAT a difference this time round.


In 1987, when the Internal Security Department (ISD) swooped on 22 people for alleged involvement in a Marxist conspiracy, the arrests were met with a fair bit of scepticism among some Singaporeans.


Vigils were held in churches for the detainees, many of whom were Catholics.


Some people questioned the use, if not the very existence, of the Internal Security Act (ISA), and called for a trial in open court.


The ISA became enough of an issue for the People’s Action Party government to ask Singaporeans to decide on it at the 1988 elections.


The arrests became a foreign affairs matter, with the West and the Western press charging that they were a contravention of human rights.


In Manila, protesters demonstrated outside the Singapore Embassy.


Contrast this with the aftermath of last month’s arrest of the 15 suspected terrorists.


When the ISD declared that the members of the clandestine group Jemaah Islamiah had hatched plans to bomb American-linked targets here, there was a collective sigh of relief.


In contrast with the Marxists’ detention, Singaporeans this time round seem nearly universally united behind the Government’s action against the suspected terrorists.


The very fact that they did not act like terrorists or religious fanatics is no bar against most people arriving at the conclusion that they are guilty.


On the other hand, that they are your typical faceless heartlander only helps to leaven the already-accepted story by lending it a certain sinister rogue-next-door twist, rather than to raise doubts about their culpability.


For the moment, 13 of the 15 have been detained for two years under the ISA. The Government has said that it may choose to go for a public trial, though not yet, because investigations are continuing.


But there seems to be scant interest – whether from intellectual to the man-in-street – in such a trial.


One can only conclude from the disinterest that the men have already been tried and convicted – by public opinion.


Outside the country, even erstwhile Western critics of the ISA, most notably the United States, have changed tack. Some have given Singapore a pat on the back for moving against the detainees.


Only a very few people have publicly questioned the detentions. One is the Think Centre political activist organisation, which asked for an open trial.


The other is the even more fringe Muslim group Fateha (named after the first of the 114 chapters of the Koran, al-Fateha, or The Opening). It is now under heavy fire from the Government and Muslim leaders here for its view that the actions of the 15 men were prompted by Singapore’s close alignment with the US and Israel.


One reason that minds were so quickly made up against the group is that the evidence against them appears stronger and their alleged intentions clearer.


They have evidently trained in the terrorists camps of Afghanistan.


There is also that video of the Yishun MRT found so far away from home.


Never mind that there are gaps. What, for example, the group had in mind at Yishun MRT remains unknown. And the plot to attack US naval vessels off the coast – does it not appear rather far-fetched?


Another reason is the Sept 11 effect.


Here and in most of the rest of the world, including some countries where Muslims are in the majority, it is not considered in good taste to question official action against anyone who is remotely linked to Osama bin Ladin’s Al-Qaeda network.


Even in the US, the much-vaunted Home of the Free, liberal voices against the encroachment of civil liberties have found few sympathetic listeners.


But those who, in the thick of the Marxist controversy a decade and a half ago believe that the ISA and detention without trial should be scrapped, should also now call for the suspected terrorists to be tried openly.


Many of them probably believe that the detainees are the people the ISD has said they are, and that they really intended to carry out what the ISD has said they plotted to do. This would seem to make a public trial unnecessary.


This is a mistaken view.


Whether their guilt is as plain as daylight, they deserve an open trial as much as those who were held for their alleged roles in the alleged Marxist conspiracy.


Opponents of the ISA argue that it violates fundamental rights because it denies a person the right to defend himself in a fair and open trial.


They also criticise the law for going against the principles of justice


– because a person detained under it is not presumed innocent until proven guilty. They also reject the stand that the ISA is necessary in cases where no witnesses would be forthcoming or that it will undermine its intelligence operations, and insist that the fundamental rights and principles of justice are of greater importance.


If these arguments stand, they should stand in all cases, whether in seemingly open and shut ones like the present or the less clear-cut ones like the Marxist conspiracy.


The average Singaporean, who is not likely to lose sleep over the problems of the ISA, will not be tossing and turning over the justice meted out to the 13 people who have been detained.


Thus, pressing to bring them to court may not be popular. But it will certainly be right.






Minority vs national views


By Tan Tarn How.


15 September 2002


SOME unfortunate statements have been made recently about Singapore’s position in the event of a United States attack of Iraq. They put into spotlight once again an issue that refuses to go away – the loyalty of our Malays/Muslims towards the nation.


The trigger this time round was the call by four volunteer and academic Muslim groups on the Singapore Government not to support any American attack on Iraq.


In a joint statement issued two weeks ago, they appealed to the Government to oppose, or at least abstain from supporting, any such attacks on the Muslim-majority country led by President Saddam Hussein.


The quartet – the Singapore Islamic Scholars and Religious Teachers’


Association (Pergas); the welfare group Perdaus; the welfare and religious teaching group Muhammadiyah Association; and the Centre for Contemporary Islamic Studies – also urged the Government and Singaporeans at large to support the call to end economic sanctions that have caused a humanitarian crisis in Iraq.


What they said made eminent sense to me. They are also not alone, for theirs is the view of many in the West, particularly Europe, who remain unconvinced by US President George W. Bush’s case for an attack, even after his speech at the United Nations.


They also echo the sentiment of many Asians. A recent Straits Times AsiaPoll of senior officials, diplomats, think-tank staff and businessmen – published on Sept 1 – found that less than a third saw Mr Saddam as a current threat to global stability.


What’s unfortunate, and even disturbing, is the response of some Singaporeans to this statement by the Singapore Muslim groups.


Reader Jeff Chen Kwang Wai wrote to the Forum page of The Straits Times to express disappointment at their views, saying: ‘I feel that, as Singaporeans, we should all rally around the national interest of Singapore, whatever the position it adopts regarding this issue.’


He went on to conclude that ‘perhaps, it goes to show that the nation-building process has not really been successful and that the Muslim community has not been fully integrated into Singapore society’.


Mr Chen’s words carry this subtext: that all Muslims are different from all the rest of the people like him, the undefined ‘Singapore society’.


Furthermore, the unspoken line of reasoning is: you are the minority and if you think differently from the majority, then it is a bad thing. And because you are not thinking of the so-called ‘common’ interest, you can’t expect your minority view to prevail. So, really, you have no right to call for it to become national policy.


Mr Chen appeals to that elusive concept called the ‘national interest’.


To be sure, such a thing exists, and if we knew where our national interest lies and know it is not contrary to larger humanitarian and global concerns, we would no doubt be squarely behind it.


But like other terms such as ‘the common good’, it has also been a cattle-prod in whose name much evil has been done – from the suffering and death caused by the Cultural Revolution to the apartheid regime in South Africa and to the rise of fascism.


Also worrying is the stand of reader Elaine Ong Mei Lin, who declared in her Forum letter: ‘I believe the Singapore Government will look into all facets of the issue before it decides whether it should, or should not, support any US action and it will do so with all religious, political and economic sensitivities in mind.’


There is a phrase for this kind of Government-knows-best philosophy when it comes from a citizen: blind faith. No doubt the Government will be happy to oblige and do her thinking on her behalf.


But I hazard to guess that there will be at least some among us who believe that, even if the Government takes into account all the religious, political and economic concerns in coming to a decision, it could take a wrong stand.


In fact, this group probably wants not only to hear the Government’s stand but also to engage it in a debate about whether the stand is justified, instead of merely accepting the national interest as a fait accompli.


Meanwhile, that debate is not happening. As Defence Minister Tony Tan said last week, the Government will make known its position on a US attack when it happens. No one is under the illusion that – far away as the war will be geographically – it will be a difficult decision that bears directly on Singapore.


The Government’s dilemma is clearly how to negotiate between the crouching tiger of ground sentiment – which, it must be said, includes the feelings of non-Muslims – and the hidden dragon of Singapore-US relations (there are good reasons why American warships dock here regularly). Then there is the matter of ‘regional sensitivities’ to factor in.


It is therefore understandable that the Government would want to keep its cards close to its chest when war is still not quite a sure thing yet.


And those like Ms Elaine Ong would perhaps even say that ordinary Singaporeans – such as those from the four groups – have no business meddling in the affairs of the state.


But the organisations have actually done Singaporeans a service rather than a disservice by bringing the vexed issue of Iraq to the attention of their fellow citizens. And it is only natural that they were the ones to do so: they probably followed the subject more than the rest of us.


Instead of questioning whether they are ‘true Singaporeans’, it may be more fruitful to focus on the issues they raised. Whether it is Mr Saddam’s fault, and whether we can do anything about it, surely merits more rather than less discussion.






No sign of Iraqi weapons – How now, Singapore?


By Tan Tarn How


7 June 2003


THE glaring failure so far of the Americans to find any weapons of mass destruction in Iraq is not just an embarrassment for the Bush and Blair administrations.


The Singapore Government, too, may be put in a spot by the anti-war crowd here to explain whether it thinks the invasion is still justified if the alleged biological and chemical arsenals do not cooperate by turning up.


This is because it gave its support for the war on the assumption that the purported weapons existed.


That was why the Government argued that even though it preferred a second United Nations resolution before US troops rolled into Iraq, one was not needed according to international law.


Its support for the US-led invasion was based on the belief that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction and that these weapons posed an imminent threat to the world.


Unfortunately, no one, including the anti-war Singaporeans, thought of asking whether it had asked to see some of the evidence the United States claimed it had, especially since UN inspectors had failed to find any of the weapons, right up to the eve of the invasion.


Now it is the turn of the US occupiers to come out empty-handed.


In the last six weeks, about 100 of the 600 or so sites identified by US intelligence and Iraqi officials as places where the country’s biological weapons may be stashed have been searched.


To date, only two mobile laboratories that may have been used to develop anthrax or botulism have been unearthed by US soldiers.


There were no traces of biological agents in them or evidence that they had been used for making weapons. Hardly conclusive proof of former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s evil designs.


US President George W. Bush asserted again this week that the ‘tools of mass murder’ would be uncovered, but increasingly, the belief grows that the soldiers may end up finding exactly what UN weapons inspectors


found: Nothing.


If so, it can mean two things: The regime destroyed all evidence of the weapons, or it did not have anything substantial to begin with.


If the latter is the case, then what do US claims that it had intelligence about weapons of mass destruction Iraq mean?


It could have been bad intelligence. Or it could be that Mr Bush and company have pulled the wool over everyone’s eyes.


Anyone who talks about an ‘intelligence failure’ is missing the point.


The problem lay not with intelligence professionals, but with the Bush and Blair administrations. They wanted a war, so they demanded reports supporting their case while dismissing contrary evidence.


The previous paragraph is not mine, but that of American commentator Paul Krugman, whose columns are carried regularly in this paper.


He added: ‘Suggestions that the public was manipulated into supporting an Iraq war gain credibility from that fact that misrepresentation and deception are standard operating procedure for this administration, which – to an extent never before seen in US history – systematically and brazenly distorts the facts.’


Why lie?


Because the Bush team never dared to spell out the real reason for the war, and (wrongly) felt that it could never win public or world support for the right reasons and the moral reasons, it opted for the ‘stated


reason’: The notion that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction that posed an immediate threat to America.


The foregoing paragraph is also not mine, but written by war-supporter Thomas Friedman, whose articles are also published regularly in The Straits Times.


For him, there was a moral reason for the war: Saddam’s murderous regime had to be removed.


But he also saw another reason: That ‘after 9/11, America needed to hit someone in the Arab-Muslim world’.


Now, US credibility has sunk so low that chief UN weapons inspector Hans Blix wants whatever US teams find in Iraq to be verified by international experts.


If it is true that Mr Bush has duped the rest of us, then the Singapore Government must be counted among the misled.


There are several questions arising from this:


If no weapons are found, does the Singapore Government still support the war even if the original reason given for doing so turns out to be fiction?


Can the Government now argue that, never mind that Saddam did not have all those weapons, the important thing is that the Iraqi people have been liberated and are apparently happier now?


Does it matter that this happiness (which may not last) is brought about by the world’s self-appointed policeman against the wishes of most other countries – even if France and other G-8 members now appear to have forgiven Mr Bush his unilateralism. And does it matter that the policeman was less than truthful?


A colleague asked: ‘But what choice do we have but to support the US?


How do you think we got the Free Trade Agreement signed?’


Whether it is accurate that Singapore joined the coalition of the willing to reap such rewards, her remarks ultimately capture the truth for me. America is big and powerful, and we need it more than it needs us.


Thus, my final questions are these: Would the Government have taken any reason the US gave? If not, where would it have drawn the line?




















“Machine” restaged

My play Machine was recently restaged for the Arts Festival as a double-bill with Kuo Paokun’s Little White Sailing Boat under the title “Full Frontal”. It was directed by Peter Sau. The review by Flying Inkpot is here. The review by Ng Yi-sheng in the Straits Times is below. So is the review and preview by Suhaila Sulaiman in Life! in 2002, when Machine was first staged and when it won the Life! Theatre Awards for Best Script. I have also included some pages from the programme notes for Full Frontal. The play was also made into a one-hour TV drama for the Arts Central by award-winning director Sun Koh.

[Apologies that it is hard to navigate, I am not good at this uploading stuff!]

Excerpts of programme Notes for Full Frontal (click on the images to enlarge):







Review in The Straits Times:

Machine/Full Frontal Programme Notes


The review by Suhaila Sulaiman in Straits Times, 2002:

March 16, 2002 Saturday

HEADLINE: His ultimate Machine?
BYLINE: Suhaila Sulaiman

NOTHING is sacred.

Not the body, not the mind and certainly not the heart – at least that is what playwright-journalist Tan Tarn How asserts in his latest play, Machine, which opened at The Black Box on Wednesday.

A bleak pronouncement, yes, but one so exquisitely articulated, it effects a sting of truth that you will carry with you long after the 90-minute play has ended.

A one-act drama about love and relationship in the modern age, Machine unfolds in the home of two friends, Lina (played by Janice Koh) and Kim (Karen Tan). The women are set to begin their day, but certain electrical appliances – the computer and the washing machine – have broken down and are in need of fixing.

Enter Rex (Low Kee Hong) and Heng (Casey Lim), who, claiming to be repairmen, proceed to fix the faulty washing machine.

Conversations are struck and before you know it, dinner dates are set.

There’s no high drama or action in Machine. Its brutality does not stream in naked through rapes and murders, but comes sheathed in the mating games – the civilised conversations and repartees – that men and women play.

Tan’s sensitivity and genius is obvious throughout: The dialogue is light but loaded. In the exchanges, there are just the right doses of surprise to compliment, of feigned ignorance to encourage and of coyness to intrigue, as both the man and woman manoeuvre expertly towards their ultimate goal – the bed, after which the relationship ceases to be.

It is a dark emotionless world that Tan creates, one in which the manipulative, consumerist culture pervades and reigns, even in the traditionally-sacred realm of the heart.

For the four individuals, only the excitement of the hunt matters. And even then the thrill is wearing off as they chug through another use-abuse-and-throw cycle.

For some, the only way to survive such a barren wasteland of emotions is by indulging in aberrant sexual behaviour such as sadism and masochism.

Truly, Tan has achieved what he has set out to do – offer glimpses of ‘the postmodern love’, for not only do his characters reject love, they also use it to habitually mock themselves.

Machine is one of the very few Singapore plays to benefit from a set design with a strong concept and more importantly, one that contributes to the play’s themes.

Predominantly blue with white flooring, the set immediately conveys an air of unfeeling coldness. A dining table placed centrestage is the main playing area and also acts as the fulcrum on which a piece of the wall, on tiny wheels, swings across to partition the set in different ways during scene changes.

The idea of it as part of a machine perhaps would be brought out more if it were the actors who wheel it across as part of the performance instead of the backstage crew in the dark. The walls also deserve attention, for their current flimsiness makes them look amateurish.

A cast of strong performers, under the direction of ex-lawyer Jeremiah Choy, were able to bring out the complexities of the script and hold the attention of the audience almost effortlessly. Koh, in particular, shone with confidence and the quirky chemistry between her and Low is something to be relished.

Tan Tarn How’s Machine is on at the Black Box, Fort Canning Park, till March 31. Nightly performances (Wed – Sat) at 8 pm and matinees (Sun only) at 3 pm. Tickets at $30 and $25 are available via Sistic. Call 6348-5555.


The preview by Suhaila Sulaiman in Straits Times, 2002:

HEADLINE: Play-boy’s Machine;
Journalist-playwright Tan Tarn How looks at games unmarried people play in his latest work

BYLINE: Suhaila Sulaiman

JUGGLING two lovers is no easy task. Particularly when both are equally demanding.

But journalist-playwright Tan Tarn How manages. He says: ‘Journalism is my wife and playwriting, my mistress.

‘While newspaper writing is as good a job as I wish to do, creative writing keeps me alive. I am very passionate about both.’

Where his days are spent with his ‘wife’, nights are reserved for his ‘mistress’, he says, with a smile.

But with his latest play, Machine, scheduled to open at the Black Box on Wednesday, you would guess that The Straits Times political correspondent has been showering the latter with a wee bit more attention than usual.

After all, the one-act play which centres on love and relationships in modern times is quite an anomaly for the political satirist. It is only his second non-political play after Home, written 12 years ago.

Between then and now, political dramas took up his time. Among them were 1992’s The Lady Of Soul And Her Ultimate ‘S’ Machine, which stirred a storm because of its explicit sexuality; 1996’s Six Of The Best, which explored racism using the caning of an American teen vandal as a backdrop; and The First Emperor’s Last Days, a 1998 Singapore Festival Of The Arts play which looked into the fabrication of history.

The idea for Machine came to him two years ago, he says.

‘That’s how I work – I take a long time between having the idea in my head and the actual writing.’

A work commissioned by TheatreWorks for about $8,000, Machine took him about four weeks to write. It had its first reading last March when the theatre company celebrated its 10th year of the SPH Writers’ Lab, called Charging Up Memory Lane: 30 Plays In 30 Days.

Considering he had submitted only the first half of it, the reception to the reading was surprisingly good, he says.

The first complete draft was passed to lawyer-turned-director Jeremiah Choy in February for him to start working with the ensemble of actors – Karen Tan, Janice Koh, Casey Lim and Low Kee Hong.

Since then, three other drafts have been written as Tan, who is also the associate artistic director of TheatreWorks, continued to work with actors through their process.

With the play, he had wanted to understand how relationships work in this postmodern age, he says.

Non-specific to Singapore, Machine unfolds with two men, Rex and Heng, claiming to be appliance repairmen, turning up at the home of women pals, Lina and Kim, to fix their washing machine.

Attraction sets in and ‘suddenly, relationships are forming, coalescing and breaking up’, says Tan.

‘The play is actually a study of a group of people – specifically, unmarried men and women in their 30s – who have developed a certain pattern of engaging in relationships and working them out.

‘I am particularly interested in the putting on of masks and the games people play when they are in relationships. It’s actually very much like play-acting and drama.

‘It is real and surreal at the same time: They are real people who live on an emotional plane that is unreal.’

Most of Machine had come from general observations of his life as well as those of his friends, he says.

He suggests this ‘disjointedness between what people say and what they do’ is the result of today’s consumerist society, which makes the individual – hard-pressed to find permanent emotional attachments – take comfort in emotionless games instead.

The title Machine plays up the idea of the industrial and the mechanical logic that the four characters are unable to escape from.

He says: ‘I hope to show that the richness of this life – while it creates an abundance of opportunities and possibilities for young men and women – also closes some doors.

‘And that when these are closed, life can be quite tragic.’

Tan Tarn How’s Machine will be on at the Black Box, Fort Canning Centre from Wednesday till March 31. Nightly performances (Wed – Sat) at 8 pm and matinees (Sun only) at 3 pm. Tickets at $30 and $25 are available at TheatreWorks. Call 6338-4077.

The Singapore Political Play

Wild Rice’s artistic director Ivan Heng asked me to write a short note on the Singapore political play for the programme of Eleanor Wong’s The Campaign To Confer The Public Service Star on JBJ, which is part of the Singapore Theatre Festival now on. The piece (with shameless reference to my own work) is attached. Another shameless plug: A group of us will be at a panel discussion on 12th August on JBJ on stage and in real life (see end of this post for details.)

For Eleanor’s play programme:

by Tan Tarn How

The “political” play is a strange creature indeed in Singapore.

There are, first of all, those that are manifestly political. Members of this subspecies range from Kuo Pao Kun’s pre-detention, banned play about class struggle The Sparks of Youth to Robert Yeo’s Singapore trilogy, Russell Heng’s Half Century, and my own The Lady of Soul And Her Ultimate “S” Machine, and of course tonight’s work. These plays wear no camouflage.

A different animal are the plays which are political in every way except in declared intention. They include the extensive ouevre of Haresh Sharma and The Necessary Stage (which for a time practised forum theatre in every way except in name: the games artists play in our dear country!) Also: Wild Rice’s Animal Farm, Pao Kun’s The Coffin Is Too Big For The Hole and my The First Emperor’s Last Days (whose 1998 Hong Kong audience thought was about Deng Xiaoping). The craft of beating about the bush is part of the playwright’s arsenal too.

Thirdly, there are the sheep which have wolf’s clothing thrown upon them, plays which don’t want to be political, really, but have become political – or at least politicised – because It Says So. The “Marxist conspirator” Third Stage’s maid play Esperanza is one (It Said So, though retroactively.) More recently, there is Benny Lim’s Human Left about the execution of Shanmugam Murugesu. Benny had to rub out references to hanging and political leaders so It would let the play through. It calls this regulation by “soft touch”. We are grateful.

At any rate, even when It does nothing It watches pretty much everything. Plays included. Again we ought to be grateful: It does help to keep the ticket sales up.


Panel Discussion:
LIFE: Speaking and Quieted: New Singapore, Old Constraints?
ART: The Campaign to Confer the Public Service Star on JBJ

Could the Campaign to confer the Public Star on JBJ in fact become a reality in today’s Singapore? How do we view the Opposition, or alternative views? How do we value or acknowledge them? Can we?

Moderator: Alfian Sa’at (Playwright)
Points of View: Gayle Goh (Citizen Commentator), Sylvia Lim (Worker’s Party Chairman, NCMP), Eleanor Wong (Playwright, Lawyer), Tan Tarn How (Playwright, Social Commentator)

Venue: Function Rooms, Drama Centre @ National Library, Level 3

Admission is FREE and on a first come, first in basis!
Sat, 12 August 5.30pm

For other panel discussions, see