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Shifting Sands

Singapore theatre's fixation with land because we have so little of it


Published: 20 Jul 2023

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When you live in an island city-state like Singapore, it’s hard to get away from the topic of land. That’s because we have so little of it.

As a nation, we’ve had to grapple with what to do with very limited land, regularly making hard decisions about what gets to stay, and what has to make way for something new. This is why land has been rich fodder for our local theatremakers.

This journey through the Singapore theatre canon begins in the 1980s, when developments on the island were proceeding at a brisk and dogged pace. Original plays in English as well as other languages emerged to reflect and interrogate the sociocultural and political milieu, including its perspectives on land. As theatre educator T. Sasitharan writes about the decade, intrepid theatremakers “[became] alive to the need for theatre to both shape and reflect the conscience of the young nation”.

These plays, from the 1980s to the present, form touchpoints on our history with land. With Singapore theatre as a lens to our past, are we able to get a sense of how our relationship with land has evolved over the decades, and perhaps, even in time to come?


1980s: The tide of change

In the 1980s, the state, through land acquisition over preceding decades, emerged as the largest landowner in the country. By 1985, 76.2% of land in Singapore was under public ownership.

Concurrently, the government was in the midst of ambitious construction projects, including key infrastructure such as Changi Airport (opened in 1981), the first Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) train line (opened in 1987), and at least five major highways across the island. By this point in history, the government had built over half a million Housing Development Board (HDB) flats and 20 industrial estates to provide homes and employment for the population.

With such rapid development in the 1980s, it’s no wonder an aging Emily Gan in the Stella Kon monodrama Emily of Emerald Hill (1985) laments, 

Now the garden’s gone and the tall apartment blocks press up around the house.

Redevelopment seemed par for course for the fledgling nation. One area that fell victim to the wrecking ball was Bugis Street, once famous for its rich hawker scene and vivid nightlife, as a tourist draw, and as a gathering point for trans people.

Bugis Street was closed in 1985 for the redevelopment and the construction of a MRT station, and its final night would be mentioned in the opening of Russell Heng’s Lest the Demons Get to Me (1987). Trans woman K.C. returns home after a night on the town and relates what her friend Anita said to her:

There’s no point looking back for we are never going to get another place like this street again ever! Not in Singapore. Not in the whole world.

K.C. is portrayed as very matter-of-fact despite impending and irrevocable change to a treasured site. Indeed, several plays documented the relentless nature of the State’s urban planning. For example, Oh! Singapore (1985) by theatre society Third Stage features a scene where a bulldozer razes an idyllic kampung, including its distressed inhabitants, into the ground.

In Kuo Pao Kun’s monologue The Coffin Is Too Big For the Hole (1985), the protagonist narrates meeting a stalwart government official, who is flabbergasted when asked to make an exception to the strict rules governing land used for burial. The protagonist reports that the official blubbered, “No, no, no, no! That will be running against our national planning. You are well aware of the fact that we are a densely populated nation with very limited land resources. The consideration for humanity and sympathy cannot over-step the constraints of the state policy!”

Actor Lim Kay Tong plays the protagonist in the original English version of Kuo Pao Kun's <em>The Coffin Is Too Big For The Hole</em> in 1985. Image courtesy of The Theatre Practice.

In the 1980s, both onstage and off, it seemed that little could be done to stem the tide of progress and change. Against the backdrop of a rapidly-developing nation, theatremakers continued to be inspired by and critical of the changes in land in the next decade.

1990s: Money no enough

The affluence of the 1990s left its mark on the Singapore landscape, as well as in local plays written during the period.

Shopping was a national pastime in the 1990s, and the decade saw the opening of many large retail spaces, including Ngee Ann City, Bugis Junction and Suntec City, and upsized heartland malls such as Junction 8 and Tampines Mall.

Michael Chiang’s comedic play Beauty Box is a record of the expansion of commercial spaces in the 1990s. The work, about a beauty competition for shopping centre representatives, originally premiered in 1984. It was restaged in 1994 featuring an updated and expanded contestant lineup that included Miss Ngee Ann City and Miss Junction 8.

Tan Tarn How’s 1993 political satire The Lady of Soul and Her Ultimate “S” Machine opens in a shop selling nations. In an essay on Tan’s plays, theatre scholar K. K. Seet highlights that the salesgirl character in Lady of Soul uses “the econ-speak of the retail trade, and framed within shopaholicism, corporatisation and materialistic ethos of the average Singaporean”.

Aside from shopping, real estate was another national obsession. In the 1990s, it became highly desirable to attain symbols of prestige known as the 5Cs, one of which was condominium or “condo”. A condo was any piece of high-rise private real estate that was seen as an “upgrade” from a HDB flat.

In the mid-90s, Singaporeans were snapping up condos and driving up property prices at such an alarming rate that the government had to introduce cooling measures for the first time ever. A 1996 government press release on the situation described the private property market as “frenzied, almost desperate”.

In Singapore theatre, the condo would become a recurring motif in original plays, such as Eleanor Wong’s Block Sale (1996), in which its characters feverishly discuss striking it rich in the property market, or Michael Chiang’s Heaven II (1994), a comedy about aspirational Singaporean couples competing in a game show for a chance to buy a luxury condo unit, or Land (1997), a short play written by Haresh Sharma set in a cemetery set to be demolished for the construction of a condo complex.

Both shopping centres and condos hold great significance to a key character in another of Sharma’s plays. In Three Years in the Life and Death of Land (1994), Lionel Lim is a land developer amassing his fortune by constructing shopping centres over old properties. He also aspires to move his family into a bigger home, ostensibly a condo, even though his family already lives in a very sizable duplex HDB flat.

His son, Eric, holds starkly opposing views. A fresh architecture graduate, the younger Lim doesn’t associate progress and prosperity with the changes in his landscape—he instead sees his father as part of a wave of destruction. During an argument with his father, Eric testily says, “Dad, look at what is happening in the world. Homes are destroyed for golf courses. Beaches are destroyed for resorts and hotels. Now you are destroying a park for a shopping centre.” 

This depiction of Eric and his father at loggerheads is an indication that in the 1990s, ideas about land were beginning to cleave along intergenerational lines. Older Singaporeans had witnessed the island’s trajectory of change and development and were enjoying its benefits, while younger Singaporeans were watching the landscape of their childhood routinely upturned for economic benefit. This was an early sign of how theatremakers would come to view land in the new millennium.


After almost 30 years since their last staging of <em>Three Years in the Life and Death of Land</em>, The Necessary Stage will once again be restaging the show for <em>The Studios</em> 2023. Photo credit: Tuckys Photography

2000s: This is home—truly?

The Dick Lee tune Home rang through much of the noughties. Originally debuted at the 1998 National Day Parade, the song, as performed by Kit Chan, proved so popular with Singaporeans that it became a staple at National Day celebrations in the years to come. The lyrics, in particular “I will always recall the city/Know every street and shore”, would speak to the steadfastness and permanence of home.

But the land told a different story as Singaporeans continued to grapple with extensive transformations in their physical environment throughout the 2000s.

The country continued to redefine its skyline with distinctive architecture. In 2002, the national performing arts centre Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay opened. Its twin spiked domes became a standout feature in the Marina Bay area. That is, until it was joined by the Marina Bay Sands integrated resorts—three towers topped by a cantilevered platform—at the end of the decade. 

Concurrently, old national landmarks were put on the chopping block, such as the old National Stadium at Kallang, which closed in 2007 and demolished to make way for a newer sports facility. The old National Library at Stamford Road, built in 1960, was bulldozed in 2006 for the construction of a tunnel for traffic.

A sense of alienation from one’s homeland was festering throughout the noughties, such that by 2012, a Straits Times article about what Singaporeans desired for the land would carry the emphatic headline “We want a greater sense of home”.

Signs of this disenchantment can be found in Singapore plays created during the decade. For example, in Chong Tze Chien’s Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea (2005), a young Singaporean man prefers to live overseas rather than take over his grandmother’s old flat. 

In another play, Alfian Sa’at’s The Optic Trilogy (2001), a nameless Singaporean woman is staying in a hotel overlooking Marina Bay. As she looks out at the ongoing construction works, she articulates her acute feelings of alienation:

I walked out of my house this morning. Thinking that I would visit all the places I would miss. I brought my videocam along. But I realised after a while how strange everything looked. This country was built for tourists. I convinced myself that this wasn’t the place where I was born.

Boom (2008), written by Jean Tay, is about people in Singapore struggling to hold on to their sense of home. In it, a civil servant named Jeremiah helps a ghost living in a cemetery slated for demolition. After the exhumation of the ghost’s grave, Jeremiah laments, “Sometimes, things are salvaged. In one form or another. Recycled, reallocated, redeployed. The old school chapel is resurrected as a shopping mall. The library as a time-saving, traffic-enhancing, gantry-guarded tunnel. The stadium as a… well… a newer stadium. The block of apartments as a block of apartments. Just newer, taller, posher.”

“But it’s never quite the same, is it?”

Also in the play, a middle-aged woman is forced to leave her home after an en bloc sale of her estate goes through. After settling into her new accommodations, she is gazing out at unfamiliar environs and wistfully utters, “Wah ai deng chu”, Hokkien for “I want to go home”.


In this decade, and indeed the next, the social imagination of home amongst Singapore residents would continue to come up against the physical reality of the island’s ever-shifting landscape. This tension would mount even more in the 2010s, and play out on the stage.

2010s: Doing something for a change

With a national core value espousing consensus over conflict, modern Singapore seemed like it would never make much room for dissent. But in the 2010s, people in Singapore were discovering more space to voice their discontent over the land.

Speakers’ Corner at Hong Lim Park was first designated in 2000 as the only space in Singapore where demonstrations were legally allowed. But strict rules governing its use dissuaded activity for many years, until the regulations were relaxed in 2008. Thereafter, Speakers’ Corner saw an uptick of civil protests, including one in 2013 against a government White Paper that projected a population of 6.9 million in Singapore by 2030, half of which would be born in Singapore. The protest drew 4,000 people to Hong Lim Park, a record number at the time.

Chronicling this thorny issue is the documentary theatre work To Cook a Pot of Curry (2013) created by Alfian Sa’at. The play compiles interview excerpts on various perspectives, discussing foreigners, overcrowding, escalating costs of living, and ultimately, who deserves to call this small island ‘home’.

In the 2010s, people also found space for resistance on the Internet. Activists and concerned communities took to online platforms to organise and mount campaigns opposing the state’s redevelopment plans. The early 2010s saw popular online campaigns calling a halt to demolition works, such as All Things Bukit Brown, a community-driven effort to stop the building of a highway through the historic Bukit Brown Cemetery. Unfortunately, the group’s efforts would be in vain—in 2013, the authorities exhumed over three thousand graves from the cemetery and constructed an eight-lane highway that was completed in 2018.

The events of Bukit Brown Cemetery are documented in The Cemetery, created by theatre company Drama Box. Presented in 2015 as part of its It Won’t Be Long series, The Cemetery features two parts. The first part, called Dawn, was a movement piece which took place in Bukit Brown Cemetery itself at daybreak. Audiences recongregated in the evening at the School of the Arts to witness the verbatim theatre performance Dusk, featuring interview excerpts from various parties who had been involved in the campaign to save Bukit Brown Cemetery.


In 2013, a play titled Mosaic would provide a more reflective and critical perspective on such lobbying to control the fate of land. Written by Joel Tan, the play is set in an old playground where a demonstration of sorts is taking place to protest the site’s impending demolition. Like several of the plays mentioned earlier, there is a futility to the resistance effort—the demonstration is touted as a “memorialisation”, and not at all intended to save the playground.

But also in Mosaic is the assertion that recent efforts to save old landmarks are simply hopping on the bandwagon. The organiser of the demonstration, Sharon, is eventually revealed to have no personal connection to the site, but just wanted “to do something for a change”. The play asks the hard question: Without the threat of destruction, would these places hold as much meaning and significance for Singaporeans?

A staging of <em>Mosaic</em>, directed by Tan Shou Chen, will be presented this year at Esplanade as part of <em>The Studios</em>. Photo credit: Akbar Syadiq

Mosaic depicts a deepening of our relationship with land, not just in our struggle to enact meaningful change to it, but more importantly, in our motivations for desiring to do so. And there are signs that this sort of bigger-picture perspective appears to be the current trajectory of Singapore theatre and its explorations of land in the present, and even into the future.

2020s: Treading old paths and breaking new ground

At only a few years into the 2020s, it’s challenging to say just where Singapore theatre will go when it comes to the topic of land. But here are a couple of possibilities.

First, when the COVID-19 global pandemic struck Singapore in 2020, it indelibly changed our collective perceptions of land. With our movements restricted, old ideas of home and belonging came to the fore much more acutely than ever before. Theatremakers wrote about this turn in public consciousness.

In Stay Home Notice (2020) written by Jo Tan and performed as part of Singapore Repertory Theatre’s online playlet series The Coronalogues: Silver Linings, a Singaporean man is quarantined in a hotel room on a high floor after returning from living overseas. The protagonist comes to grips with his multiple senses of home. He says, 

Without a reason or a logic, I chose which place to call home. But now that I know to get there, I have to get through this Stay Home Notice in some ideal abstract of a home. From up here everything looks different, but even the differences feel like a fantasy pasted over what is real.

The protagonist is forced to confront the ever-changing face of the Singapore landscape, and acknowledge that in the crucible of the pandemic, he still possesses an irrational, perhaps even pathological, desire to seek home here. Stay Home Notice represents another turn in the complex exploration of home and land in Singapore theatre—that maybe the ‘why’ doesn’t really matter.

Second, the climate crisis will come to define this period of history, and more local plays will acknowledge and explore this reality. For instance, The Necessary Stage’s The Year of No Return, presented as part of the Singapore International Festival of Arts 2021, presents a diverse set of perspectives on climate change discussed in the fictional setting of an international climate forum. And in 2022, Alfian Sa’at’s Pulau Ujong / Island at the End features the voices of multiple stakeholders on topics such as the destruction of natural habitats, and the threats of extreme weather events and rising sea levels on our island.

As Singapore theatre continues to delve into the complexity and impact of the climate crisis, these works ask us to be held accountable for our impact on the environment on a local and global scale, expanding our notions of land beyond national borders.

In the end, what does Singapore theatre show us about our evolving relationship with land? In many ways, the canon of local plays exploring the topic reflects the story of Singapore—a young nation changing itself quickly to survive and prosper, but perhaps too quickly; it is now realising that there’s more to life than material gains.

Our relationship with land is also one of control. We desire a sense of agency, an ability to make decisions that will have an impact. And ultimately, the way we relate to land exposes a deep desire for some sort of grounding, for a sense of belonging.

All that being said, this essay is admittedly a limited exploration of Singapore theatre and the topic of land. That’s because land is much, much more than the ground we walk upon. With just a brief jaunt through history, the topic of land already broaches issues of values and identities, memories and histories, power and control. And there is still much more left to discuss. The essay also focuses on a tiny fraction of the Singapore theatre canon, and in its highlighting of certain works charts a specific course through the past. 

This piece of writing should not be seen as a comprehensive record of history, but as a single thread which attempts to connect different points in time. Other threads may join it, or diverge completely with it.

If there is anything conclusive that can be offered, it is that when it comes to land in Singapore, the only constant is change. And Singapore theatre and the wider arts, have been, and will continue to be, a snapshot of the cultural zeitgeist, a repository for significant events, and a place to express the inexpressible.


Cover image: View from the rotating Roof Restaurant at Mandarin Hotel in 1973

Three Years in the Life and Death of Land will be staged from 5 – 13 August 2023, and Mosaic from 18 – 20 August 2023, at the Singtel Waterfront Theatre as part of The Studios 2023. 

Contributed by:

Daniel Teo

Daniel Teo is a freelance writer. Previously, he worked at Centre 42, a theatre development centre, as a researcher, archivist and documenter.

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