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Three hours into my Skype interview with playwright Zulfadli Rashid, he lets out a full-bodied, infectious laugh.
He is having a self-reflexive moment. He has never had an interview go on this long. He doesn’t quite understand why anyone would want to know so much about him, the self-described “regular Malay mat” who can often be found writing late at night in his void deck, cigarette in hand. Never mind that Zulfadli is one of the most productive Malay playwrights we have today, having written or co-written at least 20 plays since 2002.
His recent stage works include _T0701_, a futuristic tale about delivery riders in Singapore that was part of the Singapore International Festival of Arts 2021; verbatim piece Air as part of Tanah•Air by Drama Box in 2019; and Hope (Harap), a Malay adaptation of Haresh Sharma’s bleak family drama Hope, originally in English, for Esplanade’s The Studios 2017. In September 2022, Berak, his Malay adaptation of Chong Tze Chien’s Poop, will be staged as part of The Studios.
He is skilled in his unabashed portrayal of “the Singaporean person” on stage—a world that lays bare their hopes and hopelessness, their dreams and harsh realities. Through his plays, he champions the underdog, gives voice to the voiceless and highlights injustice in society. He also regularly works as a scriptwriter for television, is a poet, dramaturg and translator and occasionally treads the boards.
All this, on top of a 15-year-long career as a Malay language teacher.
Zulfadli’s foray into theatre started accidentally in 2000 while attending teacher training at the National Institute of Education (NIE). He was asked to play the classic Malay hero Hang Tuah for Pesta Peti Putih, a white box theatre competition mounted by Malay contemporary theatre company, Teater Ekamatra.
The play—he cannot recall its name—made a clean sweep of the competition. The next year, Zulfadli wrote and directed his very first play, Tolong Jangan Pijak (Please Don’t Step) (2001), an absurd tale about house pests inspired by Animal Farm and Charlotte’s Web. It too won multiple awards at the same competition.
The eldest child of a retired police officer and postal clerk always had a natural flair for languages, having grown up on a diet of Malay and English books from Bedok library. These included books by Enid Blyton, Roald Dahl and Dr. Seuss, but he found resonance in a literary series closer to home. His aunt got him a subscription to The Bookworm Club, through which he encountered beloved characters like the naughty Sam Seng, brainy Smarty and tomboy Mimi. He says,
In primary school, he was in the Gifted Education Programme, but his secondary school years were much more chequered. His friends in school, a gang of misfits, turned into an actual gang. He remembers being interviewed for hours by police from the Secret Societies Branch of the Cantonment Road police complex. To this day, he wears a cap to hide scars from a fight that once landed him in a hospital’s Intensive Care Unit. The injury still affects his memory.
But secondary school was also a time for nicknames. Says Zulfadli, “Me being the fat dude, I did not want (the cliché where I) call myself Bob and play the bass. We had to sign our name in art class. I called myself 'Big' and did everyone a favour.”
After winning Pesta Peti Putih twice, Zulfadli started hanging out at Teater Ekamatra’s office, then located at the Telok Ayer Performing Arts Centre. There, he was surprised to see this group of Malays speaking eloquently about theatre. At the time, Noor Effendy Ibrahim was the company’s artistic director, and its company managers over the years were Jamal Mohamad and Anuar Mohd. Practitioners like playwright Alfian Sa’at and theatremaker Mohd Fared Jainal, the company’s current artistic director, would drop by regularly.
“It was like walking into a workshop where people are experts in what they do. You had people like Fared who walked in with his long hair. I thought, ‘This dude is intelligent but he dresses like a rocker. What is going on here?’” he recalls with a laugh.
Zulfadli, along with actor Najib Soiman, was part of the company’s playwright mentorship programme, Mentah, under the mentorship of Aidli ‘Alin’ Mosbit. His first play with Teater Ekamatra was Dia Di Atas Sana (The One Up There) (2004), about a boy who builds a lift to meet God. It was inspired by M Nasir’s songs about spirituality, and other songs such as R.E.M.’s Losing My Religion.
He would later team up with Aidli to form panggung ARTS, alongside others in the theatre scene such as Najib, Elnie Mashari, Helmi Fita and Molizah Mohter. As its resident playwright, Zulfadli wrote plays that commented on the larger society, such as angel-ism (2008), a multilingual, multicultural play about the human and the divine that was a collaboration with Drama Box. In 2012, panggung ARTS took a hiatus as most of its members took on more responsibilities in the theatre and education sector.
Save English and Malay (“the subjects that were deemed unimportant”), Zulfadli flunked all his ‘O’ Level subjects in both of his two attempts.
In a bid to find his worth in society, he worked odd jobs—a cleaner at Suntec City, a cashier in 7-11, IDD card seller in Little India—before his father suggested he become a Malay language teacher.
He speaks fondly of the four-year teacher training programme, crediting it for saving his life. He thrived in its immersive environment. In that now defunct Townsville campus on Margaret Drive, he felt like he truly belonged. He felt at home.
In 2017, Zulfadli took a year off teaching. He was immensely productive—he wrote no less than six plays, was published in Malay poetry anthology Sikit-Sikit Lama-Lama Jadi Bukit (2017) and was a featured writer in the Singapore Writers Festival.
He spent autumn in Spoleto, Italy, for the La Mama playwrights’ retreat and winter in Norwich, United Kingdom, for a translation conference on Shakespeare. But it was not quite a creative Rumspringa. He and his wife, a television producer, had taken no-pay leave to spend more time with their then-three-year-old daughter.
However, the break reaffirmed his love for writing. He continues to take on new challenges creatively, whether it be adapting a play for the first time with Hope (Harap), or writing his first musical with Alkesah (As the story goes), a contemporary take on Malay folklore commissioned by Esplanade for Pesta Raya – Malay Festival of Arts 2018.
Zulfadli is the quintessential theatrical multi-hyphenate, but considers himself a playwright first and foremost. “The rest is gravy,” he says.
He wants to anthologise his plays, and is interested to work on more intercultural productions. With How Did The Cat Get So Fat?, Zizi Azah Abdul Majid’s play which he dramaturged for The Studios in 2018, Zulfadli recalls director Tan Beng Tian taking a lot of care to understand the psyche of the Malay characters who included nine-year-old Fatimah, a taxi driver and a Muslim entrepreneur.
In 2016, Zeugma, a collective formed by Zulfadli and other artists for that year’s M1 Singapore Fringe Festival, took on the familiar figure of the Sang Kancil—a vestige of a 1980s children’s show on Radio Televisyen Malaysia. Theatremaker and performance artist Rizman Putra directed and provided the singing chops. In Zulfadli’s hands, the intelligent mousedeer was portrayed as an egoistic, cruel character, a conduit for the exploration of unequal power structures in society.
The lyrics for the songs were written in rhythmic prose style, influenced by the Malay pantun. Zulfadli had experimented with this form in 2004 with the play Mencintaimu (Loving You), in which a sultan falls in love with a pig. This style, which is now a signature of his work, involves the use of rhythm, rhyme and normal speech.
He is unapologetic about not following the rules when it comes to form. “At the end of the day, I’m a self-taught writer,” he says. It was music that sparked his love for poetry. “Growing up as a mat, you listen to songs with very good symbolism, like Fantasia Bulan Madu by Search, and songs by Black Sabbath and Metallica.”
In 2018, Zulfadli found himself grappling with a musical. Alkesah is a literary update of characters from Malay folklore and literature, including Sang Kancil, everyday buffoon Pak Pandir and wicked witch Nenek Kebayan. Not only are the characters mashed up in one world, there are varied musical styles as well, from big Broadway numbers to Malay rock and K-pop. Zulfadli’s mentor and long-time collaborator, Aidli, served as director for the piece. He worked with music director Elaine Chan and vocal coach Babes Condes for the first time.
While Alkesah was meant to be light and entertaining, he hopes it sparked interest in the original tales, some of which are absurd and extreme—such as Pak Pandir accidentally boiling his baby when he tries to give it a bath. He says, “Malay people have always had a rich tradition of telling far-fetched stories, such as superstitions, ghost stories and moral stories”.
While Zulfadli has been active in the theatre scene since 2002, people don’t seem to agree on where he fits in the larger world of Singapore Malay theatre. Some place him with seasoned practitioners of the likes of Alfian, Noor Effendy and Fared, but he considers them his mentors. He sees himself as being part of the “middle generation” between them and the younger wave of practitioners.
He currently does mainly commissioned work, preferring to remain firmly out of the spotlight. He likes working on personal projects, but rarely has the capacity or time to do so.
A few years ago, Zulfadli let go of the moniker ‘Big’. He found that, in professional settings, people did not take him seriously as ‘Big’, and that he gets more acknowledgement when he goes by his real name. He is self-deprecating when he says, “I was an up-and-coming playwright for a very long time. Fared and I have a running joke—he’s a has-been, I’m a never-was.” Nonetheless, he continues to receive commissions regularly and is looked up to in the Malay theatre scene—he is a founding member of playwright collective Main Tulis Group, where he is seen as ‘Abang Big’, a big brother and informal mentor to the younger writers.
While he may have insecurities as a writer (“I have impostor syndrome”), his passion for playwriting is writ large. True to his nurturing side as a teacher, he is particularly invested in helping to develop new voices, having served as mentor for Teater Ekamatra’s playwright mentorship programme. He says,
His voice is steeled with conviction.
Abang – elder brother
Mat – a male Malay dude
Pantun – a Malay poetic form, which originated as an oral form of expression
Sengaja – intentional
Nabilah Said is a Singaporean playwright, arts writer and poet. Her plays have been presented in Singapore and London by theatre companies Teater Ekamatra, The Necessary Stage and Bhumi Collective. She is the founder of Main Tulis Group, a Singapore- and London-based collective of playwrights writing in Malay and English. As a reviewer, she has contributed to The Straits Times, Exeunt Magazine and ArtsEquator. Connect with her at nabilahsaid.com