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Theatre

Essay: The robust early plays

Kirpal Singh revisits the beginnings of Singapore theatre in the 1960s and 1970s.

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Published: 28 Dec 2017


More than nostalgia

The contributions of pioneer playwrights Lim Chor Pee, Goh Poh Seng and Robert Yeo

It is easy from a distance of over some 50 years to dismiss the early plays of Singapore as sentimental rather than of real dramatic or theatrical interest and significance.

Most of our young are not even aware of the names of those who wrote these early plays or the titles of these plays. This is sad, and an obvious indicator of the fact that we have some ways to go if we are to establish a sense of our own history – especially our literary history. As I have said elsewhere (and often), a nation that does not value its own literature will not be able to embrace its history in a full and significant manner.

Yet, it is always the controversial that draws attention, and few topics raise eyebrows in Singapore as much as homosexuality.

If we were to look back to the early 1960s, we will see many things that are different from what we see today. In one sense, this is obvious: changes are in living conditions, infrastructure and education. However, in cultural terms, the differences may not be so great since the 1960s and 1970s. By this, I mean many are still always looking to the West for the ”better” or “best” products—particularly in the field of literature—and almost emphatically in the field of literature in English, where many Singaporeans continue to be dismissive of our own writers and writing, focusing on what they believe is and always will be superior literature from the West.

Our own brand of English

The ground was not exactly fertile when our Singapore playwrights began writing their uniquely Singaporean plays in the 1960s and 1970s. They were unique in being set in Singapore, with Singaporean characters playing dominant roles and using English—and Singlish—in the way we Singaporeans are familiar with.

Yet even this latter point is moot – what differentiates Singlish (as distinct from bad or incorrect English) from English is not just the grammar or the tone, or accent. At heart, there is also the sense of “ownership”; of how we as Singaporeans have evolved our own brand of English, just as the Australians, the New Zealanders, the Canadians and, yes, the Americans too.

Indeed in the case of the Americans, their English is so markedly different that for a long time now we have been compelled to select British English or American English. For more than a good century, learners everywhere have been brought up on the Oxford dictionary or the Webster. From the very first the Americans wanted a distinct English, one they could call their own and one which clearly signalled to all that the Americans while using English as their main language were not the same as the English (British) users of English.

But here in Singapore, the use of Singlish was not as a tool of pride – while most Singaporeans know that Singlish does distinguish us from others, hence giving us a distinct linguistic identity, yet it was still seen as inferior, incompetent use of ‘real’ or ‘proper’ English. It was looked down upon as the incapacity of its users to know ‘real’ or ‘proper’ English.

Until very recently, the authorities reinforced this view with strict restrictions as to when and where it was acceptable to use Singlish. Most Singaporeans know that Singlish does distinguish us from others and this gives us a linguistic identity which defines us as Singaporeans. Throughout history, the transformational power of language has been recognised and this has borne testimony to the numerous battles, wars and disputes surrounding the use of certain languages.

Because theatre is essentially a literature of conflict—after all, without conflict there is no drama—it necessarily reflects the way Singaporeans live, work, talk, eat and dress. Understandably, our early dramatists and playwrights reflected this, but the audience was not quite ready for it. In that climate, they had difficulties garnering a strong following. As we were only very slowly emerging from the throes of colonialism, most who knew anything about theatre were conditioned to expect a Western experience on the stage.

This struggle, if I may so term the tensions that existed and continue to exist between the nationalists and the colonials, was not unique to Singapore – everywhere that the British had ruled, the national and regional adaptations of English had been seen to be a sign of the lesser educated and this, of course, invariably always privileged those who used standard, ‘proper’ English – imbuing them with power which enabled them to rise to senior positions of authority.

I mention this because, frequently, plays that contained Singlish were not allowed to be staged until the language was "corrected" or till it was made self-evident in the play that the use of Singlish implied some form of inferiority. Often, grants and funding were in short supply —or even withheld—until the appropriate revisions of expression and articulation were in place. This was censorship from external forces, resulting in self- censorship – where many of our early playwrights felt the need to be "correct" when writing their plays.

Fear and provocation

There were many other contributing factors that shaped the way our early Singapore plays were written – for a start, any play that wanted publication in any form, whether book or stage or broadcast, had to obtain a licence; this inevitably meant that the dramatisation of any sensitive issue faced censorship hurdles.

The three taboo areas of race, language and religion were obvious minefields, but related to them were other issues such as sexuality and inter-personal relationships. The 1960s, thus, were years fraught with anxiety and sometimes even fear – fear that one might be venturing into dangerous, murky waters and so possibly inciting audiences to engage with themes and topics that were better left untouched.

Theatre in Singapore in the 1960s was primarily foreign theatre. I remember, in school, we were exposed to many plays imported directly from the UK. Jubilee Hall, Victoria Theatre and our own school halls were the settings for the performance of these plays. I am sure many of my vintage will recall even acting or being involved in such performances. Usually they were adaptations of Shakespeare, though I should add that because the authorities almost never touched the production of a Shakespeare play, sometimes we did get away with murder. Many other plays such as An Inspector Calls or The Winslow Boy were also featured.

So when the late Lim Chor Pee (1936–2006), credited to be Singapore’s first own playwright, boldly stated that “a nation’s theatre cannot hope to survive if it keeps staging foreign plays” his comment was clearly provocative.

In the uppity circles, there was disdain and many felt that Chor Pee was only saying this because he wanted his own plays to be recognised. His play Mimi Fan played to good reviews in 1962. It was produced by the Experimental Theatre Club, co-founded by Chor Pee and fellow Singaporeans committed to an authentic Singaporean theatre. When I recalled this with Chor Pee in the early 1990s, he was both emotional and rueful; emotional because our discussion took him to a time that had passed and a time when his passion for theatre was high—he having returned from Cambridge where he had read Law, knew only too well the perils of a culture steeped in colonial values—and rueful because not much had changed in real terms.

The play, bringing to fore the powerful assertions and aspirations of two strong women—Mimi and her friend Sheila Rani—made audiences aware of a new awakening which was bound to shape a new sensibility. Naturally, many were fearful that this awakening will mean real changes in the larger society of Singapore. But the play clearly brought a different reality to the stage – from the seedy but energetic nightlife of cabarets and nightclubs emerged a voice that displayed tensions existing between and among individuals who wanted to live differently.

Chor Pee’s partner-in-crime, as it were, was the late Goh Poh Seng (1936-2010), a medical doctor trained in Ireland and a passionate nationalist. I recall, albeit in a blurred way as I was, then, still young, the euphoric feelings many of us had watching his play When Smiles Are Done in December 1965. It was produced by a group called Centre-65. The play was staged at the Cultural Centre in Fort Canning and it explored the undercurrents of conflict reigning in the lives of an ordinary working-class Singaporean-Chinese family.

Poh Seng had bravely drawn our attention to what was hidden – the changing landscape and ethos of ordinary Singaporeans eking out a hard-earned living, but also struggling with personal identity against the backdrop of a nation driven to political dreams by its new leader, Lee Kuan Yew. It is interesting to note that Singapore’s first President and Head of State, Yusof Ishak is believed to have watched the play with keen focus, noting the manner with which Poh Seng had attempted to set new feelings and engagements on stage. Decades later, when I talked about this play with its playwright, Poh Seng told me “Kirpal, you know how it is – we writers try and show the truth, but most can’t handle the truth and so we keep trying”.

Laying the foundations

Both Chor Pee and Poh Seng were brave in creating theatre groups that would champion their visions as enshrined in their plays; like most such visionaries around the world and throughout history, these organisations were created by themselves.

I suppose being professionals—one a distinguished lawyer and the other a highly sought-after doctor—helped. I cannot imagine them realising even a modicum of their goals if they had not had the wherewithal of means and connections. For instance, both are credited with being the first Singaporeans to utilise Singlish to advantage in their works as well as to demonstrate, in rather stark terms, the anguish and disenchantment that many experienced in the fledgling city-state. The scope and reach of both were ambitious, even by today’s standards and both triumphed in some measure.

The powers-that-be were knowingly looking askance, given the stature of the playwrights, and tried not to interfere or intervene too much. I have first-hand knowledge that our founding fathers were not always enamoured of the kind of plays that Chor Pee and Poh Seng had penned, but given their own visions for a new and sovereign Singapore, chose not to proscribe these creative efforts.

No matter what we feel, think or say, it is fair to remark that Chor Pee and Poh Seng pioneered Singapore theatre in English and laid the foundations for a truly Singaporean perspective/voice on the Singapore experience.

By the time Robert Yeo entered the scene, the primary context had changed in many important ways. Post-1965 Singapore was different from before in many fundamental ways; not the least being that the break from Malaysia meant that Singapore now had to develop and chart a new solo course to ensure the growth of a vital, viable and progressive Singapore. While embracing the latest in technological and broadly socio-economic platforms, the cultural direction had to be closely attended to as well. The leaders in charge knew that culture and the arts are always volatile but very aggressive forces of change. Thus, they needed, on the one hand, strategic nurturing and on the other, careful, gentle-but-firm restraint.

This was touched on by almost every one of the senior founding fathers – their essential worry always being that Singapore was a small nation with no natural resources except her diverse people. Their number one concern and anxiety was always “we live in a multi-lingual, multi-racial and multi-religious society and so have to be sensitive in all that we do, say or even think”.

Robert, unlike Chor Pee and Poh Seng, was basically an educator, employed by the government (as the other two were not) and so had to pay more heed to what he published. This said, we must acknowledge that Robert brought Singapore theatre to a new height. His first play Are You There, Singapore? was written in London in 1968 and is based upon the experience of Singaporeans living and studying abroad.

Naturally, these young men and women discuss Singapore politics and the goings-on at many different levels. Being sharp and intelligent, they cannot but try and imagine the future Singapore. Then, the National Pledge had been written and was recited by every student every morning in school. Enshrined in the pledge were the core values of Singapore. The idea of building a democratic nation based on meritocracy and where everyone was equal regardless of race, colour, creed or language was appealing, an ideal, but not always found in practice. And this formed the bedrock of heated arguments among the young intelligentsia.

Are You There, Singapore? was only staged in 1974, after considerable changes and modifications had been made to the script. But what a show! I was there for its opening and had not ever before seen such a triumph of Singaporean theatre. Jubilation was in the air – the play clearly marked a departure from any sense of cynicism about Singaporean plays ‘not being up to mark’, ‘lacking an audience’, ‘poorly produced’. With one fell swoop, the success of the play was ample proof that our theatre had come of age and that hard questions and issues were okay on stage.

It is difficult now to reflect just how much territory had been crossed by this play, but historians of our nation’s literature will surely attend to its impact with awe and admiration. Combining an unabashed use of Singlish with very tough political debates, the play seared right through the fibre of all our beings, reminding us what lay in store and the real precariousness of choice – not only in the personal, domestic space but also the Republic’s.

The media was a-stir with excitement; as we all were who had waited so long for such a day. Robert’s achievement here can never be ignored or under-rated. The play moved Singapore theatre ahead by leaps and bounds and we all felt the thrill of being dramatically liberated.

I believe that if Kuo Pao Kun had worked in the arena of the English Language theatre he would have made a serious impression earlier, but he worked chiefly in Mandarin and some of his battles with authorities went way beyond the A-Z of theatre or playwriting. It is crucial to note here that the authorities in those early days always allowed those of us who worked in English more freedom than those who, like Kuo, wrote in Mandarin or Malay or Tamil.

It was felt that emotions were still very highly tied to these vernacular languages, but that works in English had the temperate measure of rationality. No matter how misplaced or ludicrous such thinking may be, it was current and woe to those who didn’t heed.

As we celebrate our early achievements and watch and re-watch some of these wonderful plays being staged in this 50th year of our independence, we have every right and reason to be joyfully proud. We have come a very long way indeed. And if our later playwrights such as Tan Tarn How, Haresh Sharma, Eleanor Wong, Ovidia Yu, Desmond Sim, Stella Kon have given us plays of note, it is because of the hard-won battles of Lim Chor Pee, Goh Poh Seng and Robert Yeo.

The stage is a fascinating venue for comment, observation and self-reflection and everywhere it has been the focal point of watchful eyes. Our own experience is not that much different from many other post-colonial societies and we find comfort in the fact that just as others mature and triumph, so do we.


Related Reading

Transcript of Beginning And Becoming: Identity and Language in the Theatre, 1960s – 1980s

Actress Margaret Chan and playwrights Michael Chiang and Robert Yeo recalled the early days of Singapore theatre at a forum session held on 4 April 2015, as part of The Studios: fifty season presented by Esplanade. Hosted by Clarissa Oon, the forum discussed how Singapore artists had worked towards an emerging identity and overcame challenges to define how Singapore theatre would look, sound, feel, and connect with audiences.

That’s how the first play started. It was a thirty minute play, and went on to be performed at the World Trade Centre, I got horrible reviews. The Straits Times hated it, Singapore Monitor hated it. I was almost in tears, but I didn’t break down. I thought okay, I am never writing another play in my entire life. Thirty years on, I’m still writing.

Michael Chiang


Contributed by:

Kirpal Singh

Kirpal Singh is internationally recognised as a creativity guru, a poet, fiction writer and scholar. His 2004 book, Thinking Hats and Coloured Turbans: Creativity Across Cultures, set new frameworks for thinking about creativity, especially on the crucial insight that creativity is connected to the language one is nurtured in. Kirpal has authored and edited over 25 books and published more than 200 articles. He founded the Wee Kim Wee Centre at the Singapore Management University in 1999 and also taught at SMU from 2000. At the end of June 2017 Kirpal retired from full-time university life and is now with a private education provider.


Beginnings – Forum Transcript

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