• Follow us


Making and unmaking decolonisation: Civilised by The Necessary Stage (Singapore) - New Mandala

The same week I saw MY Bridge of Light—essentially a Singapore history textbook presented in a heartwarming, unoffensive and linear narrative (see Part Two here)—I also saw Civilised, a play in which characters on stage call Sir Stamford Raffles a “baboon’s butt” to raucous laughter. What’s more, a naked, brown-skinned man is put up for auction, William Farquhar almost has a #metoo moment, and the Internal Security Act is defiantly shown as a form of neo-colonialism.

(Photo: Tucky’s Photography and The Necessary Stage)

Laughter laced with anger

“Heartwarming art.” “Community art.” “Happy art.” “Subversive art.” “Nation-building art.” Performer Koh Wan Ching recites parts of this list off at various points in the play with a smirk on her face and a drink in her hand. Despite the fact that, at some point in The Necessary Stage’s illustrious history, director Alvin Tan and playwright Haresh Sharma have engaged with all of these art forms, it is clear that Civilised is not keen to reproduce any tropes from these genres. Instead, the production employs satire, humour, bricolage, and an endlessly talented ensemble to parody them. That’s not to say that it’s all fun and games. Their laughter is laced with anger and defiance. There’s a snarl behind every megawatt smile as, for instance, Siti Khalijah Zainal and Edith Podesta cheerily ask the audience if they would be interested in bidding for Ghafir Akbar’s “brown butthole”.

Various forms of colonialism and imperialism—past and present, domestic and transnational, private and public—are re-presented here in the form of short vignettes ranging from a segment on the displacement of indigenous peoples in Canada to a disturbing scene of a wife systematically and abusively breaking her husband’s spirit down. These segments incrementally contextualise the later parts of the play, which address the SG Bicentennial and colonialism in Singapore in hilarious and complex ways (in a glorious “climax” real footage of the statue of Raffles is shown on screen facing fireworks on the Singapore River, angled in a way as if the man was just a bit too self-satisfied with his continued importance in Singapore society).

(Photo: Tucky’s Photography and The Necessary Stage)

Making and unmaking Civilised

To complement this bricolage approach, a sense of energetic play that constructs and dismantles each segment, like so much Lego bricks, threads the show together. The set, designed by Vincent Lim, curves and dips like the vessels which has facilitated so much violence in the world, or even like a skate park’s halfpipe as performers wheel and tumble across its length. Likewise, many objects in Civilised are transmutable: a white stool can become a cooking stove, an astronaut’s helmet, a wheel on a spaceship door. As scenarios are built up and taken apart, so are the performers themselves, who are more like avatars: they change accents, moods, backstories, tongues, and even their costumes (designed by MAX.TAN) are sometimes paper doll-esque cardboard cut-outs. But at some points, the performers can seem stripped bare—both literally and figuratively, and we can catch glimpses of how there is a personal stake for them in this fight.

(Photo: Tucky’s Photography and The Necessary Stage)

Making and unmaking; constructing, deconstructing, and reconstructing again: this is the approach Civilised takes towards dealing with the monumental task of decolonisation itself. As Singaporeans, or even just as citizens of a morally ambiguous (or bankrupt?) world, there is no single solution for the vast inequalities we now face. As the play points out, we travel for third-world prices; we buy clothing of dubious origin; we turn a blind eye to awful things happening elsewhere; we destroy our planet while looking for new ones to conquer. Civilised doesn’t offer answers, it offers an attitude, a critical disposition. The play constantly turns back and critiques itself, poking holes in its own argument and prompting audience members to do the same.

One especially awkward moment of audience interaction (in the performance I saw) highlighted this: Siti Khalijah Zainal goes around the audience with a loudhailer, asking them what they thought of various atrocities around the world and positioning the device to their mouths. But instead of amplifying their voice, the loudhailer screams “NOT MY PROBLEM!” in a Singaporean accent. It’s a funny gag, until Siti goes to one audience member, who earnestly attempts to say what she thinks. The loudhailer silences the woman instead. In the show, Civilised claims to have decolonised the theatre space. But that claim is obviously made tongue in cheek, with the knowledge that even for a tiny black box theatre (with an acknowledgement of the traditional custodians of the sea upon which the theatre is built to boot), there is no equal sharing of power.

Decolonising our ‘mind’? Decolonising the body

In one of the show’s more “meta” scenes, where the performers grapple with the subject of the play as “themselves”, Ghafir Akbar asks how we might “decolonise our mind”, or change mindsets that have congealed over the years. I think the play asks a more encompassing question: how can we possibly decolonise our body? It’s a similar question asked by NTU CCA’s Arus Balik exhibition (in Part One of this series).

(Photo: Tucky’s Photography and The Necessary Stage)

Let’s start with our tongues, which is a major consideration in the play (as with most TNS productions). As post-British subjects, we have adopted English as our lingua franca and in the process have lost the organic means with which we used to communicate with one other. At the play’s beginning, Lian Sutton deliberately and ironically spits on colonialism with perfectly enunciated Queen’s English (“they lied and cheated!”). Later the ensemble debates the ethics of using English at all in the play. Ghafir decides to boycott the language, instead going on a brilliant extended monologue/rant in Malay about how, in the past, Singaporeans could understand one another in Chinese, Malay, Hokkien, and so on. There are no surtitles for this segment, making the scene somewhat alienating for the non-Malay speaking members of the audience and proving Ghafir’s point. However Ghafir gives up after a while as the barriers to communication prove too difficult.

Decolonising the body is not easy. As Alvin Tan puts it in the program, “the conflict/trauma continues because how do you eradicate a language/culture that you have grown so intimate with, and which is now a part of who you are?” The colonial, past and present, is in our muscles. It is in the way we move, eat, drink, do yoga, sit, and speak.

The SG Bicentennial: cruel but necessary?

In some surprising ways, Civilised is not so different from MY Bridge of Light. Despite its treatment of global issues, it is ultimately nationalistic, calling for a better Singapore. In the epilogue, the cast practically yell it out: “If you don’t care about anyone else, at least care about your own fucking country.” It’s a jarring statement, strangely insular compared to the scale of the rest of the play. But it reminds the audience of the context surrounding the play right then: the strange scenario Singaporeans find themselves in where they are encouraged to commemorate their colonisation.

From left: Lian Sutton, Siti Khalijah Zainal, Ghafir Akbar, Koh Wan Ching, Edith Podesta. (Photo: Tucky’s Photography and The Necessary Stage)

A review of the play on The Straits Times bemoans the lack of a “satisfying whole” out of “patchy bits”, but in my view the lack of a singular narrative is precisely the point. Singapore is up to the neck with dominant, grand narratives and satisfying plotlines, a hallmark that the SG Bicentennial continues to perpetuate. But perhaps the Bicentennial, like the salted fish skin fed to us in the beginning of the Civilised, is a “cruel but necessary” thing. Its inconsistencies and paradoxes remind us of its very anachronism.

Civilised is The Necessary Stage’s ‘quiet riot’ against this phenomenon. The downside is perhaps it is too quiet—in its two-week sold-out run, only a little over a thousand people got to see it due to the size of the space. That said, while the show may be over, the conversation needs to keep going.

Read More

Leave A Comment

More News

New Mandala

Making policies work for women in Malaysia Baharu 2019-07-02 00:54:10The “i-Suri” scheme shows the PH government continues to make limited strides toward women’s progress. The post Making policies work

Making and unmaking decolonisation: Civilised by The Necessary 2019-07-01 03:32:33Nien Yuan Cheng continues her commentary on how Singapore artists are responding to the Bicentennial. The post Making and unmaking decolonisation: Civ

Measuring the ‘NU effect’ in Indonesia’s election 2019-07-01 03:13:27Ma’ruf Amin's electoral benefit was smaller than often assumed—but it was enough to get Jokowi over the line. The post Measuring the &lsq

Death amid oil palms: Malaysia’s Batek Orang Asli 2019-06-24 05:04:40Public shock should be channelled towards real empowerment of indigenous communities. The post Death amid oil palms: Malaysia’s Batek Orang Asli

Diplomatic intelligence 2019-06-20 20:37:16Andrew Selth's recollections of the hazards of the rumour mill in Ne Win-era Myanmar. The post Diplomatic intelligence appeared first on New Mandala.

Reforming higher education in Malaysia: combating entrenched patronage 2019-06-19 22:27:32Pakatan Harapan had promised academic freedom and institutional autonomy for public universities. Can it—or will it—deliver? The post Refo

What will it take to address poverty in 2019-06-17 21:51:31Despite Malaysia’s record of economic growth since the 1970s, poverty remains a persistent, and especially vexing, problem. How likely is a stru

Thai Civilized: what a minor party tells us 2019-06-14 03:28:41จงสังเกตความโหยหาอำนา

Saigon’s hidden presidential palace and forgotten president: the 2019-06-13 20:00:53Reconsidering an oft-overlooked chapter in Vietnam’s decolonisation. The post Saigon’s hidden presidential palace and forgotten president:

The Philippines’ counterrevolution from above 2019-06-13 02:47:07After failing to assemble a critical mass that aggressively rallies for his policies, Duterte is leading a top-down insurgency to overturn to overturn

1919, 1969, and memories of Malay cosmopolitanism 2019-06-07 01:07:08Why riots in Wales in June 1919 are a useful resource for appreciating histories of Malay identity beyond the violence of 13 May 1969. The post 1919,

Politik Indonesia

Survei LSI: 5 Parpol Konsisten Diatas Ambang Batas 2019-04-05 12:11:5605 Apr 2019 16:11:56 - Hanya lima partai politik yang konsisten lolos ambang batas parlemen sebesar 4 persen. kelima parpol itu adalah PDIP, Partai Ge

Ledakan Bom Sibolga Tak Terkait Pilpres 2019-03-13 12:06:5913 Mar 2019 16:06:59 - Peristiwa ledakan bom rakitan di Sibolga, Sumatera Utara, kemarin tidak ada kaitannya dengan Pemilihan Presiden (Pilpres) 2019.

Survei Konsepindo: Jokowi-Maruf 54,8%, Prabowo-Sandi 34,1% 2019-03-13 12:05:5013 Mar 2019 16:05:50 - Elektabilitas pasangan Joko Widodo –Maruf Amin disebut unggul dari dari rivalnya, pasangan Prabowo Subianto-Sandiaga Uno.

Gempa Solok Selatan, 11 Luka-luka, 101 Rumah Rusak 2019-02-28 07:22:5128 Feb 2019 12:22:51 - Gempa bumi dengan kekuatan 5,6 skala richter yang mengguncang Solok Selatan, Sumatera Barat dini hari tadi, menyebabkan ratusan

Panglima TNI Kunjungan Kerja ke Lampung 2019-01-02 07:37:0202 Jan 2019 12:37:02 - Panglima TNI Marsekal TNI Hadi Tjahjanto, S.I.P. bersama Kapolri Jenderal Pol Prof. H.M Tito Karnavian. Ph.D., melaksanakan kun

Inflasi Desember 0,62 Persen, Inflasi 2018 Capai 3,13 2019-01-02 07:31:4102 Jan 2019 12:31:41 - Badan Pusat Statistik (BPS) mencatat Indeks Harga Konsumen (IHK) pada Desember 2018 mengalami kenaikan atau inflasi sebesar 0,6

KPK Mulai Terapkan Kebijakan Borgol Tahanan 2019-01-02 07:04:2202 Jan 2019 12:04:22 - Mulai tahun ini, Komisi Pemberantasan Korupsi (KPK) memberlakukan prosedur baru terhadap tahanan kasus korupsi. Setiap tahanan

BI Pertahankan Suku Bunga Acuan 6 Persen 2018-12-20 10:56:4720 Dec 2018 15:56:47 - Rapat Dewan Gubernur Bank Indonesia memutuskan untuk mempertahankan suku bunga acuan BI 7-day Reverse Repo Rate (BI7DRR) sebesa

Panglima TNI Pimpin Sertijab Dandenma Mabes TNI 2018-12-20 09:05:4320 Dec 2018 14:05:43 - Panglima TNI Marsekal TNI Hadi Tjahjanto, S.I.P. memimpin acara Serah Terima Jabatan (Sertijab) Dandenma Mabes TNI, dari Brigje

Penerapan SNI Pada Mainan Anak Tingkatkan Penjualan 2018-12-13 09:02:1213 Dec 2018 14:02:12 - Standar Nasional Indonesia (SNI) wajib pada Mainan Anak yang diberlakukan sejak tahun 2014 lalu mampu mendorong peningkatan pro

Disclaimer and Notice:WorldProNews.com is not responsible of these news or any information published on this website.