ENGLISH DRAMA IN SINGAPORE - THE COLONIAL INHERITANCE
by wong kwang han
Theatre presents a transient art of communication that has power for an audience only for the duration of the performing act. This act at its barest minimal requires the presence of the actor, a space and the audience. With these minimal pre-requisites, the phenomenon of theatre seeks to link the audience with the performer in a communal act. To be able to do this theatre must be able to find an emotive language that may encompass expression in the verbal or physical form which is able to bridge the gap between individuals make a group of individuals, if only of the brief instant of the performance, a whole.
When one looks English theatre in Singapore, one is immediately aware of how short its history is and one also realises that the overriding issue is that of colonial inheritance of the English language and how this has been dealt with, avoided, confronted, by various theatre practitioners and writers in Singapore. This problem of the language can be encapsulated in the fact that Singapore, an ethnically plural society, is a colonial creation brought into existence by the circumstances surrounding the raison d’être of Empire Britannia’s expansion. The English language then is in some ways an alien language.
In fact the history of English speaking in Singapore is extremely short. Singapore achieved its independence only in 1965 and did not have any coherent national education programme focused towards English until then. In that sense Singapore is no different from the hundreds of national entities brought about by the process of the colonial expansion of the Western powers and who have adopted the language of their colonisers as the language of discourse. The problem that theatres in these nations have to deal with therefore differ from that the of Western countries and Asian, African, and American nations that have their native languages as the medium of discourse. The problem in Singapore is compounded by the fact that there has not been enough time for a national consciousness to coalesce around the language such as for example the French language in Algeria, the Spanish language in the various Latin American countries. That sets us apart from them.
Another mitigating circumstance is the fact of Singapore’s extremely rapid economic modernisation. Singapore as an entrepot economy is dependent on the goodwill of the international community for its survival. Hence the proficiency of the English language as the de facto business language as well as the inter-ethnic language has pushed its importance to the forefront unlike its neighbours like Malaysia, Indonesia, Philippines or even the other Newly Industrialising Economies like Taiwan, Hong Kong or Korea who have taken a different path of development.
The English language is therefore at once the language of the past colonial masters, the language of development and modernisation and at the same time the linguistic bond between the multi-ethnic groups in Singapore. Hence as a colonial legacy, it has to be dealt with for the simple reason that theatre as an enterprise, always strives to give voice to the particular quality of existence, the esprit de temps of a certain community at certain time and space on stage. Ideally then its language should contain dimensions of reality at multiple levels for the members of the community it plays to. I think this presents a problem because English, it is not a language spoken or even understood by the majority of Singapore’s population as recent as thirty-forty years ago. And suddenly within these short decades, it has become the language of development and the de facto national language of communication.
Considering the rapid changes in Singapore’s history, different periods of Singapore history yield different problems. Any understanding of the English stage in Singapore must deal with the various psychological and emotive attitudes towards this inheritance during these periods. This would help us to look at how it has been dealt with and more importantly how it has not been dealt with in Singapore theatre.
For these purposes, English drama in Singapore can be divided into five chronological periods. The word development is not used as it would denote a certain movement towards a point. Any assumption of movement is at any rate uncertain and a more accurate picture could be obtained by analysing the attitudes towards English as a colonial inheritance, which differed from period to period.
These chronological periods are :
Pre 1819 - 1960
* 1960 - 1970
* 1970 - 1980
* 1980 - 1990
* 1990 onwards
The first three periods will be dealt with in this article, the other two in a subsequent article.
1819-1960 - The Language of Colonial Masters
The British presence in Singapore effectively began in 1819 when the British East India Company established commercial centres in Singapore and Penang to support their tea trade with China. Subsequent economic opportunities attracted large influxes of Chinese and Indian immigrants. As their colonial interests expanded the British began a policy of cultivating a cadre of English educated non Europeans to operate in the commercial and bureaucratic infrastructure. The strategy at this point was to restrict education in the English language to a select few and no attempts were made to make such an education available to the majority of the population, who at any rate regarded themselves and was regarded by the British as a transient population. Although English was introduced in certain schools like the Singapore Medical College (1905) and the Raffles College(1929), and was used in the civil service and certain commercial areas such as communications and transportation, it remained the language of the powerful and elite minority.
This was further reinforced between 1894 and 1941 when Chinese education grew in significance in Singapore. Following China’s humiliating defeat at the hands of Japan in the 1894 Sino-Japanese war, a wave of reforms and modernisation were began first by K’ang Yu Wei and later by Sun Yat Sen. Nationalist ideas spread to Singapore where many Chinese were inspired to build and develop schools based on these ideals for their children. As a result what gradually emerged, and which lasted well into the 1950’s and ?0’s was a class of politically conscious and active Chinese who looked toward China. This trend of Chinese education was not reversed until after 1965 when national development became a priority, after which English became rapidly the medium of communication. Before the 1950s, the ratio of Chinese educated to the English was 2:1, in 1954, this became equal, in 1962, the ratio of students enrolled in Primary 1 English stream exceeded those enrolled in the Chinese stream. In 1978 the ration of Chinese stream students to the English was 1:9.
On the whole the pre-60’s period exhibited an extreme uneasiness on the part of the population with this English heritage. This uneasiness sometimes resulted in the outright rejection of it as the language of the oppressors(as with the Chinese student incidences in the 50’s), to at best the grudging acceptance of the language for economic necessity and ethnic cohesion.
This was manifested in the kind of English theatre that was going on. English drama in Singapore had been going on since the early part of the nineteenth century with the first theatre being built in 1833 and a larger one in 1885. English theatre groups during this period was dominated by numerous colonial and expatriate groups. Singapore English theatre was then English drama played by English actors to predominantly English audiences. Groups such as the Changi Theatre Club, Seletar Theatre Club, Tengan Theatre Club, The Tanglin Players existed to provide entertainment and diversion for the colonials and expatriates. The emphasis was to bring successful London plays to the stage in Singapore and one director produced as much as twenty six plays in four years. Some other groups included The Repetory Players formed in 1938, the Singapore Amateur Dramatic Company formed in 1936, the Singapore Stage Club in 1945, The Island Players, The Nee Soon Players, The Kent Players, a New Zealand group.
Some of these groups combined local and foreign members. The New SceneShifters was formed in 1956 with local and British members. The World Theatre Association was another mixed local/expatriate group. The group was formed in 1961 under Garcia Tay-Chee a Singaporean trained and active in Britain as an actress. The aims of the group were to ‘promote international understanding through drama among the various levels? The result were mainly productions catering to the Western sense of the exotic like The Flower Drum Song and The World of Suzie Wong. However in 1962, the group produced the first Brectian play in Singapore, namely The Goodwoman of Szechwan. This was groundbreaking in the sense that all Asian cast had not been heard of at that time on the Singapore English stage. In fact it was in the late 1950’s that local drama groups were allowed to use the Victoria Theatre, the then major theatre.
The Sixties - Beginings of Local Writing
The late fifties and the sixties saw the beginings of local writing. Some of these were student plays like Mohd. Ali’s The Fugitive, and The Reward, published in New Cauldron (?8) and Soh Eng Lim’s The Escape. Others include Joanna Wong’s English translation of a Chinese classic The Forsaken Wife in ?2 and Lim Chor Pee’s Mimi Fan stage by ETC in the same year. The latter play dealt with the theme of the English educated Singaporean studying abroad ad commenting on the state of affairs at home. This theme was featured again in Lim’s next play A White Rose at Midnight staged by the Experimental Theatre Club in ?4, one of the first few local groups. This play raised the issue of the status of the English educated in Singapore and their search for identity in a society steeped in Chinese, Malay and Indian traditions and languages.
Goh Poh Seng’s The Moon Is Less Bright, which was produced by The Lotus Club of the University of Singapore in 1964 was set in Singapore during the Japanese Occupation dealt with changing values in a traditional society. A later play by Goh, When Smiles Are Done produced by Center ?5 the following year attempted to use a non-standard variety of English spoken in Singapore going beyond the occasional colloquialisms in Lim Chor Pee’s works. This play deals with the subject of mixed marriages between an English educated Chinese and Indian. Goh’s third play The Elder Brother was staged in 1966, the same year in which The Singapore Writer’s Association was set up. In 1967 the Theatre World Association organised its own nation wide play-writing competition. The conditions of participation were that entries must deal with life in Singapore or about Singaporeans. In the same year Discovery Singapore was written by Dilip Kumar for the Music and Drama Festival and was produced by Radio Singapura.
In the Drama ?9 festival arranged by British forces, World Theatre Association produced This Time Different, by Garcia Tay-Chee and Donald Meyers, a play about the changing world of fisherman Yeo and his ability to cope with them. Another local play presented was Ong Lian Guan’s Ah Moy. The few local groups such as Experimental Theatre Club (formed 1961) and Centre ?5(formed 1964) in their own way attempted to reclaim the linguistic space for the locals through local productions of foreign plays. This desire to reclaim the language can be seen in the aim of the ETC which was stated as to "found a Malaya(Singapore was part of Malaya in 1961) theatre for social plays". 1966 saw the setting up of the Nanyang Players at the Nanyang University, the Chinese University which was eventually merged into the National University of Singapore. This group was the first to use drama for educational purposes and staged several adaptations and at least one locally written play.
In general, the quantity of local plays written during period was small and of these those that were staged represent an even smaller percentage. The expatriate dominance of the English in this period can also be seen in their control of drama reviews in the newspapers where expatriate drama was covered in detail while local productions were paid little attention.
The situation in the seventies was somewhat better in that more plays were written although the majority of plays produced on the Singapore English stage were still non-local plays.
Whom Society Really Needs by an anonymous writer was published in student magazine in 1970 and performed later that year. Images of Singapore, Innocent Crimes and My Sister Annie and Jeffery Chan’s One of Us was published in 1973. Robert Yeo’s Are You There Singapore was staged in 1974 on the recurring theme of the English educated Singapore viewing events in Singapore from abroad.
Stella Kon’s collection of plays including The Immigrant, Runner of Marathons, Hideout in Geylang and Zeep were published in 1975. They were however not produced during this period. 1976 saw the inclusion of drama in the Singapore Youth Festival for the first time. 35 locally written plays were submitted by schools of which although 14 were performed, the productions were mainly by school level drama groups. The Victoria School Drama Festival in 1978 and 1980 resulted in the submission of 60 scripts written by students. Of these thirteen were performed. In 1979 the Raffles Institute presented twelve plays written by students at its annual drama festival. Although most of these were short sketches they represented a certain willingness and enthusiasm to write drama in English.
Li Lien Fung’s adaptation and extended version of the Chinese classic The Romance of the Three Kingdoms was staged as The Sword Has Two Edges by ETC in 1977 and later published in 1979. In 1977 first Singapore Arts Festival took place after eighteen years. Significantly, no local English drama was performed. Later that year Seah Seow Poh’s adaptation of a Chinese classic called May Chen Intrigue was presented by Eusoff college of the University of Singapore.
In 1978 the Ministry of Culture organised a playwriting competition in which 173 entries were received. The prize winning plays of this competition : Stella Kon’s The Scholar’s Mother, Tan Sor Poh’s The Broken Image and The Heavens Have Eyes.
The plays written in the sixties and seventies are interesting in the sense that they displayed the position of the English minority, which was that of a privileged minority. This is reflected in the issues dealt with in these plays and more importantly in the language of these plays. For example Loyld Fernando’s Strangers at the Gate featured dialogue between cardboard characters debating political issues in a way only the English minority can. Robert Yeo’s One Year Back Home and Are You There Singapore were in a similar vein. Lim Chor Pee’s A White Rose At Midnight and Mimi Fan dealt with the problems of an English speaking Asian person’s identity. Goh Poh Seng’s When Smiles Are Done, with interracial marriages between English speaking Chinese and Indians, The Elder Brother with the clash of traditional values with western values. Other plays like Discovery of Singapore by Dilip Kumar which dealt with the arrival of immigrants in Singapore, Koon Boey Toong’s A Day in the Life of a Family, Peter Koh’s Images of Singapore Youth and Stella Kon’s The Immigrants reflected the English educated’s perception of events of social and historical significance to the whole nation.
Singapore and Singapore Drama - A Non Entity?
What is striking here is not so much the range of issues explored but the language in which they were put across, and this was mainly in stilted grammatically perfect English or an overcompensated orientalised version of English as in Kon’s English rendition of Chinese speech. In general the playwrights dealt with the status of the English educated as a minority in the country. What emerged was not so much a display of a deep social and political consciousness within the English educated as display of the ambiguity of an English language theatre in a nation speaking predominantly other languages. Furthermore the issues and language showed the gape between the concerns of the English educated and the rest of the population. Hence the language used was stilted and artificial. The artificiality because there existed a vast gap between the realities of the use of English as manifested in day to day usage and the English as represented in the Oxford dictionary. To a certain extent this demonstrated the unconscious acceptance by the writers of the colonial mode of articulation. Take for example this exchange between two characters in Mimi Fan:
Shelia: I have to live my life as I see it, not as what other people want it.
Baram: That’s a bit selfish, isn’t it? You only think of yourself. What about me? I care for what people say.
Shelia: I’m not stopping you, Baram. Only that I don’t want to become part of it. This is your life and your world. You can do as you please, but I want no part of it.
Baram: Going abroad has made you a rebel.
Shelia: No, I am not a rebel. A rebel is one who rebels against an orderly society. I am only a democrat - I believe in choosing my own way of life which you will admit I am freely entitled to.
Or from Robert Yeo’s Are You There Singapore?
Sally: C’mon Chye, don’t be so hard on ourselves. Remember the Enright affair in 1960? Didn’t you demonstrate on the upper quadrangles?
Chye: Sure, I did, but that was not a demonstration, really. Even then, some of us gathered out of a feeling of obligation, rather than because we felt we were genuinely defending some principle. We had to show to the PAP, which didn’t think well of the English educated, that we, the sons of the English educated could also rise for our rights. I suppose we were also indirectly telling our parents, who had their salaries slashed down when the PAP came in, look we’re not too bad. You know the feeling against the English educated at that time, that they were a privileged, protected lot under the English. Some of us still have that mentality. (Pause) I think I have it, still.
I don’t think anybody, not even Mr Yeo talks like that.
But in reality, what was the position of the English educated vis-?vis the rest of the population at this time? In the first place they were in a position of power. English retained the tint of superiority handed down from the English colonial masters a well as being the language of administration and international commercial. In the second place they were in a position of a minority. Formal national education policies on the whole were not pursued consistently until after independence. The educational landscape was dominated by the ethnic groups and particularly the Chinese schools. All these puts the position of an English language theatre in ambiguity. The bulk of the English theatre action during this period was at any rated dominated by the various expatriate clubs and local productions were exceedingly rare. At any rate English theatre did not manage to gain the kind of mass audiences that Singapore Mandrain theatre was able to secure, and which it did during right from the twenties into the sixties and seventies. All this is not to state that it was impossible for a credible English theatre to spring up at this time, but simply that no writers during that period were able to tap into a national consciousness.
The material was ripe and ready for the taking. The birth throngs of a nation, the clash of cultures and identities, the break from the colonial fold, the struggle of factions, parties and ideologies. Surely no other period in Singapore history has seen more events of import happening. Yet English theatre remained sterile. To be sure, as mentioned above, the various playwrights did not lack in bringing up a multitude of issues in their plays. Yet when one looks at them one finds one thing sorely lacking, and that is hunger. The plays lacked a hunger that cries out to be heard. We find a similarity between the so-called English drawing room drama in that one is hard press to find a voice that is crying out to be heard. They look very much like plays that comfortable well off people will write in their leisure time. There was a certain dramatic construction, a certain concern with issues of the day, yet the approach was mostly a cerebral concern and did not manifest itself in any deep dramatic urgency. This is not to say that the English educated were all comfortable and well off, just that perhaps the most talented of them were busy fighting political battles to concern themselves with writing plays.
Compare this with the Mandrain drama scene which was active since the twenties. Driven by the renewal of the Chinese culture through the intellectual, cultural and political revolutions happening on mainland, the scene exhibited an energy and relevance(for its audiences) that has seen no parallel in Singapore since. In fact so much so that the colonial authorities considered the mass turnouts at drama performances a possible threat to the colonial administration, and no doubt it was, for theatre plays a large part in invoking the sentiments of the masses. It had reality for the people watching it, which was the one thing that English drama lacked.
At that time the various Chinese schools like Chung Cheng High, Nanyang Girls and the Nanyang University had active drama groups with committed performers, directors and writers. Drama too was something that penetrated to various levels of societies. In addition groups like The Singapore Amateur Players and the Singapore I-Lien Dramatic Society (formed in 1955) and 1956 respectively) were able to command audiences of up to 30,000 average for their productions. Drama also had a popularity among workers. Two full length plays were chosen in the early sixties by the Workers Union for public performance although one was eventually was banned for its political implications.
The position of the Chinese educated in the pre independence period in the struggle against colonialism was of course much clearer. It was an outright rejection of the British. Influences from mainland China led to a highly politicised theatre that took a certain stance with regard to the existing political situation. The position of the English was more ambiguous as theirs was the privileged group under the British and hence on the one hand there was the need to free oneself from their colonial fathers and on the other hand the realisation that the departure of the British would mean an altogether different order of existence. Nowadays we take the existence of Singapore as an entity for granted without realising that the our existence is a default of the struggles for other causes. The Plen and the leftist elements were struggling for Singapore as part of a larger Malayan communist order , Lee and his people were struggling for an Singapore as part of an independent Malaya.
To say then that the drama of the sixties and seventies had a certain dramaturgical direction in the forging of a Singapore consciousness would be ridiculous as Singapore, though it existed politically as an entity after 1965 was still non-existent as a cultural entity in the minds of its people. Singapore was a theoretical entity, a freak, a cardboard creature and this was best reflected in the cardboard characters and plays that had no dramaturgical direction whatsoever.
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