Obama has won the elections in America to become its first ever black president! Or if you are really cynical, just call him the first American president with a good tan. Anyway. In Singapore it has immediately prompted a big question in the newspapers and public forums: is Singapore ready for a non-Chinese PM? So far all three PMs here have been Chinese, with non-Chinese relegated to the ceremonial role of a president, and even that hasn’t always been something to shout about – Yusoff Ishak, who was the first president, dated back to the time when Singapore and Malaysia was one, and Devan Nair, the third one, a union leader in his early days, was soon shamed and relinquished of his presidency for being a drunkard and eventually died without leaving Singapore citizens his full story. No, you just won’t get to see the same kind of excitement like the American presidential election, where you have rock stars lending support for a Democrat candidate going against the incumbent party, or rock stars dissociating themselves their music from appropriation by the Republicans. It’s simply a different system and different culture. In America there is a constitution against the president being in power for more than two terms, in Singapore you would be happy if there is a rule against power being held beyond two generations. Well in that little respect Singapore and the Bush family of the Ivy League were probably seeing eye to eye, but a lot of things in political elections here are uniquely Singapore’s inventions. One even wonders now if the spirit of the opposition parties in Singapore is all but dead, especially with the recent demise of the underdog hero JBJ, who truly deserved a medal for his resilience. Nowadays opposition party members seem more busy shooting themselves in the foot.
By a strange and almost prophetic coincidence though, a political play in Singapore being staged the last two weeks has enacted a scene that smacks of the impossible – a Malay/Muslim woman wearing tudung becomes prime minister of Singapore and gives a speech in English and Chinese. It’s like a mirror image of the power structure which has prevailed in Singapore since its independence. The play, staged fortuitously at a time when Singapore is just relaxing its rules on political plays and public speech (not that no film maker is getting his political film banned and nobody is getting charged for expressing certain political views or defamation or related form of contempt of court or whatever unprecedented virtual crimes – all this is happening at the same time), deals partly with the issue of Internal Security Act, its main character of a political prisoner being inspired by one Said Zahari. But as the title of the play Gemuk Girls suggests, a work of weighty political issues needs not go without a feminine and glamorous touch, not to mention the comic. The other two characters are hence a liberal and flamboyant Malay mother with a good English education and her witty half-Chinese middle-of-the-road daughter who is having fun attending PAP parties at one point and looking destined for a great career, then turning into a conservative character wearing a tudung and going to the streets to protest (in the Singapore context I guess that would be at the Hong Lim Park in old Chinatown). There is a lot of rapid fire humour in the beginning – for instance the mother would tell the daughter not to enter politics, if she likes to express her own views she should just join the press (actresses turn back to face each other and burst into laughter). As the play progresses, the tension turns more serious; the politically active daughter starts accusing the mother of indulging in material comforts, dreaming of life in Dubai or simply tending her private garden, while the mother argues that she is more productive with her garden compared to the futility of all those political efforts. You may read this as an argument of the masculine political approach versus the soft feminist approach; then again, growing a garden also means weeding out the unwanted, so go figure. When you are watching something by The Necessary Stage, you know you shouldn’t just settle for a straight interpretation. The play is not quite a linear narrative and is presented in a kind of magic realism exploring various scenarios and angles, aided by multimedia of words and images serving multiple functions from private reminiscence to larger-than-life propaganda, and a special prop set of wooden floor blocks sliding on tracks like trains, under which the character of the prisoner may hide as if he is a ghost best forgotten. If you want a simple summary of the whole thing, the underlying question is probably: is it fear or material comfort or what which has rendered Singaporeans politically inactive or disinterested in the past four decades or so?
But to go back a little now to the issue of ethnicity or race (I don’t like the word race actually but it is still in currency in Singapore), I was rather amused that day while reading a Chinese review of Gemuk Girls in the Zaobao newspaper. The writer, while describing the two female characters as modern and liberal English-speaking ladies, stated that “they are unlike the Malay women we usually know of”. That seems to reflect emphatically on the image of Singapore’s Malay woman in the mind of the Chinese community here. Well indeed a Malay PM won’t be elected any time soon then. Perhaps that is why we need the arts and media to help free our minds then. So far in the English TV serials here, Malay characters have already secured a stereotype as policemen – which is good, at least they are supposed to be the ‘mata’ maintaining law and order, not drug addicts or hanyut, but there is still some way to go. And talking about the theatre scene here, I wonder how much has really been done in terms of something intercultural. Of course the late Kuo Pao Kun has long propagated multilingual theatre as something that would reflect the Singapore reality. But I’m not sure how much progress has been made since then, except that nowadays multilingual no longer means English, Chinese, Malay and Tamil like the National Day or Chingay parade but rather multinational like a mardi gras carnival. It seems even in the arts, Singapore is becoming known the same way it is famous for its airport, which does not produce anything but simply packs goods and passengers in different configurations for different destinations. So-called ‘intercultural’ theatre tends to portray just general, textbook-like human conditions, when not selling Asian culture blatantly as a spectacle of the exotic other. Now a place for transit only is a non-place, because it has no memory of history. Perhaps we really must try to put some Singapore characters of different communities into a play and make them talk somehow; what’s the use of removing old enclaves in Kampungs and Chinatown and distributing them proportionately in high-rise blocks all over the island if people just won’t come out to the corridors and void decks to talk? In Gemuk Girls what we see is a different sort of multilingual situation, whereby the Chinese presence is cleverly conspicuous by its absence. In a couple of somewhat surreal scenes, the young Malay/Muslim woman speaks in Mandarin, but it just sounds disconcerting – is the Mandarin capability of the Malay character empowering for her, or is it oppressive? Go figure, and try to free your mind.
In the end, I think we have to agree that it should not be something as simple as black and white when it comes to politics. I can only say on the issue of power that it should not be about who, but rather the what and the how. It was George W. Bush who said: “If this were a dictatorship, it’d be a heck of a lot easier, just so long as I’m the dictator.” Let’s not be like him. But as we are celebrating the hope that Obama signals, I can’t help quoting another dumb Bushism: “I think we agree, the past is over.” Amen (Amin).