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Sketches from Prison

Teo Soh Lung


Lizard scratching its ear. It is kind of funny to see this lizard using its hind leg to scratch its ear! It was the first time in my life seeing this and I was very amused!

(more…)

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Robert Yeo


This is a personal essay to remember and chart my experience as a writer in the context of Singapore’s development, during the decade 1970-79, from cultural desert to global city.

I will try to make connexions and generalizations which will, I hope, not seem too sweeping. “Only connect,” wrote E.M. Forster, and that is what I will do. If these connexions appear arbitrary and forced, perhaps they will have a force fuelled by instinct about where the arts in Singapore in the seventies were swinging into. (more…)

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Richard Chua


The late Singapore theatre practitioner William Teo served tea to audience members in every evening performance. Kuo Pao Kun used to stand at the front of house of his theatre productions greeting and giving out programme booklets to audience members. (more…)

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John Low


The legitimacy, rationality, psychology, technical expertise, training, education and history of the artist-person; in effect, everything that marks him out as an individual professional with a right to his own stakes and claims in society is, with one fell swoop, cast off on to the rubbish heap of irrelevance. Is it really any wonder then that it is the artist, always the artist, and particularly the artist engaged in the practice of contemporary art, who must end up accommodating society; and why the arts in Singapore will never be anything more than the icing on the national cake? The first and fundamental question that must be answered is this: Does the government really want Singapore artists to do anything other than produce the sweets?

— Thirunalan Sasitharan, “The Arts: Of Swords, Harnesses and Blinkers”, in State-Society Relations in Singapore, ed. Gillian Koh and Ooi Giok Ling (Institute of Policy Studies and Oxford University Press, 2000), p. 138.

In surveying the development of contemporary visual art practices in Singapore today, one question among many dominates. Has our recent historical past occasioned an awareness of the power of visual imageries, its potency as substantially representative of diverse social, economical, political and philosophical ideologies to motivate societal resentments, awaken perceptive political sensibilities against governmental powers, disrupt the prevalent state-social relations still regarded in Singapore today as necessary to safeguard against unregulated authorship, ostentatious display, and media circulation? (more…)

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Isabel Ching

First published in Cheo Chai-Hiang, The Story of Money, 2010, catalogue


The Story of Money shows in Hong Kong with adjustments to the exhibition hall as specified by the artist. A frontal wall has been built such that one can only enter via its central opening. Flanking the entryway on each side is the Chinese character 當 (more…)

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Gwee Li Sui


There is a case to be made for a literary impression that adaptation is the most difficult sub-genre in the field of comics. Any attempt to give Dave Chua and Koh Hong Teng’s Gone Case: A Graphic Novel its proper critical evaluation does well to keep this point in mind. (more…)

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Review: Realism in Asia

Lim Cheng Tju

Yeo Wei Wei (ed.). Realism in Asia, Volume One. Singapore: The National Art Gallery, 2010. 88 pages.


A rather curious volume. Realism In Asia Vol 1 is the accompanying publication to the Realism In Asian Art show that ran at the Singapore Art Museum from April to July 2010. The show is put together by The National Art Gallery of Singapore (TNAG) and Korea’s National Museum of Contemporary Art. The show travels to the latter from July to October 2010.

Realism in Asia

There are six essays here that cover Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, the Philippines, Japan and Korea. Chinese art is reserved for Vol 2. I would much prefer a ‘regular’ catalogue with all the plates of the show and for the essays to be extended. As explained in the opening essay by Kwok Kian Chow (TNAG Director), the preparations for the show started with an international symposium on the subject held in Seoul in September 2007. The conference papers were published in Modern Art Studies 4.

Tsutomu Mizusawa’s essay on the problems of ‘realism’ in Japanese modern art history is a revised version of the one he wrote for Modern Art Studies, which is a pity as his is the strongest piece here and I would have liked to read the original longer version. His essay would also be strengthened if we were able to look at the plates of the paintings he talked about. A better publication in this aspect (of a similar ‘realism’ in Asian art show) would be Art Toward the Society: Realism in Korean Art 1945–2005, the catalogue for the exhibition of the same name that traveled between Korea and Japan in 2007 and 2008. That 252-page tome contains all the art pieces exhibited as well as five full-length essays by curators and researchers.

Art history is filled with trajectories. The other solid piece here is Kim Youngna’s ‘Cold War Ideology and Realism’, which provides an overview of the intersections between art and politics in Asia. It is well known that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) covertly funded some of the Museum of Modern Art’s (MOMA) international exhibitions of American abstract art as part of their cultural mission to counter Soviet communism and the Socialist Realism style the Soviets expounded. The MOMA exhibitions were touted as expressions of freedom and purity, silently positioned in ideological contrast to the supposedly regimental nature of Soviet art.

However, I disagree with Kim’s description of Singapore’s Equator Art Society (active in the 1950s and 1960s) as being influenced by Socialist Realism. What they did was closer to Social Realism, an art movement that actually gained prominence in the West during the Great Depression in America in the 1930s. The ‘strand’ of Social Realism in Singapore and Malaya arrived from China from the 1930s onwards with the founding of the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts in 1938. The Singapore Art Museum itself had clarified this point in their earlier exhibition on art during the Emergency. (From Words to Pictures: Art during the Emergency, 2007)

It is a pity that this difference between Social Realism and Socialist Realism in Asian art is not further explored other than a cursory line in Kwok’s essay. One could tie it to other similar realist movements in this region such as ASAS 50’s (Angkatan Sasterawan ’50; Singapore Writers’ Movement ’50) “Art for Society’s Sake” in the early 1950s or the “Art for Life” debate in Thailand during the same period.


Lim Cheng Tju is a secondary school history teacher who writes about history and popular culture in Singapore. His articles have appeared in Southeast Asian Journal of Social Science, Journal of Popular Culture and Print Quarterly. He is also the country editor for the International Journal of Comic Art.

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C. J. W.-L. Wee


The Artists’ General Assembly (AGA) – a week-long arts festival organised by both The Artists’ Village and the 5th Passage Artists Ltd. – took place from 26 December 1993 to the early hours of 1 January 1994, at the then-5th Passage Gallery at the Parkway Parade Shopping Centre in Marine Parade. Performance artists Josef Ng and Shannon Tham both participated at a 12-hour new year’s eve event. Three days later, the front page of the tabloid The New Paper‘s 3 January edition blared, ‘Pub(l)ic Protest’, and carried a picture of Ng’s back, with swimming briefs slightly lowered, apparently, cutting hair from his private area. On Saturday, 5 February, theatre company The Necessary Stage (TNS) was dragged into the expanding controversy when The Straits Times published an article by Felix Soh headlined, ‘Two pioneers of forum theatre trained at Marxist workshops’. These events precipitated an extraordinary arts crackdown.[1]

As it happened, on the same day Soh’s article appeared, Lee Weng Choy and Sharaad Kuttan, two of the then-editors of Commentary (the journal of the National University of Singapore Society), had arranged for an informal meeting of the arts community to address the AGA fracas.

Virtually everyone seemed to be there – playwrights, academics, some journalists, actors, directors. The tone of the meeting was sober, as memories of 1987’s ‘Operation Spectrum’ – the last time the Internal Security Act had been used in the city-state – lingered; no one had forgotten either that theatre group The Third Stage had been involved in that security sweep. Even though the Berlin Wall had fallen in 1989, everyone was acutely aware of how provocative the term ‘Marxist’ that Soh had used in his article still could be. Nevertheless Stella Kon, the author of Emily of Emerald Hill (1984), suggested that the community ought to be pro-active, as the negative situation also offered an unprecedented opportunity for a united artists’ stand. Take out a full-page advertisement in The Straits Times, she argued, and let everyone in the room put their name on it and protest the present situation. There was a surge of agreement, as the atmosphere became lighter, more positive.

Then, playwright and public intellectual Kuo Pao Kun (1939-2002) rose to say that such a move would makes matters harder for Josef Ng The buoyant mood was immediately punctured, and the meeting ended inconclusively. Only the enormously respected Kuo – who had been detained without trial by the Singapore government for four years for his artistic activities – would have had the moral authority to deflate the collective mood with simple, unemotional statements. There were some criticisms later of Kuo for not supporting that extraordinary moment when the Voice of the arts community could have enunciated a sharply critical stance which would have delineated the role of the arts for a society which appeared to consider literature and the arts irrelevant, barely decorative. Such charges too easily relieve those present of their responsibility to disagree with Kuo – for none demurred.

Despite the controversy, the 1990s was a decade where the cultural gains of the 1980s were sustained and, in some ways, exceeded. Nevertheless, 5 February 1994 was also a moment of lost potential.

Kuo Pao Kun was the major enabling personality in the theatre in the 1980s. After his detention between 1976-80 for alleged communist activities, he exceeded his previous prominence with plays that were unprecedented in examining the destruction of existing cultural formations, given the resolute, state-led modernisation with totalising impulses, and that asserted trans-ethnic relationships and understanding were possible in Singapore – multiculturalism, with knowledge of each other, and not merely a multi-racialism, surviving on mutual tolerance. That last statement now sounds like a cliché; but it was fresh in that decade, and still remains unrealised as a socio-cultural goal. Kuo was a natural institution builder who harnessed the energy of theatrical artists and visual artists involved with newer arts practices such as performance art. He helped pioneer an emerging multi-disciplinary contemporary arts scene. As visual and performance artist Amanda Heng, a founder of The Artists’ Village, has said to me that Kuo’s networks were extensive, and he had a good sense of cultural activities in different linguistic and social realms. His idea of an arts community was one in which linguistic, ethnic and class lines were crossed. To be sure, it was a community largely composed of those with a ‘contemporary’ orientation;[2] it had its boundaries.

Kuo continued to speak up for the arts throughout the 1990s, and The Substation – the independent arts centre that he founded in 1990 – was both an important staging space and a social-intellectual meeting place for the experimental visual, performing and even literary arts. The Substation and the nearby open-air kopitiam, S-11, outside the old National Library, became venues of social and artistic interaction. Poet and playwright Alfian Sa’at valorises this significant place from the 1990s thus:

Only in dreams. Under separate stars.
I had one last night; of sitting at S-11
With the usual bunch of affectionate liars,
Skinny artists, red-eyed dreamers, […]
– ‘Portrait of a Sentenced Library’ (2001) [3]

As for the visual arts , the late 1980s saw dynamic experiments in conceptual art, performance, installation sculpture, figurative painting that had German expressionist antecedents (but executed with personal rather than historical references), pop art and ‘happenings’.[4] The corporate ‘arrival’ in Singapore of conceptual art was confusingly plural, but enormously energising. The environment, sexuality, violence, identity and feminism became valid areas for enquiry. The overall creative release brought critical judgement into the visual aesthetic realm.

The 1990s saw artists attending each others’ performances and exhibitions, and a general dialogue was maintained between artists, arts professionals, journalists and academics to see how the profile of the arts could be raised in the city-state. The arts were linked to an emerging desire and identitarian discourse to rethink what Singapore culture itself – as opposed to the capitalist culture with petit-bourgeois social values the state had fostered. Such enquiries were influenced by the impact of postcolonial and multicultural theory and thinking, and the (so-called) ‘new’ social movements.

However, by the late 1990s there was a sense that the dialogue was a rehash of old, unresolved topics. The artists’ desire was to be autonomous and to provide beauty, provocation and insight in exchange for some tolerance, and support from state coffers. This desire drew on the Western European model of cultural support. As the artists who were in their late teens and early 20s in the 1980s became older, their attention and energy flagged. Some, such as TheatreWorks’ director Ong Keng Sen started creating works overseas. Others simply tried to get on with what they felt they had to artistically. Kuo’s untimely demise in 2002, at the height of his intellectual creative productiveness seems in retrospect to mark the winding down of a remarkable period of artistic growth.

Nevertheless, artists like director Alvin Tan of TNS, working with those sympathetic to public socio-cultural work, continued to toil tirelessly at keeping the arts connected with larger social issues and emerging civil society groups. Tan observed that:

The arts, particularly theatre, had an early start in [developing a non-state led way of building civil society] … in the late 1980s. An increasing number of arts practitioners left their mainstream jobs and accepted reduced incomes to work in this sector full-time, fuelled by the call of vocational passion. However, these opportunities were put in place for this sector because the state had set its mind to developing the arts in Singapore. [5]

As Singapore entered the new millennium, the context that framed artistic growth and the state had changed, and Tan’s comments give a sense of these changes. In November 2009, at TheatreWorks’ Expo Zéro by Museé de la Danse, I heard an actor-director active since the early 1990s comment that artists and arts groups seemed to have become more self-absorbed and therefore less likely to attend performance or arts events not directly linked to them . Competition for local and international recognition and, indeed, competition for state funding appears to be the norm.

What had transpired – and at a pace that caught arts practitioners and many Singaporeans off-guard – was the state’s desire to possess what can be called a ‘cosmo-urban globality’ that had a use for high culture and cultural institutions: the arts and museums, the culture industry and lifestyle consumption, taken in toto as a form of symbolic action in which (to quote Situationist Guy Debord’s famous aphorism) ‘the spectacle of culture is capital accumulated to the point where it becomes image’,[6] can bolster the city-state’s economic attractiveness. The 1980s had seen Singapore become a modern but uni-functional premier ‘world city’ with a puritan work ethic. The 1990s saw the state’s ambition moving on t to transform the city-state into a multi-functional and metropolitan centre like London or New York City, given increased regional and international competition from other aspiring world cities in the region such as Hong Kong and, increasingly, Shanghai and Beijing. There was significant infrastructural, institutional and educational investments put into arts development.

The challenge for the arts in Singapore is acute. The island’s small size complicates manoeuvre and negotiation. The market and government have been relatively quick to understand that the key values of the contemporary arts – cultural heterogeneity, pluralism and even resistance to capitalism – can be converted into the new, cutting-edge standardisation that fits into the glam image of the global city. Culture has become a resource to be co-opted for post-industrial economic development.[7] While the old ‘pragmatic’ petit-bourgeois values embedded within the state that drove 1970’s economic development have not truly been transformed, there are enough continuities and changes in its expanded notions and management of culture to both offer genuinely new choices in the arts and to constrain critical arts discourse and development.

The relatively larger numbers of Singaporeans involved in the arts inevitably means that the culturalist political edge of the contemporary arts that existed in the 1990s has been blunted. Younger artists who became young adults in the late 1990s obviously would not necessarily subscribe to the socio-cultural imperatives of the 1980s and 1990s – and why should they? They may also possess more professionalised attitudes towards the arts. While, despite government rhetoric from the 1990s, Singapore is hardly a ‘global city for the arts’, there is no doubt that the arts are now normalised and more accepted in the city-state. A critical arts discourse that does not fully address the way contemporary capitalism, with its East Asian dimensions, now relates to the arts and culture will not be able to sustain interest.

It is possible, though, that if the arts controversy in 1994 had been brought to a head through Stella Kon’s proposed newspaper advertisement, a critical capacity in art making and thinking might have been immediately sharpened enough that it could have significant residues in the present. Depoliticisation and the marginalisation of ‘the socially-conscious minority’ [8] – already achieved by the 1980s – were not affected by the events of 1994. Many Singaporeans beyond a point cannot or will not come to grips with the forces that shape daily life in Singapore, and given the rapid transformations in culture and capitalism since then, one wonders how effectively the arts can come to grips with these forces. Of course, The Straits Times in 1994 may have refused to accept the full-page advertisement – but the very effort might have further enlarged our collective sense of art’s possibilities. And I suspect that if we had collectively gone for public engagement, Kuo Pao Kun would have come out in full support.


Notes

[1] See Lee Weng Choy, ‘Chronology of a Controversy’, in Looking at Culture, ed. Sanjay Krishnan, Sharaad Kuttan, Lee Weng Choy, Leon Perrera and Jimmy Yap (Singapore: Artres Design and Communication, 1996), 63-72; and Alvin Tan, ‘Forum Theatre: A Limited Mirror’, in Building Social Space in Singapore: The Working Committee’s Initiative in Civil Society Activism, ed. Constance Singam, Tan Chong Kee, Tisa Ng and Leon Perrera (Singapore: Select Publishing, 2002).

[2] The exact definitions or understandings of the ‘contemporary’ and the ‘contemporary arts’ are complex and contested; see Terry Smith, Okwui Enwezor and Nancy Condee (eds.), Antinomies of Art and Culture: Modernity, Postmodernity, Contemporaneity (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008).

[3] Alfian Sa’at, A History of Amnesia (Singapore: Ethos Books, 2001), p.46.

[4] C. J. W.-L. Wee, ‘Christianity, the Work of Wong Shih Yaw and Contemporary Art’, in The Inoyama Donation: A Tale of Two Artists, ed. Low Sze Wee, exhibition booklet (Singapore: Singapore Art Museum, 2006).

[5] Alvin Tan, ‘The Working Committee Process: Building Trust’, in Building Social Space in Singapore, p.142.

[6] Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle, trans. Donald Nicholson Smith (orig. 1967; New York: Zone Books, 1994), p.24.

[7] George Yu_dice, The Expediency of Culture: Uses of Culture in the Global Era (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003).

[8] Cherian George, Singapore, the Air-Conditioned Nation: Essays on the Politics of Comfort and Control, 1990-2000 (Singapore: Landmark Books, 2000), p.15.

C. J. W.-L. Wee teaches English and cultural theory at the National Institute of Education, Nanyang Technological University. He is the author of Culture, Empire, and the Question of Being Modern (2003) and The Asian Modern: Culture, Capitalist Development, Singapore (2007), and recently co-edited Contesting Performance: Global Sites of Research (2010). His present interest is in the formation of and the relationship between contemporary arts, literature and capitalist development in Singapore and in East Asia.

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For wolfnotes

Lee Tzu Pheng

wolfnotes, a firstfruits exhibition


We owe a considerable debt to Enoch for his trust and vision, his belief in the art of literature, which is what we are celebrating in this exhibition, wolfnotes. I see in this exhibition a way of affirming that literature’s roots are in the other arts even as its fruits may nourish the other arts. We are reminded of the natural connections among the arts and – one would hope – among artists, whatever their medium. Every art exists in an environment of awareness of the other arts, though each interprets experience in a language related to the senses that are dominant in that art. It is literature that calls all together, in how it invokes the imagination to replicate all the senses.

Click on image for <i>My Paper</i> article on the exhibition

Click on image for My Paper article on the exhibition

This exhibition is exciting because it affirms the connectivity among the arts, the basis of the community of artists. Human communities being what they are, however, we know that they are often divided within themselves; yet, to my thinking, an artistic community actually has the greater potential not to be divided, but to thrive upon an inner connectedness, if we could only recognize it.

RIMG7992

Writing clearly owes a debt to the other arts. It may acknowledge this explicitly or implicitly. In my own practice, I am constantly aware of my debt to the other arts: to music, painting, even architecture, which in late years has enlarged my understanding of what is going on in poems. The bearing that other creative works may have on one’s own sense of what is pleasing or not in what one tries to create, is incalculable; and may involve strange elements. Let me give an example from my own life.

When I was quite young, I was very drawn to the poetry of that most English of English poets, Alfred Tennyson. I gradually grew more critical of his work, but I have to admit that he was a large formative force in my writing life, both in my attraction to his work as well as my reaction and rebellion. For better or worse, he has been part of the soil of my own writing. I remember his poem, “The Lady of Shalott”, which I still enjoy, though not for the reasons I enjoyed it when I was younger. But there is a line in that poem which completely enabled me to distance myself from its mournful lyricism from the start. It was a line that still stays with me, in all its curious, odd, even somewhat comic nuance – the line about the doughty knight Sir Lancelot singing “tirra lirra” by the river! Later, I discovered the Pre-Raphaelite painters, who had a wonderful crop of “Lady of Shalott” paintings – I especially like the John Waterhouse ones – but I do miss, somewhat perversely, the tirra lirra element which has been integral to my experience of this profoundly enigmatic, tragic story.

My “Lady of Shalott” experience came from other artists, from poetry and painting, and, may I say, programmed into me an appreciation of balance and the potential power of opposites at work, of the mysterious pleasure of art.

drawing from pebbles life going homeephemera detail

So what in the world am I trying to say? (I often ask myself this!) I think it is that we are seldom in control, we seldom have a choice, of what life throws at us. Art is our way of coping. At any moment it can be an instrument to help us make our peace with life. Because art is such a complex expression of our psyche, we must trust that whatever moves us, good or bad, pleasing or disgusting, can be subject to the transforming power of re-creation, if we harness it to the particular medium we work in.

If I may cite that often-quoted half-filled glass: do we see it as half empty or half full? The self-help gurus urge on us the virtue of seeing it as half full. But why can we not simply accept that however we may view it, both halves are part of the one entity? So also the line between opposites is often a shifting line. We are continually moving in and out of opposite areas – lack and fulfilment, disappointment and satisfaction. And these areas are often themselves morphing. Keats has a line which holds this wonderfully for me: “Then glut thy sorrow on a morning rose, / Or on the rainbow of the salt sand-wave” (Ode on Melancholy).

thaw's reflection

In the same way, traditional Chinese landscape painting often invokes in me at one and the same moment this sense of both the fulness and emptiness that are a part of our spiritual awareness. Typically, in such paintings, we see large masses of rock that seem to be floating in a void; there is a lot of empty space countering the massiveness. And if there are human figures present, they are invariably tiny, dwarfed as much by the solid mountains around them as by the space in their surroundings.

RIMG7947

We are all figures in such landscapes, and writing can give us this experience of the duality in ourselves, our responsiveness to the complexity of our inner lives. The art we produce, the poem or novel, is a performance of that complexity. And art changes as we change; at any moment a performance means different things to us at different stages of our lives. Every work of art lives as performance, be it an interactive installation, a painting, piece of music, dance, sculpture, architecture – they affect us in real time but resonate beyond that, as we change.

So the 12 years of firstfruits we celebrate, are probably more than that for many of us, in ways that matter. I am sure Enoch is aware that the years of support he has given writers cannot be calculated in terms of real time. So, Enoch, congratulations, and thank you.

RIMG7908


Dr Lee Tzu Pheng is one of Singapore’s most distinguished poets. A retired university lecturer, she is an award-winning poet who has published in anthologies and journals internationally. Her most famous poem, My Country and My People (1976), was once banned from being read over the national radio. Some 20 years later, Alfian Sa’at wrote Singapore You Are Not My Country (1998) as a response.

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Wong Souk Yee


The theatre company Third Stage was formed in 1983 by a group of drama dabblers who wanted to see life in Singapore played out on the local stage in all its glory and decay. They felt that drama in English in post-colonial Singapore had arrived at its third stage of development.

They traced the first stage of English drama to colonial days when British personnel formed the major patrons and players, and the plays were accordingly British. The second stage, in the 1960s, saw the formation of the Experimental Theatre Club with the aim of encouraging the staging of local works. Although foreign plays continued to dominate the scene, the casts were fast turning multi-ethnic. The trend took another turn in the 1970s when English-language playwrights drew inspiration from the modernising society, and high-rise living, family conflicts and changing social norms became common themes. This ushered in the third stage of theatre development which marked the growing importance of the search for cultural identity and the telling of stories grounded in the Singaporean imaginings.

3rdStage

Third Stage was formed by 10 friends who had been active members of students’ unions in Singapore and British universities in the 1970s. In the students’ unions, drama was both a creative recreation and medium for social discourse. Third Stage, therefore, served as part of a continuum of the founding members’ pursuit of critical leisure.

The theatre company saw that it could play its part in performance art that goes beyond the mythologizing of the East as an exotic and inscrutable throwback to the 19th century. It did so by creating works based on the present context and members’ musings of lived experiences. The attempt to faithfully portray the coffee shop Ah Pek and our next-door Bee Lian, (without irony), led to the organic use of Singlish, but members were mindful of not turning it into a gimmick or kitsch. Today, few stand-up comedians are able to provoke a laugh without speaking Singlish, and it is used liberally in social dramas on stage and TV, resulting in some critics complaining of its gratuitousness and over-use. But in the theatre scene of the early 1980s, it represented a milestone of sorts in its recognition of and relevance given to the local vernacular. Singlish also added an important dimension to Third Stage’s exploration and representation of the Singaporean identity: its concerns, creative spirit and quirkiness.

Uhh&Kevin1

Third Stage was at its most productive from 1983 to 1986, staging a total of eight plays, all written and developed by its members, on issues and themes that affect Singaporeans, such as the graduate mothers’ scheme, education policy, in particular the destructiveness of the early streaming of school children, marginalisation of the lower-income and foreign domestic workers. Literary critics might consider the plays counter-discourse to Singapore’s nation building. Because of the group’s predilection for creating plays that depict human frailties and destabilising official narratives (such are the staples of any number of theatre groups in the world — with the exception of some dictatorship regimes), it was considered a security threat in the insecure minds of the government.

Meanwhile, the mid 1980s saw the emergence of the then fledging civil society. Political parties, such as the Workers’ Party and the Singapore Democratic Party, had gained a toehold in the erstwhile one-party parliament. The Law Society was injected with new blood and saw a group of lawyers questioning undemocratic legislations such as the Newspaper and Printing Presses (Amendment) Bill. The Government wanted to introduce the bill to restrict the circulation of foreign publications it deemed to have engaged in domestic politics. Several groups under the Catholic Church, following its teachings, adopted an outward orientation beyond personal salvation in their work, which took them to witness and report on social justice issues. They were a thorn in the flesh of the paranoid government which then responded quickly before that thorn had a chance to grow.

In 1987 the Internal Security Department (ISD) arrested 22 people and accused them of being involved in a “Marxist conspiracy” to overthrow the Singapore government. Of the 22, four were key members of Third Stage: Wong Souk Yee, Chng Suan Tze, William Yap, and Tay Hong Seng. Thus while negotiating the slippery path of critical dramaturgy, these members fell into a dark ravine of detention without trial. The four members were detained from seven to 15 months on the allegation that they used Third Stage as a front to subvert the social and political system of Singapore. This was despite the fact that all the plays produced by Third Stage made the cut at the censorship board (with a few even receiving monetary grants from the then Ministry of Culture) and were performed in a public venue.

Esperanza

On the artistic plane, Third Stage members had good stories to tell but many were still in the midst of honing the art of telling them. They were said to have the zealousness of the Crusaders, and little was left to the imagination. But the audiences were forgiving, as Third Stage was like a breath of fresh air in the wake of esoteric plays written by dead white males, plays which only literature undergraduates could endure. The comic-tragedy of living in a city that is perpetually under construction, that decides for you what language you should speak, who your neighbours are, whom you should marry and how many children you should have, resonated with the audience. Also, the use of Singlish, unlike the convoluted monologues of damaged souls, endeared the plays to the audience who would otherwise watch TV.

The ISD detention of the five Third Stage members certainly dampened the morale of the group, not to mention striking fear into the hearts of members and audiences. Third Stage became quite dormant after the macabre 1987 dragnet. They put up two more productions in 1988 and 1992, after which members were caught up in their own personal drama of marriage, family and career. Third Stage was de-registered in October 2005.

3rdStage5Plays

List of Third Stage plays

1. No Foul Play, written by Lim Soon Neo and Wong Souk Yee, directed by Wong Souk Yee, performed at the Drama Centre in July 1983. Based on a real-life story, a young woman decides to take her own life when it gives her too much pain and too little joy.

2. Things We Paid For, written and directed by Tay Hong Seng, performed at the Drama Centre in July 1983, together with No Foul Play as a double bill. A middle-class couple finds out after several years of living together that the only things they share are the things they paid for together.

3. Cry for a Cactus, written and directed by Wong Souk Yee, performed at the Drama Centre in January 1985. A young man’s gentle soul grates against the harsh terrain of parental expectations, National Service and social normalisation.

4. Oh! Singapore, written and directed by Chng Suan Tze, performed at the Drama Centre in January 1985, together with Cry for a Cactus as a double bill. An expressionist drama that depicts the progress and transgression of modernity on Singaporean life, quirky and sad, mundane and bizarre.

5. Corebela, written and directed by Chng Suan Tze, performed at the Drama Centre in January 1986. Set in the watery world of Neptune and his wide-eyed and bubble-blowing citizenry, Corebela parodies the government-funded Social Development Unit and ponders the eternal question of whether it is nature or nurture that determines the intelligence of fish and crustaceans.

6. Baby, written by Lim Soon Neo and directed by Yang Siew Mooi, performed at the Drama Centre in January 1986 together with Corebela as a double bill. Falling birth rate has brought about a baby drought in 2010, and a reluctant mother of the 1980s becomes an eager grandmother-to-be embroiled in a hysterical baby grab.

7. Esperanza, written by Tay Hong Seng and Wong Souk Yee, directed by Wong Souk Yee, performed at the Drama Centre as part of the 1986 Arts Festival Fringe. A social realist play on the still raging conflict between Singaporeans and their foreign maids, Esperanza foregrounds issues about what humans are capable of when in possession of almost absolute power over another individual.

8. Oh! Singapore II, written and directed by Chng Suan Tze, performed at the Drama Centre in November 1986. A sequel of sorts to Oh! Singapore.

9. Kevin’s Birthday Party, written and directed by Chng Suan Tze, performed at the Drama Centre in 1991. A monologue about our Generation Zzz – well-to-do, well-fed and well, kids from hell. It is also about children who enjoy birthday parties and adults who don’t.

10. Uhh!?!, written by the collective unconscious, directed by Wong Souk Yee, performed at the Drama Centre in 1991 together with Kevin’s Birthday Party as a double bill. It is all about realisations of some things that have always been stored in the inner recesses of our minds which surface tumultuously in the course of benign conversations and throwaway remarks.


Wong Souk Yee is a founding member of the socially conscious and path-breaking theatre group Third Stage. She and four others in the company were detained by the Internal Security Department in 1987 for alleged involvement in a “Marxist conspiracy”.

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