Singaporean Couplings

On a makeshift tent by the Singapore River, Stella Kon took her place behind the microphone. The 60-year-old playwright, looking as matriarchal as her creation, Emily of Emerald Hill, was about to do some serious poetry slam. Her theme this evening was inspired by the People’s Action Party’s early campaign speeches in the post independence years.

“They were campaigning in front of the building there,” Stella Kon said as she pointed across the river in the direction of the Fullerton Square, once the General Post Office, now a luxury boutique hotel, “to decide who to put into that building there,” and she pointed in front to the old parliament, once a court house, and then an assembly house, but as of March 26 this year, The Arts House.

The poetry slam, along with various concerts, plays and dance performances, were part of the 10-day opening festival of The Arts House At The Old Parliament, its long moniker serving to remind people of its location and its heritage. The festival, called No More Walls, held from March 26 to April 4, celebrated the removal of both the literal and metaphorical fences: Now, all are welcome.

Outdoor with Garden Gnomes and Wolves

The first show I caught was the Magical Mystery Tour by The Natural Theatre, a quirky group from Bath, UK. They took us on a stroll from the City Hall MRT station (where we met wandering flower pots), through St Andrew’s Cathedral (where an archeologist uncovered a garden gnome and declared, “There used to be midgets on this island!”), pass the steps of the new parliament (where I got married to a wailing bride) to the old parliament (where Sir Stamford Raffles sang us ‘Love Me Tender’). More often than not, it was downright silly. And the only way to enjoy silliness was to join in, which was what I did. So I had fun. But our Jakarta correspondence, a lady in her 60s, found herself thoroughly annoyed, and the teenage girls in the audience looked puzzled mostly. By the end of the tour, no one had learned anything useful about the sites. But that’s British humour for you, I suppose.

The poetry slam wasn’t too hot either. Most of the poems lacked rhythm, and many of the slammers chewed through their obtuse imageries as if they were eating cili padi. Stella Kon’s group gave us a bunch of platitudes which climaxed at “Merdeka! Merdeka! Merdeka!” Other poems of the evening ranged from the banal “Na na na I’m the Esplanade” to the trite “Daddy, why can’t I go out?” Richard Lord and his group contributed the single outstanding poem, which begins, “Wolves eat certainty in the darkness… ”

Poetry slam is like a contest of performed poems. While Singapore has a number of good poets, they seem to have the good sense not to act out their verses, and more importantly, not to compete. Which leaves us with the young hopefuls (and the old hopeful comebacks?), and it seems there will always be a place for them here. As Edmund Cheng, Chairman of the Old Parliament House Ltd, said in his speech, “The Arts House will provide a platform for aspiring artists as its core programme.” Good for them!

Indoor with Impotence and Interactive Gamelan

The old parliament is a white double-storey house with a little look-out tower. It was the highest building in Singapore 182 years ago. Its last occupants moved into the newer, bigger, grayer parliament just behind in 1999. After some debate, it was decided that the old parliament would do well in the hands of artists. The pride of the house, the legislative chamber, is now a theatre space. The shape is unusual (contains a small stage and a tiny runway), the ceiling is high, and the acoustics is challenging. The leather upholstery is the best thing here (Lee Kuan Yew’s chair was very comfortable, but of course, no different from the rest).

In this little room, I caught Kuo Pao Kun’s No Parking On Odd Days. It tells the story of a man being egged on by his son to fight an absurd parking summons. Jeffery Tan’s direction, while less stylised and comic than Krishen Jit’s direction of Neo Swee Lin in the same role, was also more Everyman in its portrayal of the protagonist’s impotence. Lim Kay Tong’s performance gave the father a childish sense of outrage at the injustice befallen him. This exchange of roles became poignant when at the end, the son himself turned into his father – cynical and resigned. Such is the insidious process in which a government crushes the spirit of a man to bring out the good obedient citizen in him.

There is delicious subversion therefore in staging Pao Kun’s play in the former parliament. I imagine The Actors Studio’s A Man For All Seasons might acquire interesting layers too if performed within the legislative chamber. Instant Café Theatre’s political satires, especially when Jo Kukathas plays a Judge or a Minister, would fit nicely as well. Sometime earlier this year, representatives from the Arts House have met with Patrick Teoh to discuss the possibility of ICT performing there. The Arts House doesn’t charge rental, but will take 20% of gross box office takings. Nevertheless, the cost of transporting and accommodating an ensemble like ICT will effectively eat into the remaining 80%. Artistic director Jo Kukathas says this isn’t the first time ICT has been invited down south. In all instances, the bottomline remains: they need sponsors to subsidise the cost. Any takers?

Also, Huzir Sulaiman’s Election Day, the uncut version, is scheduled to go on at The Arts House from April 28 to May 9. It will be directed by Claire Wong and performed by Ramesh Panicker, winner of last year’s Life! Theatre awards for Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor. I hope DBKL eases up before all our good folks run away – what frustrated Malaysian artists end up expressing in other countries is that much harder to control… And meanwhile, Singaporeans get to live vicariously through Malaysian political satires.

Give It to the People

In any case, Election Day will be staged, not in The Chamber, but in the Play Den, the black box theatre within the premise. A wise move: This space is cosier and more feasible for theatrical productions. I caught a jam session here by gamelan asmårådånå and thoroughly enjoyed the casual interactive atmosphere. In giving their audience percussion instruments to bang on, they also effectively break down the perceived distance of traditional arts. And boy, did I show off my natural lack of rhythm! Their sense of musical mischief reminded me of our very own Gamelan Club. Personally, I think a collaboration is due: not only to juxtapose their Javanese influence against our Balinese influence, but to explore the Singaporean style alongside the Malaysian style.

So perhaps, the most subversive thing to do in a former parliament is to depoliticise the space, give it to the people. Popular cross-dressing comedian Kumar got the folks to come into The Chamber and air their personal problems – in the very room where powerful people once decided on their fates. His show, titled Talk To Kumar, has him providing advice and humour on love, marriage, sex and such. I suspect if Kumar were to run for a parliamentary seat, the people would vote for him. Artists are powerful. And perhaps the handing over of the old parliament is an acknowledgment of that. Or perhaps it is a truce. We’ll see.

Outside, a few feet from the poetry slam tent, Sir Stamford Raffles, cast in white marble, stands upon the spot where he first stepped onto the port in 1819. Now, almost 200 years later, the river banks, paved in granite slabs, play host to globalisation’s wonders: museums and theatres on one side, jazz bars and sushi on the other. Nearby are hotels, dance clubs, international banks, and the curiously tempura-like Merlion. Yes, evolution in Singapore is pretty amazing: Post offices into hotels, parliaments into theatre, fishing island into port into cutting edge arts hub. The Tourism Board tells me that Singapore is moving into a creative era – it is time to hone the young voices. Let’s hope they hone them not just to propagandise poetically, but to listen, and to speak for the common folks. That will be the true legacy of inheriting the parliament. Meanwhile, I just hope they don’t leave Malaysia too far down the evolutionary ladder.

(Pang Khee Teik was hosted by the Singapore Tourism Board at the Fullerton Hotel)

First Published: 15.04.2004 on Kakiseni

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