Alien Nations

We learn something new everyday. I for example learnt that the new politically correct term for foreign workers — you know, the people who tend our kids and clean our homes 24 hours a day (if possible, if not then at least 18 hours), clean the streets, serve us drinks at the coffeeshop and put up our buildings, not forgetting those who keep our male population entertained when their biological needs come a-calling — is now “transient workers”.

This piece of knowledge came especially useful at the premiere of The Necessary Stage’s new work Mobile which played at the Singapore Arts Festival on 17 – 18 June 2006. You see, two blokes were chatting behind me before the lights went out and one asked, “I wonder if there are any transient workers here tonight?”

Mind you, we were at the island nation’s spanking new Drama Centre at the equally spanking new Central Library, and until recently even I was ignorant of its existence. Still it’s not at all a strange comment coming from a young Singaporean — young Singaporeans are known to be ill informed at worst, naive at best — it illustrates the need for plays such as Mobile. And The Necessary Stage have been doing a good job pushing the envelope and asking tough questions to an audience not used to asking questions by themselves. How much it has succeeded in changing things is not quite clear, but at least it is trying.

And Mobile is an ambitious project in this respect. With its modest task of exploring transient workers from a cross section of communities far beyond the picket fences of Singapore, it finds itself caught in a web of questions too numerous and too complex even for itself.

As if the problems of transient workers in our little corner of South East Asia were not bad enough, veteran writer Haresh Sharma and director Alvin Tan (last seen in our midst in a similar cross-cultural experiment Separation 40) rope in the help of Thai, Filipino and Japanese companies, each providing part of the migrant worker puzzle from their point of view, magically weaved together to form the final piece here in Singapore.

The result is not as unpalatable as one might imagine — quite the opposite, Mobile brilliantly pieced together the different perspectives with some imaginative directing, and what resulted was a delightful complement of regional flavours. I admit it is quite clever — adding to the rather bland flavour of Singaporean art with its penchant for sloganeering and officialese was a heady dollop of the Filipino love for melodrama and song and dance, spiced up with a hearty dash of the a wide-eyed naivety of the Thai and finished off with the Japanese’s obsessiveness and fractured sense of morality.

Adding to the multicultural experience were the native languages that were preserved for most part in Mobile — here is where my flirtation with Thailand and my drinking binges with the Pinoys helped tremendously, although in the end, there is something in the proximity of our communities that allows ideas to transcend linguistic barriers. To help things along TNS used subtitle panels located very conveniently at the back of the stage so it was easy to read and to follow the action — the two panels also doubled as TV screens for the television studio and conference scenes.

To be honest, hearing authentic Thai, Tagalog and Japanese was a welcome relief from the Singlish — after all these years, Singaporean actors still cannot speak normally on stage. The characters swing from the extreme Queen’s Englishness to equally extreme Singlishness where every sentence ends with a “lah”, whether required or not, and the more the better. Throw in the vulgar hokkien Ah Seng who cannot complete a sentence without the expletive “c**b**” and you have the full palette of Singaporean theatre expression.

This is why I prefer to watch plays in Arabic than in English. And this is why Mobile is so refreshing.

So in the absence of the contingent from the Filipino Maid Association of Singapore and the Indian and Bangla Recreational Society (they don’t exist), the lights came on to a packed house filled with arts students, arts and festival buffs and the theatre crowd in general, plus a number of rowdy youngsters who must have come because they heard there would be female nudity in the play (there wasn’t any so they had to make do with the mention of “vagina” by the Thai sex worker).

And on stage appeared two containers which would prove to be an ingeniously flexible set, albeit rather (and deliberately) noisy one. Perhaps the influence of Japanese co-director Tatsuo Kaneshita — I sense a bit of Japanese sadism here — but the two containers, solidly built, were purposefully slammed all through the evening — God help my ears.

A potent symbol of the central topic — the container being the housing, sometimes mode of shipment, of transient workers, also representing the forces of commerce that drive the need for foreign workers, the two cubes transform into cells, resort cabins in Phuket, shanty housing in Tondo, a brothel and so on.

And around the two cubes weaved a series of playlets surrounding the plight of a Thai woman who ends up as a prostitute in Japan awaiting deportation for having conceived a child by her Japanese boyfriend, a wealthy Filipino resort owner who is driven by skewers of conscience for having exploited his Thai “fisherman friend” (yes, it was a cheap and very funny joke), a Filipino maid who is forced to abort her child if she is to remain in employment in Singapore, ending cyclically with the Japanese boyfriend who escapes the pressures of Japanese civility for the unbuttoned (literally — he strips off his business clothes in the end, but don’t get your hopes up gals n guys) freedom  of Filipino poverty.

These disparate tales are threaded together by the running theme of a labour conference in Bangkok where two old friends, Singaporean civil servant (Aidli Mosbit) and Thai NGO worker (Narumol Thammapruksa), find their friendship torn apart by changing ideals.

It is here that the most caustic barbs are wielded as Haresh Sharma and gang delight in taking potshots at the “powers that be” with witty one liners, backed by the omnipresent MS Powerpoint presentation, finally pointing out that politics itself is the very antithesis of public service.

The first half of Mobile was rather heavy going with the lengthy tale of the Thai prostitute, touching as it is and with a brilliant verbal confrontation with “the wife”, but bogged down by the rather unnecessary meaning-of-life arguments with the Thai monk and a really unnecessary cat-fight. Mobile really picked up during it’s second half with the riotous song-and-dance vaudeville of the Filipino maid piece, whose dilemma about abortion, whether deliberate of not, was as side-splittingly funny as it was tragic, played out as over the top as good taste allowed. However, I can’t see that pivotal line chorused by the oppressed maids, “We are not c**b**s!” being repeated in KL. Not the most profound statement of the evening, but it had me in stitches.

In the end a good dose of humour is what Mobile really needed — it ended very morosely with the Japanese wife celebrating her dead baby’s birthday and with a whole host of questions left untouched. Certainly Mobile‘s premise “to dig into the issues of labour migration and think twice about the lives behind the foreign workers in our midst,” remains with surface barely scratched.

Perhaps the net was cast too wide; certainly the issues are well beyond the grasp of a single evening’s play with as ambitious a scope as Mobile. But at least they have started asking the questions. And perhaps, by the evening’s end, the fellow behind me would have understood why there were no maids or construction workers in the audience.

Mobile by The Necessary Stage is running at The Actors Studio Bangsar from Tue 20 – Thu 22 June 2006.


CH Loh is a Malaysian in Singapore. He just quit his day job to become a freelance writer.

First Published: 20.06.2006 on Kakiseni

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