Should Raffles be credited for the founding of modern Singapore? In W!LD RICE’s upcoming
production Merdeka, emerging playwright Neo Hai Bin and award-winning Alfian Sa’at dissect the age-old question. Audiences are forced to examine how Singapore’s history and society have been shaped and shattered by the forces of colonialism.
Taking a deep dive into these topics inevitably reveals new information, changing our perspective of history as we know it. Being the curious cats we are, we went straight to
the source: Hai Bin, who has been writing plays since 2016. He bares it all – from new findings of Singapore’s colonial legacy during the research process, to his stand on the controversial Brit.
Tell us more about Merdeka.
Merdeka is a reflection on the “Singapore Bicentennial”. I hope that, after watching the
play, audiences will walk out of the theatre with a deeper understanding of who they are and
what this land is. Hopefully, they understand how to live and co-exist together in this place we call home.
What was the research process like?
I buried myself in resources and books from the National Library, as well as old newspapers. Some online resources were valuable, but I had to be extra careful in validating them.
What type of historical documentation did the team find?
Speeches, newspaper articles, petitions and songs – which will all be presented in the
play. We’ll take the audience on a journey to investigate and interrogate these historical documents.
So here comes the golden question: is Stamford Raffles a hero or a villain?
There is a Chinese idiom that literally translates to “putting a definitive conclusion on the coffin lid”. The tricky thing about history is that you cannot simply say something or someone is good or bad. I prefer to see the multiple facades and narratives of any person, event or issue. History is created by many groups and many individuals. It’s made up of multiple perspectives – and these different voices need to be respected.
For all his pitfalls, should Raffles be discredited for laying out the foundations for
what is now one of the most successful cities in the world?
There is an interesting article written by William Farquhar titled The Establishment of Singapore (1831). In it, Farquhar was displeased at how Lady Sophia made sure Raffles could claim sole and exclusive merit for establishing Singapore. In the article, he reminded
readers that he had a large share in forming the establishment. Instead of thinking about whether Raffles (or William Farquhar or anyone for that matter) should be credited or
discredited, we should also allow ourselves to question: who are the ones
who chose who to credit, or discredit these people?
How do we allow ourselves to see history? From whose perspective are we seeing history? Why do we choose to acknowledge certain parts of history, but not others? How do you balance out the strengths and weaknesses of Raffles to create a fair, yet unglorified depiction of him in the play?
I’m not eligible, nor can I create or construct any image of Raffles – or even history. Through Merdeka, we hope to offer a larger variety of perspectives. So we see a kaleidoscope of history and prevent ourselves from assuming that anyone can have a last word on any given person or event.
If Raffles did fall, what else would fall with him?
If the colonisation power structure did fall, then we allow other voices of the past to surface, so they do not remain submerged in the grand narrative of history.
What's next for you?
Besides Merdeka, I also collaborated with Drama Box for Tanah•Air 水•土: A Play In Two Parts, which is taking place on October 16.
Merdeka is showing from October 10 to 27 at The Ngee Ann Kongsi Theatre @ WILD RICE, Funan Level 4. From $20.