‘Singapore and Malaysia are like divorcees. Or siblings. Or rivals. We can’t live with them and we can’t live without them.'
Ivan Heng is reading from a script, his arms flowing and eyes dancing to the rhythm of the words. ‘Every Oriental costume from the Levant to China floats through the streets,’ the Wild Rice co-founder begins. ‘Robes of silk, satin, brocade and white muslin, emphasised by the glitter of barbaric gold and Parsees in spotless white; Jews and Arabs in dark rich silks; Klings in Turkey red and white; Bombay merchants in great white turbans, full trousers and draperies, all white with crimson silk girdles; Malays in red sarongs…’
He pauses to make a point: ‘This was written in 1879. 1879, and not a swamp in sight!’
Which makes it easy to see why, on our nation’s 50th anniversary, the colourful passage was selected as one of the 50-plus published works to be featured in Wild Rice’s upcoming play, Another Country. Lifted from a letter written by English explorer Isabella Bird to her sister during the former’s visit to Singapore, the description of the island is at odds with the version preferred by those who believe in the ‘fishing village to first world’ narrative ascribed to a certain, late political leader. Provocation – along with a good dose of humour – is the crux of the production.
Another Country is, chiefly, a story of two neighbours: Singapore and Malaysia. It explores the relationship between ‘us and them’ – and humanity as a whole – using short stories, plays, interviews and jingoistic songs to bridge the pair. The first half of the performance features texts culled from Singapore’s cultural archive while the second half plumbs from Malaysian works. And the twist: each half is performed by actors from the opposite country.
‘Singapore and Malaysia are like divorcees. Or siblings. Or rivals. We can’t live with them and we can’t live without them,’ muses Heng, who directs the Lion City portion of the play. ‘We share so much with each other: our heritage, our culture, our stories. [The stories in Another Country are] of hope, disgust, strength, humour, love. There’s a sense of longing and wistfulness about them that’s quite romantic, quite sayang [a Malay word with dual meanings: ‘love’ and ‘with pity’].’
THROUGH THE BARRICADES
The chosen texts date back to the 15th century. Alfian Sa’at, who curates the Singaporean works, explains that while he was led by his ‘idiosyncratic taste in both the literature produced about Singapore and by Singaporeans’, he opted for a ‘broad historical sweep’. Texts from the Malay annals, writings from colonial travellers, Singaporeans writing in exile, songs about the Little Red Dot and even the work of Catherine Lim and Michael Chiang make appearances. ‘I was very conscious that I wasn’t performing a canonising function,’ Alfian adds.
And not a rabble-rousing function, either. Malaysian playwright Leow Puay Tin – he’s Alfian’s northern equivalent in Another Country – insists his chosen texts serve not to mend fences but break them altogether.
‘In his poem “Salam Benua (Greetings to the Continent)”, the Malaysian National Laureate Usman Awang urges us to choose not to be separated by “passports, visas and frontiers”, which are all “names for barriers”,’ recalls Leow. ‘The world would be a better place for all of us if we could follow him in sending our greetings past these arbitrary man-made barriers, to humanity, to the people of all continents.’
Heng agrees with Leow’s message of amity. He believes Another Country is, above all, about peace. ‘Peace is the ability to put yourself in others’ shoes and understand one another as human beings,’ he says. ‘We all want to be happy. It’s a utopia, of course, but we try.’