As Singapore’s Bicentennial celebrations carry on throughout the year, local theatre company Drama Box has taken the opportunity to raise questions about our own history and the way it is recorded, wondering what stories and narratives have been left out in the writing of the history of our land, and its surrounding waters.
Helmed by Drama Box artistic director Kok Heng Leun, in collaboration with Koh Wan Ching and Adib Kosnan, and playwrights Neo Hai Bin and Zulfadli Rashid, the epic two-part historical work Tanah•Air 水•土：A Play In Two Parts will premiere this October, looking at the dispossession and loss of the indigenous Malays and Orang Seletar of Singapore. The work itself comprises of two separately penned scripts – Neo Hai Bin’s Tanah, performed in Chinese, and Zulfadli Rashid’s Air in Malay. Each title translates to ‘land’ and ‘water’ in Malay respectively, and when put together, means “homeland” in English.
Says Kok Heng Leun: “This project is really about how people respond to changes and how people find their own voice and continue to find their own place in shifting political struggles.”
In Tanah, Neo Hai Bin took inspiration from the novel Duka Tuan Bertakhta by Singaporean author and Cultural Medallion recipient Isa Kamari. Co-directed by Kok Heng Leun and Koh Wan Ching, the play centres on a young girl who loses her home at sea and comes to live ashore, around the time the British arrived in Singapore and the Malay royal family reigned sovereign. She struggles to find her footing as various parties stake their claim to the land. Presented through movement and narration, Tanah stars rising actors Chng Xin Xuan, Jereh Leung, Lian Sutton, Wendi Wee Hian and Deonn Yang, and will be staged on the lawn of the Malay Heritage Centre, where they will experiment with oral traditions such as street storytelling and recitations.
Says co-director Koh Wan Ching: “At the same time, we will be creating a movement piece that responds to the location and story. The Malay Heritage Centre is an evocative site but the vicinity of Kampung Glam, with its contrasts and contradictions also creates the potential for a charged space in which we can come together to excavate notions of history, memory and ownership.”
With such a boundary-breaking new play, writing Tanah was no easy feat for playwright Neo, who pursued a tremendous amount of research while working closely with his directors, and dramaturg Zulfadli Rashid. In the process of research, Hai Bin was exposed to many new discoveries, especially the fact that the Muslim saint Habib Noh, had come to live in Singapore in 1819. “What was his relationship with the people of Singapore and with the Malay royalty of that time? It was a known fact that Habib Noh enjoyed watching Chinese wayang. In my research I found an old newspaper article that mentioned how four Englishmen converted to Islam because of him! That fascinated me, and goes to show that we don’t know everything about the events of 1819.”
Following Tanah will be Air, a verbatim performance co-directed by Kok Heng Leun and Adib Kosnan, written by Zulfadli Rashid. Starring Malay actors Roslan Kemat, Farez Najid, Suhaili Safari and Dalifah Shahril, the team will work together to tell the story of the Orang Seletar, a seafaring ethnic group that had lived on the water on the northern part of Singapore for centuries. Shockingly, despite being one of the earliest settlers in Singapore, little is known today about them, resettling and slowly leaving between the 1950s to the 80s, and now almost entirely relocated to the southern coast of Johor.
In his research process, playwright Zulfadli Rashid embarked on visits to an Orang Seletar village, Kampung Sungai Temon and interviews with the villagers. Says Zulfadli: “As we sat in the restaurant that they built themselves, overlooking the Straits with Singapore clearly in sight, and they were sharing with me about their history, their current state of existence and their worries about their future, I was left with a resolve that the Orang Seletar’s stories, as with stories of any silenced minorities, have a right to be told.
Says director Adib Kosnan, who emphasises the importantance of highlighting the Orang Seletar’s struggles with displacement and dispossession: “Some people may not be aware at all of their existence, save for their name that we have used in our shopping mall, expressway and airport. They have lived on the same seas and their history is so closely linked with ours but today there’s a border in place, shaping our identity and altering theirs in a major way.”
Beyond the performance itself, audiences can also view an accompanying mini exhibition at the Malay Heritage Centre curated by Chan Kah Mei, Ruslina Affandi and Ilya Katrinnada. Beginning with the origins of the Orang Seletar, the exhibition provides insight into the community, their cultural beliefs, as well as their lives today following their settlement in Johor, presented through photographs, projections, artefacts, audio and video recordings. Drama Box has also organised a number of full-day tours in November to Kampung Sungai Temon, Johor, one of the villages of the Orang Seletar, where visitors will go on a mangrove river cruise, a visit to the Culture Gallery, traditional arts and craft and a Seletar-style lunch.
Tanah•Air 水•土 plays from 16th to 20th October 2019 at the Malay Heritage Centre, and is jointly organized with the Malay Heritage Centre, as part of Malay Culturefest 2019. Tickets available from Eventbrite