What truly unites a people or a country, and how do we achieve this? Can union only come at the expense of excluding others? How much of it is embedded in shared trial and tragedy?
As with every year, the Singapore arts calendar starts off on a high note with not one, not two, but an entire festival’s worth of works with each edition of the M1 SIngapore Fringe Festival. Returning from 8th to 19th January 2020, the next edition will also mark the final year Sean Tobin helms it as Festival Director.
In the same vein as the past two editions, 2020’s theme is inspired by a local work of art. Following themes based after performance art pieces Let’s Walk and Still Waters in 2018 and 2019 respectively, this year takes a detour and instead, bases it off a poem instead – pioneer poet Anne Lee Tzu Pheng’s My Country and My People (1976). Featured in her debut poetry collection Prospect of a Drowning (1980), Lee’s poem invites us to consider the costs and cruelties of imperialism and colonisation, the compromises of national development and the sacrifices made due to economic ambition.
My country and my people
are neither here nor there, nor
in the comfort of my preferences,
if I could even choose.
At any rate, to fancy is to cheat;
and worse than being alien, or
subversive without cause,
is being a patriot
of the will.
I came in the boom of babies, not guns,
a ‘daughter of a better age’;
I held a pencil in a school
while the ‘age’ was quelling riots
in the street, or cutting down
those foreign ‘devils’,
(whose books I was being taught to read).
Thus privileged I entered early
the Lion City’s jaws.
But they sent me back as fast
to my shy, forbearing family.
So I stayed in my parents’ house,
and had only household cares.
The city remained a distant way,
but I had no land to till;
only a duck that would not lay,
and a runt of a papaya tree,
(which also turned out to be male).
Then I learnt to drive instead
and praise the highways till
I saw them chop the great trees down,
and plant the little ones;
impound the hungry buffalo
(the big ones and the little ones)
because the cars could not be curbed.
Nor could the population.
They built milli-mini-flats
for a multi-mini-society.
The chiselled profile in the sky
took on a lofty attitude,
but modestly, at any rate
it made the tourist feel ‘at home’.
My country and my people
I never understood.
I grew up in China’s mighty shadow,
with my gentle, brown-skinned neighbours;
but I keep diaries in English.
I sought to grow
in humanity’s rich soil,
and started digging on the banks, then saw
life carrying my friends downstream.
Yet, careful tending of the human heart
may make a hundred flowers bloom;
and perhaps, fence-sitting neighbour,
I claim citizenship in your recognition
of our kind,
my people, and my country,
are you, and you my home.
The poem, expressing ambivalence towards patriotism and nationhood, was controversial, and was banned from performance on radio, with no official explanation given. Perhaps ironically, Lee later ended up the lyricist of the similarly titled National Day ceremony song, “My People, My Home”, which has been sung as part of National Day ceremonies in schools since 1998. More than five decades on, the themes in the poem continue to resonate in our world today—perhaps even more urgently than before, and thus, the 2020 edition of the festival invites a combination of international and local artists to present works reflecting on the subject.
As a pre-Festival engagement activity, the Fringe even be hosting a free, intimate lecture about Revisiting My Country and My People on 30th November 2019. Lee Tzu Pheng herself will provide a brief introduction to and read her iconic poem ‘My Country and My People’, while Literary critic, poet and graphic artist Dr Gwee Li Sui will then delve into the poem and open it up anew, inviting us to consider its relevance today.
As for the programme itself, headlining the festival are two local works – Kebaya Homies and Beside Ourselves. The former marks M1 Fringe organisers The Necessary Stage’s (TNS) return to the festival after five years, and takes audiences back in time to the 1960s with longtime TNS collaborators Aidli ‘Alin’ Mosbit and Siti Khalijah Zainal. Playing perempuan-perempuan joget (dancing girls), the two will introduce audiences to Singaporean Malay history and culture in a cheeky musical romp, interwoven with scenes from playwright Haresh Sharma’s past plays written for the actors.
Also headlining the Festival will be Singaporean electronica duo .gif, presenting a darkly humourous live concept album as they explore themes of disembodiment, vulnerability and displacement, issues familiar to anyone trying to find their footing in a rapidly developing world. Over Beside Ourselves, .gif will share stories and music inspired by anecdotes from people who feel disconnected from their bodies and their environment.
In curating artists for the festival, a line-up of international works have been selected for their ability to excavate or re-imagine their country’s history, envision their future, or to re-examine their changing cultures. Making its world premiere at the Fringe is
bluemouth inc.’s Café Sarajevo(Canada), a participatory theatrical experience following protagonist Lucy Simic’s travels to her father’s birthplace, Bosnia. Virtual Reality features as a key element of this piece, as the performance harnesses 360° video, music, dance and games to explore the borders that divide and unite us.
Square One Collective (USA) presents the world premiere of No Place, as a political exile, a former radical and a climate refugee participate in a social experiment in search of a virtual utopia in the year 2075—a process that irrevocably chip away at their beliefs about citizenship, nationhood and personhood.
A German-Israeli collaboration, choreographer Reut Shemesh presents ATARA – For you, who has not yet found the one, a critically-acclaimed striking contemporary work inspired by her own upbringing in a secular/Orthodox Jewish family, to investigate femininity and female sexuality in society, as well as our own prejudices and lifestyles.
On the Singapore front, a number of local practitioners will also be debuting brand new pieces responding to the theme. Making their return to Fringe, Bhumi Collective presents Mak-Mak Menari, a documentary theatre piece that explores the role of the modern Malay mother in Singapore, using dance to express her values, thoughts, and aspirations and the role of the arts today.
Singapore participatory theatre collective ATTEMPTS will also be returning to the Fringe, this time around inviting audiences to play a new kind of game. Enter A TINY COUNTRY, where you will be tasked with nation-building responsibilities, whilst cognizant of a prophecy that the country will experience a hostile takeover in 10 years.
As with each year, the Fringe will once again engage students from NAFA to collaborate with a local theatre practitioner in staging a new work for the Fringe. This time around, Oliver Chong comes onboard to create Contemplating Kopitiam and Kampong Wa’ Hassan, as he cross-references verbatim interview texts from the Millennial Generation cast from the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts BA (Hons) Theatre Arts course, using texts from two seminal plays by Kuo Pao Kun and Alfian Sa’at, to uncover myriad interpretations of the Singaporean sentiments on “happiness, prosperity and progress for our nation”.
Brand new companies will also be making their debut this Fringe, with Secretive Thing as they present roving theatre experience Secretive Thing 215. Questioning what it means to be a loyal citizen and part of a community, the company is helping recruit new members for the Glasgo Mascon Kline (GMK) Medical Institute in a developed version of Secretive Thing 215. Get your phones ready as you set foot for adventure.
Spacebar Theatre, comprising Eugene Koh and Lee Shu Yu, takes us on the good Utama Spaceship as two intrepid explorers head into space to colonise a planet in Alpha Centauri. That is, until the expedition’s Space Explorers get horribly and embarrassingly lost. Can they find their way forward or should they find their way back?
Finally, Jelaine Ng Sha-Men presents her own work-in-progress as the sole participant of Fresh Fringe this year. In The Shadow Curriculum, Jelaine dives deep into the meritocratic system as Alice Soo – top O-level student and daughter of famed motivational speaker Alan Soo. She’s here to teach all how to
exploit strategise using private institutions, expensive tuition, and your parents’ connections to land yourself a place in your dream school. Just make sure you have the money.
How should we think about and present out people and our country in this modern age? What truly captures the spirit of a nation, and have we left anything or anyone behind in our fight for progress? Let these 11 fringe works show you a myriad of views come January, as the M1 Singapore Fringe Festival returns next January.
The 2020 M1 Singapore Fringe Festival runs from 8th to 19th January 2020. Tickets and more information available from their website here