Uncovering Singapore’s untold history we were never taught in school.
‘Merdeka’ is a Malay word that roughly translates to freedom or independence in English. To most Singaporeans, it’s also a word synonymous with late founding father Lee Kuan Yew, who frequently employed it as a rallying cry to unite against colonialism in the years leading up to the 1963 merger, inextricably linked to our own victory prying ourselves from British rule. But as much as we’ve seemingly achieved independence since 1965, have we truly freed ourselves from colonial thought?
That’s the question that lies at the heart of W!ld Rice’s latest production, as playwrights Alfian Sa’at and Neo Hai Bin come together to decolonise our understanding of history itself with Merdeka / 獨立 /சுதந்திரம். Co-directed by Glen Goei and Jo Kukathas, Merdeka is W!ld Rice’s attempt at reclaiming history by seeing it through the lens of the colonised and not the colonisers, presenting a series of lesser known stories centering around anti-colonialist historical figures through the ages.
It’s evident that plenty of research has gone into this ambitious production, with stories unearthed from pre-Raffles all the way to World War II and beyond. One night even think of Merdeka as a revised history syllabus, drawing attention to these obscured characters and their lives in fighting against colonial masters, be they intentional or not. If anything, this is a particularly well-curated set of stories as well, with Alfian and Hai Bin having selected tales that don’t exist in the public consciousness, ones we would love to see taught in schools or brought to the fore more. But while Merdeka’s content and intention are both sound, there is something about the play that feels uncomfortably incomplete.
Merdeka sees a minimal set design from Wong Chee Wai transforming the space into a virtual museum, with ‘artefacts’ displayed in suspended cases reinforcing the play’s intent to bring history to life. To support this minimal set design, Brian Gothong Tan’s projections of drawings and maps help introduce each new scene, while various period costumes by Leonard Augustine Choo are displayed around the space on mannequins, for cast members to change in and out of quickly, and make it immediately apparent what role each actor is playing each time they change in and out.
Merdeka’s framing device is that of six individuals of varying backgrounds and race, forming the anti-colonial group Raffles Must Fall, seeking to share research on history as a means to shatter the continued worship of our colonial history. Played by the ensemble cast of Brendon Fernandez, Chong Woon Yong, Ghafir Akbar, Rebekah Sangeetha Dorai, Umi Kalthum Ismail and Zee Wong, we never really get a sense of who these characters are, only fleetingly given lines that hint at their personalities. There is almost no discernible stake they have in participating in this exercise except as zealous academics, and for the most part, sound like a single voice rather than six distinct ones, mouthpieces for the message and not individuals in their own right.
Certainly, W!ld Rice should be commended on their bravery to use academic jargon in this play and not underestimate their audience’s intelligence, but even then, it can be difficult to care about and feel the impact of each story when looked at with such language. Throughout the first half of Merdeka, there is almost the sense of narrated academia rather than dramatised history that makes the production feel more like a lesson than a play, with the stories set in the 19th century performed with overblown caricatures and one-dimensional characters. These are entertaining to an extent, with Chong Woon Yong displaying a knack for comic timing amidst the cast, while the rest bravely take on each role with gusto, thrusting themselves into exaggerated accents and lively songs. But all of this begs the question then: to what end?
Structurally, Merdeka also faces issues with the organisation of its scenes, which flow like a stream of consciousness, as if one were flipping back and forth between channels on a television. Again, it’s bold to challenge audiences to follow this temporally non-linear structure, but one that often detracts from the flow, making an already difficult topic substantially harder to absorb in the 120 minutes jam-packed with new information. It doesn’t help either that most of the stories are often glossed over within a matter of minutes, with many coming off more as a quick sketch that’s quickly forgotten in favour of moving on to the next, as if attempting to cover as much ground as possible without fleshing it out. Merdeka would then likely have benefited from having a longer run time to alleviate these issues and pace its information, much like how one cannot possibly absorb an entire syllabus crammed into a single class at school.
Directors Glen and Jo occasionally do manage to endear us to the stories – particularly moving, for example, is the scenes about the Rani of the Jhansi Regiment, which tells of an all female combat regiment in 1943 that aimed to overthrow the British. Playing a young volunteer, Rebekah Sangeetha Dorai finds herself thrust in the midst of war, and instead of playing a combat role, becomes a nurse instead, and is even handed a medal of honour from a soldier who lays dying, with Sangeetha capturing the fear, confusion of a woman facing the terror of war. But for other scenes, such as 1954’s Chinese school students protest, humour detracts from the impact of the scene, weakest when it chooses to infantilise audiences with cheap jokes instead.
Merdeka ends on a very strong note, with the six characters reading Indonesian President Sukarno’s speech at the Bandung Conference of 1955. They learn to look past their limited view of race, each one more than just the colour of their skin as categorised by colonial masters, and uncover previously unknown stories that reaffirm the importance of decolonising our own mindsets and understanding of history, each looking towards what more they can do in future and vowing to further their cause. But this is an ending that emotionally powerful as it is, feels undeserved with the weak buildup leading up to it.
With Merdeka, W!ld Rice has encountered a missed opportunity of a play that has a good creative team, the right framework and a well-researched, well-curated wealth of information that could have resulted in one of the year’s strongest works given a longer runtime, greater character development (both in its framing device and stories), and tighter organisation overall. All the more disappointing then that what we are left with, like the hollow cries of ‘Merdeka’ from the audience during the re-enactment of Lee Kuan Yew’s 1963 speech, is an empty message with no real emotional or personal investment in any of the stories shown beyond a generic anti-colonial sentiment and want for decolonisation.
Photo Credit: W!ld Rice
Performance attended 12/10/19
Merdeka plays from 10th October to 2nd November 2019 at W!ld Rice @ Funan. Tickets available from SISTIC