Arts Esplanade Theatre Studio Singapore

The Banter: Alvin Tan, Siti K and Karen Tan talk Model Citizens

Screenshot 2021-01-24 at 10.34.30 AM

“Haresh (Sharma) likes to joke that I’m the ‘model citizen’ in real life, being a Chinese woman, and the mother to two children,” says Karen Tan.

“But that’s really the textbook definition of the Singaporean model citizen!” says Alvin Tan.

There’s a moment of pause as they sit back to ponder over this hard truth, before Siti Khalijah adds: “I don’t need to be a model citizen, I just want to be a model.”

Even on Zoom, there’s a sense of complete ease and comfort between our three interviewees, riffing off of each other’s responses as if they were physically in the same room. This honestly doesn’t come as a surprise – both Karen and Siti have been two of TNS’ favourite actresses for years, appearing in some of their most renowned productions, as penned by Haresh Sharma and directed by Alvin Tan.

Karen Tan

Model Citizens was a dream for both myself and Haresh, to see these three actresses onstage together in one show, and a script that’s always been close to our hearts.” – Alvin Tan

Today, speaking to them virtually, we’re here to talk about their new restaging of Model Citizens, playing from late March to early April at TNS’ home of over 20 years at the Marine Parade Community Centre. It’s a welcome play to see take to the stage again; after all, it’s been been ten years since it was last staged locally at the National Museum Gallery Theatre (as part of the 2011 M1 Singapore Fringe Festival), and eleven since it premiered at the TNS Black Box (as part of the company’s main season in 2010).

Model Citizens was a dream for both myself and Haresh, to see these three actresses onstage together in one show, and a script that’s always been close to our hearts,” says Alvin. “We wanted to see whether it was still relevant 11 years on, and how the relationship between citizenry and government has changed.”

Goh Guat Kian

The play itself follows the plight of three women following the stabbing of an MP at a Meet the People Session. There’s Mrs Chua (Goh Guat Kian), the MP’s wife; Melly (Siti), an Indonesian maid who happens to be the stabber’s girlfriend; and Wendy (Karen), the maid’s employer struggling with her own tragedy.

“We’re all older now, and in the years since it was last staged, so many things have changed,” says Karen.

“We’re all older now, and in the years since it was last staged, so many things have changed,” says Karen. “Emma Yong and Christina Sergeant are gone, I’ve lost my father, the government is still the same. The characters we play, they’re really just everyday normal people, with decisions that are being made from above and just leading ordinary lives. It’s easy to get back into character, but the way we say certain lines do change from last time, so it’ll still be different.”

“It’s exactly the same text, and I’ve been able to get back into the role quite quickly,” says Siti. “But rehearsing has been so different because of COVID-19 restrictions. Like Karen said, I’ve grown older since then – Melly is meant to be in her 20s, and I’m now exposed to more things. I even asked Alvin if my character was too mature now!”

“It’s very rewarding for me as a director watching the characters now, as compared to before. There’s this sense they’ve grown thanks to the cast’s new experiences,” adds Alvin.

Siti Khalijah

“I think that the goalposts have shifted in the 11 years since its premiere, and perhaps as we restage it this time, it’s a way for us to reflect on our own self-righteousness, and how we have a tendency to judge others and see ourselves as morally better than them.”

At the heart of Model Citizens, like its title suggests, is what exactly is a model citizen, and has that definition changed in the years since its premiere? “We’re really trying to question whether that prescribed definition in Singapore still stands,” says Alvin. “In particular with Melly, she’s this foreign worker coming in from overseas because she sees so many opportunities in Singapore. All these foreigners come here, working so hard to do anything and everything they can to better the status of their families back home. At the same time, she’s a character with so many layers, doing side jobs and putting on all these personas to survive. I think that the goalposts have shifted in the 11 years since its premiere, and perhaps as we restage it this time, it’s a way for us to reflect on our own self-righteousness, and how we have a tendency to judge others and see ourselves as morally better than them.”

Thinking about the idea of change then and now, Siti feels sympathetic towards the plight of foreign workers, and how cruel Singaporeans can be. “I think the future is more hopeful than it was 11 years ago, but there’s still a lot of terrible things happening on the ground,” she says. “When I went on TikTok to research for my character, I see that a lot of people still bash the Indonesian and pinoy helpers on their videos, even if they’re just dancing and having a picnic. ‘Why are you crowding Paya Lebar every Sunday?’ ‘Go back to where you came from.’ We still have a long way to go when it comes to welcoming migrant workers in Singapore.”

Karen and Siti in the 2011 production of Model Citizens

“The good thing though, is that there are now more people aware of the plight of the migrant workers,” says Alvin. “But as to how sustained that consciousness will be, my hope lies in the younger, ‘woke’ generation to make the change, and for them to collaborate with the older generation to make it happen. Change does take time, but you can already feel a difference – at least we see reports of maid abuse coming out in the papers, whereas last time migrant workers weren’t even a topic of conversation. There’s incremental change, and more transparency as time goes by.”

“Like Alvin, I think the awareness helps a lot. Last time when we turned on the news, my girls got frightened whenever they hear about wars happening in some foreign place, and there’s only one source of information,” adds Karen. “But nowadays, there’s so much more news available, and you’ll immediately know what happened down the road. There is an immediacy to everything right now, and an awareness that we can do better, and no longer have to rely on the government to tell us how exactly to do things. The problem is changing the mindset that’s already been established, like how we’re taught to treat foreign workers. We can’t keep relying on the people above us to be the better man, and really do more ground-up work, become more active, more woke and actually do things.” 

Karen and Siti in the 2011 production of Model Citizens

It is this same awareness that is likely to allow the audiences of today to see Model Citizens differently than a decade ago, whether it’s in terms of the mental health issues it raises, or the racist and xenophobic sentiments mentioned by the characters. “When it comes to mental health, people are more aware of the issues, but discrimination is still here,” says Alvin. “Even with Off Centre for example, yes the support system is here, and people still don’t want to go to IMH, but the fear is still there, so it’s still a relevant issue.”

“Guat Kian has a line where she says ‘Singapore belongs to the Chinese’, and it touched a nerve during the performances. It’s a volatile character that provokes a lot of reactions, and the things she says still ring very clear now.”

“We used to do Model Citizens for the Esplanade’s Feed Your Imagination programme, and I think that even back then, young people have always known things and are aware of these undercurrents,” says Karen. “Guat Kian has a line where she says ‘Singapore belongs to the Chinese’, and it touched a nerve during the performances. It’s a volatile character that provokes a lot of reactions, and the things she says still ring very clear now.”

Siti in the 2011 production of Model Citizens

“I used to feel so insecure among other budding actors, because they all had more well to do families, and it made me feel so out of place. TNS was the first company to make me feel like I had value.”

Underneath all the excitement however, is a tinge of sadness. Model Citizens may be TNS’ first production of the year (after the Fringe Festival), but it also marks the last one to be staged at the Black Box, before the company is forced to relinquish the space. “Being sad about the loss of TNS’ space is an understatement. It’s a space that has given people so many opportunities, including me, where I got my start in theatre,” says Siti. “I used to feel so insecure among other budding actors, because they all had more well to do families, and it made me feel so out of place. TNS was the first company to make me feel like I had value.”

“It was so eye-opening to get a chance to learn from Natalie Hennedige and Chong Tze Chien, to do school shows and performances and travel and develop my craft. I’ve come to know every nook and cranny of TNS, and it’s a place that made me feel more human, and that somehow my work, the stories I’ve told and my voice, it’s important and worth something,” she continues. “To not have that space anymore, I feel the loss because I think about all the lost opportunities, and how much TNS has contributed to the scene over the years – they’re one of the groups that most deserve the space, so why is nothing happening, why is it still a struggle after so long?”

Karen in the 2011 production of Model Citizens

“I think that for the people who’re just starting out, a space is especially important; it’s not like you can just go to a Starbucks and start rehearsing,” says Karen. “For me, I haven’t thought much about the loss, mostly because it’s been very scheduled and it doesn’t feel like the space is actually going away. But we realise it when we start doing rehearsals at Stamford Arts Centre instead of TNS, and that realisation creeps in.

“I think that for the people who’re just starting out, a space is especially important; it’s not like you can just go to a Starbucks and start rehearsing,” says Karen.

“I’ve known Haresh and Alvin a long time, and there’s been so much movement, from TAPEC to Cairnhill and Marine Parade. It’s weird, because you just assume that there’ll always be a space. I’m old enough to know that spaces never remain in Singapore, from the places I used to live to now this. You get used to the impermanence and learn to forget, until someone brings it up in conversation again.”

“To me, there’s no point getting angry. We know that we won’t get Centre 42, The Substation or TNS back, or at least, not in the same way we used to know them. I think of companies as concepts rather than places. Because if it comes to a point where the company has to be defined by the space, then maybe it’s just more troublesome because these things keep happening,” she adds.

Guat Kian in the 2011 production of Model Citizens

With less than 20 people in the theatre for each performances, this last hurrah will be decidedly less celebratory than sombre for TNS, but Alvin remains optimistic, always looking towards the next step rather than focusing on what’s lost. “We’ve been working out way around the idea of a space and thought about focusing on methodology instead, where we focus on devising and collaborating, where we don’t necessarily need a physical space,” he says.

“I often think about how there’s so many SOTA, Lasalle and NAFA students graduating every year, but what’s being done about it, what provisions are being made?” he continues. “That’s also why I started Bridging The Gap, in an attempt to bridge the new people and veterans, and create a system that helps newcomers, and really, have a community. We must remain flexible – if there’s no physical space, why not online?”

Guat Kian in the 2011 production of Model Citizens

“I like to think about the idea of fluidity, and I think that’s what we really need in Singapore,” Alvin says. “It’s the idea of adaptability, and to learn how to include things like intercultural ideas, to interact more deeply in terms of the sensibilities and way we negotiate and live together in real harmony. I really believe that’s what we need for the future, and to help us bridge all these differences. You see how America is so polarised, in terms of pro-life, pro-gun and race; the middle ground is not nurtured, and there’s a need to think about how to connect it all.”

“And that’s where the fluidity comes in. It’s something I thought about in rehearsalsthe set is so changeable, and gains meaning and context when the actors move and perform in the space,” he concludes. “E.M. Forster got it right in his novel Passage to India, where he mentioned the idea of how we can be vastly different, but with our heart in the right place, every one of us can connect and see the similarities and not the differences.” 

Model Citizens runs from 24th March to 4th April 2021 at The Necessary Stage Black Box. Tickets are sold out, but the performance will be available from 19th April to 2nd May 2021 on video on demand on Vimeo.

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