Arts Review Singapore Theatre

★★★★☆ Review: Model Citizens (2021) by The Necessary Stage

Women without men.

Singapore is a nation that has always been proud of its pristine city, seemingly flawless to the rest of the world. But underneath its facade lies a tangled mass of quashed tensions, constantly threatening to break past the surface. 

Such is the case in The Necessary Stage’s (TNS) Model Citizens, where a Member of Parliament (MP) is stabbed by an unhappy citizen, frustrated at his problems left unheard during a Meet the People session. But oddly, this play doesn’t follow their story. Directed by Alvin Tan and written by Haresh Sharma, Model Citizens instead focuses on the lives of three women – the MP’s wife Mrs Chua (Goh Guat Kian); the assailant’s girlfriend, Indonesian maid Melly (Siti Khalijah); and Melly’s employer Wendy (Karen Tan).

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While only tangentially related to the incident, Model Citizens delves into the change and growth they undergo following the attack, revealing the problems underneath their masks of ‘good’. Despite her privilege, Mrs Chua hides intense insecurity over her inability to speak English and living in her husband’s shadow, ousted from her former position as a science teacher. With the opportunity to fill his position, she abuses her power, proclaiming an elitist Chinese agenda as revenge against the English-speaking system that wronged her, a role Guat Kian plays with wicked glee.

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On the other hand, we have Wendy, a middle-aged woman dealing with her son’s suicide, with Karen looking exhausted from grief. Doubting her own abilities as a mother, she obsesses over his chat history (with clear signs of having been cyberbullied), thinks back to her children’s disobedience and acts of discrimination, and wonders where she went wrong. All she has left is Melly, who she dotes on beyond their contractual employer-employee relationship.

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On the outside, Melly seems devoted to her ‘Ibu’ (Wendy), and loyal to her boyfriend, as she begs Mrs Chua for leniency in his criminal sentence. Yet she turns to prostitution in secret for extra cash, even with a Singaporean boyfriend fighting for their right to be married. As much as she hates moonlighting this way, she does this out of survival, and her desperation for a better life. Here, Siti Khalijah does a chameleonic shift between the two sides to Melly, changing her voice and facial expression in delivering each line.

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All three women are vulnerable, yet choose to set up metaphorical walls in the play’s initial scenes, each one serving their own interests and agendas, as reflected in Petrina Dawn Tan’s set segmenting the stage into distinct sections for each character. Yet as the play goes on, and they each reveal their backstories, we see that beyond their class differences, all three share similarities in their struggle, lonely and suppressed by society. In the same vein, upon closer inspection, the set does not have any doors, and there is much more freedom to move in and out of each other’s space than we initially think. All three spaces are connected, much like how these three seemingly disparate lives are intimately intertwined by this single incident.

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Pain is at the heart of their lives, all three inherently unhappy in spite of their surface attempts to be ‘model citizens’. In one scene, we see Melly vomiting into a bucket, while she sings Cita Citata’s Sakitnya tuh Disini (‘It hurts here’). She begins to curse and question the need to marry a Singaporean to remain in Singapore, crying out in pain. At this point, Wendy simultaneously cries out in emotional pain to show their similarities in suffering, and even Mrs Chua, at the height of her power, is disillusioned when she learns Melly’s boyfriend is sentenced to seven years of prison. With her husband recovered and ready to return home, she realises how this ‘power’ was just a temporary delusion of grandeur, and decides to buy a one-way ticket to China, in the hopes of finding freedom from her constricted life of solitude as a trophy wife in Singapore.

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It is only when these women start to reach out to each other that they can finally being to overcome their pain through solidarity and mutual support, something we see in Wendy and Melly’s enduring friendship and sisterhood. When she returns home, Wendy receives a surprise: a box full of letters she wrote to her son, saved from the trash by Melly. Wendy is touched, and realises how caught up in her own grief she’s been this entire time. She recalls incurring the ire of her relatives when she does not cry at her son’s funeral, angry at how she is expected to perform grief as proof of a mother’s love, when she hurts inside in her own way, no need to make it a public show. But in the presence of the one person left she trusts, she finally lets go and cries, as Melly hands her one final letter from ‘her son’ (actually written by Melly). Wendy embraces Melly, and for a moment, they find refuge in each other. 

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Over the course of the play, Guat Kian, Siti and Karen have fully embodied their characters in all their flaws and pains, bringing to the stage their natural talent as actresses, and the life experience they’ve gained over the years. In the final scene, the barriers between the three women are completely dissolved, and they come together, able to fully understand each other despite the differences in language. Now, in this same room, they each share their dreams – on her choice to go to China, Mrs Chua explains how ‘nothing is worse than the familiarity of a vacant life’, while Melly responds with her simple wish – to be a Singapore citizen, start a family and have children in Singapore. As to why Melly wrote the letter to Wendy, she tells Mrs Chua that Wendy ‘deserves to be at peace’.

It is in this moment that we see how crucial it is to find our common ground and reach out, and to return to those morals inculcated in us when young – to simply be a good person to each other, more important than to live up to what society expects from us. We watch Wendy alone, reading the letter at last, filled with emotion and all her vulnerabilities on display. She clutches the letter tight before wiping the tears off her face, and we wonder if her burden has been lifted, even for a moment. As much as we all want to live as ‘model citizens’ on the outside, it’s ultimately what’s inside that counts most.

Photo Credit: Tuckys Photography

Model Citizens ran from 24th March to 4th April 2021 at The Necessary Stage Black Box. The performance will be available from 19th April to 2nd May 2021 on video on demand on Vimeo. Attend an online talkback session on 7th April to speak to the director and the cast here

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