Confronting the toxic relationship between state and artist.
In the past, Alfian Sa’at was known as Singapore’s enfant terrible, one of only a few who dared to bring up hard truths and criticism of society, often directed at the authorities. But as time went by, with the proliferation of social media giving almost everyone a voice, and years of raging against the machine, Alfian’s work has noticeably taken a more quiet approach, somewhat more subdued in its anger to explore the academic approach instead of making change.
With SeptFest 2022, Alfian seems to have finally found a happy medium between that youthful fervour and wisdom with age. This has resulted in a powerful, thought-provoking work of theatre that acts as a hypothetical ‘checkmate’ for the arts scene and the ongoing battle for freedom of speech and expression, with The Death of Singapore Theatre as Scripted By the Infocomm Media Development Authority of Singapore.
The genius of the script firstly lies in its metatheatrical aspects – there can be no public performances without a script first being sent to the Infocomm Media Development Authority of Singapore (IMDA), for an IMDA officer to approve, rate, and give a performance license. In writing The Death of Singapore Theatre, Alfian posits the play as a direct address to an IMDA officer, which, through the act of reading it, is used to question and reverse the process of interrogation by having said officer consider the play’s central thesis and question – why does the IMDA seem to be intentionally antagonistic to local performing artists, subjecting them to censorship and undefined OB markers?
Beyond using the process as a means to ‘speak’ to the officer, that first hurdle also ensures that should the script be banned from performance or heavily censored, it only serves to prove Alfian’s point that the IMDA is being overly harsh in their regulation. The Death of Singapore Theatre passed this, remained relatively unscathed, and was allowed to take to the stage with an Advisory 16 rating (for coarse language and mature content), which then launched into its second phase – a performance-lecture witnessed by the general public, educating audience members on the history and aims of IMDA, and their continued tensions grappling with artists over the years.
Directed by Irfan Kasban, The Death of Singapore Theatre opens with a scream of ‘NO’ from performer Farah Ong. It’s a cry of frustration that encapsulates an infinitely complex mix of feelings – anger, disappointment, exhaustion. And in many ways, it’s a necessary opening for a work in this form, as Farah goes on to play with the idea of ‘no’, testing it in terms of volume, length, pitch, and makes us wonder how much any of these protests have any meaning at all in the eyes of the authorities.
It is all one can do then, to take a step back and perform an objective analysis of the IMDA’s classification system the arts scene is subject to, leading to a well-researched, organised lecture that offers a comprehensive look at the history and aims of the IMDA, chronicling a troubled history of moral panics, culture wars, bureaucracy and politics shaping the way censorship works in Singapore. Shots are fired, first at the IMDA’s non-specific guidelines, to utilising an automated voice synthesiser to present the IMDA as robotic and non-human, to even unearthing archival photos of the IMDA at work perusing graphic novels. Alfian treats all of these with a light touch, almost always adding a dose of bleak humour, either self-deprecating or at past IMDA chiefs’ expense, even passing wry commentary on past IMDA chiefs’ favourite films.
While the script itself is academic in nature, director Irfan Kasban uses his whimsical direction to keep the content visually arresting, and we find ourselves unable to look away as Farah performs interpretive dance, captions describing and defining the subversive actions she is performing, or using racial slurs in the context of coddling a baby. The Death of Singapore Theatre constantly pushes at its limits to test the very system it is under, daring the officer reading it to take offence. At one point, the audience is even invited to take out their phones and snap photos as Farah wears a balaclava, holding up various placards as images of protests and activists show up onscreen behind her, recalling the disproportionate violence and punishment used to quell them.
Yet, for all its critique, The Death of Singapore Theatre never feels spiteful or malicious, but above all, tired. There is a strong emotional through-line Alfian embeds into his script, positioning the performer as exhausted artist. There is an air of quiet tragedy in recalling Operation Spectrum, a terrifying feeling of being watched as the process of self-censorship is elegantly explained, and nothing but sympathy as we are shown a troupe of dancers whose license was revoked on opening day itself, making a desperate plea to make an exception for their art, and not to see it as “wicked and evil”.
Above all, what really gets at audience members is how the entire work feels like the words of a person confronting and coming to terms with an abusive, toxic relationship. It is a work that explores stages of grief, beginning angry, but over time, tries to rationalise and reason why IMDA would treat artists as such, before finally realising that IMDA and artist will always be at odds, the tensions always present. As Farah commands the space and speaks with impassioned voice, we cannot help but understand just how draining it is to deal with the constant struggle, and how difficult it can be to carry on, year after year, after facing so much pain and loss, confusion and trauma from the act of regulation from people who just don’t seem to get it.
While it is limited in its exploration of how much damage censorship has really caused to the local arts scene, when all is said and done, The Death of Singapore Theatre makes a strong case for the human behind the bureaucratic machine to come out and have a proper conversation. This is a sincere request, from artist to officer, human to human, to see things from their perspective, to reach out and work together instead of against each other. In channeling both academia and history, imagination and emotion, The Death of Singapore Theatre represents a hope for the end of an era, and the birth of a future where artists are truly allowed to flourish without fear of being unduly, unfairly silenced.
Photo Credit: Hamaiza Kasban
The Death of Singapore Theatre as Scripted By the Infocomm Media Development Authority of Singapore ran from 1st to 4th September 2022 at 72-13, as part of The Substation’s SeptFest 2022.
SeptFest 2022 runs from 1st to 30th September 2022 across various venues in Singapore. Tickets, lineup and more information available here