Arts Review

Review: Siapa Yang Bawa Melayu Aku Pergi? (Who Took My Malay Away?) by Faizal Abdullah

by Robyn Ong

LONDON – Often, upon entering a new institution, there is a painful but necessary getting-to-know-you process that must be endured. You go around a circle of strangers and, one by one, you all introduce yourself with your name, maybe a fun fact, and — in a city as cosmopolitan as London, at least — where you’re from. When I say Singapore, something that I am asked with surprising frequency is this: do you speak Chinese?

This is an experience I share with Faizal Abdullah, creator and central performer of Siapa Yang Bawa Melayu Aku Pergi? (Who Took My Malay Away?), a one-man lecture-performance I was fortunate enough to catch last weekend at the Network Theatre. There is a crucial difference between us, though: despite the embarrassing deficiency of my old Mandarin grades, I am ethnically Chinese, and so the question is perhaps a little more justified. Abdullah, on the other hand, is Malay, speaks Bahasa Melayu, and wonders, in his performance, if the world sees Singapore as Chinese and he is very much Malay, then what do either of those categories even mean? How can they be reconciled? Throughout his performance, Abdullah repeats, “I am Malay. I am Singaporean. I am not Malaysian.” These declarations only grow in intensity and poignancy as the show goes on.

Through monologue and interspersed academic commentary, differentiated through clever use of a microphone, Abdullah takes us through Singapore’s history, from Sang Nila Utama’s discovery of the Lion City to its colonisation at the hands of the British and its complicated political nuances in the present day. He rails against the slow erosion of the Malay language, and tenderly details both traditional and modern Malay culture and customs, ultimately providing us with an insightful and fascinating exploration of Singaporean Malay identity.

Despite the lecture aspect of the performance, the show never feels dry or preachy. Abdullah’s style is personable and conversational, taking the inherently complex subject matter — racial and national identity, and the tensions and history particular to a tiny Southeast Asian nation — and making it approachable even to those who have not once set foot in our city-state. It helps that the crowd is eager to participate and to learn, enthusiastically repeating the characters of the Jawi alphabet after Abdullah when prompted to. Still, it is his humorous observations and references to peculiarly Singaporean quirks, like the Malay weddings on void decks, the MRT’s efficiency and reliability (especially when juxtaposed against the Tube), and our propensity to eat rice for three meals a day that draw the most giggles and mutters of recognition from the crowd. As a Singaporean in London myself, there is something both disarming and welcoming about having some of your own experiences immortalised and represented onstage, and the quiet sense of community that this engenders between you and any other Singaporeans or Malaysians in the audience is particularly lovely.

Beyond the familiar, though, the performance is a powerful look into what it means to be Malay in Singapore. Anyone outside of those two categories will almost certainly come away from the performance having learnt something new: the romanisation of the Malay language, for example, and its historical relationship with Jawi script were aspects of Singapore’s history that I had never been taught about previously, despite ostensibly having studied our nation’s history at school. That in itself feels like a problem that should be remedied, but all of Abdullah’s analyses are presented with a smile and characteristic warmth. He laughingly acknowledges that his show is merely an introduction to the topics at hand, encouraging his audience to do a little extra reading on Wikipedia once they leave the theatre, and I imagine most of us went home that evening feeling enriched, regardless of our background of place of origin.

In terms of staging, it is impressive how much is achieved with only a stack of papers bearing characters from the Jawi script and a video projector (operated from the box by Abdullah’s wife Khai, a fun fact he reveals right at the beginning of his lecture and which only adds to the community feel of the whole performance). At several points throughout the show, Abdullah scatters the Jawi letters across the stage. The ritual of this is visually mesmerising, but more than that it drives home a larger point about the slow deterioration of language and of heritage. This moment is just one of many subtle but deliberate staging choices that the lecture-performance allows its audience to unravel, and to pick them all apart is an analytical treat.

Midway through the performance is a short speech made entirely in Malay. There is no translation provided to the audience, but the depth of its emotion and conviction are clear. That monologue, to me, is representative of the lecture-performance as a whole. The show, whilst deeply personal and particular to its creator, ultimately demonstrates the power of a declarative statement, and of claiming space for yourself and your identity, with all of its nuances and apparent contradictions.

 Whether in London or Singapore, academia or performance, there is  power in embracing and embodying every part of who you are. All in all, the play seems to be saying this: Faizal Abdullah is Malay and Singaporean, whatever those tenuous categories might mean, and he is not going anywhere. Within his faith, his craft, and any number of labels seemingly dictating his place in the world, Abdullah has forged for himself an identity — and that is not something to be easily forgotten or dismissed.

Photos by: Héctor Manchego

Siapa Yang Bawa Melayu Aku Pergi? (Who Took My Malay Away?) played from 28th January to 5th February 2023 as part of the 2023 Vaults Festival, London. More information available here

0 comments on “Review: Siapa Yang Bawa Melayu Aku Pergi? (Who Took My Malay Away?) by Faizal Abdullah

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: