Warning: contains spoilers
I hope you don’t mind if I address you so informally, even though we’ve never met, much less had a chance to develop a close relationship. But I feel like the things I have to say to you and the questions I want to ask you simply cannot be articulated in the third person, or with any presumption of distance. So as much as the Singaporean is an artificial construct for you, forgive me for addressing you as fellow Singaporean, buddy, brother, and hence, Alfian.
I’ve just seen your play. I thought I’d write a review after the play, so I tried to keep track of the sequence. But I got lost in the fragments. I couldn’t really see a pattern. My head was spinning with the stereotypes and caricatures. Interchangeable people with interchangeable accents and costumes. What, I thought, was so different about this? It could have been the play I co-wrote and acted in when I was 15, one of three Indian girls in an otherwise all-Chinese school, speaking in Mandarin while wearing a sari just to make people laugh.
And then at the end of your play, when I walked out feeling like a fool, I thought I understood. You made fun of so many things, Alfian. You made fun of non-xenophobic xenophobes and the National Focus Group (sorry – Conversation). You made fun of cultural stereotypes and collage-like identity assemblages. I laughed at them all. I recognised them. They had been made fun of before. Memetic. But then, Alfian, you made fun of me. And for a while I was disturbed, confused, angry, and finally, I’m not sure what to think anymore.
I thought the actors were carrying the play. They were certainly a big hit with the audience, bearing their burdens with aplomb. I think my favourite scene was the one with the three Hokkien speakers. Watching them, listening to them, I realised just how many of my experiences growing up had been punctuated with bursts of this language.
But you made fun of them too. Because they were stripped of their own identities and turned into chameleons, not just in the way that actors are as part of their profession, but even within the microcosm of the stage. You turned them into the Everysingaporean. And in so doing, shouted through them that there was really Nosingaporean.
You waved our flag, played our anthem. And when we stood up to sing, played US. While the actors zoned in and out of the anthem, mimicking all the Singaporeans who don’t understand Malay, don’t feel even a banal nationalism, and therefore only come in at the chorus if at all, we felt that we were perhaps not supposed to be singing after all. There was a momentary flash of relief when that huge flag rose up like a screen, blocking out the blank faces of the fumbling singers, and we thought that maybe it was okay – it was going to end on a rousing patriotic note. One that most of us don’t feel, but are at least familiar with. But then you dropped that flag and made us feel naked. What were we supposed to feel? Indignance? What if we didn’t care enough? We had, after all, spent the last two hours laughing and shaking our heads alternately in deep empathy with the sentiments expressed. There was no point at which the state itself was explicitly criticised. But we knew. Oh we knew we were all laughing at it. Didn’t we? So who were we to judge you for dropping the flag?
Were we supposed to feel ashamed? For what? For believing in a nation that was always already broken from the time it was built? When there was no curtain call, the shame ended. I think I just felt sad. No actors on stage once the flag had fallen. After all, no nation means no citizens. Like one of those time travel rules – don’t change anything in the future because then you unravel everything in the past. Nation broken. So no citizens. Only a national conversation that no one responds to and an anthem you wish you hadn’t sung.
You played me, Alfian. And in so doing, reminded me that you were not the only one.
Thank you. I think.