Beyond the Model

Goh Guat Kian (left) as Mrs Chua with Siti Khalijah (right) as Melly

Goh Guat Kian (left) as Mrs Chua with Siti Khalijah (right) as Melly

A violent rupture occurs in the midst of The Necessary Stage’s latest production, Model Citizens. The fissure is deep, unsightly and irreparable, cutting through the well-manicured landscape and shattering its cultivated harmony. As the audience, we are overwhelmed as the fissure widens and unearths a continual stream of emotional truths hitherto unarticulated.

The landscape in question indubitably refers to the projected image of a cultured, harmonious Singapore society carefully pruned by the hands of our skilled horticulturalists. And in the broadest sense, Model Citizens, written by Haresh Sharma and directed by Alvin Tan, is a play that addresses the paternalistic social planning undertaken by an interventionist state.

Or at least, that is how it appears to me most of the time. In fact, the clutter of socio-cultural issues examined by Model Citizens contains such range that is hard to pin down what the production is about exactly. The discussion spans a bewildering breath, covering issues such as language policy, class disparities, the plight of migrant workers as well as gender roles. In this light, the inclusion of the word, “citizens” in the title of the play actually comes across as misleading and limiting, for the discussion of citizenry and national identity only forms a part of the work. Instead, the operative word is “model”, which invokes the notions of moulds, prototypes and artificial projections of identity. The central issue of discussion is the tyranny of the model, which refers both to the models constructed and officialised by state-led campaigns and government policy as well as those which are disseminated by culture. Through an intimate examination of the lives of three women of different social statuses and ethnolinguistic backgrounds, Model Citizens unearths a terrain of complex emotions that arise from the tensions between individual wants and the promises and expectations of the collective.

The key event that sets the play into action is that stabbing of an MP at a Meet the People Session. But we never see the actual event as the emphasis is upon its ramifications upon the three women who are directly implicated. There is the Chinese-educated wife of the MP, Mrs Chua (Goh Guat Kian) who is more concerned about the media spotlight than her husband’s well-being. She is approached by Melly (Siti Khalijah), the Indonesian maid whose boyfriend, Zul is the man behind the stabbing. The play opens with Melly appealing to Mrs Chua’s compassion to help Zul out of jail. We are then introduced to Melly’s employer, Wendy (Karen Tan), a middle class, English-speaking Peranakan woman. Here’s the bit that comes across as a little incredulous: apparently, Wendy places an unusually liberal amount of trust on Melly. For one, she allows and even encourages Melly to have an active social life and does not stop her from having a boyfriend. In fact, Wendy eventually approaches Mrs Chua to appeal on Melly’s behalf and takes on the burden of finding solutions for Melly’s problems, despite the fact that she herself is on the verge of a nervous breakdown – a consequence of her son’s suicide six months ago.

Karen Tan (left) as Wendy with Melly

Karen Tan (left) as Wendy with Melly

Mrs Chua, Wendy and Melly

The completely distinct backgrounds of the three women provides an interesting premise which allows the disparities in their social upbringings, intellectual convictions and political leanings to be surfaced via the interactions between the three characters, in the process illuminating the issues examined.

The interactions between Mrs Chua, a stalwart of Chinese culture and alumnus of Nantah and Wendy, who belongs to the emerging substrata of the English-speaking Chinese middle class, reveals insights with regard to Singapore’s language policy. As it appears, the state’s interventionist strategies, as seen in the closure of Nantah and the official endorsement of English in the eighties has resulted in a segmentation, not only in terms of the way society is organised but also in the way individuals begin to consider one another in terms of categories perpetuated by such policies.

There is much hilarity during the initial interactions, particularly with Mrs Chua struggling to communicate in half-baked English to the eloquent and bilingual Wendy. Notably, when the former reveals that she was previously a teacher, the latter immediately assumes that she teaches Mandarin. But Wendy is wrong: Mrs Chua taught Science and was particularly exasperated when one day she was told that she had to translate all her lessons into English within three months. With her characteristic quizzical expression, she asks Wendy in Mandarin, “How do I say ‘Force equals mass times acceleration’ in English?” It is the little amusing moments like these which reveal how Mrs Chua and Wendy conceive of their society and world in utterly disparate ways. To Wendy, Mandarin is a subject to be learnt and not a language that facilitates the primal human function of communication.

However, it is later during a vitriolic verbal duel between Mrs Chua and Wendy that we truly see such disparities widen to take the form of dangerous fault lines, when the enlightened, English-speaking humanist in Wendy goes into a head-on confrontation with the narrow-minded, arrogant Chinese conservative who is still oblivious to her imminent displacement in society. The rupture occurs when Wendy realises the futility of enlisting Mrs Chua’s sympathy towards helping Melly and Zul. At that point, Wendy stops conversing in Mandarin to Mrs Chua’s immediate anxiety. She demands, “Why are you speaking in English?”. “Because I can,” is the retort. It unruffles Mrs Chua completely and in retaliation, she begins to brandish her privileged social status as a hollow demonstration of her power. An interesting irony that happens here is that English, the language of the dominant and powerful is wielded here by the socially inferior, which only serves to reinforce Mrs Chua’s insecurity.

It must be said that by herself, Mrs Chua is a terrifically loaded character. And it helps that she is played by the delightful and exuberant Goh, who excels in bringing across the multiple sides of the character, delivering both infectious physical comedy and nuanced emotional portraiture. There is a particularly memorable sequence in which the overwhelmed wife expresses her resentment against how the models of responsible citizenry have been erratically changing over the years according to Singapore’s evolving economic pragmatics.

Mrs Chua: …You wanted me to speak English. You wanted me to stop having anymore children. Two is enough you said. You changed the rules. You forced me to get sterilized. Now you want more children…

It is through Mrs Chua’s character that we truly see the tyranny of the model upon the individual. Beneath her animated, comical gestures is a genuinely tragic character. As the wife of a public figure, she is forced to live in his shadow as the politically correct “Mrs Chua”, playing the role of the supportive spouse and branded by the media as a “Loyal Pillar of Strength”. As the displaced graduate of Nantah in an English-speaking world, her personal aspirations and zeal for Chinese culture are suppressed by her alienation by society. She has been conditioned to accept and support every one of the demonstrative gestures of a state determined to construct and officialise models for all aspects of socially-responsible behaviour, from courtesy, daily speech to procreation. Next to Wendy, she appears an uncritical, empty vessel, completely incompetent of relating to Wendy’s more “enlightened” ways of doing things. In the same light, her understanding of the world is crudely segmented and reliant on base stereotypes. She is covertly racist and xenophobic, ever wary of foreign workers and “maids working in Geylang to earn more money”.

But Mrs Chua’s newfound autonomy in her husband’s absence awakens her resistance. She approves grant applications in his absence and pens a parliamentary speech for him, despite the fact that he has never given one. The speech ludicrously pushes to make Chinese compulsory for all Singaporeans, in a cheeky reference to the social reality that the nascent dominance of China is reversing the language policy to the benefit of individuals like Mrs Chua.

While Goh’s character has the most presence throughout the play, it is Siti Khalijah who delivers the most demanding role. What impresses me most is the way she is able to breathe such humanity into an underwritten and arguably detestable character. Melly is essentially the nightmare of the employer too liberal with her trust. While before Wendy, she is diligent, responsible and good-natured, behind her back, she is a morally repugnant sex worker who deceives her employer and boyfriend and administers her own abortion.

But through a heartbreaking and biting performance, Khalijah manages to present Melly as a confused victim who doesn’t really know what she wants or where she is headed to. At some points, she appears to be the typical migrant worker who is hoodwinked by the lure of a Singapore citizenship. But Zul was only ever a cleaner, and now he is a criminal. Why is she still pleading to marry a man who can never give her a future? Did her emotions get the better of her? But perhaps Melly is neither an impulsive emotionalist nor a vile, conniving schemer. Like Mrs Chua, she is a vessel to be filled and emptied by the promises and expectations of her immediate environment. Most poignantly, she is deluded by her circumstances to believe that she is capable of dealing with situations beyond her maturity and age. She attempts her own abortion with lackadaisical nonchalence as if it is a non-event. But when the pain comes, she is completely ripped apart.

Siti Khalijah gives the most heartbreaking performance as Melly.

Siti Khalijah gives the most heartbreaking performance as Melly.

Themes, or the Lack Thereof

My enthusiasm with the play is largely because the play resonates on a gut level, with credit going to powerful dialogue intensively delivered through absorbing performances. After all, it is my personal belief that the inherent power of theatre lies in its immediate affect, which makes it more forgivable if the arguments delivered lack the coherence and consistency of those in an argumentative essay. But if one were to laboriously dissect the play in terms of narrative and thematic presentation, the loopholes and inconsistencies appear too glaring to ignore. While on a visceral level, everything does seem to flow quite seamlessly, in reality, none of the characters actually influences each other in any explicit manner. The final decisions made by the characters at the end of the play, arguably result more from introspection than interaction – nor is the trajectory of their mental processes always detailed clearly. Melly and Mrs Chua eventually make the decision to leave Singapore to reclaim their own sense of identity, but the internal negotiations that lead to their decisions is not illustrated.

Thematically, I’ve tried quite hard to put together an overarching argument that covers the broad spectrum of issues discussed but my efforts have proven futile. The issues are really all over the place, which proves to be rather distracting if you are the kind of audience taken to active analysis and interpretation. The play also tends towards a more general existentialism towards its denouement, which deviates from its initial positioning as a piece of political theatre. But curiously, despite these inconsistencies, the play seems complete, contained and cogent, for even if there is no central thesis put across, there is a clear, collective feeling evoked. Just as how no single fibre runs the length of a piece of rope, Model Citizens is an exquisite piece of theatre that puts together an array of disparate issues and positions that constitute a collective psyche. It mirrors life as it is – unmediated, unstructured and unthematic.

There is however, one particular part of the production which I can’t fit in regardless of how I interpret the play as a whole. Despite the fact that Wendy appears to form the emotional core of the play, the relevance of her personal tragedy to the rest of the play, is at best, remote. While she does have to deal with her own share of tensions surrounding her role as a grieving mother, her tragedy is too much of a personal crisis which appears out of place when juxtaposed against the more societal predicaments of Mrs Chua and Melly. The fact that her deceased son is revealed to harbour anti-establishment dissent does little to connect her grief to socio-political realities of our time. By itself, there is emotional depth and sensitivity, but when stitched up with the rest of the play, it is the odd colour in the tapestry, initially imperceptible but annoyingly obtrusive over time.

As a piece of theatre, Model Citizens has both power and veracity. The sense of tension and resistance pulsates with a seething, palpable rhythm throughout the play. While its positions, issues and ideas are scattered all over the play, it is worth recognising that it has probably never set out to be a theatrical essay in the first place. What unfolds on stage is not a polished articulation of developed arguments, but a clarification and negotiation of the vague thoughts and emotions that lie latent within us. As these thoughts and emotions begin to resettle after the play, we relook at them with a greater sensitivity and purpose. And that, to me, is what theatre is all about.

Model Citizens played at The Necessary Stage Black Box from 3 to 14 March 2010. An edited version of this essay was first published on The Flying Inkpot.

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