In Philip K. Dick’s Man in High Castle, we are presented a parallel universe where the Allies lost the war and America is carved up into occupied territories of Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany. From that very promising premise, he tumbles into his drug-laced rambling about the I Ching and mutable truths and realities. Alfian Sa’at however, does it quite differently. Thankfully.
In Alfian Sa’at’s Geng Rebut Cabinet, Singapore’s racial dynamics are inverted with the Chinese now as the minority and the Malays, the majority (I suppose this would be a wet dream of his). And with such a promising premise, Alfian launches (thankfully, I must emphasise) into an emotive and effective satire of politics and the “Chinese privilege” (gosh how much I hate that lazy little term).
Alienation is Alfian’s weapon: I come in completely disorientated by a play that begins in Melayu and I am fed by rather unreliable subtitles while the rest of the audience laughs comfortably to Malay jokes I don’t get. Over and over again, I am unsettled by an unfamiliar yet familiar world where my race, something I care little about, and its accompanying package of language, world view, stereotypes, behaviours and tradition has taken up such self-consciousness.
In a witty and uncannily familiar end, the Chinese minority candidate of the GRC team is punished for violating OB markers in her rally speeches not with expulsion from the party but the crushing coup de grâce of appointment to the seat of Speaker of Parliament. The Speaker of Parliament, as we are all aware of, is handicapped with the inability to table any bills or raise any issues in parliament and when given to a minority MP, it merely reinforces the perception that minorities in parliament are merely tokenistic representation. No surprises that in real life, Halimal Yacob is our Speaker of Parliament.
(I should also mention that one of the actors, Fir Rahman, was the main lead in Boo Junfeng’s Apprentice which was breathlessly good!)
How very alienating when suddenly, your race is depicted as the victims of bullshit like this.
And because the play alienates and disturbs me, the play has succeeded. It has stabbed in my stomach with a stiletto the issue of racial disempowerment and institutional racism, in all its subtlety and nuance, to a Chinese majority that could otherwise feel only faint empathy.
After the play, Joel and I sat in a panel discussion with Alfian, Daniel Goh, Mohamed Imran, Braema Mathi and with moderator Janice Koh (I felt like the police would raid the cafe any moment – oh boy I tend to get that feeling quite very often), where they launch into a long dialogue and left many deep scratches on the surface of this issue that Alfian has been so impassioned about.
I’ve always wanted to watch an Alfian Sa’at play, not just read them. And there we have it, the first Alfian Sa’at play I’ve watched, and I’m already profoundly disturbed.