It Won't Be Long: The Lesson

Ng Yi-Sheng

September 10, 2015


This was a pretty weird show for me.

This was partly because I'd volunteered to be a participant on stage, not an ordinary "observer" in the audience.

Also partly because I was speaking Mandarin, a language I'm pretty awful at.

Also partly because half the folks from the organising team turned up to jeer at my Mandarin - even the folks who don't speak Mandarin were jeering! (sob) Noorlinah, how could you be so mean!

And also partly because it's a weird setup to begin with. This isn't your standard forum or playback theatre: there isn't a single trained actor involved (OK, so there were some, but they were either facilitating or they were there incognito and as confused as everyone else).

The premise is that we're in a fictional Singaporean neighbourhood where a new MRT station is gonna be built. A committee of 14 residents (only eleven turned up today, alas) - has to decide where the station will be. 


The catch is that it'll take the spot of a notable local landmark, either:

1) an old cinema built in 1927, once the site for screenings of Malay and Chinese films, now screening films from India for foreign workers who gather there on weekends;

2) an old wet market where 39 hawkers and food sellers ply their trade;

3) a columbarium that was set up in 1870 (lotsa heritage here);

4) a halfway house that helps 29 ex-drug offenders and their family members;

5) a block of low-income rental flats for 80 families;

6) a marsh that's chock-full of biodiversity, and

7) a hospice with 30 beds.

Li Xie and Kok Heng Leun explained all this to the gathered audience (I had printed notes that I received a month ago). And once everyone understood where they stood, we - the 11 residents - held a vote on which site we'd be willing to sacrifice.

Interestingly, it immediately came down to either the (1) the cinema with 7 votes or (4) the halfway house with three votes. Can't remember where that last vote went. I know our vote's supposed to be secret, but I'll tell you I chose the halfway house. And I was grinding my teeth at how my racist-ass compadres had voted to throw out the poor migrant workers.

For our edification, DramaBox had invited a panel of "experts" to give us advice: translator/publisher Tan Dan Feng, funeral director Ang Ziqian and social worker Yeap Kar Wai. They were seated regally in the cinema seats.

But as much as I love Dan Feng and all the work he's done on the Select Centre, and as much as I appreciated how he seemed to be making a stand for culture as a way to bring peoples together, I just could not tahan the long speech he gave at the show about postmodern theory - all this Louis Mumford lah, Ai Weiwei lah. Folks were bored to death. 

Hello, you think just because we bring Kumar to the heartlands, you can now bring in your post-structuralists?

(In Dan Feng's defence: he was told to talk about "culture" and "space", so he prepped a speech beforehand and now realises he was not playing to his audience. Tonight's show will probably go better.)

Ang Ziqian and Yeap Kar Wai were much more digestible - he talked about how glad he was that we didn't go after the columbarium (despite all the pantang and the feng shui of having one near our homes); she talked about the importance of halway houses in restoring communities, and also how maybe the cinema could be used on weekdays as a gathering space for older folks who have fond memories of visits there...

And as I listened, I began to change my mind. Yes, we had to keep the halfway house. But the idea of treating a commercial cinema as a community centre was so ludicrous that I decided we'd be well rid of it. (I hadn't even thought about how no-one goes there on weekdays.)

Now the audience got to join in. Kok Heng Leun asked everyone sitting down in the Goli to gather at the site they most wanted to protect. Surprisingly, huge numbers of people gathered at the marshes - the wasteland that'd probably get mowed down straight away in real life.

Not a lot of people were sticking by the cinema. Eugene was! I thanked him.

Eugene: All I want to say is, cinema here got fan.

A mike went around, and folks got to defend their decisions.

Young Woman: Humans have choices, but animals don't!

Noorlinah: We should get rid of the marsh! You save animals; you don't save humans!

One woman identified herself as a foreigner (Malaysian Chinese I think), and explained that what she loves about Singapore are the trees, and sure, if you cut a few down, you might think you won't miss 'em, but one day you'll look around you and realise you're stuck in a concrete jungle, where the only place you can breathe is indoors, with the air-conditioning on...

And then another audience member, an older person, who rationalised that heritage is important, but most things have to go someday.

Audience Member: 不管有多么历史,还有结束。

That means that however much history something has, it too must have its ending.

Then it came time to get down to business. The eleven of us residents had to reach a consensus - not a mere majority! - about where we wanted to put the MRT station. We turned our chairs inwards and got voting. By now I'd actually acquiesced - let's give up the cinema! - since folks were acknowledging that it wasn't commercially viable to keep it open, and that while we don't want to be mean to foreign workers, there are better ways we can encourage integration, and hey, this is a centre for leisure, and we can give that up before we give up essential services...

But three members of the panel were stubborn. An old couple insisted that it'd make more sense to give up the halfway house; one young woman (who made me feel much less self-conscious about my Chinese by switching over to English) was steadfast against the very principle of demolishing anything that catered to foreign workers, and we argued and argued into our microphones while the audience probably yawned behind us, and Li Xie circled around, pointing at the clock, saying that if we didn't come to an agreement then the issue would be taken out of our hands and given to (jeng-jeng-jeng!) the relevant authorities...

And in the last seconds of our show we came to a compromise: we'd let the wet market go instead. It was old, but not as old as the cinema. Hawker families probably wouldn't want to pass on their business to the next generation. And there would be Sheng Siongs and Fairprices to patronise instead.

But the show wasn't over just yet. Li Xie announced that the audience had to agree with us, so she got the audience to vote for which landmark to destroy... good practice for Polling Day round the corner, she said...

And in the end, because the cinema won out with 30 votes over the wet market with 24, she told us that the decision would be handed over to the relevant authorities.

And this made everyone mad! I didn't realise it'd have this effect - it was just a play, after all - but the audience wouldn't let us pack up and go home: they kept calling for a recalibration of votes, saying we need to reject this entire disempowering system.

Because the actual decision had stopped mattering. It was the voice that mattered: the fact that for once, we had had a direct say in how our land was managed, and because of the rules someone had laid down, that right was taken away from us all over again.

So yeah, this was an interesting and complex show - rather more than I anticipated, really. I wonder how differently it played out in English (i.e. last night and tonight). Was there more contention or less? I expect there were loads of jokes about cooling-off day, and lots more talk about cultural diversity from non-Chinese participants.

But yeah, as DramaBox said, this was practice for Polling Day. Now that we've got something that feels like democracy, what do we do with it? Can we truly make this Post-Empires Singapore our own?

Or will we - pursuant to Pursuant to Section 49, Sub-section 7e, Paragraph A - just hand our homeland back to the relevant authorities?

That's not just a question for today, you know. We make decisions every day that influence how we govern ourselves, or how we're governed. Whether we speak out. Whether we obey the rules set down for us. Whether we set a dialogue in motion.

And whether we decide, enough with the politics already. I'm going to bed.

  • 2015