Another Merdeka is Possible

By Sharaad Kuttan

In his second piece for GRC, Sharaad Kuttan reviews Merdeka, Wild Rice’s latest offering by Alfian Sa’at and Neo Hai Bin. Unpacking the histories of decolonisation in the region alongside the historical vignettes re-enacted and referenced in the play, Sharaad questions the ongoing drive to decolonise, (staged) acts of historical relativism, and what remains of the national narrative.

Merdeka, Wild Rice, 2019. Image courtesy of Rueyloon from Wild Rice.

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At the heart of Wild Rice’s Merdeka, with its politically-pointed themes and wonderfully crisp performances, is the straw man of colonialism and its long-passed hang-over.

After all, in the century of the crazy rich and self-assured Asian, what does it mean to return to the anxieties of the immediate post-colonial period as if we were still afraid to create our own historical narratives, hire ‘white men’ on our terms, speak our own languages or valorise ‘native’ knowledge production systems? Why indeed, if not as a proxy for the anxieties of the present.

If there is a cultural battle today, it is in fact over how the last half century of ‘nationalist’ narratives, policies, and practices have created a sense of division and exclusion.

While the acuteness of the problem of nationalism tied to nativist narratives and policies varies from country to country, and regime to regime (to the extent these countries have had regime change); colonial rule and its cultural expressions nevertheless can only be approached through the nationalist regimes that we live in today.

Wasn’t it the anti-colonial struggle—defined in both political, economic, as well as cultural terms—which raised the flag of ‘decolonisation’ all those decades ago?  And together with that wasn’t a ‘new Man’ proclaimed by a variety of leaders across the region from the 50s to the 70s—led by men and women who suffered the indignities of colonial rule directly.

In The Philippines Ferdinand Marcos overthrew a family-based system of oligarchs; General Ne Win grabbed power from civilian politicians and fashioned the Burma Socialist Programme Party; in Malaysia post-May 13th, the Barisan Nasional sought to re-engineer society with ‘racial justice’ as it mantra; and in Indonesia General Suharto established the New Order purged of communists, to name a few.

These were the new hegemons, successors who sought to distinguish themselves (to varying degrees) from their former colonial masters—in style and in substance. Each reached their limit point: Indonesia 20 years ago, Malaysia more recently; and in each case a new Merdeka, or Independence, was made possible.

It is through this particular, perhaps non-Singaporean, lens that Alfian Sa’at and Neo Hai Bin’s play Merdeka unfolded for me. The debates about celebrating “our own colonisation” (PJ Thum) or colonialism’s beginning “rather than its end” (Glen Goei & Jo Kukathas) and even the decision to deny the presence of English in its title (Ivan Heng) struck me as a curious displacement of the problem of the post-colonial state onto its predecessor.

“The colonial hangover was there in the 1970s,” said a ‘White’ architect who arrived in Singapore five years after independence. He told me that in 1980, when Lee Kuan Yew set out to build this country, that in no uncertain terms, foreigners were guests. “That hangover drained away fast”, and he added, “you could tell Singaporeans had found their ego.”

To use the British cultural historian Raymond Williams’s theory of cultural change: the colonial moment and its assumptions which were once ‘dominant’ had become ‘residual’ and the ‘emergent’ post-colonial dispensation was well on its way to ‘dominance’. So why are Alfian and Hai Bin tilting at the forlorn, long hollowed-out figure of Stamford Raffles (code for the West) who has been all but torn down from his pedestal. I believe they are joined by others including, visual artist Jimmy Ong, whose decapitation and evisceration of Raffles became news on the BBC World Service.

No doubt the bicentennial ‘celebrations’ have been an occasion to ask who gets to write history; the answer is at once both banal (victors) and important.

So why must Raffles fall?

From July to September 2000, the late Lee Wen (and other artists) staged AIM (Artists Investigating Monuments), standing on a scaffolding that elevated him, bringing him from a position of supplication to that of an equal to Raffles. The agenda of AIM was to get artists to “read a monument or heritage site and identify its emotional, cultural use and its significance, and interpret this information through artistic practice”.

In the play, a speech by Former Minister, S. Rajaratnam is read, justifying the use of 1819 and the establishment of Singapore as an ‘emporium’ by Raffles as the national myth. So wasn’t it Rajaratnam and his government who are to blame for justifying the erasure of pre-1819 Singapore history and re-coding ‘Raffles’ with the cultural concerns of the new nation? Was the late Minister wrong to express concerns that a focus on the past would lead to a fracturing along ethnic and cultural lines, seen in so many other post-colonial contexts? Whatever one’s position might be, these are not the concerns of the play which has young Singaporeans discovering their roots.

The play’s conceit of a reading group—which justifies banks of text to be read, for a tool kit of post-colonial theory to be deployed, and researched pieces to be re-enacted—cannot save it from being a very entertaining ‘lecture’ illustrated by a series of enactments that take the audience from the Javanese court, to Singapore at the brink of Self-Government and Independence.

So it was a lecture: That’s not a problem for me in itself; I love lectures. But because Merdeka played itself out as a series of vignettes, each adding to the theme of erasure—forgotten indignities, forgotten moral victories—producing in its wake potential ‘heroes’ and alternatives to state sanctioned pantheon. It could have been the purpose of the play to generate a sense of shared investment in re-thinking history, through each of the characters—ethnic and gender representations well established by the plays own estimation.

The talented ensemble brought to life the book-reading group: Eurasian Francis, Indian Anushka, Chinese Siew, and Malay-Arab Norman. But it was the angry Malay-Javanese Liyana and the well intentioned, if clumsy, Chinese Jared who stole the show for me.

Liyana’s offering to the group is the story of Raffles at a Javanese Court, giving us the poignant spectacle of colonial power and forms of subjugation that colonial rule wrought in its wake. The story, as fascinating as it is, brings us no closer to an understanding of the world as it existed then—of emerging and declining powers. Was it the intention of the play that we sympathise with the Javanese despot (Asian) against the victorious British (European) coloniser because of a solidarity based on a presumed shared identity?

Liyana’s uncompromising, hard-edge contrasts with Norman’s softer, accommodating tone, put her at the heart of the play and its demand that “Raffles Must Fall”, while Jared is cast in the role of bearer of received wisdom for the official nationalist narrative. These are the voices that are in apparent contestation, but as characters they seem more like positions rather than individuals. I left the play with no understanding of the motivations or context of, for instance, Liyana’s anger. Perhaps there are assumptions about contemporary Singapore that the play shares with its local audience that I am excluded from; perhaps not everything can or needs to be stated.

For all its entertainment value (I loved the performances) and in the wonderful setting of the Wild Rice Theatre (my first time), Merdeka seemed to me unable to name the true object of this critique. After all, if Raffles must fall, who will take his place?

Notes on AIM: The group had a clear sense that all monuments are invested and re-invested with meanings: “To erect a monument is to invest in a specific place with meanings and memories. This can happen by investing institutionalised ‘national ideology’ of a country; very often this ‘national ideology’ will benefit those who have the prerogative to exercise power’. (AIM Organizing Committee, March 2000).

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