By Cheryl Tan
“(Interpretation) is the revenge of the intellect upon the world. To interpret is to impoverish, to deplete the world – in order to set up a shadow world of ‘meanings.’ It is to turn the world into this world. (‘This world’! As if there were any other.)
The world, our world, is depleted, impoverished enough. Away with all duplicates of it, until we again experience more immediately what we have. ”
― Susan Sontag, Against Interpretation and Other Essays
And as such, Teater Ekamatra’s Tiger of Malaya is a strong interrogation about interpreting an interpretation. It is, put simply, a play within a play about a screenplay of propaganda at play. And yes, it is indeed this writer’s intention to trigger a word association to a popular movie known for its multiple layers of (un)reality – although the title word is but a product of interpretation and semantic change that now commonly describes anything meta-narrative, as opposed to its codified meaning.
As meanings and associations change in pop-culture, so do they in the histories we record and tell – and often with heavier consequences. With the play’s narrative being part-film, part-interrogation, where the media may have propagated a version of history and manufactured consent in 1943 through this Japanese-made film of the same title, Teater Ekamatra’s Tiger of Malaya manufactures contexts in which to view our many versions of history.
We speak to playwright Alfian Sa’at about his very thorough research process and his views on history and historiography.
What were the beginning stages of working on Tiger of Malaya like – any research processes?
I’ve been doing a lot of reading, from the canonical like ‘The Japanese Occupation of Malaya: A Social and Economic History’ Paul Kratoska and ‘The Syonan Years: Singapore Under Japanese Rule 1942-1945’ by Lee Geok Boi. And I’ve gone on my own research trips to places like the Yasukuni shrine and the Yushukan Museum (a right-wing military museum) and also peace museums in Okinawa. But maybe one of the most illuminating works is by scholar Hiro Saito, called ‘The History Problem: The Politics of War Commemoration in East Asia’.
This production deals directly with attitudes to and myths about our historical national narrative. Today we have conversations about fake news and a committee that attempts to deal with that. What, in your personal opinions, is the value of this production of Tiger of Malaya what does/can it contributes to the existing attitudes to our pasts?
I’ve always wanted to do a play that looks at historiography – at the way we write history, and how that history is used to serve particular agendas. The history that we read about in school textbooks, for example, tend to be one of the earliest forms of history that we encounter. But it’s not clear to us, until very much later, that this kind of history is a ‘nation-building’ history, an exercise in national indoctrination.
So the history of the Japanese Occupation, for example, is presented primarily as a national security lesson—how important it is for us to have our own army or self-defense force. But we don’t see other narratives that are avowedly anti-war in nature, that speak more of a cosmopolitan rather than a narrowly nationalist ethos, in which international diplomacy within a rule-based global multilateral framework, and adherence to some universal norms, might help us to avoid war.
I hope that Tiger of Malaya can provoke some discussions on not just official versus unofficial histories, but the contexts in which the production of those histories take place. Can we really argue history within an asymmetrical setting where one side gets to ask all the questions? Can a credible history emerge from a cross-examination? And what else are we constructing when we try to reconstruct the past?
If all world’s a stage and the men and women merely players, then Tiger of Malaya is a meta-theatrical treat in which its characters – semiotic representations of gender, race, and constructs of their socio-political background – then enter this stage to question the parts of those who have long exit before them. Actors play multiple roles within roles, guided by a critical, humourous, yet self-aware script that plays each character to the strengths of its actor. Commentaries of theatre in racial contexts are constructed amongst the cast of Malay, Chinese, or Japanese theatre practitioners – backgrounds that Farez Najid, Rei Poh, Siti Khalijah, Rei Kitagawa, and Yuya Tanaka have been previously known for.
In doing so, they question the accuracy and roles of multiple historical narratives, as well as the methods we have explicitly or implicitly used to define our pasts.
Then again, this writer undeniably writes in declaratives now, and this review is but an interpretation. But because she found this show refreshing and thoroughly scintillating, for all inherently biased intents and purposes you are now urged to catch Tiger of Malaya to enjoy constructing and feeding your friends your own biased first-hand accounts, which, like a game of Broken Telephone, will never be the same account constructed twice.
Tiger of Malaya
Date: 12th – 23rd September 2018
Venue: Drama Centre Black Box
Time: Tuesday – Sunday, 8pm / Saturday & Sunday, 3pm
Admission: $40 (Concessions available. Get your tickets here.)
Photography credits: Monospectrum Photography