Wild Rice’s Merdeka: Singapore’s History Through Asian Accounts

Merdeka is a word in the Indonesian and Malay language meaning independent or free. It is derived from the Sanskrit maharddhika (महर्द्धिक) meaning “rich, prosperous and powerful”. In the Malay archipelago, this term had acquired the meaning of a freed slave. — Dictionary.com

2019 is finally coming to an end, and personally, I cannot wait for this Singapore Bicentennial year to be over. The Singapore Bicentennial is a commemoration of our 700 years of history now been written by the age groups of gen x, even the years before the British made their way here and decided to take everything for themselves — people, culture, life.

When I initially heard about this, I had hope that finally our historical narrative will put colonisation into perspective and recognise the hurt that has come from all that (egoistical and blind nationalistic) violence.

However, most of the events that took place in the name of this commemoration have been surrounding Sir Stamford Raffles, mostly positives about what he did with a severe lack in negatives to balance out what actually took place.

The angle to these events usually come from a Western standpoint — how they viewed the war, their intentions. How their invasion and, I will say, bullying got us to where we are today. It is almost as if we should be grateful.

But has it never crossed our minds that we built up this nation from where they left off simply because we had no choice, for survival and to make something good out of all the bad we lived through?

Do we have little faith in ourselves that we will never find ourselves in this place if colonisation never happened? Why are we so ready to acknowledge the ‘greatness’ colonisation brought us and yet stay silent about the price we paid through deaths and traumas?

Merdeka 2

So I am glad that Merdeka / 獨立 /சுதந்திரம், directed by Glen Goei and Jo Kukathas, is being presented as WILD RICE‘s Grand Opening Season. Written by Alfian Sa’at and Neo Hai Bin, it is a necessary confrontation with our colonial hangover.

The audience learns about our history from the Asian points of views we do not necessary know of from history textbooks through a group called Raffles Must Fall formed by six young people. They gather to share their findings through texts, artefacts, speeches and re-enact scenes from the past.

The cast consists of Brendon Fernandez, Chong Woon Yong, Ghafir Akbar, Rebekah Sangeetha Dorai, Umi Kalthum Ismail and Zee Wong in this two hour production. Having to work with props, levels, different languages and multiple costumes is no easy feat, so kudos to them for doing their utmost best to deliver one scene after another.
Although I question the choice of accents and certain directions seemed clumsy at best, there is still a sense of clarity with each scene staged and each story told out of all the confusion — when is the fourth wall broken, why does it swing between acknowledging the audience and then pretending we are not there?
I particularly enjoy the songs sung in a variety of languages that reflect our multiculturalism and they punctuate the scenes well, letting the energy on stage settle and feel less haphazard and busy.
The presence and soulful voice of Rebekah, accompanied by the rest of the cast members, held the space well in The Loss of Singapore. Gazing out at the world, while we observe and empathise with her heartbreak.
The rest of the designs such as set by Wong Chee Wai, lights by James Tan and sound by Paul Searles are minimal and offers space for the acting as well as script to take centrestage.
Costumes designed by Leonard Augustine Choo and multimedia by Brian Gothong Tan accompany the action for quick references to the characters and scene at play, which proved useful at the rapid-fire speed information is being given to the audience.
But besides the acting and all the design aspects of Merdeka, the script is still the star of this entire production. The effort put into crafting this written piece of work is a public service, and an education we all need as citizens to truly call this island country our home.
If you are seeking Asian histories but have no idea where to start, the amazing playwrights have distilled research and books into this good theatrical SparkNotes for you.
This production’s relevance is irrefutable and the perspectives shared an important counterpoint to all the curated history textbooks out there. Watch the production, so the next time you hear ‘Merdeka!’ being said with firmness and determination, you can believe it and know what exactly that word means for all of us in Singapore.

Merdeka / 獨立 /சுதந்திரம்   

Date: 10th October – 2nd November 2019
Venue: The Ngee Ann Kongsi Theatre @ WILD RICE, Funan Level 4, 107 North Bridge Singapore 179105
Time: Tuesday – Saturday, 7.30pm / Saturday & Sunday, 2.30pm
Admission: From $25 (Concession rates are available. Get your tickets here.)
Rating: Advisory 16 (Some mature content)

Photography credits: Rueyloon from Wild Rice 


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