The Malaysian cast for Another Country. Photo by Lyn Ong.
The Malaysian cast for Another Country. Photo: Lyn Ong.

What defines “another country”? Is it a place where the grass is greener? Where people are fundamentally different? Or are they the same as us, only separated by a border and policies drawn by our governments? These questions and more are part of Another Country, a theatre production soon to be performed in both Malaysia and Singapore.

Under Singaporean theatre company W!LD RICE’s year-long imagiNATION season, Another Country coincides with Singapore’s 50th year of independence. It’s a production that celebrates the shared history of Malaysia and Singapore, before and after the separation in 1965. As such, it is also a collaborative effort between actors and directors from both countries as they each seek to explore, understand and finally perform the intricate weave of stories from the texts of each other’s countries.

W!LD RICE’s Resident Playwright, Alfian Sa’at curated the Singaporean texts for the Malaysian cast with Jo Kukathas as co-director. On the Singaporean side, renowned Malaysian playwright Leow Puay Tin curated the texts and Ivan Heng, Artistic Director of W!LD RICE is helming the production. Both sides will eventually perform their interpretation of the texts together for the final show.

It’s a production that celebrates the shared history of Malaysia and Singapore, before and after the separation in 1965.

With a cast of five actors on each side, this production combines some of the best of Malaysia and Singapore’s performing talents. The Malaysian cast will comprise Anne James, Ghafir Akbar, Iedil Putra, Sharifah Amani and Alfred Loh while the Singaporean side has Gani Karim, Lim Yu-Beng, Janice Koh, Sharda Harrison and Siti Khalijah Zainal.

Sharifah Amani and Iedil Putra. Photo: Lyn Ong.
Sharifah Amani and Iedil Putra. Photo: Lyn Ong.

The histories of both our countries are inextricably linked together but how Singaporeans or Malaysians view the separation can be very different.

For the most part, the separation became the defining point in how each country was eventually governed, a shift in demographics and much more. Yet many of the younger generation do not feel the impact of this separation. This is where the role of theatre comes into play.

As Iedil Putra explains, “For the post-Merdeka or post-separation generation, to me it’s a nice way to introduce all these ideas. When you’re talking about the text we’re dealing with, especially those that are from 20, 30 years ago, you would understand the lives of Singaporeans and what they go through. Pretty much they go through a lot of things that we go through.”

It’s never discussed and talked about in schools”

It’s never discussed and talked about in schools,” continues Anne James. “So I think I agree with Iedil that it is important that this piece is seen by younger people and experience that sense of history in a way only theatre can present. History books can be so dry but theatre can present it in a certain, very visual experiential way, that people feel for that story.”

The poster for Another Country.

Through performing these texts, the Malaysian-Singaporean diaspora becomes a bit more distinct and clear to the actors, leading to a new sense of understanding for the other country. For some, the exploration has also generated a deeper awareness of an earlier time when both countries were one.

Actor Ghafir Akbar shares his thoughts: “Getting the text Alfian curated for us, is basically to identify what it is in the text or literature of Singapore that resonates to us Malaysians. I think that’s part one of the exploration. Part two of it would be in presenting it to our respective audiences in Malaysia and Singapore.”

I think what we’re discovering is that ultimately we were at one point the same country, the same people, we share the same history. Because the texts have been curated chronologically, so a lot of the earlier pre-separation texts talk about being Malayan, of being the same people.”

I think what we’re discovering is that ultimately we were at one point the same country, the same people, we share the same history.

There is a sense, when talking to the actors, that they are trying to get to the heart of an identity that transcends borders. For seasoned theatre practitioner Anne James, these texts evoke a deeper sense of nostalgia and emotions. Now, I don’t know if Malaysians feel that schism or separation as profoundly as maybe, the Singaporeans do. But for me, when I do the text, I feel sad to a certain extent. That sense of… these borders are drawn not by the peoples of these countries, but by politicians, by people who are players beyond our control.”

Jo Kukathas. Photo: Lyn Ong.
Jo Kukathas. Photo: Lyn Ong.

During the rehearsal, Jo Kukathas guides her actors through a series of motions that evolve and take shape as they rehearsed to find the best fit for the texts. Starting from the Malay annals up to more recent pieces in 2014, the curated texts comprise of historical texts, plays, poems, pantuns, songs, letters and more. This brings about challenges in adapting certain pieces for stage and makes for an interesting experience to watch it being performed for the first time.

Strangely enough, as we’re working on it, we find things that connect. Especially because as I said, it’s structured chronologically, so there is a narrative,” says Ghafir when commenting on the flow of each piece. “It’s really a response to what was happening during that time. So it’s not a history textbook. They’re just responses by writers, poets, people of that time. Responding to what was going around.”

Ghafir offers up an example. “Like one Singaporean text called Sayang… I was reading up where this text came from and it came from a novel by this guy who was a neurosurgeon. He published this novel towards the end of his life and it was an erotic story. The novel, it was banned because it was so scandalous. But then you find this beautiful piece of text about the word ‘sayang’. I read the first ten pages, it was quite risqué! Talking about you know … having sex with his student.”

Anne James. Photo by Lyn Ong.
Anne James. Photo by Lyn Ong.

Another Country has been occasionally compared to Second Link, an earlier incarnation of this project which received rousing praises when it was performed. However, Jo Kukathas is quick to point out the technicalities of this play are as far as the similarities go. “The new text creates a new direction, and I’m a new director so I’ll create a new direction as well,” she says.

For Jo, directing Another Country brings about a separate set of concerns and roads to cross. “Its challenging cause it’s not like doing one play. You’ve got to know all these different writers and you’ve to do a lot of research on the background of so many different pieces. It’s directing 35 different voices.”

Yet plays about cultural identity – about different voices and where they conflict and connect, have become Jo Kukathas’ forte. In the past few years, she has directed Nadirah and Parah, both plays by Alfian Sa’at which nonetheless felt very Malaysian, speaking to our deep and familiar concerns about race and religion. Last year she staged White Rabbit, Red Rabbit, a play by Iranian playwright Nassim Soleimanpour with a different actor enacting an unseen script every night.

Beyond this performance, Malaysia and Singapore’s theatre scenes have long influenced one another. Despite our neighbourly sense of rivalry, our actors, writers and directors have for a long time now, crossed the causeway – either permanently or for at least the run of a play.

That being said, we rarely see Singaporean theatre practitioners coming here. Is the state of Malaysia’s theatre suffering from a brain drain?

“Over the last few years, there has been a series of grants provided by the Malaysian government which has served as a shot in the arm for the performing arts industry,” says June Tan, one of the producers of Another Country. “However, since then there hasn’t been further announcements on the continuity of these grants, causing many production companies to wonder what is their next step. For us to experience real growth in the industry, we may need to look at the Singaporean model.”

The cast of Another Country during rehearsals. Photo by Lyn Ong.
The cast of Another Country during rehearsals. Photo by Lyn Ong.

June is a current member of Five Arts Centre, a performing arts collective and has stage-managed and produced theatre, dance, talks and site-specific projects since 1998. She understands all too well how lack of funding and red tape could sometimes impede the growth of our Malaysian art industry.

“A good place to start is when Second Link was staged in 2005. Some of the Singaporean practitioners felt that the KL art scene then was thriving. And now, ten years later, Singapore, through consistent grants, has build a working force of full-time performers, art managers, technical personnel, marketing personnel.”

“In addition, Singaporean government programs to build future audiences, starting from schools, has now allowed for a segment of populace that supports the performing arts. The existence of this type of audience allows for the sustainability of production companies. In Malaysia, we unfortunately don’t have a performing arts-going audience that is as robust,” she says.

Undoubtedly, this play creates a huge opportunity for theatre lovers to watch some of the brightest talents from each country sharing a stage. But it also asks us to rethink what defines a country in the first place and in turn, how much difference 50 years have made to where we are now.

Ultimately, this play seeks to build new bridges and erase long-held misconceptions. Jo is hopeful of the outcome. “It has to go beyond the surface of places, people. We can descend into very easy stereotypes of Singapore and Malaysia. But we are very complex, we have many stories.”

To hear each other’s stories… Only when you mingle with somebody, will you know them. Then you can appreciate them. You will not feel aggressive towards them; you will not feel you’re better than them or more powerful. So it’s very important for us to actually want to know what somebody’s story. Because then they become a human being.”

Another Country runs from the 4 – 14 June at DPAC in PJ and at the Drama Centre Theatre in Singapore from 25 June – 11 July.  Find out more here.