Imagine another Singapore: one where our racial quotas are reversed. Malays are the privileged majority, while Chinese are a disenfranchised minority, the underachievers of an otherwise prosperous modern nation.
That’s the premise of GRC (Geng Rebut Cabinet), a bilingual Malay-English play directed by Fared Jainal and written by Alfian Sa’at, first staged last December and revived for the Singapore Theatre Festival.
It centres on five candidates of the ruling Workers’ Action Party as they prepare for the General Elections: a buffoonish Minister, a makcik medical doctor, a high-powered corporate lawyer, an airheaded Brigadier-General, and their minority candidate—a Chinese teacher turned principal named Catherine Seah.
Through their conversations, we gain an overview of all the racial injustices of their country. This is place where advertising features predominantly Malay faces, where employers discriminate by demanding Malay speakers for jobs, where young Chinese girls wish they had brown skin and big eyes, where lion-dancers are banned from playing loud music, where young Chinese kids are excluded from Malay-speaking SAP schools.
And it’s funny. There’s a ripple of laughter in the audience every time we hear a reference to these mirror images of our own racism. I’m willing to bet that some of this is the uncomfortable chuckling of folks who’re realising for the first time how psychologically damaging it is to print racial statistics in the papers and to keep Malays out of sensitive ranks in the military.
(In the world of the play, Chinese soldiers are suspect because of possible links to the Chinese government, which is intent on gobbling up southern islands. Given recent events, it’s not an utterly absurd argument.)
But GRC is far more than a comedy about race. The fact is, it’s also a tragedy about politics.
And I’m not just talking about the discussion of non-racialised political issues in the show—though the gerrymandered fictional GRCs of Chai Chee-Commonwealth and Kembangan-Bukit Gombak are pretty inspired.
No, I’m talking tragedy in a Greek sense, with a tragic hero and an audience moved to tears by heartbreak. The hero in question is Catherine, who decides to go off script at a rally, speaking out about steps the government can take to directly address racial inequality. The story unfolds as she is thereafter manipulated into silence.
This is a tale of great disillusionment. It rubbishes the idea that a person can effect change from within our political system. There’s no vision of solidarity between minorities—one of the candidates turns out to be queer, but rejects the idea of representing the LGBT community, and strategises against Catherine just as viciously as the rest.
Nor does Alfian seem to have much faith in the opposition. The National Democratic Party of the play’s universe uses Catherine’s tactics against her, and the naming of the Workers’ Action Party suggests that he sees the WP as basically equivalent to the PAP on racial issues. As for the masses, they’re blind to the ruling party’s machinations, content with their defender being turned into a powerless figurehead. In a sense, the very premise of the play is a surrender to the PAP: an admission that their tactics would work perfectly, even if Singapore were dominated by Malays.
Some of you may remember Alfian’s landmark play Cooling-Off Day, a work of verbatim theatre based on interviews with Singaporeans after the General Elections. It’s in many ways a precursor to GRC: one of the scenes, “We Have to Ride on Their Shoulders” similarly examines the GRC system from a Malay perspective.
That play was on the whole pretty optimistic about Singapore’s future. After all, it was written in the wake of the 2011 elections, when the PAP vote dropped to a low of 60.1%. Voice after voice pointed out how the country was changing; one even dared to envision the whole eastern half of the island becoming blue and red and orange states, “because the sun rises in the east”.
GRC, in contrast, was written after the 2015 elections, when the PAP won a popular mandate of 70%. And it shows. Though we start off all light-hearted and chuckling, by the end, a cloud of despair has descended upon us.
In my review of Hotel, I said that it reminded us that all empires fall. GRC has another lesson to impart. It says this isn’t happening yet, and it probably won’t happen soon.
In the meantime, we must find other ways to effect change. Educating audiences about institutional racism, perhaps. Making people laugh, and then making them think.
Can that make a difference?
GRC (Geng Rebut Cabinet) runs from Thursday 14 July to Sunday 24 July at the Singapore Airlines Theatre, LASALLE College of the Arts. Bookings may be made via Sistic: http://www.sistic.com.sg/events/stf2016a
It is part of W!ld Rice’s Singapore Theatre Festival. Check out the other events in the Festival here: http://singaporetheatrefestival.com/