On Interracial relationships, topsy turvy worlds, and the Nenek Keropok—The Launch of Collected Plays Three by Alfian Sa’at
By Izza Haziqah
On 13 July 2019, Collected Plays Three, which brings together four of Alfian Sa’at’s award-winning plays on Malay identity and racial relations, was launched. Here are the highlights from the launch conversation with Nabilah Said on political systems, cultural nuances, and translation (including an unrecorded bonus section at the end!).
Listen to the excerpts from the launch:
Nabilah: The first two plays were actually published in 2010 and for me personally it's very exciting because that's when I first started in theatre and that time, Alfian was already kind of like a household name in Malay theatre and Singaporean theatre. There were books that were already out, and I was told, “you must get Alfian’s books!” There were two [collections of] plays, both published in the same year. It’s been almost ten years now that Collected Plays Three is out by Ethos Books. Can you tell us what’s happened in that ten years and how do you feel about having this book out?
Alfian: For the past ten years, of course what happened was I was writing the plays that were eventually gonna go into this book. After I had written Nadirah in 2009, people did ask, “Are you gonna publish it?” But I was just waiting until I felt I had a body of work that I could put in a collection. So I waited until maybe the play GRC, which was in 2016, which is the last play in the collection. I felt, four plays, enough for a book.
In the collection, we start with Nadirah in 2009. Nadirah started out as a tribute, actually, to Yasmin Ahmad. She's a Malaysian filmmaker. She passed away very suddenly in 2009. As a way of working through that grief, I thought I'm gonna look at her filmography and I will write a play response to each of them. One of the films (sic) is this film (sic) called Muallaf, which means 'the convert' in Malay, and the play that came out from that is called Nadirah. So Muallaf was 2008, Nadirah was 2009.
The play is about interracial and interreligious relationship. The mother, who is a Muslim convert – the convert idea – she falls in love with a Christian man. She wants to get married to him and we see how it affects the family. It's very cute to write older people flirting, like [they would say] “you eat lah”! [Usually it’s done] with food.
The next play, which I did in Ekamatra in 2011, is Parah. It's based on Yasmin Ahmad's film called Talentime. Parah looks at four school children in Malaysia, and I used their names [from Talentime] in the play itself, but my story is completely different. So the names are Hafiz, Mahesh, Kahoe, as well as Melur, from Yasmin's film.
This is Kakak Kau Punya Laki, which means ‘Your Sister's Husband’, or ‘The Husband of Your Sister in English’. But it doesn't capture that sound, "Kakak Kau Punya Laki ah", that's something that some Malay people would use to scold one another. Embedded in it is this sort of rhyme -- there's something obscene, actually, that you can use it for, but this is sort of the more censored version. The original would be Mak Kau -- Your Mother's -- Punya... And a bad word. It also rhymes with "Laki", so figure it out.
I really wanted to work with this actor called Najib Soiman. He looked very scary, because he’s a man with really broad shoulders. The tudung was so scary. Like part-rugby player, part-makcik kind of a character. He was playing a very odd sister in a family of five sisters. And the other sisters were basically bullying her because she’s very old-fashioned, et cetera. Her name was Maslindah Selamat. So one inspiration that I had for this play — one image that came to me was when Mas Selamat, you know, the suspected terrorist. When he escaped from prison, it was said that he put on a makcik’s baju kurung to escape detection as a disguise. So, not to say that he appeared in my dreams, but I just had this image of him, and that became the seed for this play. It’s a way of looking at this person who’s a black sheep, the outcast in the family. There was a letter that came in to the Straits Times that said “oh, how can I compare a terrorist with an eccentric makcik”, so… [it’s] this miss.
This is the final play in the collection, it's called GRC. In Singapore, GRC is Group Representation Constituencies, in my play it's stands for Geng Rebut Cabinet, which means a gang that tries to seize cabinet positions. In Singapore, a GRC will have one or two minority members, and that's either Malay or Indian. In my play, it's topsy turvy. In the GRC in Singapore, everyone is Malay and there's one Chinese candidate.
Nabilah: it's the whole of Singapore that was imagined to be majority Malay, right?
Alfian: Yeah, so I had people who [was] like, "isn't that Malaysia?" and I was like, no, because Malaysia does not have a GRC system. [GRC] looks at this whole idea of "what if you turn it upside down?" What if the Chinese in this make-believe world was THE "problem minority"? And then instead of talking about "oh, Malays eat nasi lemak and they get sick whatever", it became about "oh, Chinese like to eat salted fish and preserved vegetables and so they have a higher risk of nasopharyngeal cancer”. It is a statistical "truth", but it's so ridiculous to racialise diseases.
[The Chinese] were also a problem minority because of gambling. So gambling is seen as a “Chinese problem”. There's no such thing as a National Council on problem gambling, instead it's a self-help group that deals with gambling. It's the same way how, sometimes things like drugs or divorce is pathologized as a "Malay problem". A lot of these were just reversed in the play. It was really fun writing this play and imagining what goes on when people do their election castings.
Nabilah: Speaking of other languages, in this particular book, all the plays are translated into English, so that a bigger audience are able to read it – an English-reading and English-speaking audience. But that being said, when you guys pick up your copy, and read through the plays, you'll realise that not everything is in English. There's still a lot of elements that I feel, I could really sense that -- and Alfian translated the plays himself -- I could really felt that Alfian was really considerate in what to translate into English and what he kinda kept as Malay. And [the book] also comes with a short -- very very short -- glossary at the end to kind of explain some of the things that required a bit more explanation. So, for yourself, what went through your mind as you were translating? Like, what were your considerations and was it actually difficult? You were talking about "the Malay person", the "Malay identity", and some of these things are really hard to translate, even to your friends sometimes. You're just like, "Ya lah, it's 'cause I'm Malay" or whatever. So how did you do that [dealing with difficulty] when you were translating it?
Alfian: Yeah, I do think that [in] translating plays, there's definitely a certain kind of challenge. So people think if you translate let's say informal language, like poetry, that's difficult but playwriting is [also] difficult because of the socio-linguistic registers that were involved. If people speak in a very colloquial way, for example let's say Malay got certain registers, right? So there's a formal, there's colloquial – how do I actually find that kind of equivalent in English? And I think we've experimented with a lot of things. So in the beginning there was like, okay, if they speak very colloquial, let's try Singlish. But then it doesn't quite really hit the mark sometimes, so I had to look for a register which is informal Singapore English, which isn't necessarily Singlish as well. And Singlish is also very tricky, because it has not been codified, so there's no proper transcription of Singlish. So I know some people will write "lah" as "la", some people will write it as "lah". And even that "lah" has got many different sounds, depending on the context. So I think in terms of the notation, for Singlish, usually it’s so much better to listen to it. I feel that Singlish is an aural language, at this point, because it hasn’t really been turned into a proper written form.
I think it was okay. With Teater Ekamatra, we have been doing a lot of surtitles from the very beginning, in an attempt to widen the audience and reach out to non-Malay audiences. So I often would work off what was the surtitle, something that was already the first draft of the translation, which I would refine through the book.
Nabilah: Because there were four plays, right? I can’t imagine that translating them would’ve been the same all throughout. For example, with Your Sister’s Husband, it doesn’t sound right to even say Your Sister’s Husband, like it’s more fun to say “Kakak Kau Punya Laki”. In terms of Maslindah Selamat, she’s very old-fashioned, so there were a lot of things that you were translating that would be foreign to even myself. […] So how did you translate cultural nuance?
Alfian: So I think those were very hard. This idea of the Maslindah Selamat character as the Malay fundamentalist. We were exploring the idea of that old-fashioned Malay character who’s kinda like superstitious — she believes in things like the nenek keropok, for example. It’s a weird urban legend about this old woman who sells keropok, which is fish crackers, but actually she’s some kind of a hantu — a ghost — so if she knocks on your door, trying to sell to you, don’t open. And that was so weird, because it was even circulating in Singapore Malay radio. I find it really fascinating that we live in such an urban environment, and these things still exist. I feel it’s kind of a paradox to call them ‘urban legends’ because these things are from pre-urban [times].
The play also looks at what do you need to be in this ‘Malay modernity’, what do you sort of give up? Also what do you disavow or denounce in that process? Her sister is gonna have twins, and she says, “can I name them?” and the names that she comes up for them are ‘Awang’ and ‘Pungut’, and they’re really “kampong” names. No one is gonna give their children these names nowadays. Nowadays, Malays got double-barrelled names, right? One of them sounds vaguely English, so ‘Danial Fendi’. Something like that. So there was that whole question of what does it mean to be modern? And what does it mean to be the black sheep in the family?
Nabilah: I remember watching it, and when I reread the play in the book, I was like “oh my god, the sisters are so mean to Maslindah! Like, yeah, she’s old-fashioned, but why are they so mean?!” But actually when I watched it, because I think in Malay it was slightly more nuanced, you didn’t feel like they were very mean to her. You were like ok lah modern versus old-fashioned. But somehow in the English one they come off as really mean, Mean Girls, like ganging up against poor Maslindah Selamat, who just wants to eat her ulam.
Alfian: Frankly English is more bitchy lah, in Malay, the bitchiness is more layered. You don’t know what hit you until you start bruising.
Nabilah: When I first asked you, “was it hard to translate?” And Alfian was like, “No lah, we’re Malays in Singapore, we’re very used to translating a lot of the things that we say.” I guess as playwrights also, we’re always creating the surtitles, ‘cause we wanna be sure that we are understood, and the plays are understood. So it was quite interesting to talk about translation, even though it’s embodied within us as Singaporeans to translate.
Alfian: I think this is definitely daily practice as a kind of resource I feel that a lot of us have, because of the bilingual education system, right? I mean not just Malay, but whatever mother tongue language. The ability to just code switch from one language to another, we have a resource that I feel we should be able to use more. I think regionally, I’ve seen for example, certain works that have been translated and they also have surtitles and you can tell that actually in Singapore, it’s very second nature to us, whereas for some people, they take it as third language, et cetera, so not so [much].
Nabilah: The idea of punching up; you often point out truths of politics, government, society, or religious norms. So for you, and in particular with this book of Malay plays, what freedoms come with writing your Malay plays and the Malay language that get explored a lot more, compared to your English plays?
Alfian: I think when I write plays there’s usually kind of consciousness of that audience. The idea that I’m gonna enter into some kind of conversation, some kind of dialogue, with the audience. I’m very aware if there’s a predominantly Malay audience, there’s a certain kind of cultural consciousness. So just now I had to explain nenek keropok, because there are people who do not know. If it’s just a Malay audience, that’s automatic. There’s a lot of short cuts, and some Malay short cuts hit things and people quite viscerally, because there is shared cultural consciousness. I find that’s a kind of freedom for Malay audiences. I suppose your next question would be what are the limitations as well?
Obviously, to me I feel it’s a different audience than a English-speaking audience, in terms of, the kinds of moral policing, gender policing, cultural policing. I have to be conscious about it, but at the same time also not self-censor. So questions sometimes people ask me is like, “You’ve been quite bold in a lot of English plays, would you be as bold in a Malay play?” That’s a tricky question because this idea of “boldness”, or that threshold [for it], I think is really a negotiation with who is the receiving audience. So for some people, their threshold for boldness might be a bit different. An example would be, would I write a Malay play where I have two actors of the same gender full-on French kissing in front of the audience? My answer to that would be no. Because, sure, it’s a shocking image, but I’m very conscious [of the fact that] theatre is also a collaborative act. Meaning that, I’ve to be very conscious about what kind of position am I putting my actors, and are we able to carry or share that risk? Because then the actors are really at the frontline of that risk for doing something like that in front of the audience. So I would be quite careful about those things. But, if I were to write a short story, by myself, and then there’s a scene where two Malay guys or Malay women are just kissing, I think I could, because it doesn’t involve other bodies and other people. Because of the collaborative nature [of theatre], it’s not just the actors, it’s the theatre company, and the way these things can be so easily sensationalised.
If you are intrigued and would love to know more from Alfian on his book, you'll be able to catch him at his book-signing event held at Huggs-Epigram Coffeeshop Bookshop on Friday, 2 August.
--- ABOUT ALFIAN SA'AT
Alfian Sa’at is a Resident Playwright with W!LD RICE. His published works include poetry collections: One Fierce Hour, A History of Amnesia, and The Invisible Manuscript; a collection of short stories, Corridor; a collection of flash fiction, Malay Sketches; two collections of plays; as well as the play Cooling Oﬀ Day. Alfian has been nominated eight times for Best Script at the Life! Theatre Awards, winning in 2005 for Landmarks, in 2010 for Nadirah, and in 2013 for Kakak Kau Punya Laki (Your Sister’s Husband). In 2011, Alfian was awarded the Boh-Cameronian Award in Malaysia for Best Book and Lyrics for the musical The Secret Life of Nora. In 2013, he won the Boh-Cameronian Award for Best Original Script for the play Parah. In 2001, Alfian won the Golden Point Award for Poetry as well as the National Arts Council Young Artist Award for Literature. He has also been nominated for the Kirayama Asia-Pacific Book Prize and the Singapore Literature Prize for A History of Amnesia. His short fiction collection Malay Sketches was longlisted for the Frank O’Connor Prize in 2013. His plays and short stories have been translated into German, Swedish, Danish and Japanese and have been read and performed in Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Brisbane, Melbourne, London, Zürich, Hamburg, Munich, Berlin, Copenhagen and Stockholm.
--- ABOUT NABILAH SAID
Nabilah Said is a Singaporean playwright, editor and poet. As a former arts correspondent for The Straits Times, Nabilah covered the theatre, dance and lifestyle beats, and helped organise the Life! Theatre Awards from 2015-2017. She also has six years’ experience as a communications professional in the government and arts sector. She enjoys arts writing and criticism, particularly those that experiment with style and creative form. Her plays have been presented in Singapore and London by Teater Ekamatra, The Necessary Stage and Bhumi Collective. She is the co-founder of international theatre collective Lazy Native, which champions Southeast Asian voices and narratives. In 2016 she founded Main Tulis Group, Singapore’s first collective of playwrights writing in Malay and English. Nabilah holds an MA in Writing for Performance from Goldsmiths, University of London.