Playwright Alfian Sa’at wants to empower young S’poreans to speak out because ‘your voice matters’

He also talks about his upcoming play 'Merdeka' and his take on that Yale-NUS incident.

Fasiha Nazren | October 6, 2019 @ 01:35 pm


You may recognise the name Alfian Sa’at from the following headlines:

Playwright Alfian Sa’at claims he was made a scapegoat over Yale-NUS dissent module cancellation

Yale-NUS cancels programme on dissent in S’pore, S’poreans including Tan Chuan-Jin chimes in

Playwright Alfian Sa’at explains quite perfectly the complexity of the tudung/hijab issue in S’pore

But as some of you may know, he is more than “just another keyboard warrior”.

Playwright and poet first

Alfian is also known for his work as a poet and playwright in Singapore.

Photo by Rachel Ng

Over the past 20 years, he has worked on more than 30 English and Malay plays including his latest work, “Merdeka”.

We expected him to be a boisterous and outgoing person based on his heated Facebook posts and his “enfant terrible” status on his Wikipedia page (which was not written by him — we checked).

But boy, were we wrong.

When we caught up with him after a rehearsal at W!LD RICE’s new theatre at Funan Mall, he was almost the embodiment of grace.

Despite being tired from hours of rehearsals, the soft-spoken 42-year-old maintained his smile as he shared his life and how he came to be the man he is today.

Cried when he visited the library

Ever since he was a child, Alfian has always had a love for reading and writing.

Confessing to having always been a bit of a nerd himself, he shared that he cried when his mother brought him to the library for the very first time.

“I told my mother, ‘How can I finish reading all these books? So many books, too little time!'”

While most secondary school students would loathe the idea of writing a composition or an argumentative essay, Alfian says he truly loved writing.

At 15 years old, he had a fanboy moment when he got to meet local playwright Haresh Sharma as part of his school’s creative arts programme.

To date, Haresh has written more than 100 plays including “Ah Boy and the Beanstalk” and “Gemuk Girls”.

That eventful day made him realise that Haresh was a living, breathing playwright in Singapore — one that Alfian himself could possibly be, who knows, one day.

Overachieving top student moving through RI, RJC, NUS Medicine

He didn’t pursue a career in theatre until much, much later, though.

In fact, he spent a lot of his younger days studying to become a doctor instead.

Alfian enrolled into the National University of Singapore’s Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine in 1996.

However, he describes his decision to go to medical school as always having been “an entirely dishonest choice”.

He admits that he mainly went to medical school because of the “very competitive” system he was used to during his time in, ahem, schools like Raffles Institution and Raffles Junior College.

To prove to the naysayers who thought that someone like him, who hailed from a working-class Malay family, couldn’t attain peak educational achievement, he took on all the “hard combinations” in school.

He was the top Malay-Muslim student in his PSLE year in 1989, and then later, he was also among the top students in his cohort in the 1993 GCE O-Levels.

So it only made sense to him (at that time, at least) to head straight on into a career in medicine.

Dropped out of medical school in last year

But he also is ready to share that he never had any particular inclination toward the sciences.

“I would look around at some of my peers and I could see that these guys are really into it. I’ll be in a lecture and there would be a slide then I could hear audible sighs and murmurs of recognition that a certain kind of knowledge had entered their heads and taken root. But for me? It was just ‘Eh, ok.'”

He eventually figured out that medicine wasn’t something he was going to do with his life when he realised that the oohs and ahs of awe that he would hear during lectures were the same responses triggered in him when he read a great play or poem.

Calling himself a “slow awakener”, he dropped out of medical school on the fifth and final year of his course in 2002.

And perhaps we should all be glad that Alfian ended up not having to serve his six-year bond in a hospital because he thinks he would just be a “so-so” doctor.

While he doesn’t regard the five years he spent in medical school as a complete waste of time, he does of course wish he had pursued his dreams sooner.

With a laugh, he dropped a piece of advice:

“Please, whoever’s reading this, don’t do something because you can. Do it because you want.”

No formal training

Alfian is currently a resident playwright for theatre company W!LD RICE.

Prior to that, he has also freelanced for other theatre companies including The Necessary Stage and Teater Ekamatra.

Over time, he has written various successful Malay and English plays, including “Cook a Pot of Curry”, “Nadirah”, “Kakak Kau Punya Lelaki” and “Cooling Off Day”.

He also picked up accolades including three Life! Theatre Awards for Best Original Script, making one think he would have received some sort of formal training after he dropped out of medical school.

Except he didn’t.

Turning passion to career

Alfian attributed most of his skills to his mentor Haresh, and to the experience he accumulated over the years.

“Ongoing mentorship beats taking any course on playwriting. A lot of it has got to do with how you deal with directors, actors, and audience. These are things that you can’t pick up from a curriculum.”

Alfian with Haresh (in blue). W!LD RICE founder Ivan Heng is on his left. Photo via Alfian Sa’at’s Facebook page.

In a predominantly Asian society like Singapore, it is common for people to think that one can’t make a proper living working full-time in the arts scene.

But Alfian’s view is that if one loves something deeply enough, it is definitely possible to turn in into a career.

For him, this involves accommodating other facets of his passion, such as writing plays for children:

“W!LD RICE always does a pantomime at the end of the year and I was asked to write one. But never in my life have I thought of entertaining children because they are, in a sense, the most difficult audience! Once they’re bored, it is over.”

Challenging himself by doing the unfamiliar, thankfully, has made for some memorable anecdotes.

“When I was doing ‘Snow White’ in 2008, I remember going to the toilet during intermission when I heard a little kid saying: ‘What happened to her, daddy? What happened to Snow White?’ It amazes me how theatre can affect everyone from the very young to the very old.”

Theatre is like public forum

If you’re familiar with his works, you would realise that some of his plays draw inspiration from social and political issues.

“Cook a Pot of Curry”, for instance, was a nod to the 2011 curry dispute and the Population White Paper.

“Cooling Off Day”on the other hand, was inspired by the 2011 General Election.

His latest play, “Merdeka”, is part of the Singapore Bicentennial Experience — but with a twist.

According to Alfian, the play is an investigation into colonialism and imagines what it would be like if Singapore had anti-colonial movements or heroes.

The Merdeka cast at a rehearsal. Photo courtesy of W!LD RICE.

He says he likes to see what people are discussing, and then consolidate these voices to represent them in a play.

“I see theatre as a public forum for all these voices. Just like they say, you know, theatre is a safe space for dangerous ideas.”

Respected Yale-NUS’s decision

And speaking of “dangerous ideas”, we of course had to address the elephant in the room: the cancellation of a Yale-NUS programme called “Dialogue and Dissent in Singapore.”

Yale-NUS cancels programme on dissent in S’pore, S’poreans including Tan Chuan-Jin chimes in

The programme, that was to be led by Alfian, was cancelled just two weeks before it was slated to run in late September.

The news of the cancellation brought out a huge discussion among Singaporeans, including Speaker of Parliament, Tan Chuan-Jin.

While we were a little hesitant to ask him about the course, Alfian calmly told us that he accepted the news in “good faith” when he first heard of the school’s decision.

“I can’t say I was angry or disappointed, I just felt like, okay, the decision has been made and I respect that.”

Wanted to empower young people legally

While Singaporeans have labelled the course as a “rioting and protest” programme and compared it to the recent Hong Kong protests, Alfian explained that it is far from malicious.

Chances are in fact, he’d probably be as clueless as you are if you were to ask him to stage a protest now.

“There’s been a lot of misunderstandings in terms of what it means to dissent and resistance. Maybe I should have called it legal dissent and lawful resistance. I myself don’t even know how to (protest), so how can I teach that?”

Instead, he explains, the programme was supposed to show how one can dissent legally in a country like Singapore.

“It’s really to try to take a look at how people do it within a society where you cannot do many things. But what can you do within the bounds of the law, like satire and stand-up for example? These are still forms of dissent.”

He explained that he initially designed the programme in a bid to instil a sense of hope among the young people.

“A lot of young people think they are so powerless in Singapore, that they can’t really participate and their voice don’t matter. But there are creative ways to say no, and your ‘no’ still matters. You should take heart because your voice matters as young people.”

And from our conversation with him, it seems like he did put a lot of thought and considerations while planning the module.

“Going to Hong Lim Park… If all the students were Singaporeans, it is fine. But half of the class are foreigners on scholarships and student visas.

I want them to go to Hong Lim Park because that’s the only space for legal protests. I want them to have a sense of what the space is like. But what if one of them suddenly want to test the limits? Who’s going to be responsible for that?”

After speaking with us, he also took to Facebook to put out his position on the issue, after conflicting reports were published by Yale-NUS on what happened.

Voicing out as second nature

In the past few years, Alfian has also spoken out on several issues.

This year, for instance, a notable issue he commented on was the controversial E-Pay ad.

While his posts have not gotten him into trouble (for now), he has received threats on his Facebook comments section.

“People would start commenting things like ‘If you don’t like Singapore, get out’. But it’s hard to be intimidated by people who have flowers and sunsets as their profile pictures, you know?”

Alfian says that voicing out his views has become second nature, especially since he has been doing it for a while now.

Because of his unabashed and brutally honest views, some might see Alfian as a champion for the minority or the unrepresented.

However, the playwright maintains that he’s speaking up in a bid to pave the way for young and passionate Singaporeans.

“I think I am just one voice among many articulate, passionate voices. I really want to amplify the younger voices coming up, and that’s really heartening to see.”

Top photo by Rachel Ng

About Fasiha Nazren

Fasiha is only afraid of three things - cockroaches, her parents and the deafening screamos of post hardcore bands.

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