Tuesday, 24 December 2013

Play Review: Square Moon - A Moon That Struggles to Illuminate

Square Moon is a play that narrates a series of cover-ups by the fictional Homeland Security Department after a terrorist, Golden Hartono, escapes, and Hartono's lawyer, Kristina Hu, is unlawfully detained without trial. Hu develops feelings for a fellow detainee, River Yang, who is an opposition politician that subsequently gains political office. When in office, the hopes of Hu being released are dashed as Yang did not abolish the Homeland Security Act.

If the audience were expecting a multi-dimensional, satirical, and intense reflection of the Internal Security Act and the issues surrounding detention without trial juxtaposed against how it infringes upon individual liberties, they would be disappointed as I was.

As it turned out, the play Square Moon does little to merit the 26 years that former Marxist detainee, Wong Souk Yee, has kept her silence on the theater stage. Fans would no doubt call it advocacy theater where Wong's political bias was laid bare throughout the play, from the power hungry and nefarious royal family (read Lee family) to the evil and dimwitted intelligence officers of the Homeland Security Department (read ISD).

Critics would, however, argue that the characters were under-developed, with the dichotomy between good and evil, weak and powerful, so clearly separated that there was almost no room for moral maneuvering and meaningful debate. The ending was as predictable as a Stallone action film and a far cry from The Live of the Others (a superb film about Stasi spying in defunct East Germany). Still, it should be applauded that former ISA detainees have found the courage and outlet again to participate in the arts and public life.

Part 1

The play opens by bringing the audience straight into the theme of torture with the prison guards and directors of the HSD dressed in BDSM-inspired leather bondage gear (but not to worry, there is no actual beating involved). Kristina Hu and River Yang, played by Zelda Tatiana Ng and Lim Kay Siu respectively, are seen cowering under the power that their captors have over them. The captors are kept in line by Neo Swee Lin, who acts as the evil but pious “Madame Minister”, daughter of the reigning political party, desperately hanging on to power.

The opening act is the weakest part of the play as Wong Souk Yee's script and Peter Sau's direction hardly gels together. The BDSM theme and Catholic imagery appears awkward and coerced, as torture of the inmates are portrayed blatantly (perhaps needlessly) when instead “torture” would be better understood as a more subtle form of psychological warfare; of threats, fears against one's principled beliefs in democracy and freedom. Here, the playwright could have added a layer of sophistication by delving further into the decision-making process of the Homeland Security Department officers and the minister, rather than the simplistic portrayal of them as unsophisticated evil-doers.

The highlight in this first part was played by Erwin Shah Ismail, who as a prison guard and political fence sitter, helped Hu and Yang to deliver their written notes and feelings. The point of casting Erwin Shah as a cross-dresser is lost on me, or perhaps that was just to show his identity crisis as a Liberal-Socialist sympathiser. It is also a pity that his role as a political fence-sitter was not further developed.

Part 2

The second part of the play is much better, but still doesn't escape the simplistic binary tale of good and evil, lacking humanisation and dilemmas. Surely, if the Homeland Security Department and Homeland Security Act were so cruel and evil as portrayed by Wong, they would have been removed by the general populace already? So, for the sake of analysis, if they have survived for such a long time, it is a pity that the writer did not grasp the opportunity to illuminate the tensions between the politics of majority against the rights of individual liberty. It was also a missed opportunity to contrast how the ISA was used somewhat unpopularly in the 70s and 80s, with its less controversial use in the recent decade against radical Islamic terrorists, who were accused of plotting to cause mass destruction.

The climax of the second part of the play is when Yang gains political power and it becomes apparent that, despite being imprisoned by the Homeland Security Act himself, the Liberal-Socialist sinks familiarly back into self-preservation as the Act is not repealed. The Director of Homeland Security Department, along with everyone else, ingratiates themselves to Yang and more prisons are built. Nothing seems to have changed, as those in power can only think of ways to stay in power, just as Yang urges Hu to compromise for a just and strong nation. Hu rebuffs Yang's attempts to make her sign a confession saying that she was a “terrorist” and remains as a detainee.


In all, the play spoke plainly from the voices of the former 1987 detainees, Wong Souk Yee and collaborator, Chng Suan Tze, who must have felt injustices after being detained without an open trial; hence the constant theme of evil and power vs good and weak in their play. We and many Singaporeans know of their hardship and it is only for the better that they put out their art for the public's benefit and debate.

What was missing was from this artistic display was an analysis of the issues surrounding detention without trial. Should individual liberties be at any time suspended because of security concerns? And to what extent? In what sort of situations? Who are these people who carry out these draconian laws? Are they humans or plain villains? Why hasn't the general Singapore populace called for a repeal of the ISA?

26 years later, it seems the same Square Moon is equally capable of illuminating as well as casting a shadow.

Monday, 9 December 2013

A Second Glance: United Front Were No Communists

Last week, Singapore alternative online news outlet The Online Citizen published an article titled United Front were no communists: British intelligence. In gist, the article revealed the contents of a British classified document illustrating Maurice LB Williams, the Security Liaison Officer (title of the Head of the British intelligence unit, MI5 office in Singapore), evaluating the evidence presented by the Singapore Special Branch on the security situation in Singapore in 1962. 

In his report, Maurice LB Williams evaluated that the United Front was not being dictated to or controlled by the communists and this ran counter to the PAP government’s claim that the opposition was involved in a communist conspiracy to topple the government. Maurice also mentioned that "they are united only in their dissatisfactions with the P.A.P. Government, and they cannot be considered to form a monolithic Communist edifice under strict Party management ".

This is no doubt an interesting perspective that would spur readers to delve further into this topic and inject much needed academic vigour and vibrancy into this phase of Singapore's history. It is strange though for a MI5 officer to expect a "monolithic Communist edifice under strict Party management" as a smoking gun when these trade unions, as well as peasant and student organisations were simply proxies of the CPM. Did Maurice honestly expect the CPM to officially subsume the United Front and legitimize police action against them? Maurice's assessment is all the more confounding when Chin Peng himself admitted that "most of the island's workers sympathized with the left-wing trade unions and members of these unions well appreciated they were under the control of the CPM".

CPM's control of the United Front is further supported by the memoirs of high ranking CPM cadre Fong Chong Pik (aka The Plen) when he admitted to having a special acquaintance with Lim Chin Siong, the top United Front leader in Singapore.     

However, like in all historical academic writing, one should be cognizant of the need to present evidence from multiple sources rather than depend on only those that fits one's assertion. As the Security Liaison Officer in Singapore, Maurice must have sent more than one report back to the Colonial Office and it would be beneficial to review all his reports for a complete view on Singapore's then security situation rather than cast judgment based on a singular report. 

Moreover, the launching of Operation Coldstore was ordered by the Internal Security Council comprising of governmental representatives from the United Kingdom and the Federation of Malaya and Singapore. Any decision taken by the council must be approved by the majority of council members and in the case of Coldstore the decision was unanimous. Hence, Maurice's single assessment may not represent the final assessment made by the British government.

Having said these, I like to introduce a few more interesting excerpts from CPM leader Chin Peng's autobiography My Side Of History which unexpectedly contradicts MI5's assessment.

In his book, Chin Peng gave a stoic assessment of Operation Coldstore. He described Operation Coldstore as Lee Kuan Yew lowering "the boom on the CPM" and that it "shattered our underground network throughout the island". In saying this, Chin Peng recognised that the main target of Coldstore was the CPM and admitted to the efficacy of Operation Coldstore in eradicating the Communist influence in Singapore. Ironically, these statements by Chin Peng go against recent articles by Dr Thum Ping Tjin who asserted that Operation Coldstore was a crackdown on political dissidents in Singapore.

In spite of Chin Peng's acknowledgement for Operation Coldstore, he categorically denied having any direct control over the Barisan Socialis. Chin Peng also refuted allegations that politicians like Dr Lee Siew Choh nor other prominent figures like the Puthucheary brothers had ever been CPM members. He did however admit to influencing these politicians.

Note: Dr Lee Siew Choh, Party Chief of Barisan Socialis was never arrested under the ISA 
This is where the play with semantics occur. When can one be considered a Communist or not a Communist? Can someone qualify to be a Communist if one is inclined to the ideology or does one have to be a card-carrying member? This is a question for readers to ruminate on and arrive at their own conclusions.

To conclude, rather than give clarity to this tumultuous period of Singapore history, TOC's article raises more doubts than answers. Hence, it is up to all like-minded history buffs to sieve through the numerous resources available and hopefully piece together a balance and credible narrative for all Singaporeans.