Putting the Pieces Together: The Picture of Singaporean Tragedy

Thematic Unity Across Texts

These four texts that we have discussed are united in that, across time and context, all demonstrate the pervasiveness of the Singaporean tragic condition; everyone experiences their daily tragedies in the quotidian, perpetually pushing against the impenetrable walls that divide them from their aspirations. The characters in general comprise the common people and represent the everyday Singaporean. Therefore, unlike tragedies such Sophocles’ “Oedipus” or Ibsen’s “Brand”, these Singaporean tragedies are not heroic or particularly inspirational but instead exist within the banalities, struggles and disappointments of day to day life in the ordinary citizen.

Art by L. Szanto

This disparaging sense of the unattainable that hangs like Tantalus’ fruit over the individual manifests in a number of aspects: in (i) unattainable stimulation or excitement, (ii) unattainable answers, and (iii) unattainable dreams and aspirations.

The unattainable but desperately sought excitement and drama that is absent from the life of the Singaporean individual (as portrayed in these four texts) is reflected in their general state of ennui, dissatisfaction and wistful restlessness. This sense of boredom is evident in the lives of characters across texts, from Lao Beng’s and Boy’s heroic fantasies in “Eating Air” to Woman’s sense of detachment in “Optic Trilogy”, as she watches the island as a ‘spectacle unfold[ing] in front of [her]’ (p. 43) without being able to participate.

The inscrutability of meaning or answers – which generally results in growing disillusionment and an existential aimlessness – also pervades the characters’ lives across texts. “Optic Trilogy” expresses deep but unattainable longings for a sense of belonging to Singapore, for sight, and for love. This inaccessibility 0f meaning and fulfilment wears the characters out, translating their longing into a tragic, cruel desire to inflict pain on others as well as themselves. Furthermore, all four texts share inconclusive endings, denying any sense of meaning or closure to the audience. In “Those Who Can’t, Teach”, the narrative seems to have come in full circle at the end (the epilogue mirrors the prologue), offering no closure. Again, the play puts answers out of our reach as its conclusion is deferred, and in its deferral presents a cyclicity that can be seen to represent the inescapable monotony and hypocrisy of the system. We also get a sense of this cyclicity in 12 Storeys – the entire action of the film takes place within 24 hours, after which life simply goes on. Indifferent to the characters’ tragedies, the world spins madly on within its immutable rut without stopping to think, and without extrapolating any moral from the story about the value of human connection and the consequences of isolation and impassivity. This suggests that the human condition is not only tragic, but also diminished, insignificant. This picture of humanism, its bleakness offset somewhat by the embrace that two characters (there is perhaps tragic irony and belatedness contained in this moment, as one of these characters is a ghost) share at the end, presents a potential germination of meaning and human connection, but leaves it inconclusive and unattainable to the audience.

This indication towards potentially redemptive elements but ultimately leaving them out of our reach occurs in all four texts, though some leave a greater glimmer of hope than others. Their conclusions vacillate between the affirmative and the tragic, leaving us without answer. Hope is indefinitely deferred, leaving us with a faint longing for its materialisation yet sorely excluding us from unattainable answers.

Obviously, much of the Singaporean protagonist’s tragedy also lies within the unattainability of his dreams and aspirations. These failures manifest themselves both in small, everyday disappointments and in the form of a larger, societal impoverishment. Petty, day to day tragedies are experienced by individual characters across all texts, from Teck’s failure in wooing Clare in “Those Who Can’t, Teach” to Mother’s getting dumped by a man who has cruelly led her on but whom she still wants to give a second chance in “Eating Air”. In “Optic Trilogy”, the blind Woman’s longing for sight and  Woman and Man’s longing for a dead lover also reinforces the tragic sense of desperate, ceaseless longing for the irrevocably unattainable. More importantly, however, the texts seem to express a larger tragedy of Singaporean society; “Those Who Can’t, Teach” demonstrates the failure of the education system and its teachers, “Eating Air” a failure to achieve justice, dreams, romantic fulfillment or happiness, and “Optic Trilogy” and “12 Storeys” a failure of society to transcend transactional relationships and find genuine human connection or make an imprint on others’ lives.

As a result of this immutable sense of the unattainable, the Singaporean individual inadvertently distances the self from society, in turn creating social skepticism, distrust, fear and isolation within Singaporean society. Yet, deep down, people are hungry for touch, for romance, and still hold their ideals close to their hearts in spite of their jadedness. Hence, they can be seen as tragically caught “in limbo”, inhabiting a liminal space in which they are bored, wistful and miserable, but simultaneously uncertain as to what precisely they aspire towards – what their vision of the ideal exactly is. Indeed, as the characters fight against norms and standards, they are simultaneously trapped by and embedded within the norms, like the men and women in “Optic Trilogy” and the struggle of teachers Zach and Sulin in “Those Who Can’t, Teach”, for example.

Uniquely Singapore

Photo by Andrew Mouser

One feature that firmly grounds its text in Singapore is setting, which inevitably plays a more significant role in film than in theatre. The directors’ decision to set the plot in the heartlands aligns their films closer to the audience. As the majority of Singaporeans reside in HDB estates, having the bulk of the action within the HDB estate places the audience in a familiar setting that is close to the heart. The plots of both films revolve around the residents of these HDB estates, evoking in the audience a close identification with and empathy for the characters. Hence, although the tragic action in these films might seem exaggerated and dramatised, we get the sense that they are caricatures of the everyday Singaporean, mirroring and enacting the disillusionment and jadedness that Singaporeans, too, suffer in reality. Therefore, by framing the films around the HDB estate and the common Singaporean, the bridge between screen and reality is minimised.

Besides this, the importance of the HDB estates also lies in its being an emblem of Singapore’s success and modernisation. These are characteristics exclusive and familiar to the Singaporean identity. In “12 Storeys”, this creates irony; the iconic HDB flats –  emblematic of Singapore’s “friendly neighbourhood” – is, in actuality, less friendly than it is impersonal and aloof. People fail to relate to and make meaningful ties with other people. The HDB building is one that superficially binds but truly divides, and is ultimately the place from which the isolated individual (in “Spirit”) commits suicide. Similarly, in “Eating Air”, there is a subversion of this traditional symbol of home – Boy and his friends are shown gathering on the roof of his HDB flat, an area so close, yet closed off to everyday Singaporeans. Their venture into this restricted area symbolises their rebelliousness, but more significantly, it also can be said to reflect their longing to escape and to transcend the restrictions of their claustrophobic, mundane lives – restrictions that the HDB estate has come to represent.

The use of language is another device utilised to bridge the distance between the audience and the characters. The dialogue in “12 Storeys”, “Eating Air” and “Those Who Can’t, Teach” largely comprises Singlish, Hokkien, Malay and even Cantonese, encapsulating the multilingual Singaporean experience; there is no pretense to use “proper” English or Received Pronunciation (RP). This portrays the characters in a more honest and down-to-earth light, allowing the audience to approach them in a more sympathetic and empathetic way. Therefore, as the audience is able to more closely relate to the characters, tragedy becomes embedded into our personal contexts. This ability to relate through a uniquely Singaporean manner of speech reduces the emotional and experiential distance between the play and the audience, making our own lives and experiences increasingly inextricable from the characters’.

Although it is too sweeping a statement to claim that all Singaporeans understand the dialogue, most Singaporeans would be familiar with many commonly used phrases. It should also be noted that while many Singaporeans do not have a grasp of Chinese dialects, they would still recognise these dialects as a marker of the Singaporean identity as compared to “proper” English used in other theatrical productions and films, making the plays and films we have discussed exclusively Singaporean. Hence, in this way, language functions as a double edged sword – a marker of intimacy and inclusion for those who are familiar with the language, while Othering those who are not.

Formal Comparison

As we have demonstrated thus far, Singaporean film and theatre are, thematically, very similar in their portrayal of the Singaporean tragedy. In their dramatisation of this, however, the modes of film and theatre each utilise richly diverse methods. For example, if we were to contrast “Those Who Can’t, Teach” and the film “Eating Air”, we will find that each harnesses the unique technical and visual strengths of their medium to amplify and effectively convey their argument. The play utilises the technique of multiroling, which is exclusive to theatre and is not available to film or the written novel. The multiple roles that some of the actors undertake meta-theatrically surmount the gap in understanding between the teacher and student. In this way, it draws the audience’s attention to the inter-connectedness of their suffering. For example, Teck is played by the same character as Zach. This highlights their similarity; both Zach and Teck feel like misfits in their respective social situations, thus alienating others and becoming independent from them. In the film, Tong harnesses special effects and graphics to create the hyperbolic, fantastical alternate realities that exist in Boy’s and Ah Gu’s imagination. These special effects and graphics reinforce our sense of unreality and hence the unattainable, widening the rift between the characters’ small, tragic lives and their ridiculously unattainable visions of heroism, romance and success. Hence, we see that film and theatre both construct a similar picture of the tragic in Singapore, but each vivify and colour it in vastly different ways.

In terms of structure, all the texts comprise multiple narratives – a bricolage of different lives each portraying different facets of Singapore society, interwoven into one collective struggle. This is especially exemplified in the two films – in “12 Storeys”, characters’ paths cross but each leaves no imprint on the other’s lives, reflecting society’s lack of and breakdown in communication, and the growing isolation of the individual. This divide is exemplified within the camera’s visual framework – Meng and San San stop at the same playground, but even their spatial relationship is disconnected by the obtrusive structure of the playground slide. They awkwardly leave each other’s presences unacknowledged.

Meng (left), Playground Slide (Middle), San San (Right)
Photo taken from Youtube

On the other hand, in “Eating Air”, characters’ paths cross and their stories do affect each other, but largely in a negative way, with characters such as Ah Gu driving Boy and Girl to ruin and desolation. In “Those Who Can’t, Teach”, the characters’ narratives are tightly interwoven too, and they have deep influences on each other, in both positive and negative ways. “The Optic Trilogy” comprises three separate narratives that are grounded in loneliness and loss. Although the plots do not intersect, the arrangement of having the first part explicitly engaging with the individual’s alienation from the the state encourages the audience to interpret the next two parts as symbolic, on some level, of the citizens’ emotional or intellectual blindness, and their frustrations over identity. In all, it becomes clear that these four texts, despite their common themes of isolation and fragmented human connection, each presents a collective struggle and in turn, together represent the tragedy of Singaporean society at large.


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