Those Who Can’t, Teach by Haresh Sharma

“The play throws up questions on the roles of parents, students and teachers, but does not collapse into an impotent tirade against society. The script is joyous. The laughter is warmly wry, not caustic.” – The Straits Times

“Those Who Can’t, Teach does much to do away with the stereotypes and fallacies of the teaching profession.” – The Business Times

Written by Singapore’s most prolific playwright Haresh Sharma, Those Who Can’t, Teach was first staged by The Necessary Stage in 1990 to critical acclaim. Twenty years later, Sharma revisits this classic to revitalise it for the Singapore Arts Festival 2010, transforming it into a powerful portrayal of the pressures and challenges facing teachers (and students) in schools in the 21st century. Includes discussion questions designed by the National Arts Council, targeted at secondary and tertiary level students.

Those Who Can’t, Teach is part of a series of critically acclaimed local plays published by Epigram Books.


I. Argument

In this section of the paper, I will be dealing with Haresh Sharma’s play, Those Who Can’t, Teach (hereafter, TWCT).

TWCT Book Cover

I will argue that the text presents a flawed education system that persists in creating a tragic condition for the characters in the play. Furthermore, the ambivalent tone and ending of the play defers any possible figuration of a tragic end. This ambivalent tone also complicates the demarcation of clear protagonists and antagonists in the play, which in turn complicates the nature of the tragic condition of the character.

II. Misrecognition of Capable and Passionate Teachers

One flaw in the system lies in its mis-recognition of capable and passionate teachers. This is represented best in the figure of Zach, a PSC Scholar. The audience sees that he lacks the passion for the profession when he asks for a transfer (80-82) and later in the timeline, breaking the teaching bond to work for a private firm (50). However, he is still awarded the Outstanding Teaching Award by MOE (83). The irony of this moment is highlighted when he second guesses his initial proclamation of his inability to teach. This flaw in the system creates and contributes to the tragic condition of other characters in the play.

The Teachers of MPSS

Firstly, Zach’s tactlessness and ineptitude as a teacher causes suffering for Teck Liang’s family. He presents them with a “dossier” of their son’s offences in school and belittles his academic ability (63, 30; 64, 8-12). This symbol of his past offences weighs not only on Teck Liang’s bad reputation but is also a reminder to his parents of their ineffectual disciplinary methods. They have long since “given up” and instead place their hope for his reformation in Mrs. Phua Su Lin, his teacher (66, 29-30; 67, 1-2) . Their helplessness is pitiable but what puts them in a tragic light is first, it was an injustice because their son was not to blame for the incident and second, the emphasis on good grades as a marker of behaviour and third, a guilt and envy for not being as educated as their son, and not being able to live up to his expectations. It becomes a condition that is perpetuated by the system of education, which while necessary for socio-economic advancement is hinged upon the knowledge of their own inferiority.

This by a chain of effect also leads to the second situation of suffering, that of Su Lin’s. Zach does not only lack the ability to communicate with his pupils but also with his fellow teachers. His temper in this instance and others puts him in an antagonistic position to Su Lin which causes her much suffering. Although he is aware of the problems she’s facing with her aged mother (16, 26-28), he is very much reliant on her abilities and experience as a senior teacher and bosses her around (16, 18-20). I will say more about Su Lin’s tragic condition in the third part of this essay.

In spite of this, it is difficult to label him as the agent and perpetrator of the system’s violence upon the characters in the play. This is because he has later realized his incongruity with the ideals of the system despite being propped up as the “star of the Ministry”. He is redeemed in some sense when he breaks his bond to the system, because the audience can then conceive of him as a victim of the system which has tried to co-opt him (with the promotion to HOD and the award) into a certain leader-follower ideology. His condition is also tragic because his abilities and passion are misdirected. For him, the play ends on a positive note for he is able to surpass his initial condition. However, there is a deeper undercurrent of ambivalence as to his ability to sustain loyalty to the company having defected from his bond in the first place. Also, while he may be escaping one system, he is subordinating himself to another. He is still “bonded” in economic terms to the private institution.

III. Mis-allocation of Resources

The Students in the Drama Club of MPSS

The play also suggests that the mis-allocation of manpower is a major flaw in the education system of Singapore. Aside from Zach, whom I have addressed in the previous section, Su Lin’s tragic condition is bears the brunt of this systemic flaw but this will be discussed in the third section. Nevertheless, it is important to note that part of Su Lin’s tragic condition is constant guilt from her inability to save all of her students from their own tragic conditions. I will be looking at the characters of Jali and Teck Liang to further my argument, although Raymond is the one who brings this disparity to light (41, 14-22).

Jali’s tragic condition is perpetuated by this flaw in the education system. While one might pity Jali when Clare’s underlines the improbability of his success (47, 7-9), an empathy for his tragic condition emerges, I believe, when one is left with the unfulfilled possibility – which becomes irretrievable, “For 15 years I believe. The today I wake up, I see the SMS and then I think… I am not special… I never become anything” (84). Mrs Phua’s encouragement and offering of redemption (45, 1-4) is ironic as it is bounded by the symbolic order of the system, “As a teacher, you want the best for all your students. Sometimes, you say anything, anything positive… What else can you do?” (74). The signification of success in this order and being “something” is represented through paper qualification, which has been called into question earlier in the play by Sabtu,

“‘O’ level is exam. If you pass, doesn’t mean you smart. It means you know how to answer the question… Some of the student here maybe cannot pass exam. But they are not stupid. I want to find what they like to do. Because if they like something, they will work hard.” (20, 18-27)

Sabtu, The Canteen Vendor in MPSS

What Sabtu presents here is an alternative education system for the student. The audience is aware that it’s not a feasible idea despite its appeal to passion, purposefulness and meaningfulness in life. The ideal is a moral and justified allocation of resources and time to teach the students skills that they wish to learn. The inaccessibility of this ideal in the reality of the Singaporean context contributes to the sense of tragedy in Jali’s existence.

In contrast, Teck Liang, Jali’s “brother”, is presented as a successful product of the education system. Nevertheless, he too suffers in his own tragic condition of an “emptiness” that follows him.

Su Lin     Did I not teach you to be independent? Did I not teach you to be strong?

Teck         All my life, I never cared about anyone but myself. I’m all alone now. I’m all alone.

Su Lin     You said you were married and…

Teck         I have nothing Mrs Phua… I have no one.

(74, 10-26)

The striving after the material ideals supported by the education system boosts the personal ego but takes away that intangible moral framework that gives life meaning.  Jali’s curse at Teck, “You are dead” is eeriely fulfilled although Teck’s awareness of his lack seems to give a glimmer of hope and redemption from the tragic condition of his life. Yet, within the play, the audience must imagine their own an ending because the playwright leaves out both the hopeful and tragic possibilities in the realm of the unknown. In doing so, the audience is left with an image of two halves that are forever split.Thus, the deferment of the tragic end through ambivalence in the play in turn heightens the inescapability of the tragic condition.

Post-drama party, up to mischief

IV. Su Lin: Perpetrator or Victim of Tragedy?

The education system presented  by Sharma resists being classified into absolute moral terms of “good” or “evil”. In the case of Su Lin, she is both the agent of the system as well as a rebel figure. She supports the authority of the system when she insists that Lim sticks to the syllabus (21, 14) but tells him that NIE has taught him little of importance about teaching (18, 15-17). She inhabits a position of ambivalence because she is aware of the flaws in the system and is also aware that there is no way to counter it. Her helplessness is pitiable but we experience awe of her from her indefatigable efforts to make the best of her suffering, to continually sacrificing her personal life for them (58, 1-16) even with little recourse from the system’s authorities (being demoted from HOD status).

Su Lin (Left)

Her sacrifices are made for the desire of the ideal. This is evident when Zach calls her a “martyr” (63, 4-5) and Hana undercuts her moral high ground by presenting a pluralistic and chaotic picture of morality (62, 1-6). The play does set Su Lin up to be a heroic figure that seeks a stable position between the system and morality, the public and the personal. However, she is a tragic hero because she gives too much of herself for this ideal relation but receives little in return except in the form of Teck Liang, who is also as I have argued, a reminder of the system’s flaw.

This is a minor digression but complements my main point. Lim, is presented as a figure that suffers for Su Lin’s ambivalence and in a harsher light, hypocrisy. He is left to scramble for a middle ground between what the system says and what it means. However, the play suggests that he attains some form of redemption from his tragic condition, having been a teacher for the past 15 years at the school (83, 11-12). Nevertheless, the nature of his end is deferred because his initial target was 20 years and not 15. So, the audience has no access to it except through their imagination, which may or may not envision a tragic outcome. We too are put in a position of ambivalence and imagining or believing in both possible outcomes would make us hypocritical.

There are various other instances in the text where Su Lin sides with the system, in the case of Hana’s irresponsibility as an adult and yet criticizes it, in the case of Zach’s scholarly status in the system. However, I would like to pick out the following passage on page 26 that poignantly captures her liminal space as both perpetrator and victim of the system.

“A teacher’s life, they say, is ruled by the sound of bells. After a while, the bells didn’t stop ringing… Even when I went home… Even when I was sleeping… The ringing bells… Telling me what to do, where to go.” (26, 13-17)

One could read this in a perversely Pavlovian way but on a simpler level, the association that the bells have to school, become indoctrinated into her person, her profession soon dictates her life and the choices that she makes. She is represented in this passage as one-with and therefore, part perpetrator of the system, but someone whose individuality has been subordinated.

TWCT 2010 Production Flyer

In the 2010 production of TWCT, Su Lin is the only character played by a single actor while the actors playing the teachers are also the students in the other scenes. Furthermore, she occupies a narrator-like position in the last act when she uncovers to a grown up Teck the mystery of Hana’s racy photos as well as the delivery of the epilogue. Thus, she occupies a liminal space on a performative level as well, between audience and the illusion of the narrative.

In addition, the death of Su Lin is not revealed to the audience. Once again, its outcome that has been deferred beyond the scope of the audience’s sight, is ambivalent because we have no certainty of Teck being by her when she passes away. Nevertheless, her current condition of loneliness persists without her children and schoolchildren can be read as a tragic one as a sign of an irretrievable loss and an unattainable ideal.

Primary Text:

Sharma, Haresh. Those who can’t, teach. Singapore: Epigram, 2010.


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