While society often scrutinises the two mandatory years of National Service (NS) that every Singaporean son has to endure, not much light is shed upon what life is like beyond that for the local man.
The 33-year-old also discusses his career as a playwright and touches upon the more poignant aspects of turning 30, a subject matter that he and his characters can relate to.
When did you first develop an interest in language?
Well, reading has always been a big part of my life. I was a voracious reader as a kid because my mother made me read lots of books. I got started on fairy tales after she introduced me to the condensed versions of Reader’s Digest.
I also enjoyed creative writing in upper primary and secondary school, but I never saw writing as a career. In uni, I took an “Introduction to Playwriting” class by (Checkpoint Theatre Joint Artistic Director) Huzir Sulaiman, and the interest just grew from there. Now, it’s captured my whole life.
What were you doing before you wrote plays for a living?
I was teaching English and literature at Hwa Chong Institution. It was a good way to pay for my education, and there wasn’t much a lit graduate can do after uni anyways, so teaching was something I sort of fell into. Yes, I did enjoy teaching, or at least parts of it. I like to stand up and talk, so that was fun.
What motivated you to leave teaching to become a playwright?
When I left teaching in 2014, I just turned 30. I had already taught for five years, so if I didn’t make the decision to leave then, I would have probably never left to try something new. Since I had a very strong interest in writing and theatre, I thought that was the time to do it.
While I was teaching, I was actually writing for theatre on the side. I was getting good feedback from theatre practitioners in Singapore, and as I began to gain confidence in my writing, it turned from a recreational activity to a viable career option, so I decided to go for it.
Were there any fears or concerns about making the career switch?
As I had just gotten married and bought a house, there were many costs to consider. My family expressed their concerns because they were just being cautious for me and making sure I knew what I was doing – that’s the way some people show love.
My wife and I had long talks. I told her of my game plan to juggle theatre and freelance writing. I just needed a couple of years, and if that didn’t work out, I could always go back to teaching. It was a process explaining why I needed to do this, but in the end, my loved ones gave me their full, unabashed blessings.
What is it about playwriting that appeals to you?
What I’ve come to love is the collaborative nature of playwriting. Unlike other genres of writing where all you need to do is put words on paper, that’s merely the beginning for a playwright.
Once you’ve finished writing the script, you need to find collaborators to bring it to life – director, actors, the production crew. It’s that process of working with people with different skill sets and seeing how they make your play better that I find exciting and wonderful.
When it comes to working for Checkpoint Theatre specifically, the great thing about (Joint Artistic Directors) Huzir and Claire is that they encourage you to create work, only if you are truly passionate about it. That’s how it was with FRAGO.
Tell us more about your upcoming play “FRAGO”.
FRAGO stands for fragmentary order. It’s a military term that’s not unique to the Singapore army. In war, you get all kinds of orders, but because war is so dynamic, the situation often changes. When you get a new order, the old order becomes irrelevant, and that’s called a fragmentary order.
The play itself is about a group of men who are in their seventh year of reservist. Some are in their thirties; others are about to turn 30. They’re in the armoured infantry unit, and traditionally, when you’re in your seventh year , you undergo a battle exercise simulation, so that’s the setting for the play.
What motivated you to write a play about reservist life?
When it comes to army life in Singapore, the overarching or commonly-held narrative is that you enter as a boy and come out as a man after two years. In those two years, you suffer and you laugh together; it’s a very intense experience and unique bond that you share.
A lot of writing or plays that exist currently focus specifically on those two years, but what happens beyond that hasn’t been touched on. The truth is, you have to come back for reservist for the next 10 years of your life. It’s like an enforced high-school reunion.
And as you approach 30, you’re expected to have a stable job, buy a house, get married and have kids; but, that narrative doesn’t fit everyone. We wanted to explore this subject matter through this story of a group of reservist mates who’ve journeyed through the years together.
Did you draw from personal experiences when scripting “FRAGO”?
During my last reservist cycle, my friends and I were catching up with one another, and I was asked if I was still teaching; I of course said no. It felt like Chinese New Year all over again where you have to update people about work and your family. I definitely drew on that experience.
But no, FRAGO isn’t autobiographical, although I do hope that it’ll strike very close to home for our audience. I wanted to tell a story of how the Singaporean man changes and evolves over time, and how the burden of society wears him down. To do that, I drew from conversations I heard and observations I made of my fellow reservist mates.
What does Huzir Sulaiman bring to the play as a director?
Huzir approaches it as an outsider. He’s non-Chinese – the majority of the people in the armoured infantry unit are Chinese – and he’s also never done National Service (NS) or reservist before.
What he pays attention to are the human relationships at work – that’s what he reacts to first. He will then ask how the context or situation informs these relationships and masculinity on display.
He also spends a lot of time listening to actors talk about the work. He wants to see their abilities, unique energy and the intelligence that they can bring to the text.
What were your considerations during the casting process?
We wanted to diversify the cast. Even though there are no Malays in the armoured infantry unit, Huzir went ahead and did race-blind casting. As NS cuts across the social strata, we were also looking for people with different histories and socio-economic backgrounds.
We were conscious about physicality as well. We weren’t exactly doing body-type casting, but when you get to 30, you don’t look the way you looked at 20. That sense of agedness and how the world has worn into people’s bodies definitely played a part in casting.
“FRAGO” is very gender-specific. Any concerns as to how female audience members might react to it?
Checkpoint actually does public readings for works in development, and we’ve done about two or three table reads for FRAGO last year. The public got to write their feedback, and it was very useful for me to go through all of them.
Some women were put off by the fact that this play is so entrenched in reservist life, but others were wowed by this world – it’s so foreign yet familiar to them. They appreciated how the play allowed them to know more about what their brothers or boyfriends went through.
FRAGO actually features female characters. For instance, there’s a female warrant officer who’s been in the armed forces for a long time, and she serves as a very interesting counterpoint to the men who hate NS. I use her to explore various issues.
What’s been your biggest challenge in staging this play?
The biggest challenge has been trying to convey the massiveness of the NS culture with very little. How do we do that without boring the audience or bringing an actual tank on stage?
We are also aware that the army culture can be alienating. Beyond the parameters of age or gender, how do we convey the humanity so that people will learn to care for the characters? So that’s what we’re working on now.
Just like the characters in your play, you underwent a transition when you took that leap of faith to be a playwright. Now that a few years have passed, do you think you made the right career choice?
After I left teaching, people were more willing to work with me because they knew that I was available to write. Gradually, as more and more theatre practitioners began to seek me out, I realised that I’d made the right choice.
You have to make that leap first. If you don’t make the leap, people won’t know that you’re making yourself available to properly write and make art. It’s been gratifying, so I think the decision has been worth it.
Some say that playwriting is not the most lucrative job, especially in Singapore. How do you cope financially?
That was a terrifying aspect of leaving teaching to be a playwright. The thing about being an artist or a writer is that we’re all essentially freelancers, so we have to do various things.
A part of my income comes from teaching playwriting. Thankfully, there are also enough freelance gigs to at least cover your costs, so you’re not dipping into your savings.
As you do more freelance writing, more gigs will come to you, and then you’ll be able to save more. That’s important, especially now that my wife and I have a nine-month-old daughter to take care of.
What advice do you have for aspiring playwrights out there?
Most playwrights start off by writing poetry or prose, so when they eventually decide to write a play, they bring those forms of writing which are not suited for the stage into the process. Their scripts don’t work because their work has never gotten into a rehearsal room where directors and actors get to read it.
You need to develop that ear and sensibility towards how actors and directors approach a character, and that means actually sitting in the rehearsal room and listening to them do their work. Once you have an understanding of how to match your writing with their creative process, you’ll be able to develop fully-formed characters.
Writers are also very precious with their words; they usually think that an actor or director is mangling their work. As someone who mentors young playwrights, my advice is that you be open to how they can bring your work to life in different ways. It’s always a challenge, but learn to let go.
Interview by: Arman Shah