Academic journal article Comparative Drama

Maturation and Political Upheaval in Lloyd Fernando's Scorpion Orchid and Robert Yeo's the Singapore Trilogy

Academic journal article Comparative Drama

Maturation and Political Upheaval in Lloyd Fernando's Scorpion Orchid and Robert Yeo's the Singapore Trilogy

Article excerpt

Identification is compensatory to division. If men were not apart from one another, there would be no need for the rhetorician to proclaim their unity.

--Kenneth Burke, A Rhetoric of Motives, 1969

In Singapore, the portrayal of adolescent initiation and rebellion has been closely monitored in the theater, for, unlike the rather complacent and passive students of the present who have generally experienced peace and prosperity, student groups were politically strategic during the periods of decolonization, independence, and secession in the 1950s and 1960s. The representation of youth in Singaporean theater notes its own energy and ability to destabilize society. Remarking on the state's concern about this potential unruliness, John Clammer states, "Youth are liminal, even dangerous in Singapore (especially minority youth) and as such must be heavily socialized through an over-heavy educational curriculum that creates little time for play or relaxation, collective socialisation for [majority] males through military service, gender socialisation for girls through the spread of Confucian values, and the controlled encouragement of pietistic and non-socially critical forms of religion which are thought to encourage `correct' values such as honesty, hard work and submission to the political authorities." (1)

Moreover, given its public nature, the theater itself was considered a potentially disruptive force that the government feels compelled to contain and manage by bringing it under a central cultural policy; "in the 1991 White Paper on Shared Values, it was formally co-opted as a medium for the transmission of certain ideological values and as a tool for the empowerment of political leadership. This action led to two kinds of reactions from playwrights: one that was rather reactionary and the other that tried to formulate subtle alternative narratives that would change perceived notions of the status quo." (2) Thus while in the twenty-first century Singapore sets out to be a "Renaissance City" the cultural heart of Southeast Asia, representations of students on the stage remain subject to careful scrutiny. Both Lloyd Fernando's play Scorpion Orchid (1994), based on his 1976 novel of the same name, and Robert Yeo's The Singapore Trilogy (2001) analyze and explore the unique relationship between the individual's maturation and the development of the state itself in the particular turmoil of an evolving Singaporean identity.

These plays bear some relation to the traditional European Bildungsroman or initiation novel in which the maturation of a young person is charted through the transition from the innocence of childhood to adulthood with its awareness of one's sexuality and mortality. When an individual's political initiation coincides with a similar development occurring in the state itself, the guidelines for both individual and state are being established for the first time. The adolescent character is subjected to both internal and external uncertainty that challenges all previously held values, whether native or foreign, old or new. In this kind of situation, the trauma of social chaos can cause intense emotional swings from idealism to suicidal cynicism. Personal passions and problems may be expressed in abstract terms involving wider issues of familial and social injustice. Thus the personal and political are prone to being intertwined when the adolescent is entering a volatile social environment.

In addition, postcolonial adolescents occupy a new role, not only as disillusioned rebels but also as embryonic citizens insisting on a voice and a presence in societies that traditionally acknowledged only the authority of the elders. Their pursuit of a new equality is complicated by the moral ambiguity resulting from the as yet undefined boundaries of a new community itself. This must take place in a state, "an artifact created over time by particular interest groups and used strategically to make sense of the present"--that is also "an `imagined community' in which there is a progressive integration of the population into a wider and finally totally embracing system and the idea of loyalty to this abstract and far from obvious concept has to be inculcated. …

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