Facing off with wild boars in Singapore, unmasked
Memorable work provided a truly immersive and collective experience, democratic as well
In my dozens of trips to pre-pandemic Singapore, I could not recall seeing a stray dog or cat. And so when three wild boars, natural inhabitants of Palau Ubin just off the northeastern shore of Singapore, made a cameo performance to 40 audiences of Drama Box’s ubin—intentionally in lower cases— at around 8pm, it’s a shock for an old city boy and the phrase “Unseen Singapore” flashed in my mind.
This work was commissioned by Singapore International Festival of Arts (SIFA) 2022, organized by Arts House Limited, commissioned by National Arts Council and supported by Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth—in short, it’s run by taxpayers’ money. Under the helm of new festival director Nathalie Hennedige, this year’s theme is “The Anatomy of Performance—Ritual” and SIFA attempts to rid works of genre tags as they discuss contemporary issues with the audience.
Prior to that so-called magical moment—unrepeatable in live arts which we dearly missed during the pandemic—, we had been given a bottle of medicated oil for insect bite relief before taking a bumboat ride during which we saw flights landing at Changi Airport. Later on the island, we were walking in four groups and mask-free—at a much slower pace than our normal one in this bustling city-state—to different sites on this serene natural habitat, quite the opposite to the much more famous Sentosa.
Most of the time, we were listening, through earpieces, pre-recorded interviews with island inhabitants in Malay, Hindi and Chinese languages, with English translation. They told us the past and present of the island and, with the rising number of local tourists and its uncertain future among other issues, voiced their concerns. I was suddenly reminded of partially torn signs that read “Use your head: Wear a helmet” on rusty doors of a shop next to rows of rental bicycles on my way to the village centre.
These interviews were edited, for time and content, of course by the playwright and director of the first act of ubin, former member of parliament and Drama Box founder Kok Heng Luen. Still, they sounded unscripted and it’s as if we were listening to them in a town meeting.
Short contemporary dance performances, the subject matter of which was in correspondence to that specific site like the ground of the former Chinese school, were also staged: good moments for walking audiences to take a physical break to fully take in the environment and exercise our imagination. One performance next to the Pekan Quarry deftly took advantage of the natural light when dusk slowly turned into dark.
The walking tour only covered about one-tenth of the island although we had heard aplenty and before our tiredness kicked in, we were led back to the village center, almost empty as the last regularly scheduled boat had left at 6pm. At an open-air restaurant, we engaged in lively discussion among our group members on the possible future of Palau Ubin. Active facilitators who might have had training in acting made sure that each and every audience member had their say and a 3D map of the island on the table was much more than a stage prop but what we could actually work on.
I was in the same group as a young couple, a mathematician, a physicist and an environmentalist and the diverse discussion was like that of an integrated force assigned to tackle a major issue, a democratic experience. Before our group’s conclusion was presented to the large group at the end, we’re told that our suggestions would also be presented to relevant government and private agencies.
Evidently, ubin made sure that this collective experience was not merely voyeurism or immersive performance. It took advantage of the audience’s presence to the fullest and reminded us that arts could, and should, be a two-way communication, in which the artists also listen to our thoughts, and have aesthetic merits as well as social and even political functions. In fact, this second act was not repeatable too as a new group of audiences with different backgrounds and opinions arrived the following evening.
Back at the Changi Ferry Terminal after four hours of ubin experience, the last surprise was that all of us needed to put our bags through a scanner, like that in the airport, to make sure that we hadn’t picked any fruits from Palau Ubin trees, an illegal act. An exception, bags of jackfruits given to ubin audiences by Palau Ubin locals as souvenirs on our way back were allowed if they had not already been enjoyed on the boat.
No surprise they say a festival is that special time when you get to experience what you usually don’t at other times of the year yet are relevant to your daily life. A festival is not when a UFO lands with aliens who have nothing to do with our everyday, no matter how talented they are, and who leave shortly after our excitement fades.
On-site works of SIFA 2022 have finished, but now that the pandemic has taught us to explore new options in almost everything, we can still enjoy filmed performances of four SIFA works anywhere, with their house programs and education kits online, until July 10 at www.sifa.sg/vod
By Pawit Mahasarinand
The writer’s trip was supported by Arts House Limited and Tate Anzur. Special thanks to Eileen Chua and Hilary Tan.
Photo: Debbie Y./ Arts House Limited