Interview with Alvin Tan

Transcribed and compiled by Kwee Hui Kian

On February 5, 1994, the Straits Times (ST) published a report by Felix Soh that Alvin Tan and Haresh Sharma – artistic director and resident playwright of The Necessary Stage (TNS) – were trained at workshops conducted by the Brecht Forum in New York. After this fiasco of insinuating that they were attempting to promote Marxist principles through theatre in Singapore, both Tan and Sharma went abroad for further studies in Directing and Playwriting respectively. In 1997 and 1998, Haresh Sharma and Alvin Tan were respectively accorded the Young Artist Award in Singapore. Since the incident of February 1994, both of them have also collaborated in more than fifty play productions and other printed publications. In the M1 Singapore Fringe Festival 2010, TNS staged the play “____ Can Change”, consisting of three parts, namely, “Singles Can Change”, “Homosexuals Can Change”, and “Marxists Can Change”. Following the performance of this play, Teng Siao See and Kwee Hui Kian from s/pores interviewed Mr. Alvin Tan.

This interview was held in February 2010 at the TNS premises in the Marine Parade Community Club.

(A: Alvin Tan, S: Teng Siao See, H: Kwee Hui Kian).

S: What was your immediate response when you first learned about the ST article (February 5, 1994)?

A: Oh we are not surprised because I have friends who were detained during the “Operation Spectrum” in 1987 under allegations that they were involved in a “Marxist Conspiracy” by promoting Liberation Theology. In 1987, we were already afraid. During that time, my friends and I stayed in my house, because the authorities were doing the first swoop, second swoop and third swoop; so we are wondering if we are going to be detained maybe with a fourth swoop. So we stayed together, but they did not come for us. When Felix Soh’s article appeared in the papers in 1994, we are thinking, “Oh ya, it has finally come, after all these years….” So it was not surprising.

H: Were you extremely worried after reading the article?

A: About three days after the news report (February 5, 1994) appeared, Tommy Koh wrote a letter to the ST to defend us, saying that Forum Theatre is banned but not TNS. Then we were told by friends that it was mainly because we had no connections with any political exiles. And we are like, “Oh I see, my goodness, we did not know….” About the workshops in New York, it was only because we were then travelling in America and incidentally came across them. And the ISD (Internal Security Department) personnel might have thought that these workshops were recommended by the political exiles or from my friends linked to the YCS (Young Christian Students), CJC (Catholic Junior College), or the Liberation Theology background, and how these individuals might have influenced us. You see, the people arrested under the third swoop of the “Operation Spectrum” in 1987 were said to be connected to the PETA (the Philippines Educational Theatre Association), which was allegedly influenced by Liberation Theology from Latin America, and resulted in the People’s Power and political movements in the Philippines in the 1980s and the downfall of Marcos in 1986. Hence the Malaysian and Singaporean authorities were alerted by these incidents, and the resultant “Operation Lalang” and “Operation Spectrum” in these countries. Mind you, I am making connections between these events myself….

S: So after you returned from your further studies, did you feel that you are still being followed…?

A: We felt that there was less surveillance. In 1997 and 1998, we got the Young Artist Award respectively. Apparently, the award was delayed, for about two to three years. Then in year 2000, we got this place in Marine Parade as the premises for TNS. That’s why one part of the play is “Marxists Can Change”. Then in 1999, we staged the play “Completely With/Out Character”, a biographical story on Paddy Chew – the first Singaporean with AIDS to publicly come out with his illness. We had been interviewed by some foreign journalists. The interview subsequently appeared in a special issue in Time magazine, Asia Edition, with a woman blowing a bubble gum on the cover.[1] The article begins with the discussion of the Paddy Chew play, and George Yeo – Minister for Information and the Arts at that time – was quoted to say that the play never passed his desk; in other words, that the Singapore government allowed it. That’s when we began to realize that we are probably a group that the government needs to show the outside world once in a while that there are these “liberal freaks” in Singapore, and that the government is liberalizing. We realize that we are in this kind of unique position….

From the year 2000, every time I speak in interviews, I have been sharing with everyone that it is not really about “us” versus “them”; because it is the post-modern era, so there are a lot of things that we overlap, and quite a number of things that we work with the government like arts education, arts festival etc. I realize that we can push for our goals together, so it is not necessarily a diametrically opposed kind of paradigm. When we talk about the NAC (National Arts Council), we will praise them sky-high about the “Arts Housing Scheme”. No arts council in the world did something like that which enabled the arts scene to expand exponentially within twenty years. But when the NAC polices us, then we criticize it. It’s not like we are oppositional to the establishment all the time. Rather than taking that kind of simplistic opposition, we look at alternatives, if the government is north, we are not always south all the time, there is east, there is west, etc. So why don’t we occupy these other positions rather than always feeling the obligation to take the direct oppositional stance?

H: That’s an interesting approach…. Some might see it as compromising though….

A: Yes, certainly… because of this positioning, we sometimes come into friction with activists who feel that we have compromised, taken a softer approach…. But we let it be. And over the years, as the M1 Singapore Fringe Festival activities developed,[2] we platform emerging artists, so our old artist friends began to see that, with that kind of capacity, or economic power, relative to them, we are able to look to promote the younger emerging artists, and give back to the arts community as such. So, therefore, this paradox works for us, making some of our artist friends re-think about the necessity to take a direct oppositional stance….

Generally, I find that there is a group of artists who are always looking at principles and integrity without much rigorous research and making easy judgments. I feel that one should not only be an artist but also be an activist-artist, or artistic-activist if you like, in order to determine or influence or affect the environment in which you practice…. We need to negotiate our space all the time, and convince the authorities that they could control viewership with ratings and advisory like “RA” (Restricted Artistic), “PG” (Parental Guidance), etc. but please don’t do censorship. You cannot say that you do not like something, and so you forbid it from existing completely. But with ratings and advisory, you can teach your children, that this thing is dangerous, don’t go near it. And then it is about personal choice, it is the right of an individual, teach the people how to exercise their choice….

As much as we want to criticize the government, we also want to criticize the liberals who only think that liberal thinking is superior and is the only way to go. Because, again, that does not respect difference. From my perspective, people with conservative thinking are still legitimate citizens of Singapore. We can influence their thinking, we can try to convert them… like religion, but you don’t condemn the other religions… so you cannot say conservatives are lesser human beings. They have every right to have their conservative ideas in Singapore. But you can talk to them, continue to have conversations with them….

H, S: [laughs] In other words, you are asking the liberals: do you have the really liberal mind of accepting these differences?

A: Yes, you can chat with them, but you can’t say, because you don’t agree with me, you are lesser being, you are condemned.

H: So just going back to why we want to have this interview with you, we are thinking about how people when they are being labelled by the government, sometimes they may get really traumatized. You mentioned that you were not that surprised when the 1994 article came out….

A: Yes, not surprised and shocked like the world has fallen…. Just a month earlier, in January 1994, Josef Ng presented a performance art event. And a reporter from the New Paper went to the streets, talked to people who had not watched the performance, and described the whole act. So of course people flared up. But one must remember the show was staged at 11pm or 12 midnight at the “Fifth Passage”, an art gallery located in Parkway Parade, with only about fifteen invited persons watching. So by bringing this news to people whom the artwork was not meant for, of course you will get a kind of sensational reaction which is good for selling papers but it got Josef Ng banned from performing….

Moreover, a few weeks before the February 1994 article, Felix Soh kept sending us questions through fax. Our board of director advised us not to answer but let somebody else in the company answer. So Kok Heng Leun, who was then the business manager with us, answered the questions, so it is from the company, rather than Haresh and myself answering it. After a while, we stopped answering because we felt that there was already a slant to the story.

H: What was it?

A: Whatever questions they asked, you begin to feel that our answers might be quoted out of context and used to fulfil the agenda of the story. When the newspaper report appeared, we saw that our guess was right. So after the ST report, the Lianhe Zaobao called us up and said we just want to hear your side of the story… so Zaobao carried a story that according to our friends – I don’t read Chinese – said that it allowed our voices to appear more. Subsequently the ST also had a follow-up story that allowed our voices to appear more. But they called up the Brecht Forum in New York and this organization is “Marxist”. Of course you can get quotes from them and their brochures about what they believe etc. but it does influence people’s thinking. Because the term “Marxist” suggests to popular minds that we went there, and we took up guns and rifles, and that we participated in some kind of guerrilla action etc. So we knew that the next thing is how to explain to our parents. We were very worried that the government might take action until Tommy Koh’s letter was published (three days after the newspaper report) and we knew things would be fine.

H: Could you tell us how you spent those three days – February 5, 6, 7 – in detail?

A: Well, people also wrote letters to ST to support us. And people called us at TNS to express their support….

S: I recalled in an interview that you said this was a period of trying time….

A: Well, after Tommy Koh’s letter, we knew that the government was not going to do anything drastic. The traumatic part was that we heard there was a memo going around that says “don’t deal with TNS….” Things like that trickle in as we go on….

H: Were you thinking about your career…?

A: No lah, it’s just irritating. The trauma was only for a few days. During those few hours after we received the phone-call from our ST friends, we sat down and for 4-5 hours we chatted about what are we going to do in the worst case scenario if TNS was closed down. Some of us were thinking they would go into social work, and some like me were thinking about going into teaching… these conversations were held at the landing outside the old TNS premises at the Cairnhill Art Centre, we stayed there till 2-3am to talk about our futures. There was some concern about how we can carry on our careers in another way. And then we took each other’s pager numbers – last time was pager, no handphone – and communicated where we would be going after we parted, and also shared our particulars and then we went home. And I did not sleep, from 3-6am and then we got the papers. Those hours were really traumatic. And we also think about our sponsors: even if the government doesn’t close us down, what would be their reaction anyhow? So we called up our sponsors, and they say, “Never mind lah…”, so we were pleasantly surprised. Then all the letters of support came in, and the phone-calls came in. We realized that people were not dissociating themselves from us. At first, we thought that the support was just from the arts community. But then the letters on the forum page in ST came in, and more and more burden was lifted.

S: Are you not worried that you might not be able to go into teaching?

A: No lah… at that time, I was about 30 years old, I was young, anything seems possible. I was thinking then, if I could not go into teaching, I could always do tuition. Tutoring is a very lucrative job anyways…. So career-wise, it was not traumatic. But for our colleagues who did not have degrees, we were more concerned, we felt guilty, that we brought this problem upon them.

H: So you were not worried that the government might take action, even in the three days….

A: Yes, maybe, until Tommy Koh wrote in….

S: What about the impact on your family?

A: My parents didn’t really tell me what they thought about it. It was not major hysterics…. But I am worried because they usually don’t tell me what they are thinking, so you think they are worrying about the whole thing. And you feel worse because you don’t know what’s going through their minds and if they are affected internally…. In the case of my parents, they thought that since you have a degree (and they don’t), you must know what to do, you will know how to handle it. When I was telling them what happened, it was more like “for your information” kind of thing, and I was not expecting them to give me advice and suggestions. So you have to second-guess if they are very worried.

H: So when this happened in 1994, did you link it to the 1987 “Marxist conspiracy” thing?

A: Of course!

H: Did you feel that what happened to those people arrested during 1987 might happen to you?

A: No, no, no…. What we are thinking is that, ya lah, every few years the authorities have to do something like that, to get people to know that you cannot push the boundaries too far; to get people to hold back their reins…. So in 1994, we were the scapegoats. So when we heard that some schools didn’t want to associate with TNS, we thought about what Pao Kun (Kuo Pao Kun) has said, that the shadow is usually very long (in Chinese). So when something like that happens, you just have to wait for it to pass….

H: [laughs] You all take it very calmly….

A: You must understand the support we obtained then. Josef Ng for instance did not get that kind of support. And because then in 1994, we were also fairly established because of the success from our recent play “Off Centre”. We were initially commissioned by the MOH (Ministry of Health) but they later had some objections to the play and we went separate ways. “Off Centre” was a great success. We did this play at the old Drama Centre, and the queue was so long that it came all the way into the car park. It was full full house. So we were gaining popularity, and perhaps the authorities felt that our group should be put in its place. We were not rude to the MOH, but we showed that we wanted a certain kind of independence in the way we were going about things. This event took place about five months before the newspaper report.

At that time, MOH was going to give us SGD30,000. it was a lot of money at that time. So in the eyes of the authorities, for you not to take the money and compromise means you have convictions that are equal to the communists. But we were people who were interested to maintain the integrity of our process and our ideals and principles for the show to be staged as how we wanted. For me, ya…, I could talk about it on hindsight, especially since “Off Centre” was subsequently chosen by the MOE (Ministry of Education) as a text for ‘O’ levels. In surviving, you are still able to tell that story. It would be wasted if we had caved in.

S: Ok, you may not agree with the government’s label of you as a “Marxist”, so in your opinion what do you think is the meaning of “Marxist”?

A: I won’t say I don’t identify with any Marxist ideas at all. I do adopt some ideas which might be considered Marxist, like I do feel for the underdog, like the migrant workers etc. We did a play called “Mobile” which is on migrant workers. I think how we are different is I feel that Marxists romanticize the working class, whereas I feel that working class can also be flawed….

H: And what do you think is the government’s idea of “Marxist”?

A: I don’t know, you ask them…. Generally I don’t really believe in labels. If I have to, I will just say, it is basically respecting another human being.

S: Do you think that if reporters used “Marxist” as a label nowadays, it is going to have any effect?

A: I don’t think so. Now the label that can make the most impact in Singapore is “terrorist”. In our recent play, “Gemuk Girls”, we have done that. In this play, a character says, “Now it is not Marxist, it is terrorist, it is the new label”. In the past, the bogeyman is “Marxist”, now it is “terrorist”. If you say “Marxist” now, people will be thinking, “What’s that…?”

S: Indeed, we are contemplating about the potency of the label, whether it has lost its relevance, whether it still has any effect….

A: Yes, I really think it is the fear of exposing the government in a foolish light, the erroneous ways they have used the label for the purposes of social control….

H: Ya, I think from what you are saying here, it seems that even in 1994, there is not much effect anymore. You apparently did not feel much trauma even at that time when you are labelled as such….

A: Well, especially now that we have survived, and carried on, without being detained, one can be sure that it was clearly a mistake and it shows how over-paranoid the authorities were. That’s one of our inspirations to do “Marxists Can Change” actually. “Marxists Can Change”, which appears after the parts of “Singles Can Change” and “Homosexuals Can Change”, is to make the audience rethink after the earlier two parts.[3] It is about the failure of labelling, you see, and the limitations of labels. Then they can revisit “Singles Can Change” and “Homosexuals Can Change” in a new light. But without seeing “Marxists Can Change”, the other two parts of the play would appear too much as a rightist propaganda….

S, H: Well Alvin, thanks very much for accepting our interviews…. We look forward to further inspiring productions from you and Haresh!


[1] See,8599,2054247,00.html

[2] TNS has been organizing and curating this annual event since its inaugural festival in 2005.

[3] The part “Singles Can Change” is about how a single woman who had not wanted to have a family eventually changed her mind completely, while “Homosexuals Can Change” is about a homosexual man who eventually became heterosexual.