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8 Mar 2005

alfian sa'at

Twenty-something poet-playwright, Alfian Sa'at, who will be in London this week for the 'Singapore Season,' shares what inspires him as a writer, his thoughts on the state of gay acceptance in Singapore, muscle queens and circuit parties.

Primarily concerned with Malay-Muslim issues, gender politics, and civil society and active citizenry, Alfian Sa'at published his first collection of poetry at 21. One Fierce Hour (1998) was hailed by Singapore's The Straits Times as "truly a landmark for poetry (in Singapore)" while his second collection of poetry, A History of Amnesia was shortlisted for a Kiriyama Asia-Pacific Book Prize. His collection of short stories called Corridor: 12 Stories (1999) won him a Singapore Literature Prize Commendation Award. In 2001, he won the inaugural National Arts Council-Singapore Press Holdings Golden Point Award for Poetry, as well as the National Arts Council's Young Artist Award for Literature. Alfian is also known for his two popular gay plays Asian Boys Vol 1 & 2.

Alfian Sa'at
Currently a medical undergraduate, he will present several of his works including Mengapa ISA? Optic Trilogy/Asian Boys Vol 1 & 2 at London's Institute of Contemporary Art and discuss the pink dollar (The Pink Dollar in Singapore: Capitalist Pragmatism in The Nation) with gay activist Alex Au and Fridae's Chief, Stuart Koe on March 12.

Alfian: 27, Male, Playwright, Singapore.

æ: What's your 'look'?
Alfian: Wallflower.

æ: What are you currently occupied with?
Alfian: Well, I'm off to London where TheatreWorks is presenting readings of my plays at the Institute of Contemporary Art as part of a 'Singapore Season': The Optic Trilogy, Mengapa ISA? (Why the Internal Security Act?) and Asian Boys Vol. 1. I'm really excited about Kumar playing 'Agnes, daughter of the god Indra' in Asian Boys Vol. 1. Already he's promised three things: a pink sari, a pink Victorian gown, and a pink sequined dress. And then I'll move from pink couture to pink currency, at a forum where I'll be discussing issues related to the pink dollar with two other Singaporeans Alex Au (a gay activist) and Stuart Koe (CEO, Fridae). After that it's off to Berlin for the Festival Internationale Neue Dramatik, where scenic readings of two of my plays, The Optic Trilogy and sex.violence.blood.gore will be presented. They've been translated into German, and the plays will be performed at the Schaubhne theatre. So if I'm asked for playwright's comments, I'd probably say, 'Um, yeah, I think the cast size is about right, and you guys were... intense.' I'm also writing a musical for National University of Singapore's Centennial celebrations called The Musical Is History - The Musical.

æ: What's the latest in the Singapore gay scene?
Alfian: Platinum cock rings, spray-on tans and Japanese buttcrack-peekaboo Speedos (preferably white)? On the socio-political front, it's more of the same, folks: what you do in your bedrooms is still considered Unlawful Entry.

æ: You're a social activist, award-winning poet, playwright (in English and Malay) and most of your works are deeply political. What inspires you?
Alfian: I wouldn't call myself a 'social activist,' and this is in deference to all the tireless souls out there who are fighting their battles against creaky bureaucracies and clueless Health Ministers. Maybe I'd settle for 'cultural activist,' though I'm most comfortable with just 'cultural producer.' I think what gets me going is a creeping sense of stasis. Of complacency, a selfish sense of contentment - 'the system works for me, so why should I bother whether it's working for others?' At a recent forum on politics, someone asked, 'how much freedom of speech do you think we have in Singapore?' And my answer was 'not enough.' Because that sense of 'never enough' is what gives you the momentum.

æ: When and how did you first discover your love for writing? Do you really love writing or is writing a medium by which you can express your thoughts and disagreement with the system?
Alfian: The writing always has to come first. The selection of the form, the precision of the language. Or else, it's just grandstanding, political pamphleteering. But as I've often said, the personal is the political, so it really is quite inevitable that the writing has some form of political content. I've always loved writing - in Primary School I remember writing 12-page compositions. So when I was 15, I joined the Creative Arts Programme and was mentored by Haresh Sharma - who opened up all my literary chakra points, haha.

æ: Of late, we've seen an increasing number of locally written gay themed theatre pieces from your Asian Boys Vol. 1 in 2000 and Vol. 2 in 2004 and others such as Autumn Tomyam (2002), The Eleanor Wong Trilogy - Invitation To Treat (2003) [Mergers & Accusations was first performed in 1995], Mardi Gras (2003) and Top or Bottom (2004). In Mar 2004, theatre group The Fun Stage, was denied a license to hold three talks as lead-up events to their play Lovers' Words, Jungle Media was also denied a license to hold SnowBall in Dec 2004 and Manazine was told in Sep 2004 that it could only be circulated to subscribers. Taiwanese teenage romantic comedy, Formula 17, was also banned in July as the Films Appeal Committee thought that the film "creat(ed) an illusion of a homosexual utopia". What do you make of the above in terms of the state of gay acceptance in Singapore?
Alfian: There is a certain tolerance to gay plays because their reach is limited to your middle-class audience, many of whom I think the government already considers 'the converted' - i.e., gay people or those already sympathetic to gay causes. And there's some 'gatekeeping' that ensures that gay plays are not as open to the public as most other plays - the R(A)18 classification is one thing, and of course the relatively high ticket prices. But magazines, films and forums make this kind of circumscribed constituency a bit more porous. So I don't think that this really amounts to 'acceptance,' it's still a kind of grudging tolerance within very limited parameters.
æ: What is the achievement you are most proud of?
Alfian: That I have a very close stable of friends who keep me grounded. Who have seen me through personal humiliations, who know my vulnerabilities, who can reflect back to me an image of myself I sometimes fear and want to avoid.

æ: How are you misunderstood?
Alfian: That I'm standoffish and aloof. The thing is, as a published writer, you instinctively develop a kind of shell when it comes to meeting new people. Because there is a certain imbalance in the encounter. You know nothing about the person, but the person thinks he or she knows you, because they've read your description of a heartbreak, or your attitude to personal loss. So I tend to be reserved when meeting people who've read my stuff. Some people think it's arrogance, but it's really a form of self-preservation.

æ: How do you spend your Sundays?
Alfian: To be completely honest, the nature of my job means that every day is a Sunday. But what this means is that some of my 'real' Sundays are spent working.

æ: Tell us one of your fantasies?
Alfian: To be Maggie Cheung's 24-hour personal assistant.

æ: What about yourself would you like to change the most?
Alfian: My impatience at the glacial rate of change in society. Um, and maybe my verbosity (as this interview has well demonstrated).

æ: What was the most important thing that happened to you in the last 12 months?
Alfian: Getting a Playwright-in-Residence status at W!ld Rice Theatre Company. It's almost impossible to become a full-time writer in Singapore, so I'm enormously blessed that the artistic director, Ivan Heng, has given me the space and the support to do what I love.

æ: What do you think is important in a relationship?
Alfian: The recognition that the other person has every right to his or her personal space, even if at times you feel powerless in the face of that incommunicable, impenetrable solitude.

æ: What (or who) turns you on?
Alfian: That moment when all of someone's facades have dissolved. There's that line in a David Cale monologue that goes, 'I will never forget how when you danced, it looked like someone had taken you over.' Which is why I also like looking at people sleeping.

æ: What's your biggest guilty pleasure?
Alfian: I could make my answer sound oh-so-GQ and say something like 'shoes.' But I'm just a writer without a pink cent to my name, so I'll have to say: cosying up to a book of poems right on the brink of a massive haemorrhagic deadline!

æ: What is your vision for the gay community?
Alfian: I wish people would stop believing that there is some kind of 'aspirational' aspect to being gay in Singapore. That if you get that gym membership, or are invited to the right parties, or get noticed and recruited into the right circles, then you've somehow 'arrived.' It's so high school, with the hierarchical dynamics of the Queen Bees, the A-listers, the wannabe's, the cannot-make-it's, the irredeemably condemned. There's an elitism at work which leads to a lot of neurotic behaviour - on one end of the spectrum there's inconsolable self-loathing, and on the other this ridiculous narcissism.

It's perfectly OK if gay people want to be protein-powered circuit-superstars, but it's not OK if they start thinking that this has elevated them to a different caste, and that this means they can marginalise, even tyrannise 'subordinate' castes. I get upset when I'm in a chatroom and someone introduces himself as 'chubby' or 'sissy' or 'Indian' and then automatically asks 'do you mind'? How is it that they think their identity hinges on certain markers? (I mean, is 'sissy' something you call yourself or something that someone decides for you?) And why is this identity then communicated as a liability? Obviously there are socially constructed ideas that have become internalised. I have yet to meet someone who introduces himself as 'hunky straight-acting Chinese' and asks 'do you mind?'

One of the deceptions in econo-meritocracy is that everyone can be rich, as long as you work hard. But the point is, not everyone wants to be rich. Some people don't think that making money is all there is to life. And they get labelled as 'lazy' or 'stupid' or 'incompetent.' It's the same thing with the scene. Not everyone wants to be fabulous. You can argue that gay people can go to neighbourhood gyms if they can't afford the high-end clubs, but the point is, what if they don't want to equate gay culture with gym culture?

Can we respect that, and not see them as merely 'opting out?' Of course, there's always Gramscian hegemony at work, where these kinds of oppressions are possible only because of some degree of complicity and consent. I know people who mythologise and idealise the lives of others, while being keenly aware that they are standing outside these coveted circles. And of course this kind of attitude feeds into the self-delusions of the socially-dominant. No lords without servants.

So PM Lee Hsien Loong made a speech about having an 'open and inclusive' society. And I know gay people would want to use that as an entry-point for societal recognition of homosexuals - for their claims to equal citizens' rights. But the gay community itself must be 'open and inclusive,' and that means accepting its own diversity. This is where the scene ends and a community begins.

æ: Tell us about a cause that you support?
Alfian: Just about anything that empowers the socially-marginalised.

æ: Who would your dream date be if you were straight for a day?
Alfian: I'd rather be lesbian so I could go for long walking conversations with Adrienne Rich in Greenwich Village, Elizabeth Bishop in Rio de Janeiro, and arguably, Emily Dickinson in Amherst and Virginia Woolf in Bloomsbury...

æ: Tell us something even your mother doesn't know.
Alfian: That I love her to bits, but just don't know how to be demonstrative about it.

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