Wong Souk Yee knows the old Singapore and the new Singapore. In 1986, wide-eyed and excited about life, she presented a play, Esperanza, at the local Art Festival Fringe.
More than a year after the staging of this play about the tyranny of an employer over her domestic worker, Wong was detained for allegedly being part of a Marxist conspiracy. The now 56-year-old was released four months later and was detained again in 1988 for 11 months.
Looking back, she laughs and says: “I didn’t even know what Marxism was at the point I was arrested.”
She never dwells on the 15 months she was detained but it opened her eyes to see the sort of society Singapore was two decades ago. And she decided to pack her bags and leave Singapore.
“I could not stand this place not just because of the bad experience. I mean I was not traumatised. I just could not stand Singapore, everything was so constrained,” she says.
Wong travelled to Hong Kong and worked for several publishing houses before she left again for Australia to complete her post graduate studies in creative writing. She later lectured in Hong Kong for another three years.
More than two decades down the road, Wong finds herself back in her own country.
She talks about the new Singapore and why she decided to stay. “Singapore has changed. I came back here and I saw these young people. They are speaking up and they are not afraid. I see these protests in Hong Lim Park. We have some kind of civil society now.
“Many of them [younger generation] are still spending a lot of their time on their careers and studies but there is a small section of the young people who are curious about our society and they will come forward to do voluntary work and take part in human rights activities.”
She speaks with a smile when she talks about the protest in Hong Lim Park. The most recent one involved protesters spitting on their ez-link cards.
“Singapore, I think it is not the boring old place where people are afraid to speak up anymore. [In the past] when people were angry, they were only restricted to griping in the coffee shop.”
She adds that the vibrant local theatre scene also allows Singapore to be less restrictive as she remembered 20 years ago.
“We like to think that plays will have some impact on people who come and watch. If it can stay in their mind and mull over these issues, then it is a small step,” Wong notes of her latest play, Square Moon.
Local playwrights like Alfian Sa’at (Kakak kau punya laki, 2013) and Platform 65 (Rites and Regulations, 2012) also depict social realities in Singapore through their plays and have resonated well with the locals.
When asked if plays can be an avenue for the freedom to express social realities that may be difficult to express in straight-laced news media, she says:
“We are portraying very close to reality. I think you can go as far as you like and you see whether MDA approves it or not. I think if we are portraying what actually is happening I don’t think there is any ground for banning it. Because it happened. Mas Selamat did run away [referring to Square Moon].”
Square Moon is Wong’s re-imagination of the infamous escape of Mas Selamat from prison. Theatre, unlike news media, has the privilege of mixing reality and fiction.
“Maybe we cannot say things that are untrue but because it is fictional, you may still get away with it. We are not a news report, this is a creative piece. We can still get away with a fictional piece. I don’t know, I haven’t tested the water yet. How far can we go?”
So far, Wong is happy with the changing social landscape.