By Nicole Chang
On Saturday 8 March 2014, I witnessed a minor traffic accident. A shiny white car came to a sudden halt at a stop sign, and the older dusty blue car that had been tailing it banged into its back fender. All four passengers involved jumped out of their vehicles and started playing the inevitable blame-game. Personal insults were viciously traded – the woman passenger in the front car had a screechy pseudo-British accent which was quickly picked up on by the passengers from the other car. Someone accused someone else of being gay. Halfway through, one passenger whipped out his iPhone and uploaded photos of the damaged cars onto Facebook and a video of the screaming match onto YouTube (title: ‘Racist couple goes berserk!’).
So far, so standard. However this incident did not go viral, or attract an impromptu citizen campaign to hunt down the ‘reckless Ah Beng’ or to send death-threats to the ‘chao ang moh’. These were actually scenes from local theatre company The Necessary Stage’s latest production, Poor Thing (26 Feb – 9 Mar 2014).
Written by Haresh Sharma and directed by Alvin Tan, Poor Thing takes a single incident of road rage and explores the wider issue of ‘angry Singaporeans’, and what happens when this anger crosses paths with social media.
It comes at a timely moment. From Anton Casey, the British wealth manager who got hounded by netizens after posting Facebook comments about the ‘stench’ of public transport, to Quek Zhen Hao who claimed to receive death threats after videos of him driving recklessly went viral, it seems like the past few months have been dominated by the rising power of ‘citizen justice’ via social media.
Poor Thing was inspired when writer Haresh Sharma shared two such ‘angry Singaporean’ anecdotes. The first involved a mother who held up traffic in a school driveway to watch until her daughter was well into the school building. Director Alvin Tan explains that “the driver of the car behind her got off the car and came to her side of the car, took a photo and a photo of the car licence plate number and got back into her car. No need to talk, no sweat, no fight, no screaming. I’ll just viral this.”
“The second story was Haresh waiting at a cab stand. A child was on the railing swinging his legs. Haresh looked down to check and when he looked up again, his eyes met the mother who exclaimed, “What do you expect me to do? He’s just a child!” Of late, more Singaporeans are ready for a fight in public places.”
But why are Singaporeans so angry?
Tan acknowledges the complexity inherent in this question. “Different people are afflicted differently. Some feel disempowered and some marginalised. Some feel their entitlement not met. It’s multifactorial.”
“On the way to the top, we have indeed become more equipped, more eloquent, more articulate, more confident, and we sure know our rights when we are unjustly treated.”
Video or photo uploads can often have an air of neutrality about them – the camera never lies, so they say. The neutrality of the photo or video-taker in cases like Anton Casey’s or Quek Zhen Hao’s is rarely the focus of attention; netizens are much more interested in the bad behaviour being documented.
The interactive social media element of Poor Thing calls this into question. Before the play, the audience is invited to ‘friend’ one of the characters, Jerome Koshy, on Facebook. As the action unfolds, Jerome’s very real photo and video uploads (like ‘Racist couple goes berserk!’) are uploaded in real-time, and audience members are free to comment at will.
As Tan points out, “as audience we get to watch a fuller context played out before our eyes in the blackbox space. And we see the video recorder provoking the provocateur. So the recorder may not necessarily be a pure victim. As audience we witness how the video recorder is implicated and responsible for the bad behaviour of the person being recorded.”
Though audience uptake of this interactive element was pretty low on the day I went to see the play, the point still stands. What you see on social media does not always tell the full story about what is happening; it addresses the ‘what’, but not the ‘why’.
It is ultimately this attempt to focus attention on the ‘why’ that made Poor Thing a fascinating play to watch. Citizen justice is a tricky thing. Fuelled as it is by a social media landscape with its own limitations, plays like Poor Thing provide much-needed alternative forums to explore issues in depth – not just on incidences of bad behaviour and rage, but on their root causes as well.
Credits: Ming Caleb/Surround Studio