Pity the playwright. Life no longer imitates art; it kicks its butt. Hard. The instant gratification of our newsfeeds makes it tough for art to compete. When real life is more melodramatic, titillating, salacious, scandalous, slanderous, murderous and Shakespearean than any work of fiction, what is there left for the playwright to illuminate of human nature and society?
Still, Kee Thuan Chye, retired journalist, veteran actor – and, playwright – has been working on Swordfish + Concubine for seventeen years. He’s part of a tenacious Malaysian generation of theatre enfant terrible, having experienced the uneven workings of affirmative action first-hand in his youth. But the first iteration of his current critique of Malaysian society was titled The Fall of Singapura. Why Singapura? He can't say, he says, because that would be giving away too much. All the better to pique your curiosity.
So here is Esquire's attempt at a crib sheet to Swordfish + Concubine that you can sink your teeth into, regardless of whether or not you managed to catch the play, to keep the conversation going.
Front piece of a Jawi edition of The Malay Annals
Exhibit A: Report by the Singapore Straits Times
"Having a command of the Malay language can help Singapore bridge South-east Asia and the rest of the world, said Minister in the Prime Minister's Office Chan Chun Sing.
"Businesses from other parts of the world see Singapore as a staging place to the rest of region, he said.
"However, the Republic will be of very little value if it does not understand the language and culture in its own backyard."
In other words, the country without a hinterland might as well be comprised of consumers who seek meaning in material life, bereft as they are of the culture and stories that it can provide. They would know the price of everything and the value of nothing, Oscar Wilde would say.
Exhibit B: Sejarah Melayu
Seventeen years ago, Kee had already looked to the Sejarah Melayu, the Malay Annals, for insights into Singapore's "backyard" in order to write his critique of Malaysian society he titled The Fall of Singapura, now morphed into Swordfish + Concubine.
He tells Esquire the script "does not aim for historical accuracy, but draws on the past to reimagine the present. I take the story and play with it; contemporarise it. But the truth of Sejarah Melayu is still there; it is timeless and universal, so you could relate it to office politics, too.”
Sejarah Melayu demands reader commitment. It was compiled in the 16th or 17th centuries and can be obtuse to the casual scroller of the smartphone screen. The truth of its accounts is found more in its fidelity to the permutations of human affairs than in its verifiable historical record.
The mind of the Hinterland
"At the core of it (Swordfish + Concubine) is the theme of the covenant between Sri Tri Buana and Demang Lebar Daun," Kee says.
In a nutshell, Demang Lebar Daun, the ruler of Palembang, invites Sri Tri Buana, who has magically materialised nearby with his two brothers, to visit the city. (Those who like their history will recognise Sri Tri Buana as the king formerly known as Sang Nila Utama, founder of Singapura.) It transpires that Sri Tri Buana has decided to take a wife, but has so far failed after swiping right 39 times on his Tinder account, or whatever they called it then. Realising that he has been using the wrong app all this time, he then asks Demang Lebar Daun for his daughter Wan Sundaria’s hand in marriage. The two men, both said to be descendants of Alexander the Great, enter into negotiation.
This passage from Sejarah Melayu, as translated by C.C Brown (Oxford University Press, 1970; p. 16), records their conversation thus (as quoted in Malay Kingship in Kedah by Maziar Mozaffari Falarti (Lexington Books, 2012):
Sri Tri Buana said: “What is it that you wish of me?” And Demang Lebar Daun replied: “All my descendants shall be your highness’ subjects and they must be properly treated by your highness' descendants. If they do wrong, however greatly, let them not be disgraced or insulted with evil words: if their offence is grave, let them be put to death, if that is in accordance with Muhammadan law*.” And the King replied, “ I will give an undertaking as you wish but in return I desire an undertaking from you … that to the end of time your descendants shall never be disloyal to my descendants, even if my descendants are unjust to them and behave evilly.” And Demang Lebar Daun replied, “So be it, your highness.” And that is why it has been granted by Almighty God to all Malay rulers that they shall never put their subjects to shame: however greatly they offend, they shall never be bound or hanged or insulted with evil word. If any ruler puts his subjects to shame, it is a sign that his kingdom will be destroyed by Almighty God. Similarly, it has been granted by Almighty God to Malay subjects that they should never be disloyal or treacherous to their rulers, even if their rulers should behave evilly or inflict injustice.
(*If the translation is accurate to the source, then the reference to Muhammadan law is likely out of sync with known historical record, as the covenant, circa 14th century, predated the region’s embrace of Islam in the 15th century.)
Kee says Swordfish + Concubine was initially conceived (as The Fall of Singapura) almost right after Dr Mahathir Mohamed sacked Anwar Ibrahim as his deputy prime minister. Anwar’s subsequent prosecution on charges of sodomy and abuse of power – his public humiliation – was the watershed moment that turned an entire generation of Malays against their leaders. It marked a rupture in the relationship between the rakyat and the kerajaan. The covenant between Demang Lebar Daun and Sri Tri Buana was rent asunder.
But all the king’s horses, and all the king’s men... Equally momentous, if not more, is the reconciliation of Anwar and Dr Mahathir this year, after almost two decades. It comes just prior to a general election due to be called by August next year, and amid public discontent and mounting anger at controversies such as Felda Global Ventures and, more interminably, the international 1MDB investigation. Given these developments, the covenant between Demang Lebar Daun and Sri Tri Buana appears to be mutable, its expression ebbing and flowing with the temper of our times.
Kee is unimpressed with the chapter on the Anwar-Mahathir entente cordiale in the unravelling Malaysian story: “Tragic; like we haven't moved on after all these years. It strikes me that 1984 (the Orwell-inspired play, 1984: Here and Now, written by Kee, first staged in 1985, directed by Krishen Jit) was restaged last year in Mandarin – what shocks and saddens me is that the issues in that play are still relevant.
“We need to move on from a mindset conditioned by government, and move to the beat of our own drum.”
Singapura Dilanggar Todak (1962) | Film Stills by Shaw Organisation Pte Ltd
Exhibit C: Trending topics
Kee is emphatic that Swordfish + Concubine is not a commentary on the Malay monarchy and that it has always been written as a critique of the relationship between Malaysian citizens and their secular government. A run through some of his oeuvre will show the thrust of his enquiry pointing towards what informs the Malaysian deference to authority figures, and our reluctance to say what we mean, which is peculiar to those schooled in modern democracy, because the authority to govern can only be derived from the demos, the people; the rakyat.
The Federal Constitution is the country's founding document that, among other things, enshrines modern democratic processes designed to achieve equal bargaining power between government and citizen. But in practice, it has been overlaid onto existing ideas of royalty and the relationship between subject and ruler, from at least the time of the covenant between Demang Lebar Daun and Sri Tri Buana.
Thus loyalty to king and country has also come to mean loyalty to the party with the most seats in parliament, and to its leader who, by constitutional convention, becomes prime minister at the invitation of the King who, in a constitutional monarchy, substitutes for the president in a democratic republic. Secular leaders in Southeast Asia have a kind of royal status, but must be mindful of the influence still vested in each of the nine Malaysian royal houses, as the "Bugis pirate" episode between Dr Mahathir and the Sultan of Selangor illustrates.
None of the details of constitutional law above is as ingrained in Malaysian or Nusantara society (much less understood) as the covenant between Demang Lebar Daun and Sri Tri Buana.
Nor would they be as compelling as social media scuttlebutt about Muslim-only launderettes, an early indicator of a new class of royalty and authority figure ready to step into the vacuum caused by the failure of the secular democratic process to uplift the people.
Who is this new and incipient class of royalty? It is the cleric, rising above the scandals of all and sundry Malaysian officials on a magic carpet of piety.
Entertainment is Kee's chosen vector for his bubble-bursting messages. Will Swordfish + Concubine be translated into Malay?
He says he does not know yet.