National Language Class by spell#7 began life in late 2005 as a short participatory performance at the National Library of Singapore, inspired by Chua Mia Tee’s 1959 painting of the same name. It was subsequently adapted for the theatre, and changed and grew as it toured to Bangkok and Jakarta, and was re-presented on multiple occasions and in various forms in Singapore. This website contextualizes and archives this process, and documents two full performances: one from April 2008 at the Esplanade Studio Theatre, and the other in January 2016 in the City Hall Chamber of the National Gallery Singapore.
As critical reception of the performance, found in the Dig Deeper section of this website, attests, commentators recognized that the National Language Class performance addressed tensions between language and power, ethnicity and national identity, the past and the present. These challenges are common to many societies in many parts of the world. However, it was only when I sent an un-subtitled edit of the performance to an uncomprehending friend in the UK, that I realized how deeply embedded in the cultural and historical context of Singapore the performance actually was, as well as how different watching the film documentation is from actively participating as an audience member. The extent of my friend’s confusion underscored how much I had taken for granted about even apparently simple matters, like knowing whether the performers were speaking in Malay or Mandarin at a given moment. It also highlighted how important learning the keywords at the beginning of the performance is to following the action and shifting power dynamics later on.
These difficulties were only compounded by the fact that the original impetus for the performance was itself something of a historical blind spot. Not only did the Malay-language future envisaged by Chua Mia Tee when he painted ‘National Language Class’ in 1959 never materialize, but that very aspiration, tied up as it was with dreams of a postcolonial merger with Malaysia, is poorly understood in contemporary Singapore. Since Singapore independence in 1965, English has risen to prominence as the lingua franca in a multilingual environment. Meanwhile, the present-day economic success and cultural distinctiveness of Singapore gives the impression of inevitability to a nation state whose beginnings were faltering and whose viability at the time was far from certain.
What made us think there was potential in developing the original 2005 version of National Language Class was the well-meaning but perhaps rather naïve eagerness many members of the public showed when presented with the opportunity to learn a few rudimentary phrases of their own national language. They knew they did not speak it, but were less aware of why not, let alone what it means to have a national language that is today largely the province of a specific ethnic minority, the Malays, who make up less than 15% of the population. Conversely, when, in later versions of the performance, the actor playing the student (Yeo Yann Yann in 2008, Tan Wan Sze in 2016) sought to translate the phrase ‘bangsa Malaya’ (‘Malayan nation’) into English, her Malay interpreters in the audience would often falter: today, ‘Malaya’ is rarely used, and ‘bangsa’ generally denotes a racial grouping, as in ‘bangsa Melayu’ (‘Malay race.’)
This website therefore has several goals. The first is to make footage of National Language Class publicly available, and in so doing to contribute to the slowly growing stock of archival materials that document Singapore’s dynamic and diverse theatre scene.
The second goal is to provide an opportunity to revisit the core themes of language and identity that National Language Class explored. Even a performance about recovering and reflecting on cultural memory recedes with the passage of time, although the resulting ironies can be acute. In 2012, against the combined backdrop of the National Day celebrations and Malay Language Month, a brief debate erupted after a letter to the Straits Times questioned the relevance of Malay as the national language. In response, former journalist Teo Han Wue wrote an article entitled ‘When Chinese learnt Malay with verve’ (Straits Times, 29 July 2012), which fondly recounted the experience of learning Malay in the late fifties. The article was illustrated by Chua Mia Tee’s ‘National Language Class’ painting, and made several of the same points raised by spell#7’s performance, and indeed by Ong Soh Chin’s 2006 response to the performance, which had also been published in the Straits Times accompanied by Chua’s painting, and is summarized in the Dig Deeper section of this website.
When the National Gallery Singapore opened in late 2015, it named its major survey of Singapore art after a line on the blackboard in Chua’s painting, Siapa nama kamu? [What is your name?]. This was the context in which the re-staging of National Language Class was commissioned, and may be, as curator Seng Yu Jin suggests in an interview featured under the Learn More section of this website, a sign of increased recognition of the significance of the period in question to Singapore’s contemporary self-understanding.
Nevertheless, that the history and politics of language is a recurring topic of conversation points both to the fickleness of public discourse, and to the enduring importance of the subject. A third aim of this website is to provide one kind of context to such discussions. Not that it makes any grand claims to historical authority. National Language Class was first and foremost a formalistic response to the conundrum that Chua’s quite beautiful painting presents to the present-day viewer (namely, the disjunctive relationship between the past that is represented and the present we inhabit), and the extra features on the site flesh out some of these aesthetic considerations. English subtitles (optional in the 2016 version) make up for the different between participating live in the performance and watching it on video. Colour-coding signals which languages are being spoken: yellow for Mandarin, orange for English, white for Malay. To give some sense of what it was like to participate in the show (albeit without the social pressure!), there’s the Teach Yourself section, which also constitutes an alternative rendering of the broad brushstrokes of the performance. The lively interviews and accompanying slideshows under Learn More then provide background on a variety of different topics relating to the painting, the performance, and the politics.
Taken together with the performance images, reviews and essays found in Dig Deeper, these features provide a comprehensive record of the production and reception of National Language Class. But comprehensiveness does not – and should not – mean completeness. Given the participatory nature of the performance, audience responses were more than usually varied. In some cases, for instance, audiences would resist the Student’s slide from Malay into Mandarin instruction; at other times, they would embrace it. Subsequently, some would enthusiastically correct the Teacher’s Mandarin, while others sat in perplexed silence as he somberly re-designated himself a student.
Such differences, which influenced the tone and available meanings of each new performance, are inevitably difficult to represent in a document such as this. Hopefully, however, the spirit of engaged ambivalence in which the project was developed and presented, does come across. Certainly this spirit animated the artists and other collaborators who contributed so generously and intrepidly to the creation of National Language Class and this website, and for that I am grateful and deeply humbled. But languages are open-ended conversations, and I’ve said my piece. Over to you.