It is 1938, Malayan Singapore. The last days of happiness for brother and sister pair, Zabir and Zubaida – so sings narrator Shafeeq Shajahan in the opening number of The Fall of Singapore. Shafeeq sets the background and tone of the story: Zabir and Zubaida’s father, Pak Amir, is a successful tradesman, and the family lived comfortably in the years before the Japanese Occupation.
Pak Amir mysteriously dies, however, and conflict ensues: the British have denied the family the right to bury Pak Amir in traditional Bugis burial grounds, and Zubaida wants to reach out to her boyfriend, British soldier Sub Lieutenant Rick Atlee, for help. This enrages Zabir, who claims that it was because of their relationship that their father, ashamed, suddenly died.
Zubaida on the other hand accuses Zabir of fraternising with the enemy – Bibi Aminah, Pak Amir’s second wife – although Zabir denies that he is aware of the relationship. Rumours of Bibi Aminah using black magic to curse their family arise, planting the first seeds of obsession with the supernatural in Zabir’s mind.
In the second act, Zubaida is now married to Atlee. She returns to her old house to visit Zabir and their mother, and sees how he has transformed from a wide-eyed boy into a superstitious man obsessed with black magic. She is angered when she finds out that he has sold one of their trade ships for a “magic box” which he claims can allow him to communicate with their late father. When he fails to open the box, he accuses Zubaida of conspiring with Bibi Aminah and places a curse on his sister, who inexplicably vomits blood and flees from the house in fear.
Matters escalate, and in the third act, war is upon them. In an attempt to escape, Zubaida convinces her brother to flee with her to Europe with Atlee. They have only a few hours to pack and leave before the Japanese arrive, but their mother refuses to leave. There is a knock on the door, and despite Zubaida pleading with Zabir not to open it, he does. The lights go out, and a shot ricochets.
The Fall of Singapore is part of the Malaya Relived series, brought to life by Liver and Lung, a critically acclaimed and award-winning international theatre company. It is a tightly framed musical, directed and written by Shafeeq, who also composed the music, with the versatile Ian Nathaniel as the music director and producer. Nathaniel also plays the piano, accompanied by multi-instrumentalist Ellie Flynn on the violin.
The first thing you notice is the set: it is intimate, sumptuous. The lights are dim; the room is draped with intricate shawls and sarong; old-school snacks in see-through plastic bags hang from the walls. A body wrapped in a shroud lies on the floor, setting the tone. The audience flanks the centre, close enough to touch the performers (or vice versa, which did happen!).
(Clockwise from top left) Shafeeq Shajahan, Ian Nathaniel, Putrina Rafie and Zickry Yusoff.
It is essentially an exploration of what it means to be Malaysian – “What is our culture? What is important about identity?” – and the answers could very well lie in the past.
The cast is young and talented: Zickry Yusoff, who plays Zabir, is 25; Zubaida’s Putrina Rafie is 28. Both gave commendable performances – although a wee bit stiff in the beginning, once they got into the groove, which didn’t take long, it was a pleasure to see how they claimed the floor and interacted with each other. Zabir’s transformation is particularly notable – from wishing to follow his father on trading voyages and making his mark in Nusantara and the world, he brings the audience along in his downward spiral. Zabir tells his sister, “I have my own dreams now, Zubaida,” when she asks him about his previous ambitions – an innocent enough line, but with the knowledge that his dreams are dark and full of shadows, it is chilling indeed.
“It was really nice to see people on the edge of their seats and being really engrossed in the drama,” Shafeeq comments. Inspiration for the musical came from his mother: “She used to tell me all these stories about Singapore when I was younger – my mum is Singaporean and she grew up in the east coast – and I think black magic was one of those things that would excite me. It was like a bedtime fairy-tale before I slept and it was kind of engraved in my head when I was really young.”
It took Shafeeq two months to write the musical, following a visit to the National Museum in Singapore in December. It is essentially an exploration of what it means to be Malaysian – “What is our culture? What is important about identity?” – and the answers could very well lie in the past.
To me, The Fall of Singapore is perhaps a reflection of Malaysia today – an oxymoron, if you will – and how, as a country that was forward-looking and full of potential, it is today in many ways regressing in culture and identity. The belief that there is a haunting spectre looming over it disallows it to move forward, and until we dispel notions of any such bogeymen – along with the obsession to protect our own from ghosts, curses, the outside world – the future will forever remain cloudy.
Julia “Bubba” Tan is editor of Penang Monthly and head of the Publication and Publicity Unit at Penang Institute. She is intrigued by the past, but does not live in it.