Encounter lesser-known stories of the Orang Seletar in Drama Box play Tanah:Air at Malay Heritage Centre

SINGAPORE – Lesser-known nuggets of Singapore’s history will be dredged up in a Drama Box production at the Malay Heritage Centre this month.

Tanah: Air: A Play In Two Parts, which will be performed in Chinese and Malay, explores the dispossession and loss of the indigenous Malays and Orang Seletar in Singapore, while traversing the boundaries between languages .

Tanah (“land” in Malay), a Chinese play inspired by Singaporean novelist Isa Kamari’s Duka Tuan Bertakhta, tells the story of a girl in 1891 Singapore who loses her home on the sea and is forced to come ashore, and will be presented through a movement piece and narration.

Air (“water”), meanwhile, is a verbatim performance in Malay which will explore the displacement of the Orang Seletar, an indigenous community in Singapore which have since left the island and re-settled on the southern coast of Johor.

The two-part production is directed by Kok Heng Leun, Koh Wan Ching and Adib Kosnan and runs from Oct 16 to 20.

Playwright Zulfadli “Big” Rashid, 38, who is behind the script for Air, interviewed the Orange Seletar villagers of Kampung Sungai Temon in Johor for research.

“These are people who until recently, have only oral history to define themselves by. They do not identify themselves as Malays, they proudly call themselves Orang Seletar,” he says.

“Singapore has a rich and diverse history, beyond the 54 years of nationhood. Very sayang (‘a pity’) if we are to remain ignorant and not recognise these chapters of our nation’s history,” adds Zulfadli, who notes that the Orang Seletar have been left out of the national narrative.

Playwright Neo Hai Bin, 34, who wrote Tanah, lets on that his young protagonist forms an unlikely friendship with Tengku Prabu, wife of Sultan Hussein.

“We were intrigued by how these two women could have reacted to the events of their time, and we tried to imagine their struggle and their fight. There is little information about Tengku Prabu. But there was a poem that spread among the people of Singapore in the 1800s, suggesting that she may have had an affair with the palace adviser, Abdul Kadir.

“Why are women often depicted as being responsible for the downfall of a royalty? In our story, we re-imagine how these two women struggled to find their footing in that environment,” Neo says.

He adds that while he was doing research for the play, he came across some interesting pieces of information – such as the arrival of Muslim saint Habib Noh in Singapore in 1891, and the fact that four Englishmen converted to Islam because of him. While these particular events did not make it into the play, Habib does. “We emphasised how (he) worked hard to provide spiritual comfort for the Malays in that era of tremendous change.”

One of the things the production will, hopefully, do is get its audience thinking harder about lesser-known strands of the island’s history.

Director Adib Kosnan , referring to the Orang Seletar, says: “Some people may not be aware at all of their existence save for their name that we have used in our shopping mall, expressway and airport. They have lived on the same seas and their history is so closely linked with ours, but today there’s a border in place”.

People attending Tanah.Air: A Play In Two Parts can keep learning even after the show has ended. Drama Box is organising full-day tours to Johor to Kampung Sungai Temon next month. A mini exhibition at the Malay Heritage Centre will also shed light on the Orang Seletar community through various photos, artefacts, projections, and audio and video recordings.


Where: Malay Heritage Centre, 85 Sultan Gate

When: Oct 16 to 20, from 8.15pm to 11.15pm (with 15-min interval)

Admission: $68 (standard ticket); $148 (ticket and tour package) at https://tanah-air.eventbrite.sg

Info: Performed in Malay and Chinese, with Malay, Chinese and English surtitles. The full-day tours to Kampung Sungai Temon are sold out, although a waitlist is available. The mini exhibition is free and will run at the Malay Heritage Centre from Oct 17 to 20 Oct, 10am to 6pm.

For more information, visit www.dramabox.org or www.facebook.com/dramabox

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