Sekaliwags: notes towards performing disempowerment

Natalie Tai

I’ve been meaning to blog about Sekaliwags for a while now: they’re my favourite spoken word group, and perform poetry that is by turns hilarious, critical, affective, always feminist, and often queer. At this year’s Lit Up festival, I caught their show XPOWERMENT!, a satirical take on nation-building narratives. Styled to parody the infantilising Hi 5!-esque tone of educational theatre ostensibly meant to “Xpower the next generation,” the show’s critique of national myths was performative, accessible, and funny.

Here’s a clip from the show, where they bumped up the parody of NE-performace to mimic presenters at a National Day Parade (I’m loving the snide reference to the NDP’s constant striving to duplicate the popularity of Kit Chan’s “Home”):

The polo shirt-clad quartet takes “kids” through familiar National Education messages of pragmatism, meritocracy, praise for our “forefathers,” and so on. Two themes in particular stood out for me: that of race and the censorship of criticism especially surrounding racial policies, often embodied in the character Nabilah, repeatedly misnamed “Libby” and “Nalibah” by the other characters.

This exchange between the two non-Chinese characters is a brilliant example of how Sekaliwags managed to foreground then satirize the blatantly superficial racial harmony policies that pervade the Singaporean education system, but are in fact blind to the connotative functions in their racialisation of people into artificial and poorly-accomodated ethnic categories:

NABILAH

I have a question Raksha — as a fellow minority, when was the first time you learnt about Racial Harmony?

RAKSHA

What a great question! It was a colouring book in kindergarten

the first time there were three figures in a row

and the teacher said, “Look, it’s racial harmony!

What do you think it looks like? Fill in the colours yourself.”

So everyone obediently looked at each other in class

and tried to copy the exact shade in,

a Malay boy wears a songkok, probably green, Hari Raya F&N Fruitade colours,

a 5-year-old girl who looks just like me wears a bright pink and purple sari,

and the Chinese boy is in a red and white shirt and pants,

the shade of modern living watering down his happy face.

NABILAH

WOW! SO MANY COLOURS!

ISN’T IT GREAT TO BE A COLOUR IN THIS COUNTRY?

Well the first time I learnt about racial harmony

was on a field trip to Jurong Bird Park in Primary Two at Chong Zheng Primary.

I finally sat next to Valerie Chia on the school bus, for a full minute,

before she asked Mrs Tan to place her somewhere else

because I reminded her of a smelly Indian.

But never mind, because then,

Valerie Chia sat next to Nur Aidha, a full Malay!

And they became best friends in terms two and three and four

and in Primary Three when they got split streams,

they still went to recess together and held hands in the queue even,

and they started kissing each other in Primary Five.

(wistful sigh)

NABILAH / RAKSHA

(simultaneously)

Racial harmony. / Lesbianism.

Nabilah’s story mocks the common citation of interracial relationships as a marker of successful multicultural indoctrination, and Raksha’s blissful takeaway from it seems to suggest that it is easier to hear about deviant sexualities in the literary scene than it is to hear critiques on race, pointing to the Singaporean censorship mechanism’s sleight of hand in distracting critics with its permissiveness and sensationalisation of one topic in a bid to draw attention away from its chokehold on other topics.    

“Undesirable knowledge,” as defined by the state, is literally confined to an external, restricted space, a library on Pulau Bahaya Jangan Dekat (a reference to the multilingual warning signs on construction sites and other restricted areas, for those who’ve never thought to read past the first couple of lines on them). The island is eventually destroyed for the sake of the nation’s Harmony and Survival. When Nabilah questions racialised truisms, she is set aside by ostensibly calm, rational voices and angry shouting from Chinese folks and other minorities alike (“STATS STATS GIVE ME STATS” / “we know that if we go into war with Malaysia, you’ll go on their side!”). The final scene finds Nabilah written out of the national narrative altogether

The criticism of state rhetoric and policy is clear, but the Sekaliwags aren’t above satirising themselves, either, as Nabilah launches into a poem “about like, racism and liberalism and Marxism and plagiarism and prisms when I lived in Europe for two weeks.” All the same, even when the audience hears Nabilah’s self-conscious move to lighten or discount her viewpoint as informed by stereotypical “isms” of the same discourses she calls out, we also hear the parts of her critique which, in the course of the performance, has been dramatised for us through other characters talking over and diminishing Nabilah’s critique:

This is for my sisters.

This is for the sisters who never found their sisters.

This is for the woman whom I called a sister but turns out she was my second cousin.

If you’ve ever been hurt by the status quo,

if you’re an F in a world of Ts in this national scale of Myers Briggs duo,

if you’ve ever been told you don’t fit,

that even the time machine don’t know where to land when you’re in it,

this is for you.

This is for me too

but this is mostly for you.

You’re an oddity weirdo nincompoop

for being in the wrong class or ethnic group.

THIS COUNTRY IS NOT YOURS.

As a satirical take on NE programmes, some jokes made on stage were painfully obvious, and some jabs at frequent responses to critical voices cut close to the bone (some were taken directly from the recent Internet discussions on race and Chinese privilege in Singapore, and was a bitter reminder to the audience that Sekaliwag’s mocking of the ignorance and entitlement of self-styled liberal Chinese was nothing compared to the racist hate speech and offline consequences suffered by some of the racial minorities involved in the debate. But it was deeply gratifying and energising nonetheless to hear them being made and to be among people who are laughing or crying along too, especially when dealing with heavy topics that would otherwise be draining and isolating. It’s also worth remembering how poetry has historically been taken less seriously by state regulatory bodies than say, theatre, TV or movies, and it may have evolved as a key site of resistance, consciousness-raising and solidarity for the dissident and the disenfranchised.

The government’s systemic racism and paternalist censorship policies are not news to the Singapore literary scene, of course, and XPOWERMENT!’s over-the-top satire might be bewildering to some. (No more than annual NDPs are, though!) But it’s worth considering the role of spoken word in Singapore literature as a whole: because of their directly performance-based style, spoken word performances can bring crowds in through visceral emotion, humour and anger, which politer, more circumscribed readings at places like BooksActually might lack. It seems that the spoken word scene gives particular solace to those at the margins: women, queers, ethnic minorities, and this may be due in part to its relatively low barriers to entry. The Sekaliwags folk may be fairly seasoned performers in the spoken word scene, but I felt enlivened and encouraged by their show’s self-aware satire of the stories we tell ourselves (and those we don’t let others tell) about race in Singapore.

Natalie Tai, with thanks to the Sekaliwags for help with the script extracts

ps, as a treat, here’s another video of a very fun part of the show, set to the tune of “Samoga Bahagia”.