Community is at the heart of Faizal Abdullah’s truly revelatory piece about his homeland and being Malay in Singapore. As he beckons us into the theatre, we are greeted by his wife, and all sit and watch as he performs his pre-show stretches on stage in front of us. The concept of a ‘lecture-performance’ is brilliantly put together here, as it offers the opportunity for us to really dig deep in Abdullah’s identity, the things that formed his life as a performer, and his people, the massively underrepresented Malay community of Singapore. This is the sort of piece which breaks down any barriers or preconceptions you have about a whole cultural world, shining on a heritage hidden from the light, which Abdullah passionately provides.
The show follows a serious of tangents and trails about Malay culture – the Jawi script and its subordination to the Roman script in Singaporean law, stereotypes (some dangerous and some self-admittely true) about the Malay people in Singapore and how they are perceived as lazy, or less likely to succeed in Maths. Mandatory military service in Singapore is also considered, with Abdullah sharing his experiences of the prejudices he experienced both being Malay and an Actor while serving his country. Above all, Abdullah wants to get across the point that as a Malay Singaporean, he is continually asked if he speaks Chinese, or how you can be Malay and Singaporean, and this performance is partly a broadcasted message to say – “Here I am! This is Malay! and I am Singaporean!”. It’s a poignant motivation.
The Jawi script is central to the piece, as Abdullah also plays an alter ego who teaches the audience Jawi – the audience are very happy to repeat the Jawi alphabet back to him, given his warm and pleasantly respondent nature. He wears traditional clothing in these sections, and relays lost stories and customs of the Malay people as they are represented in Singapore. Alongside a great love for Malay culture and history comes a great love of Singapore, and both in-character and out, Abdullah offers us bittwesweet stories, heartfelt longing and valid criticisms of his homeland of the way his homeland has treated people across all ethnicities. The piece has a constant semblance of what it is, and who it is for, but in amongst the audience were fellow Singaporean Malays, Malaysians and others more familiar with the material, many of whom appeared deeply proud to see their culture on the stage in London.
This piece was an education from start to finish, and as with any kind of lesson, its impact depends on the charisma, enthusiasm and knowledge of our teacher. Abdullah is a truly welcoming, buoyant and inviting presence throughout. Never once taking his audience for being uneducated, this piece is one that can be enjoyed whatever your knowledge or personal experience of Malay culture is. The piece is complimented by excellent production design that helps Abdullah tell his story, with projection providing moments of wonder and contemplation as phrases he repeats are plastered onto the wall behind him.
The only comment I have on improving the piece is that the show makes a lot of references, including extended video sections, about the show’s past performance and how it has changed since then. As an audience member who wasn’t at the first performance, it feels a little superflouous and I much preferred the meatier content that got to the heart of the piece, as the piece’s previous iterations feel a little at a distance for us.
Tender and nourishing in its approach, but with a powerful sense of what it wants to achieve, this show is a stunning intervention in cultural normativity. It demonstrates a whole wealth of knowledge that would have otherwise been obscured – the kudos here lying with its presenter and a concise, deliberate, well-intentioned presentation. Far more than just a Ted Talk however, Abdullah wraps us up in a warm embrace about his homeland, and what makes his people who they are. Inspiring, intrepid, and infinitely intriguing, Abdullah welcomes you into his world with open arms. I feel I came out of this piece a better person than before – what more can you ask for?
Recommended Drink: We sat down with Faizal to talk recently, and he recommended a Singaporean spin on a drink called a Milo – so I can only recommend you try one!
Performances of Siapa Yang Bawa Melayu Aku Pergi? (Who Took My Malay Away?) have now concluded at VAULT Festival. Keep up with Faizal on Social Media for future performances of the show.