Who Took My Malay Away
In 2018 I was lucky enough to visit Singapore, not something I ever expected to do as I’m not a happy flyer, but it was well worth 13 hours in the sky. I found it an intriguing place, incredibly clean and polished on the surface (and with some of the best food I’ve ever eaten) but leaving a lingering question about how a society can work with such apparent perfection. This curiosity is what drew me to Faizal Abdullah’s performance, along with the lecture-performance aspect of his work, not something I’d experienced before.
Faizal Abdullah is a Muslim-Malay theatre maker from Singapore, in fact he spent the first 34 years of his life there. And in this lecture-performance he explores what it really means to be a Singaporean Malay. What it means to always be challenged about his cultural identity and race. He also explores the Jawi script and how this is being lost. It’s fascinating to hear his perspective, mixed with academic commentary about Singapore or the Malay people, and he cleverly sets these moments apart by using a microphone when quoting references from books or papers.
Faizal tackles some weighty issues here, but it never becomes preachy or dry. He considers the “creation of modern Singapore”, or as it should rightly be named, the colonisation of Singapore, with surprising humour. He had already moved to London when the 200th anniversary of Sir Stamford Raffles was celebrated in his country, a fact Faizal reports on with his tongue heavily in his cheek. This humour also emerges when talking about present day Singapore, it’s remarkable transport system with no risks of strikes – because workers cannot strike, it’s an offence.
The lecture elements are fascinating, but it’s the performative parts of the show that are moving, powerful and emotive. At one-point Faizal repeats “I am Malay”, “I am Singaporean”, ‘I am not Malaysian” along with the text appearing behind him. What starts as a simple motive reaches surprising intensity. This direction also emerges when discussing his name, and the complexities around this. Simple actions and repetition are used with remarkable skill.
The set is minimalist, slowly littered with Jawi script as the show progresses whilst projections are used with restraint on the back wall. Faizal changes into traditional Malay dress at the beginning, and it’s only on my way home that the beautiful significance of this became clear. The subtleties of the entire performance are a treat to absorb.
The audience are a lovely mix, with clearly several Singaporeans and Malay people in the room. Faizal’s references to things such as Malay weddings in Singapore, the Children’s Day song, or three rice dishes a day prompt murmurs of recognition and laughter throughout the room. Yet, as a white-British Londoner I also found so much to take from this performance. In fact, the exploration of the Malay language was fascinating and Faizal’s explanation of how this is dying a slow and painful death was truly moving.
Theatre is about pushing boundaries, educating, and entertaining. And Faizal does all three with style, grace, and sensitivity. He welcomes everyone to share his culture for this intimate hour, and it’s a real privilege.
Created by Mohamad Faizal Abdullah
Produced by Nur Khairiyah Ramli
Siapa Yang Bawa Melayu Aku Pergi (Who took my Malay away?) is in the Network Theatre, as part of Vault Festival 2023. It plays until Sunday 5 February 2023. Further information and bookings can be found here.
You can also find out more about the show in our recent interview with Faizal Abdullah here.