Friday, July 13, 2018

Pess Gang

Why do establishment defenders rush to claim that a satirical work is "heavy-handed" when it finds its mark? Akshita Nanda, the arts correspondent of The Straits Times, dismisses the new play by Tan Tarn How, "Press Gang," in just such a manner but she does not really address the accuracy of its depiction of the self-censorship rife in the newsroom of the fictitious Singapore Times or of the different personalities satirized in the play. How could she, after all? The people skewered are her colleagues and bosses. And, even more dangerously, her bosses' bosses, the current PAP government that has shown itself to be no friend to the press. It is not without reason that Singapore ranks 151st in the 2018 World Press Freedom Index, three places below Russia.

But you will not find a hint of such a dire situation in Nanda's review. Instead, she insinuates that the play is wrong. "Accuracy is not the point of the text," she pontificates, "as theatre can afford to exaggerate or amalgamate events and personas to illuminate truths." Then she implies that the play's premise cannot possibly happen in Singapore: "So this fictional newsroom is left unable to act on a red-hot rumour that the prime minister's son has slapped the deputy prime minister for daring to question his actions. This parallels the play's oft-stated assumption that neither Singapore's newspapers nor independent news bloggers dare to challenge the authorities for fear of being slapped down."

Note the sleight of hand in joining "Singapore newspapers" to "independent news bloggers." What Tan's play dramatizes, in fact, is that independent news bloggers are often the ones chasing the stories and breaking the news, while newspapers such as The Straits Times are ham-strung by the fear of the government's big stick. Neither does the play assume that no one in the main newspapers dares to challenge the authorities. Quite the opposite. The crisis in the newsroom is initiated by the newspaper's Editor, who writes a column that is critical of the Prime Minister office. A senior reporter surprises his colleagues, and himself, by committing an act of foolhardy courage. So, Tan's play is much more nuanced, and interesting than Nanda's review suggests.

In actuality, Tan shows that these acts of courage are necessarily calculated, given the potential consequences. The Editor publishes his criticism because he has a "godfather" in the government who can shield him. The reporter does the unthinkable because he is on the verge of retirement and he has his two houses and a pension to support his twilight years. These all-too-human considerations do not take away anything from the courage of the actions. Rather, they point to the oppressiveness of a system that necessitates such constant calculations. When you don't have a "godfather" or a pension, as the idealistic young news blogger who breaks the story does not, you can be sued and bankrupted and, denied of any possible employment in the country, driven into exile. We see these contrasting stories played out on stage. They are gripping and real. They cannot be dismissed, as Nanda does, as "oft-stated assumption."

One would have thought that arts reporting is relatively insulated from politics. It is and it is not. It has greater freedom to report because it does not deal directly with party politics. It has, however, its own political bias as any kind of writing does. Nanda could have used her relative freedom to highlight the politics of the newsroom so artfully dramatized by the play. She chose, instead, to defend her colleagues "who feed the printing press with story after story, only to be discarded like yesterday's news" in a sickeningly sentimental manner. And to ingratiate herself with them by writing, "Yet they keep coming, the reporters and editors, in service to the truth and accuracy, and making people feel a little."

After watching the play last night, I could not help comparing it to the 2017 film "The Post," about the publication of the Pentagon Papers by The Washington Post. The Pentagon Papers showed that the U.S. government had been lying for years to the American people about the Vietnam War. The Steven Spielberg film revolves around the mesmerizing sight of the papers themselves, removed from steel cabinets, xeroxed secretly, packed into cardboard boxes, spread around a motel room, pored over by a team of reports. Essentially a visual medium, the film trains its lens on the tangible evidence of government mendacity. In contrast, Tan's play "Press Gang" chases after a rumor, a whisper, a wisp. The play makes much of the need for reliable sources (verbal evidence, not visual), the most reliable of which would have been present at the very scene of the slapping. Even then, since no recording could have been made of the slap, the testimony would still remain verbal. This choice on the part of the playwright is brilliantly correct. With only partial and restricted access to official information, Singaporean journalists are forced to operate in an arena a-swirl with rumors and gossip. We desperately need a Freedom of Information Act, so that we can look up official documents and verify all kinds of reports. The stubborn refusal of the government to legislate such an Act is a slap on the face of Singaporeans.

Go see "Press Gang." Last two days this weekend. See it for the truthful stories it tells, and tells so well. See it for T. Sasitharan's masterly portrayal of that senior reporter Bhavan Muthu. See it for Yap Yi Kai's earnest and utterly believable blogger Mariam Wong (Yes, there are people like her in Singapore.). See it for Amanda Tee's Kerin Khoo, who is not "warm, driven and a victim of her own success," according to Akshita Nanda, but an egotistical charmer who strategically has 'no politics'. See it for the well-designed set and the final fall of the backdrop to reveal ... you have to see it for yourself; for me, it raises the play to the level of a tragedy.

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