ED2023 Chris Meets ED2023 Interviews ED2023 Theatre

Faizal Abdullah: Who Took My Malay Away?

By | Published on Sunday 6 August 2023

‘Siapa Yang Bawa Melayu Aku Pergi? (Who Took My Malay Away?)’ is a lecture-performance from actor Faizal Abdullah in which he explores his Muslim-Malay-Singaporean identity, seeking to address some misconceptions foreigners have about his home country and the people who live there.

Having won much acclaim when it was performed at the Vault Festival in London earlier this year, the show is being presented at Summerhall this Fringe. I spoke to Faizal to find out more.

CC: What is the premise of ‘Siapa Yang Bawa Melayu Aku Pergi?’ – what themes do you explore?
FA: It’s a lecture-performance that investigates my Muslim-Malay-Singaporean identity and the tension that exists within that identity.

It looks at themes of identity, indigenous displacement, a disappearing language and writing system, and decolonising how the Malay is perceived or thought of.

CC: What inspired you to create a show that delves into these topics and themes?
FA: I met a number of people who did not know that there are Malays in Singapore. Whenever I tell people that I am Singaporean they’ll ask if I speak Chinese. And when I say I don’t – because I am Malay and I speak Malay – they ask if I’m actually Malaysian.

So this show started as a way to clear up the misunderstanding. But from that starting point, you discover why things are the way they are, and then it leads on to the other themes.

It’s like you find a stray rope, and when you pull it, you keep discovering things clinging on to the rope – some are good, some are bad.

CC: How did you go about creating the show?
FA: It began in 2019, when I was still in uni. This was a scenography assessment. The first thing I did was to create a stack of Jawi letters – so, writing out letters from the Jawi script that is used in the Malay language.

I spent almost a day, maybe two, writing out each letter. And I made sure that there were at least four pieces of each letter. Then I treated each piece of paper to make them look old and worn. The whole process took a week.

The Jawi letters had to come first as I knew I wanted to talk about Jawi and the Malay language. That was the skeleton. The rest of the story is like the meat that goes around the bones.

Initially I worked alone, trying out things on the floor, improvising, researching, devising, and recording myself to see what bits to keep. Later on I had collaborators – a dramaturg, a couple of sound designers, a lighting designer, and a couple of visual artists that helped to solidify the show.

And not forgetting my wife and producer, who kind of became the unofficial co-director of the piece. She was also the one who forced me to not give up on the show.

CC: You obviously began work on this project before the pandemic hit. How has it developed over the years – and did the enforced shutdown of the arts have an impact on that development?
FA: It’s changed quite a bit. It’s gone from a ten minute piece that was scenography-driven and participatory and which featured one fictional character, to a 60 minute piece that is a lecture-performance, less participatory, featuring one fictional character and me – as myself.

In the four years since I created the work, the way I see the world and my thinking has undergone shifts. All of these are reflected in the show.

The uncertainty during and post-pandemic definitely impacted the life of the work. But I firmly believe in a higher power whose knowledge is infinitely better than ours and whose design is flawless.

So things happened the way they did because it was for the best. Perhaps without the pandemic, the work would not have the life it’s having now.

CC: As you mentioned, it’s billed as a ‘lecture-performance’. How does that work? Are there theatrical elements?
FA: I’m still exploring the form, so I guess the audience will be discovering with me how the ‘lecture-performance’ works.

There are definitely theatrical elements, because that is my background and my comfort zone. So I think the ‘performance’ aspect is taken care of. I think the challenge for me was getting the ‘lecture’ part right.

I’m sharing facts and quotes with the audience, but I don’t want them to be dry and boring, so that was a challenge I had to overcome. Without giving too much away, I think the audience will be in for a few surprises.

CC: Among other things, you explore perceptions that the wider world has about what it means to be ‘Singaporean’ and what it means to be ‘Malay-Muslim’. To what extent are those perceptions wrong?
CC: To me, it seems not many people know that Singapore is a multi-racial country, made up of Chinese, Malays, Indians and others.

Being Malay-Muslim, I like to talk about what it is like being Malay-Muslim in Singapore. And that’s probably a side of Singapore that audiences are not familiar with.

I want to showcase to the world the country that I know and love. The good and bad. I want to make it clear that we celebrate our diversity, and we get along brilliantly, but sometimes we don’t, and then we go back to being best friends again.

We have a complicated history, and we should never feel afraid to look back at it and learn from it.

There’s always a tension between the Singaporean identity and the Malay-Muslim one. It’s almost like you can only be one or the other.

But in my own way, I am learning to embrace my Muslim-Malay-Singaporean identity. Which no one can take away from me.

CC: Has making this show made you reevaluate your own relationship with your home country?
FA: I am proud to be from Singapore and to be Singaporean.

Singapore is still home. I still have my Singaporean accent and I can detect Singlish and a fellow Singaporean from miles away. And as an eligible male citizen, I served my mandatory two year conscription, ie military service.

So I am Singaporean and always will be. I love my Singapore – warts and all, and I want the best for her. But what I think is best, might not be the best for others. And that is something some Singaporeans need to learn.

CC: How does performing a show like ‘Siapa Yang Bawa Melayu Aku Pergi?’ compare to your other acting projects?
FA: For most of the process, I was working by myself, so it was pretty lonely.

I only had my wife Khai – who, as I said, is also the producer of the piece – as my sounding board. But we’ve gotten a few collaborators this past year, so it has been less lonely.

Performing alone is nerve-wracking, there’s no other actor to save you if you forget a line or miss a scene, you live and die alone.

So whenever I get an opportunity to act with other actors or be part of an ensemble, I look forward to it.

CC: Tell us more about the creative team working on the show.
FA: As I’ve said, my wife Khai is the producer, and also the unofficial co-director of the piece. She is my most trusted sounding board and I can always depend on her to be brutally honest, even if it hurts my feelings!

I am also working with Kinga Markus and Jeffrey Choy once again for the visuals used in the performance. There are more visuals this time round and both their works are so different stylistically, it’s really exciting.

And we have Isyraf, our Singapore-based sound designer. I have been wanting to work with him for some time now and, when this opportunity came, everything fell into place.

Previously we also had Maryam and Jonathan who worked on the Vault Festival version of the show.

CC: What made you decide to bring the show to the Edinburgh Festival?
FA: It was all pretty spontaneous. We had finished our run at Vault Festival, and were very encouraged by the feedback and audience reaction.

When we came across the application for a slot at Summerhall, it was as if was written in the stars. We applied, were successful with the application, and here we are.

I’ve always wanted to perform at the Fringe, so it was a no-brainer.

CC: What are you planning to do while in Edinburgh when you’re not performing?
FA: Watch the other shows. I want to catch more stand-up shows I feel.

Top of the list for me is catching Nabil Abdulrashid’s ‘The Purple Pill’. I’ve watched his comedy online and I think he’s effortlessly hilarious. How he speaks about his ethnicity, the racism he’s experienced, and his Muslim identity is original and unique. Can’t wait to watch him in person.

There’s also two fellow Singaporean acts that I’m hoping to catch: Sam See, who’s bringing back his show ‘Government Approved Sex’; and Gangguan!, who are staging ‘Do Rhinos Feel Their Horns?’

I’m also looking forward to Betty Gunawan’s ‘Unforgettable Girl’, ‘Lady Dealer’ by Martha Watson Allpress, Olly Gully’s ‘Sea Words’, Mwansa Phiri’s ‘Waiting For The Train At The Bus Stop’ and Side eYe Productions’ ‘Dugsi Dayz’.

I also want to catch up on some sleep. And in the last week of the Fringe, I’m taking part in the Horizon Nova programme, so I’m looking forward to that as well.

CC: What plans do you have for the show after the Festival?
FA: We’d like to take the show on tour, so we’ll be working towards that. I will probably reflect on how this run at the Edinburgh Fringe has gone and make some tweaks to the show before we take it on tour.

Khai and I are also looking at other ways to engage with our audience beyond the performance. We’re thinking of Jawi traditional cooking workshops and maybe a mini-exhibition about Malays that we maybe can tour with.

‘Siapa Yang Bawa Melayu Aku Pergi? (Who Took My Malay Away?)’ was performed at Summerhall at Edinburgh Festival 2023.

LINKS: instagram.com/mdfaizal.abdullah