Playwright Faith Ng on writing about Singapore

In a playwriting and theatre workshop for The Future of Our Pasts teams, Faith Ng advocated for being a human first and artist second, and told us why we should be writing about Singapore.

Photography by Asher Chua

Faith Ng often struggles getting students to have confidence in their own stories. “The one thing I keep repeating to students in Singapore is that your voices are original,” the Checkpoint Theatre Associate Artist and NUS lecturer shared, emphasizing that our experiences living in this country are worthy of being told as well. “If everyone writes about America, who’s going to write about Singapore — this place, this history which matters to you?”

As a playwright, Faith is no stranger to drawing inspiration from issues and people around her. Her play Normal, which concluded its second sold-out run this April, highlighted experiences sidelined in narratives around Singapore’s education system. She spoke earlier this month in the first of a series of workshops for The Future of Our Pasts grant recipients, as they embark on projects to explore Singapore history through creative mediums like plays, films, books, installations, etc.

Faith began the workshop by sharing about her time pursuing her Masters in Creative Writing abroad, where she realised that what she wanted to write about was back in Singapore after all. She recalls submitting her plays in Singlish as that is how she “naturally thinks and views the world”, only to find them meticulously annotated by her professor, correcting them to standard English.

“I realised that the people I want to write for are back home. I don’t have time to explain why Singlish is the way it is, I wanted to go deeper into issues,” she related.

Participants got an inside look into the process behind producing a play when Faith showed footage from earlier devising rehearsals for Normal.

Returning home, Faith channeled the frustration she felt years ago as a student in the Normal (Academic) stream into writing her new play, Normal. She sought to show the disparity between the national narrative of meritocracy and her lived reality, spending over a year interviewing students and teachers about their experiences in the Singapore education system.

As The Future of Our Pasts teams will also be conducting oral history interviews for their research, Faith advised them to listen without judgment, and to know when certain personal stories are better kept away from the stage.

“You are an artist, but first and foremost you are a human being,” she related, sharing that the conversations she had at times even facilitated a coming to terms with past events for her interviewees. “Some stories you cannot touch. You just have to let it go, let it be.”

Around the room, participants shared their own stories — of childhood, family, love, near-death experiences, travel and more — in an activity simulating the process of representation and retelling.

To give participants insight into the process of developing Normal, Faith shared some excerpts she had written earlier which did not make it into the play, and showed footage from devising rehearsals. Following the sharing, Faith asked participants to pair up and tell each other a personal story of their own, before retelling their partner’s story to the whole group.

For Mark Tan, “it was interesting to see where [his] partner quoted [him] verbatim, and where he told it in his own way.” The activity simulated the process of selection, interpretation and representation which goes into crafting a narrative from oral accounts of an incident or historical moment.

Faith saw theatre and the arts as powerful mediums of telling untold stories, and urged The Future of Our Pasts teams to harness that in their explorations of Singapore history.

Faith later provided constructive feedback on The Future of Our Pasts teams’ own projects, as they continue to refine their approaches towards representing or reimagining Singapore history. For Roshan Singh, it was a rare opportunity to bounce ideas in an intimate setting with a playwright of Faith’s experience and caliber.

“She has an incredible clarity about her creative process, and was able to transmit many mini-insights into brainstorming and troubleshooting creative work. This included how to find the right voice to tell a story, how to navigate the tricky research and interview phase, how to do justice to the subjects whose truths shaped the stories we're telling, and know when it's better to leave their stories alone.”

Importantly, Faith urged the teams to use the chance they now have to tell narratives previously sidelined in local history, through theatre or other mediums.

“Even if what we are taught about (Singapore) history is a certain way, we have an opportunity now to shine on other truths,” she said.