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Asian Theatre Journal 19.2 (2002) 369-371

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Theater and the Politics of Culture in Contemporary Singapore. By William Peterson. Middleton, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 2001. 287 pp.; ill. Cloth $60

William Peterson's Theater and the Politics of Culture in Contemporary Singapore, using English-language theatre as its lens, monitors the politics and culture of Singapore. Peterson examines how Singaporean theatre artists have represented the society's diversity and complexity in their work under the control of the government's cultural policies. The book is an informative investigation of the historical, political, social, and cultural conditions of contemporary Singapore in the process of decolonization. We learn that both politicians and artists in Singapore have engaged in the same postcolonial project to find a national identity. Peterson's on-site research of theatre and social life in Singapore, his analysis of theatre and other art forms, his attendance at theatrical performances in the early 1990s, and his direct contact with the artists [End Page 369] create an accurate and "thick" description of Singaporean theatre and help the reader to experience the environment surrounding Singaporean artists.

In the initial chapter, Peterson sets the stage for theatre in Singapore by surveying the political developments and cultural policies under the rule of the People's Action Party government. The political leadership, Peterson argues, shifted in 1990 from Lee Kuan Yew, who focused mainly on economic growth, to Goh Chok Tong, who has been emphasizing cultural development. Goh's "soft-authoritarian" government established the National Arts Council (NAC) to create a "culturally vibrant" society. The broadness of the NAC's new classifications of theatrical censorship, Peterson explains, has created rigorous self-censorship among the established theatre companies. Goh's effort to articulate Asian values instead of Western ones anticipated the state's control over artistic freedom in Singaporean theatre.

The second chapter looks at Singaporean theatre against the backdrop of the state-managed discourse of crisis. In chronological fashion, Peterson explains the government's consistent reaction to the threat from communist-inspired political theatre through three incidents: the four-year-long detention of Kuo Pao Kun in the late 1970s following the involvement of the "Go Into Life" campaign; the arrest and torture of members of the socially conscious theatre group Third Stage in 1987; and the 1994 banning of the Necessary Stage's presentation of August Boal's Forum Theatre.

The rest of the book discusses the contemporary conditions of Singaporean theatre by focusing on the work of the 1990s. In the third chapter, Peterson analyzes three efforts at staging national identity and nationhood through the government's social and language policies. First he touches on the multilingual theatre of Stella Kon and Kuo Pao Kun that mirrors the policies that have encouraged Singaporeans to choose one's own culture and speak its language. He then looks at Robert Yeo's The Eye of History— concerning two founding fathers of Singapore, Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles and Lee Kuan Yew—and large-scale National Day musicals about the history of Singapore carefully orchestrated by the government. Here Peterson fails to find Singapore's true national culture or the complexity of its cultural web, however, and questions the static and constrained nature of the work.

The following three chapters focus on issues relating to the position of the body in contemporary Singaporean theatre. First Peterson looks at models of the sexualized body by examining four performance texts of Krishen Jit, Kaylene Tan, K.K. Seet, and Kuo Pao Kun, as well as advertisements on the street. Looking from a Caucasian male's perspective, Peterson argues that the Caucasian body, on and off the stage (as seen in Jit, Tan, and ads), serves as an object of consumption and is sometimes regarded with ambivalence or even hostility. The overtly sexed Asian body in K. K. Seet's Les Liaisons Dangereuses, by contrast, decolonizes the Asian body from the hegemony of the Caucasian body. Eunuchs and Singaporean yuppies in Kuo's Descendants of the Eunuch Admiral, Peterson claims, represent the model of the oppressed body under...