- Six of the Best
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Just when the media brouhaha surrounding the Michael Fay affair seemed to have settled, the Singaporean team of director Ong Keng Sen and playwright Tan Tarn How emerged with a play [End Page 214] inspired by the infamous case of the American teenage vandal—even though Fay is never directly referred to by name and some facts are altered to heighten dramatic impact. In an ironic twist to the six punitive strokes delivered by the judge’s verdict, the play assembles a motley group of six characters within a fictitious advertising firm as token representations of Singapore society: one Chinese woman, two Chinese men, two expatriate men (one American, the other British), and one Malay man who is homosexual. Their diverse responses to the trial and its verdict, and the ideological and attitudinal conflicts these engender, constitute the basis of the play.
Tan’s intention is the disclosure of the latent prejudices that emerge when people are confronted with a crisis that challenges their identities and value systems. He has written other equally controversial, issue-driven plays, including Undercover, a raucous farce about the machinations in an internal security department, and The Lady of Soul and Her Ultimate S-Machine, a trenchant satire of censorship and Singapore’s quest for soul. Six of the Best was written in May 1994, shortly after Fay was sentenced. But Ong decided to distance his production from the event by delaying it for two years. Ong’s choice of performance area, however, fits the confrontational nature of his subject: a black box, with the audience flanking opposite ends of a traverse space. The spectators are therefore not only in close proximity to the dramatic action, but also the reluctant and uncomfortable witnesses to the reactions of their fellow spectators. In the final scene, the actors unfurl lengths of masking tape all across the performance area, further implicating and enmeshing the audience.
The action stretches the duration of a single day, unfolding around Fay’s sentencing. The play opens with the characters’ speculations about the judge’s decision in the late morning of a typical day at the office, extends through the triumph of the firm securing a new five-million-dollar account in the afternoon, to the aftermath of the verdict that same evening, when a celebratory party erupts in a drunken brawl of racial intolerance and cultural stereotyping. The six principal characters are deliberately left ambivalent, with the result that no one in particular becomes the voice of reason. The expatriates espouse liberal politics, but see nothing wrong in commanding higher salaries than their local counterparts for the same work. The only woman in the office is both a victimized “sarong party girl” (a derogatory Singapore term for an Asian woman with a Pinkerton complex) and a [End Page 215] shrewd manipulator of her feminine wiles. The most overtly racist of the Chinese men sees himself as “civilized,” but is unable to respond convincingly to accusations regarding footbinding and spitting.
Interspersed in the basic structure of the play are a series of surreal and symbolic tableaux. These either reprise sequences of previous scenes in slow motion or assume the form of interrogations and confessions. During these scenes, everyday objects take on sinister shades: a paper cutter, a hole puncher, a stapler, or a steel rule are brandished about like weapons. An overhead projector is used as the blinding spotlight for Gestapo-like interrogation scenes. Throughout these tableaux, the characters also double as the old imperialists of Singapore, narrating from memoirs and travelogues of that era, which express misguided colonial sentiments or ludicrously ignorant misapprehensions of the “Other.” But Ong is careful in not stacking all the cards against the colonials. One of the more disturbing tableaux is the stylized rape and subsequent...