If you search for “Wong Souk Yee” in the National Library catalogue, you won’t find a thing. But type in the titles of her plays, and you’ll find this:
‘No Foul Play’ (No named author or published date). Lee Kong Chian Reference Library [RCLOS]. Photocopy; Handwritten notes at bottom of some pages. For reference only.
‘Cry for a Cactus’ (No named author or published date). Lee Kong Chian Reference Library [RCLOS]. Photocopy; Handwritten notes on some pages; Includes a single poem on an unnumbered page. For reference only.
‘Esperanza’ (No record found).
I was intrigued. So I went to the counter on Level 11 and found I had to submit a written request, along with my full name and identity card number. A staff member went to retrieve the manuscripts from the closed access section. “Come back in 15 minutes,” they said.
15 minutes later, they were still searching. “Sorry, give us another 15 minutes.” In the air-con blast, I started sweating. Were the police on their way? But why, if I wasn’t doing anything wrong? And was this how Souk Yee felt, back in 1987, when the Internal Security Department arrived to detain her?
But here in 2012, nothing of the sort happened, and I soon found myself looking through the manuscripts of ‘No Foul Play’ and ‘Cry for a Cactus’ – loose photostated sheets, typed script and faint handwritten notes. Much later, I found out I could have freely borrowed the book ‘5 plays from Third Stage’ (2005) featuring the plays ‘Oh! Singapore’, ‘No Foul Play’, ‘Esperanza’, ‘Corabela’ and ‘Baby’ from most public libraries. So who was Wong Souk Yee, and why were her plays considered dangerous and subversive 25 years ago?
The early years
Souk Yee’s father was a butcher and wholesale pork distributor – “a typical, stoic, hardworking man who hardly communicated” – while her mother was a housewife who had had no formal schooling, and never held a job. “My parents had no worldviews!” she added, describing her family as ‘conservative’. Born in 1958, she was the youngest, with three older brothers and two older sisters who remain mostly “staunch PAP supporters”.
“I was just a simple, silly, plain girl!” she laughs. “I wasn’t very bright academically, wasn’t very socially aware.” Her father worked hard at his business till he passed away when she was 17, and she led a somewhat comfortable life. Even during her days in Fairfield Methodist Girls’ School and Hwa Chong Junior College, when the Vietnam war was escalating, she recalls her own indifference and lack of awareness.
So when she entered the University of Singapore, “it was a different universe!” She fondly remembers the camaraderie at Students’ Union activities such as Cultural Night, when they built a stage on the basketball court, and performed sketches and folk dancing.
“My interest was in drama,” Souk Yee said, describing how she pursued this interest in the Students’ Union and the Cultural Activities and Community Service Club at the university. “My classmate even thought I was a clerk with the university secretariat and not a student, because I was more involved in student activities than my studies!”
After graduating with a degree in accountancy, she became a journalist with the Business Times, and then a market researcher. “But I got restless with my day job; I wanted to do something useful for society.” So with nine friends, she founded the theatre company Third Stage in 1983, to develop local plays that used Singlish to explore Singaporean stories. “The content came naturally – we just wanted it to be socially relevant.”
The active years of Third Stage (1983 – 1987)
The idea for her first play emerged from the tragic suicide of a young lady. “My friend told me of a journalist in Singapore who drowned herself in the canal along Kim Seng Road,” Souk Yee recalled. “She didn’t have a university degree, had to struggle in her job, and went through some difficult relationships. So the play was an attempt to explore her inner landscape.”
Written before the official formation of Third Stage, it was the product of a workshop facilitated by the late dramatist Kuo Pao Kun. “He would give us a scenario, then get us to lie on the floor, close our eyes and think of crazy things!” The group’s responses and improvisation culminated in ‘No Foul Play’, written by Lim Soon Neo and Wong Souk Yee, and performed at the Drama Centre in July 1983.
“In those days, there was not much, if at all, Singlish on stage,” Souk Yee said, explaining that although Third Stage was a fledging group performing to a small audience, it was refreshing to have a play use ‘everyday English’ with ‘a context close to our hearts’.
Vernacular, everyday Singlish was also used in ‘Cry for a Cactus’, a play written and directed by Souk Yee, and performed in January 1985 – when she was just 26. With the opening scene set in the familiar Far East Plaza, the characters aged around 20 struggled with parental and societal expectations, likely echoing the experiences of many other young people.
But it was the play ‘Esperanza’ that garnered the most public attention. Written by Tay Hong Seng and Wong Souk Yee, and performed at the Drama Centre as part of the 1986 Arts Festival Fringe, it was a social realist play on the relationship between an employer and her domestic helper – and received positive press reviews and some thoughtful letters from the public.
An employer, Muriel Speeden, observed that as she “watched Filipina maid Esperanza crumble under the tyranny of her mistress’ ignorance and insensitivity, I kept thinking of my aunt, and of my friend” who were domestic helpers, but – unlike Esperanza – did not have their private lives tightly controlled, and were free to leave an exploitative employer. “This was the true injustice that the play intended to highlight,” she concluded. (‘Clash which made for good drama‘, ST, 7 June 1986)
A Filipino domestic helper, Crisanta Sampang, also reviewed the play for the Straits Times, writing that the play made her cry. “Esperanza, the maid, is as real to me as any other maid I’ve met and talked with, on my days off.”
“When a relationship between her maid and employer breaks down, could it usually be because of a lack of knowledge and understanding of each other’s background and personal circumstances? Where lies the secret formula for building a successful working relationship with any employer?” Sampang asked. Questions unanswered, she nevertheless expressed her hope that the play might “close that yawning chasm between maids and employers.” (‘Play may help bridge a yawning chasm‘, ST, 7 June 1986)
On 5 May 1986, yet another Straits Times article quoted Souk Yee as saying: “It is an appeal for better understanding of the maid-employer relationship through dramatising some real incidents.” And in line with this desire for better understanding, Third Stage decided to stage a preview performance for 30 domestic helpers at the Catholic Welfare Centre, to get their feedback and improve the play. (‘Filipinas get a preview of drama‘, ST, 5 May 1986)
Yet, in spite of the approval of the censorship board and funding from the Ministry of Culture, as well as positive press coverage at the time, one year later it was this play that the government would use to accuse Souk Yee and Third Stage of plotting a “Marxist conspiracy” to “subvert the existing system of government and to seize power in Singapore” (‘Marxist plot uncovered‘, ST, 27 May 1987).
Detention under the Internal Security Act
On 21 May 1987, aged 28, Souk Yee was imprisoned without trial by the Internal Security Department (ISD). On 26 May 1987, the Home Affairs Ministry announced that it had “uncovered a Marxist conspiracy to overthrow the Government and establish a communist state.” It stated that the sixteen ISD detainees – including Souk Yee and four others involved in Third Stage – were part of a network of followers, masterminded by Tan Wah Piow, who intended to establish a Marxist state in Singapore. (‘Marxist plot uncovered’, ST, 27 May 1987).
In the book ‘Beyond the Blue Gate‘, fellow detainee Teo Soh Lung wrote about her experiences being interrogated in a freezing cold room, threatened, assaulted and humiliated. In similar interrogation conditions, Souk Yee was made to recall the only time she met Tan Wah Piow.
He was formerly the president of the University of Singapore Students’ Union, but being a few years older than Souk Yee, they never met in Singapore, although she had heard about him from her seniors at the university. In 1985, while she was travelling in Europe, she decided to meet Wah Piow in Oxford – after all, she had heard so much about him, “he was like a tourist attraction!”
At the time, she was writing the script for ‘Esperanza’, a topic which naturally came up during an after-dinner chat. She recalls Wah Piow remarking that it was a power struggle between employer and employee. “To ISD, that was striking jackpot! Power struggle – Marxist terms!”
Based on this recollection, the ISD accused her of obeying Tan Wah Piow, who – according to the ISD – had asked her to re-write her play based on this class struggle, a charge she adamantly denies. “That’s such an insult for a playwright, suggesting that I was being told what to write, that I was doing the bidding of someone else!”
Still imprisoned without trial, the detainees were then forced to make public statements on television, the footage spliced with linking commentary to better align the detainees’ statements with the Home Affairs Ministry’s declaration of the exposed “Marxist conspiracy”.
That done, she was released after four months of imprisonment – but in April 1988, Souk Yee and eight other former detainees made a press statement categorically denying that they were ever involved in a “Marxist conspiracy”. Furthermore, they stated that they were physically assaulted during interrogation, threatened with indefinite detention, and that their release depended on their performance on television which was “grossly distorted and misrepresented by editing and commentaries, which attributed highly sinister motives” to their actions. The next day when the statement was published in the press, they were re-arrested and detained again – this time, for a year.
“Why was I arrested? I think the government made a mistake!” she laughs ruefully. “They over-estimated us, they were paranoid, maybe they thought Third Stage might be impactful because of our connections – but we were just a network of like-minded friends.”
“Yes, Third Stage had a social orientation, and we were often critical of government policies, but no one is above criticism.” Although they delved into controversial issues such as the marginalisation of migrant workers, Souk Yee pointed out that their activities were all conducted above board, with official approval and even government funding at times.
“We were detained for things people are doing now!” she exclaimed, referring to the work of migrant worker organisations such as H.O.M.E and TWC2, as well as theatre companies like The Necessary Stage. “Back then, they chose to give our actions a sinister twist.”
Even some of Souk Yee’s siblings believe this sinister interpretation, and remain very critical of her involvement with Third Stage and the Catholic Welfare Centre. “They thought I was an idiot for trying to take on the government when the government has done much good for Singapore.”
“Abolish the ISA – and let our exiles come home!”
These days, she often plays down what happened to her. Although the ISA detention took away 15 months of her life, subjected her to many torturous months of solitary confinement in a narrow, blazing hot cell, and destroyed a significant part of the burgeoning civil society network, “it was nothing compared to what happened to the older generation of detainees – like Dr Chia Thye Poh, Dr Lim Hock Siew, Dr Poh Soo Kai”, who were detained under the ISA for approximately 26 years, 20 years and 17 years respectively.
That generation of detainees deserve at least an apology for having so many productive years of their lives taken from them, she pointed out. “It was unjustified detention – they were not security threats, but political threats! And even if the government thought they were security threats, they deserve an open trial to defend themselves against government allegations.”
Still, she is not hopeful. This is why she only asks for two things: Abolish the ISA, and let our exiles come home. “Even if many people don’t care, it’s important for people who do care, and to give substance to the government’s claims of change, to show sincerity. We all need this for true reconciliation and healing.”
This article was written by Lisa Li for Publichouse.sg