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The Campaign to Confer the Public Service...


W!ld Rice


Amos Toh






Drama Centre, National Library



A Timely and Timeless Campaign

The Campaign to Confer the Public Service Star on JBJ raises certain expectations with its provocative title. However, the prominent opposition figure JBJ, or, for that matter, Singapore's dysfunctional politics, only register in the nudge-nudge, wink-wink references that pop up in the characters' banter. Yet, this Campaign was hardly a cop-out. In fact, it was one of the most trenchant satires of Singapore governance I have ever seen, and I left the theatre challenged, disturbed and intrigued.

Divided into exact, mirroring halves, the first act charts student activist David Lee's hapless attempts to muster support for a campaign to publicly honour "the other JBJ", head of Wildlife Preservation, the other - you guessed it - WP. In the second, Second Deputy Secretary to the Prime Minster's Office (2DS) Clara Tang is enlisted to exercise damage control when David's campaign mysteriously ends in tragedy.

The play's superb construction lies in Wong's clever exploitation of the murky boundaries the government relies upon to keep its people in check, and her ability to turn the euphemisms of bureaucratic speak against the politicians who so often employ them. At the height of Wong's cutting satire, a DSP's (Deputy Superintendent of Police) absurd classification of David's case as "normal", "special" and "special normal" bewilders even hardened bureaucrat Clara. The farce escalates when, after decrying the "New Singapore" with its vague, untidy laws and after mourning the loss of "good old days (where) everything also cannot", the paranoid DSP crawls under his table and sucks his thumb. Wong spectacularly illustrates a system that falls prey to itself, undone by the very climate of fear and ideological confusion it perpetuates.

Beneath the play's vibrant, talky surface, one gets the eerily familiar sense that everyone is on the verge of violating some unspoken boundary. In the first half, Pam Oei plays multiple roles, and her hilarious caricatures of jumpy receptionists misconstrue David's intentions, and shrilly proclaim their "innocence" before hastily hanging up on him. Paranoia also creeps up on David and his faithful sidekick as they move into their refurbished ASS (Association of Students for Self-expression) headquarters. As they survey their new apartment, both peer into the audience through make-believe windows before nervously assuring themselves that no one is spying on them. Here, the minimalist set and action on stage coalesce to invoke a brilliantly ironic moment. Drawing inspiration from the repressive regime of George Orwell's 1984, Brian Gothong Tan and director Ivan Heng craft a subtle yet powerful backdrop of an omnipresent eye surrounded by many projector screens that looms over the oblivious pair, undermining their false sense of security. Evidently, Big Brother is always watching.

However, to say that Campaign is a political satire would be accurate but incomplete. Wong intercuts her intricate portrayal of bureaucracies and how they function with jibes at our artistic and academic pretensions, mining remarkably thoughtful connections between art, education and our fixation with red tape.

In this respect, two scenes stand out. In the first, Wong shows us a decorated university professor who turns out to be a fraud who hides behind jargon and manipulates her research for dramatic effect. In the second, she exposes our penchant for artistic posturing through Eddie Bambang Hariyanto, a flaming arts queen who exploits the hype over pseudo-abstraction to stage sell-out shows of "rap lyrics performed as Japanese noh". Wong suggests that we obsess over largely cosmetic processes, guidelines and regulations in the same way we tend to value style over substance, perhaps to distract ourselves from reality.

In a play essentially of and about words, the burden of conveying Wong's ideas rests on actors Pam Oei and Rodney Oliveiro. They do not disappoint. Granted, Oliveiro is the less remarkable of the two, but this creates an interesting dynamic that makes them an oddly captivating pair to watch. In the first act, the irrepressible Oei benefits from Oliveiro's understated performance as David Lee. She transforms from one hilarious caricature to the next at lightning pace, her energy and verve playing off the bland student activist persona Oliveiro inhabits. In the second, Oliveiro reclaims some of the spotlight with his droll send-ups of uniquely Singaporean personalities. They provide excellent contrast to Oei's conflicted bureaucrat Clara Tang, who struggles to reconcile a soul-sucking bureaucracy with her idealism.

Campaign is a remarkably thoughtful play that demands a careful and discerning audience: huge chunks of the dialogue are fraught with satirical references to various aspects of life in Singapore, while the characters' slightest actions are laced with political innuendo. However, Wong's golden ear for the cadence of bureaucratic speak sometimes proves to be a double-edged sword. Perhaps to convey the tedium of bureaucratic processes, the character's speeches are bloated with metaphors and allusions and references often strung together at a frenetic pace. Unfortunately, this also means that one can lose the plot in seconds, alienating many a viewer. Heng could have tempered Wong's heavily layered script with clearer scene transitions and greater moments of introspection. For example, Oliveiro's immediate transformation from Eddie Bambang Hariyanto to Clara's old lover in the following scene momentarily confused the audience, and would have benefited from a simple blackout while transiting from one scene to the next.

Nevertheless, this is a timely and timeless Campaign that dares to speak of the bureaucratic banality and superficial liberty of our time. Wong's latest work persuades us to think about social and political dilemmas many of us would rather ignore. She has found a relevant subject, an urgent set of ideas and a startlingly convincing way to make them live on stage.

"Wong mines remarkably thoughtful connections between art, education and our fixation with red tape"

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Ratings out of 5, based on Practitioner's Vision / Reviewer's Response: ***** = Transcendent / Rapturous;
**** = Crystal / Appreciative; *** = Transmitted / Thoughtful; ** = Vague / Unsatisfied; * = Uncommunicated / Mystified.