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‘Press Gang’: The Journalist and the Political Heart of Singapore

‘Press Gang’: The Journalist and the Political Heart of Singapore

by Simon Vincent
11 July 2018

Singapore Theatre Festival 2018
Presented By: W!LD RICE
Written By: Tan Tarn How
Directed By: Ivan Heng
Starring: Benjamin Chow / Shane Mardjuki / Oniatta Effendi / Rei Poh / T. Sasitharan / Amanda Tee / Yap Yi Kai


Which is Tan Tarn How?

The deputy editor who is willing to be a check on the government, but pragmatic enough to say that the goal of the job is to “outlast” and not “outplay”? Or the other deputy who is more than happy to conform to the nation-building role assigned to the media by the state? If you’d have to wager, based on the provocative columns Tan wrote as a journalist, you’d rule out the latter.

It is probably facile to reduce a play to notes on the author’s biography. However, given that Press Gang is clearly influenced by Tan’s long experience working for the broadsheet The Straits Times and his affinity for meta-fictional references, as with his previous play Fear of Writing, it is hard not to wonder what part he played in the actual political drama that took place during his time in the newsroom. His two stints were from 1987 to 1996 and from 1999 to 2005.

Perhaps none of the characters in the fictional The Singapore Times are him. They include, as well, a near-retiree who laments that he has no “scars” to show after many years of quiet acquiescence, a former civil servant whose ambitions weigh against his conscience, a star columnist who is content to write crowd-pleasing articles, an associate editor who is viewed with suspicion after being seconded from a government ministry and a former employee who is so fed up with the censorious regime that she decides to runs an online outfit.

Perhaps all the characters are Tan, insofar as they represent his institutional memory of The Straits Times. And perhaps Press Gang contains the archetypes that all journalists carry within themselves, trading cautionary tales of compatriots who fell foul of the government and gossiping about those too pliant to the powers that be.

When a rumour emerges that the son of the prime minister, who also heads the sovereign wealth fund Merlion Investment Corporation, slapped the deputy prime minister, The Singapore Times newsroom is caught between investigating the incident and treading on government toes. Caution is the watchword, especially since a longtime editor has already been sent on indefinite leave for a commentary implying abuse of power by the government. Chia Kin Jek, the former civil servant, writes a balanced column on both incidents, urging the government to convene a public inquiry to set the record straight for its own benefit. Christopher Rozario, the conservative deputy editor, commends Chia for the quality of his writing, but says the piece still has to be “tweaked”—exemplifying the difficulties in negotiating nebulous OB markers.

The politics at play on stage would be familiar to those who have read former editor-in-chief Cheong Yip Seng’s OB Markers: My Straits Times Story, in which Tan makes appearances in a couple of anecdotes, including:

“He made it to middle management in the newsroom but grew increasingly uncomfortable operating in the Singapore media environment. His columns rankled senior politicians, and while we did not stop them, we paid them more than normal attention. I was glad he continued to write after he left us, not for newspapers or journals, but plays that made the stage.”

When I interviewed Tan for my book The Naysayer’s Book Club: 26 Singaporeans You Need to Know, he said he had been able to write a number of critical columns, until a minister complained that he had “an agenda”. Press Gang, evidently, has real-world precedent.

It’s with his spotlight on the Internet’s capacity to mobilise discontent that Tan stakes out political terrain wider than that of the traditional print newsroom. Aminah Sulaiman, the more liberal of the two deputy editors, is happy to send queries to the government if TheSingapore Times has enough credible evidence or if someone talks about the rumour online and it goes viral. Eventually the rumour does find its way online and Mariam Wong, the journalist who had left The Singapore Times, pursues the story—to the point she finds herself in trouble.

Like any good dramatist, Tan fleshes out his political points with characters you empathise with. No biography or academic article can contain the pathos evinced in a character packing her desktop paraphernalia after falling foul of newsroom “guidelines” and a character who pauses, facing up to his journalistic impotence, before taking a last swig of whisky. You see all-too-human characters wrestle with the conflicting imperatives of self-preservation and social good.

For good measure, Tan includes barely-disguised references to political critics—during the 8 July staging, one of the loudest laughters erupted when a Clarence George (wink, wink)was mentioned. From its emotional hooks to its punchlines, Press Gang, evidently, is  meant to be measured by its resonance off the stage.

It’s here, though, that Tan himself, arguably eclipsing this reviewer and others, emerges as his biggest critic. His last play, Fear of Writing, rose out of despair over the very point of political theatre: audiences see a play as mere entertainment and are unchanged. To break this complacency, he wrote Fear of Writing as a meta-play that culminates in a simulated raid by the authorities.

Nevertheless, Tan said that by curtain call, people still treated the play as entertainment. “They don’t have time to really think about why they are scared,” he said, adding that he did not find any “spontaneous acts of citizenship”. Fear of Writing worked for no longer than “ten, fifteen minutes, perhaps half an hour, perhaps the duration of the play”.

Can Press Gang be more successful?

Perhaps not, but in the play, it is clear that Tan is aware of the elusiveness of change. One of the most devastating moments in Press Gang is when a radical move by the intrepid Wong, exposing government excesses, is largely forgotten a year later.

True to the play’s topical spirit, after the 8 July matinee, Wild Rice organised a discussion on the press with Tan and fellow journalists Kirsten Han and Terry Xu, who work for New Naratif and The Online Citizen respectively. Among the talking points was the interdependence of press freedom and society.

“Political” and “activist”, Tan said, are “bad” words here—“like flesh-eating bacteria or something”.

Press Gang is not just about Tan, The Straits Times or any single journalist. It’s about the political heart of Singapore.

Press Gang runs from 5-15 July 2018 at the Singapore Airlines Theatre at La Salle. Tickets available here