Main Tulis Group: Past and Present

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Main Tulis Group Past and Present is a conversation on playwriting and being playwrights, between 3 former members of MTG - Adib Kosnan, Johnny Jon Jon and Zulfadli Rashid (Big) - with 3 current members of MTG - Hazwan Norly, Nessa Anwar and Sab Dzulkifli. Main Tulis Group was founded by Nabilah Said as a playwright’s circle in 2016. The discussion took place in English and Malay, and all Malay parts have been translated by Nessa Anwar. Parts of the conversation have been edited for clarity.

Nessa Anwar (NA): Hello, everyone. Thank you so much for joining us. The context of this is, we are in our second year of residency at Centre 42. We came up with this bright idea - and it’s also a reason to have a reunion between the past and present, where we kind of share our experiences in Malay theatre. That’s pretty much how this is going to go down. I will just moderate the conversation for time’s sake, but we can just go on until we feel like we want to stop. Because I think like a lot of the appetite among us as well is that we really miss these conversations. And it's just a way to check in with each other. So, I think what I wanted to start out with was that, do you all realise that MTG started in 2016? Like, a day in 2016 was the day that Nabilah (Said) emailed all of us - I’m sure all of us got that email - She said something about ‘nak main tulis’ and hey, do you want to join? And, like, write plays and talk about them or something? It’s been a long time.

Zulfadli Rashid (ZR): Just do the math.

Sab Dzulkifli (SD): I wasn’t even in uni back then. So, hey.

Adib Kosnan (AK): That was a long time.

NA: 20-20… (trying to count on a physical calculator)

Hazwan Norly (HN): 7 years, right?

AK: Ya, I started to think also and calculate. 

HN: I loved how you took out the calculator!

NA: I have a calculator at my desk!

SD: Can you, like, not do this? I know the stereotype is that Malay people cannot math, but…

NA: I thought the stereotype was women cannot math.

Johnny Jon Jon (JJ): No, it’s Malays.

NA: OK, so it's been seven years since we got together and it's been seven years of a lot of development, a lot of growth, a lot of fun times. One of the things that I took away from MTG after all this time is that we never really had bad times. We never had moments where, like, we really truly fell out or we couldn't have conversations about anything that was unsatisfactory or stuff like that. So I think that speaks to a lot of maturity and respect among all of us and that's one thing that I really like, oh my god, I really, really miss. When the three of you - Big, Adib, Jon Jon left - that's one less person I can talk to about all these feelings about being an outcast in Malay theatre, that kind of thing. What do you think about that? What was MTG like for you?

AK: Okay, maybe I can start. I mean, I guess I resonate with what you just said about being an outcast in that sense. Because I think MTG started at a time where the traditional, I would say, forms of working were slowly beginning to unravel. Not that it doesn’t exist, but there were new ways of working that were emerging lah. And it was a platform for people from different backgrounds to come together, to just without any agenda, and just stop and just share. That was what I appreciated about that space back then. And I appreciated it continuing to become until I left. And this idea, actually it’s about gatekeeping. In essence, like, we kind of broke down that barrier to a certain extent. And then with our partners like Centre 42, we were able to share some of this but at the same time still develop our practice and still work in the general climate of Singaporean and Malay theatre. So yeah, I guess it's that lack of, I would say, agenda in a traditional sense. I mean, all of us have our own agendas, personally to make our work better, right. But it was really the lack of, what can you do for me? It was really like, OK what they want to say? And OK lah, we listen. And that's why our sessions were full of laughter, full of nonsense, but at the same time, also, there was a sharpness in understanding, like actually, I hear something (feedback), you know, and I'm gonna let you know, because I think it might help you, but if you cannot take it or you don't need it, it's okay, up to you lah, and then we can quickly move on. And that's what I appreciated about MTG lah.

NA: It's interesting that you mentioned breaking down barriers and we sort of dissolved a lot of definitions, especially with Big. Big was established by the time MTG was set up. I mean, like, the most established writer among all of us. And the fact that personally, I started in theatre reading his plays. For me, and for him to be part of this, was something that was very special, because he was not a peer. He was like a mentor, someone to look up to in Malay theatre. That was my experience. What was it like for you, Big?

ZR: I think I belong to a generation that is neither here nor there. You see, I am not as old as Fared (Jainal) or Effendy (Ibrahim). And I'm definitely not as young as my younger counterparts lah. So I'm in the middle generation, so I really appreciate that I had MTG lah, you know, just to check my blindspots. Probably be aware of what's relevant and important to younger people. Somehow, I find myself to be the bridge between the ones who have yet to break through and the theatre stalwarts in Malay theatre. So I’m familiar with their works. I’m not familiar with the younger writers' works. And being in MTG means that I explore both, you know, so you already have sort of a vocabulary of what has been done before. So when younger writers come in, or even myself, where we come in and say, OK, I want to write about this, sometimes I find myself saying eh, this has been done before. This has been done by other writers before, but what can be done better, you know? So it's good ah being in MTG in this generation, I mean, representing my neither-here-nor-there generation. I think I'm the only person - there’s me, Najib (Soiman), that's the middle generation actually. Actually Adib also. But Adib is younger than I am, and somehow is always considered to be the generation after me.

HN: Adib has a youthful energy, that’s why.

AK: And also lucky I guess. I'm just like, the middle of the middle generation. Actually wherever Big said, this is quite true. Because immediately after you guys it’s like, I think it's another generation. But it’s (become) very rare to hear the voices of some people, we know some names who came up together, but they are not in the industry anymore, or they never sustained lah. I think Big is one of those that has transcended this generation. And I think he was a very important member of MTG, because he used to talk about us being like your blind spots, but you kind of lit up the way for all of us to like, oh, yeah, this has been done before, this can be done. Or actually, who can we go to? Kind of like, bridge what we needed at that point of time. 

NA: Yeah, I think sustainability was one of the key points that was mentioned. We sustained ourselves, because we had such a wide variety of people to like, sort of check each other and learn from and you know, I don't understand this part of Malay theatre. Can you explain to me? So I think there was a lot of cross sharing. On the flip side, there’s Sab. Sab is the youngest among all of us. So what is it –about MTG? When you first came in, it was basically like a bunch of writers who just wanted to write and have sounding boards. As the youngest member, what was it like for you?

SD: Yeah, I mean, I was just thinking, so just hearing you guys talk about it, it's the community that was definitely something that I took for granted at that time. Because bear in mind I just literally came out of school, and then suddenly had this great group of people who have been doing what I wanted to do for like, a long, long time. And now they are very open and generous and willing to share what they've learned over like many, many years of experience, and it's one of those things where it's like, when I went off to uni (in 2018), and kind of like, had to take a step back from MTG obviously, I definitely realised I took it for granted. Because when I went away, I was reminded of the fact that writing is predominantly a very solitary art form. And it's not normal, like it's not a given that you would have a sounding board or you will have these people that you can talk to regularly to discuss your work. Even in university, you do one module of script writing, and a lot of it was like a top down approach that you were like, yeah, here's the theory and you write and come back and I'll just grade it, but that's not what my experience of writing was like with you guys. So that’s definitely for me, I think is the most valuable part.

Main Tulis is this community of people who are willing to share and mentor each other and also mentor the younger generation who is coming. 

- Sab Dzulkifli

NA: Thanks for that. How about you, Jon Jon? You joined us in 2016 and then a year later, you left us and… suddenly it’s becoming emotional. You should see the group chat, a lot of cursing.

SD: My favourite was that, we were all cursing but by that time, he already left the group chat.

NA: He also left very dramatically. He gave a text saying goodbye and overnight he was gone.

SD: Like a clean breakup.

JJ: Yeah, I apologise for that (laughs). I mean, even at work when I have like, chat groups, and people are leaving, or I'm leaving. I always just like, the moment they say they're leaving, I just kick them out of our chat groups. I don't wish to go through all the oh, why, that kind of thing. It’s just me. Yeah. So nothing against you guys. I think I echo what Adib said. What I enjoyed about MTG was actually the fact that it was a safe space. And we could be critical, which was something that, to me, was very important. In order for us to improve or to get better, or to move to a better place, we definitely need to be open to critical input. Yeah, and I did feel that, like, all of us were very open to that. Subsequently, I left because I couldn't see how I could support the group anymore. Because, unlike Adib and Big right, I'm not really a practitioner. I don't watch plays, I'm not part of the business and so on. I just write plays, right? So I just felt like I couldn't support any of you guys to develop better in any way. And that's why I felt that the only responsible thing to do was to leave, and to allow other people to come in and to make the group richer, in a sense.

NA: No, all the more power to you, I think, because at that point of time, MTG, we didn't realise the traction we were getting. And we also didn't realise the amount of work people wanted to commission from us as a group. What started as a writing group became like a producer’s circle instead as well. And we had to produce our own stuff. We had to, like, source out for stage management, because no one would do it for us, you know. But at the same time, it was an exciting time, because we could get our works out, especially as young writers. So we understand totally where you were coming from. A little bit of closure would have been lovely. But we understand totally.

JJ: This is awkward.

NA: Sorry?

JJ: I’ve led this conversation to an awkward part.

NA: Really? No lah, it’s not awkward. 

ZR: Where got, no no, it’s not awkward.

AK: You can always leave the chat.


NA: What I also wanted to mention was like, even with the past members, and now, I just saw a lot of growth, and I think everyone could attest to the fact that from 2016 until now, there has been such… Wow, everyone has done amazingly well for their own standards, you know, and even more. I remember Hazwan, we were reading an excerpt of Pandan in 2018, to like 10 or 20 people in the library in Esplanade. And then like, the Pandan script was nominated.

AK: For best script, ya.

NA: And that just floored me because, from that tiny little, you know, space we had, you had the confidence, you had the drive, the motivation, and the passion to continue and make it into something really big. What made you have that drive?

HN: The honest answer is we had to do something for (Esplanade’s) Cipta Cita. And then I had to write something in two days, which I did. 

NA: Thanks for the honesty.

HN: But I feel like I'm also a very last minute writer.. And I think it's also when I'm last minute, procrastinating at the last minute, is when I'm forced to address certain things that I'm thinking about or feeling that I haven't been able to express or explore. It's kind of like therapy. Like, you avoid going to therapy because you think it's just a small thing, it bothered me for a while but I'm just gonna get over it. I'm gonna, like, drown myself in work or drown myself in other pursuits, and then you go into therapy and then you're bawling your eyes out. So it's kind of that respect, I feel, and I think I didn't really see Pandan as something that I came in thinking I want to develop this into a full length play. I think that Cipta Cita, and also working with MTG as well. To see people respond to it… I think the beautiful bit was that we have people of multiple generations within MTG’s circle at that point, right. From Sab to Big, which was really, really interesting for me because then why isn’t anybody writing about this thing, right? Because there were so many different responses from different shared experiences in their own generations. For example, I think there was one new scene I wrote. And it was during an MTG circle. And I think it was Big who said something like, you know, there was this article about this Ustadz who, to teach his students that masturbation is wrong, was to masturbate his students or something like that, as a form of punishment. And I haven’t read that article, because I have not experienced that in my lifetime. But then there are similar stories that could resonate from there. I think that helped me make the play richer, I think.

JJ: Actually, I think that's one role within theatre, like the person who does the research. I think, like, Haresh (Sharma) has somebody in TNS (The Necessary Stage).

SD: You mean the dramaturg?

NA: I think the dramaturg is different.

JJ: Someone like that. And I think that's what MTG kind of provided us in a sense, right? Like, we kind of have people share with us their experiences, and we kind of like, yeah, as you said, make our writing be richer. And I think like what Sab says, writing is essentially a solitary act.

But I think specifically for theatre, there needs to be some form of community because at the end of the day, like, when people experience your play, it is a communal event.

- Johnny Jon Jon

It's not something that they enjoy in their own bathroom or something like that. Previously, I did something with Hatch (Theatrics), which was the WhatsApp play (Keturunan Ruminah). I think the experience was really different. Because like, it was so solitary and individual, compared to the usual communal event that we know theatre to be. Which is why MTG kind of really worked for us, or at least for me.

NA: I totally get that. But I also remember that it was never always rainbows and butterflies. There were always times where we didn't agree with things that we were writing. And it was constructive criticism and feedback. And I remember, like, certain moments, not just in my plays, but also in everyone else's plays, it’s either we took it or we didn’t, but we did it very respectfully. And I appreciated that a lot. The fact that even if you criticise a bit of my play, it gets me thinking whether or not that that thing that you're criticising is worth it to be in the play or not? Because even if I take it out or not, it got me thinking.

SD: The lack of ego, right? When I was in uni, doing my course, during like the random few times we will have feedback sessions with each other. Sometimes the feedback was not very well delivered. They didn't pick their words very carefully, a lot of it was just like, oh, I didn't like this part. And that's not very constructive. And MTG was not like that at all. You know, we're always kind of like building on each other instead of saying, you know, I don't agree with this part. It's whether maybe this is how you can improve. So that kind mindset in thinking is definitely, I think, what makes us a bit more special lah.

HN: It also made me think actually, about, like critiquing, and I feel like in the last seven years of MTG, having to give an opinion on someone else’s play, kind of also trained me to think about why I'm writing my play in a certain way. And I think, when Nessa was saying how, like, even if you don't agree with the critique, but the fact that you then think about it and able to, I guess, convince yourself or defend your idea and the way you're writing it, I feel makes the writing stronger, at least for me. When I'm writing, if I disagree with a feedback, but now I actually know why specifically I disagree with that feedback and I know what I want to do with the scene and with this character, which I feel brings purpose into the writing as well.

JJ: For sure.

NA: Thanks for that. I just want to quickly go around. The context of this is, a lot of people have asked me, what do you guys do for a living? You know, the fact that we are also playwrights, but we also have day jobs. And I think a lot of, especially the younger writers, they're trying to figure out how to be multi-hyphenates. And the fact that all of us in MTG, sometimes we bite on a bit more than we can chew. For me, my day job is a journalist and I try my best to write at night. What do you do for a living?

HN: I'm an advertising copywriter, which takes up a lot of my time, but I also write plays on the side as well.

AK: I work in theatre in different capacities. So whoever gives me that project as an actor, director, playwright, or educator, I guess. An arts educator is also something that I do.

NA: So you do everything ah.

AK: Whatever that’s cooking in the wok. Because I have three children. 

ZR: I am an educator.

JJ: I'm a pencil pusher. I just do whatever it is that needs to be done.

NA: A normal answer?

JJ: Oh, normal answer. I'm a strategist.

NA Fair enough.

SDz I’m a projectionist at the Projector, so I spend my time either watching films or writing.

NA: So a perfect job. Thank you very much. I’m going to hand this over to Sab.

SD: I’m jumping off Hazwan’s last point about critiquing. And I think one of the things that I really liked about MTG is that every time we meet, also, obviously, the first thing we talk about is like, oh, what plays have you watched recently, right? For me personally, it's such a good way to kind of sharpen artistic instinct and artistic voice. Because you’re not just discussing Malay theatre plays, but plays from all over. We’ll talk about things we liked and what we didn’t like about it. I guess like the question for me then is, you know, what's one local theatre piece that you wish you’d written? Oh, we’ll start off with what's a theatre piece that you really like? In any language.

AK: I know the answer to my favourite local production. Gemuk Girls, by Haresh (Sharma). I think for me, that was where writing and performance, and the direction was… it just reminded me of why I want to perform, why I want to be on stage. Although we’re usually talking from a playwriting perspective, whenever I encounter theatre, I always look at it from a performing perspective because that's where I started from, and usually in a play, I’m like oh, I wish I could play that role or I wish I got to act with that actor. But that was the first time I really felt like, oh, this writing is something that really impacted me. So for me that production - with the writing at the forefront - was something that I really appreciated. I need to get back to you on the other one.

SD: It’s OK, take your time.

JJ: For me, there was this play in 2009, I think it influenced how and what I want to write about. It’s actually a play called Hero. It’s the one that Big wrote. 

SD: Ooo, tell us more.

JJ: Hero was staged by Panggung (Arts Theatre). I was part of the production, I think I did, like the sound or something like that. Yeah, but when I watch, so if you guys know me, right, I don't really watch plays. I usually just read. But for Hero, I had the chance to both read and play and also be part of the setup, right? And so what I really like about the play was really that, Big kind of shed light on a specific nook and cranny of the society, which I felt was not very exhibitionist. But yet, like, captured my imagination in a sense. So I think after that, moving forward when I started to write my work, it became a bit more about finding the people in the periphery to shed some light into their lives and so on. So I will say that Hero was a play that really affected me in more ways than one. Which is why I think until today, whenever Big does something, I always make reference to Hero, because that has been a huge thing for me.

SD: Big, ultimate mentor.

ZR: I feel so old.

SD: 2009, I was 11, bro. 

ZR: Ya, Hero was written in 2009. It’s going to be in the book (Kolong). So buy the book and then let's read Hero together and I probably will be quite embarrassed by whatever I wrote back then. You know, how we always get embarrassed by what we wrote when we were younger. So I think Hero had a place back then but then we shall see whether it can stand the test of time. (laughs.) For me, not my favourite lah, but one of the more impactful plays that I've watched is Oliver Chong’s Roots. I think it was a one man play if I'm not wrong. He wrote it. I mean, I'm a Malay man, you know, I watch a Chinese person performing a very Chinese play. But somehow, everything that he presented really touched me. It's not melodramatic, it's very honest, hopeful and yet very, how do I say, it's thought out so well. I can see that it is Oliver Chong’s writing style. Every word has its place. I wouldn't say hidden, he has a cause on why it is written in such a way and how the scenes are arranged in such a way. Maybe it’s directorial, maybe it’s in the playwriting, but yeah, Roots by Oliver Chong for me.

NA: I'm just gonna shoot two plays that I'm thinking of because I'm a sucker for research-based plays. I loved Senang by Jean Tay. I think that was 2013 or 2014, about the prison riots in Pulau Senang. I think it was such a visual piece. And I love all the languages in that show. I mean, that stuck with me. But I wish I wrote Hotel. Because Hotel was a fiesta. I mean, it's not the perfect play, mainly because it's freaking five hours long but it was a treat. And I think, to be able to enrapture so many different types of people over so many different ages and generations in so many languages is something that I envy, with the talent of Alfian Sa’at and Marcia Vanderstraaten.

HN: Instinctively, the first play that I thought about and I feel like it has to do with the performer as well, is Best Of by Haresh Sharma. And I think why I enjoyed it is because I think at that point a lot of people were talking about Siti K right, and how good she is as an actress. And I feel like the delivery was so good in the play. And I think on top of that, I kinda like that it was a play that was a monologue. It was a very long monologue, but she was forced to not do anything but tell the story, right? The fact that that play could engage me throughout the whole thing was kind of interesting. I thought it was masterfully done.

SD: Yeah, I mean, I really enjoyed that play. When I watched it, it really didn’t stick with me but then I ended up having to study for a bit. Yeah, there's a lot to unpack in that play. For me, I’ll talk about the one I definitely can remember. The Good, the Bad, and the Sholay (by Shiv Tandan). 

NA: That’s such a good one.

SD: It's such a good fun play. And the direction for it was, it was really great. When I first watched it, I think they did like two runs, right. Like it was restaged again, isn’t it. So I watched a restaging and it was just really, really fun just to watch. Like, I think it's one of the first, or one of the few plays I managed to watch in Singapore theatre that didn’t take itself too seriously because I think a lot of Singaporean theatre has a tendency to run very political, run very serious. And then this one just went like yasss, Bollywood drama, let’s go!

NA: That was written by Shiv Tandan, who should continue writing theatre but isn’t writing. 

SD: That's definitely a play that I really enjoyed. And I think it's also a play that I wish I could have written, because I don't think my brain works that way when I'm writing. Because as of late also, I've been thinking about why I write or how I write the way I write. There's a part of me that wishes I had that kind of imagination, still, to write something like that. Which then leads me to my second question now: What is a play that you wish you’d written?

AK: Anything that comes from Kok Heng Leun’s imagination. When he writes, he’s almost a prophet of sorts, it will happen like in real life. The nuances, because most of his plays are Forum Theatre plays, the possibilities of impacting someone enough to want to come and say something or do something or to share their perspectives is something that I would like my writing to also have that kind of impact. So what stands out was probably like, Trick or Threat (by Alin Mosbit). That's the first Forum play that I watched. And it's like, it's still relevant now. The scenario that he put actually did happen a couple years ago, and somebody tried to.. The train stalled and somebody tried to break the window with I think was, was it a fire extinguisher or something like that? And yeah, I feel like if a play can move an audience enough to kind of answer the call to action, that's something that I aspire my writing to be also lah.


JJ: For me, it’s Jean Tay’s Boom. I've never watched it live, never watched it staged. But I like the text and the way that things are ordered, or organised. And I think that's something that I try to bring into my plays as well. Yeah, I think with Boom, like, there was a lot of interplay between time and characters, like in different things like time, spaces, and so on. So that was a play I wish I’d written and I tried to, like, the last one I wrote was Punggah, which more or less covered the same issues, right? Exhumation and so on.

NA: Jean is super sharp. Love her writing.

HN: For me, the play that I wish I wrote. I think it's similar to what Jon-Jon is saying, but it's not that play. I was thinking of Versus by Natalie (Hennedige) of Cake Theatre. And I think it's because when I was watching it, I was actually very tired. That’s not what I enjoyed about it. But what I enjoyed about it was how, like, fantastical and imaginative it was. For me, it was as if we were throwing out anything we think must be correct, of theatre, of making theatre. Even in the directing, I think, and the performance of that piece for me was very interesting. So yeah, I feel like that's something that I would like to explore a bit more.

SD: Also, I reckon Versus didn't really have much text to speak of. How does that live on the page also, it's an interesting question to consider. 

ZR: I wish I had written Zizi Azah’s How Did the Cat Get So Fat (HDTCGSF). Number one, because in its simplicity, it delivered so many things, right? It talks about things that we've always wanted to talk about. I mean, in real life lah. However, I must say, I find that it has so many similarities with The Little Prince. Not saying anything, but yeah, I wish I wrote that play lah. Because we could all have written that play, but Zizi wrote it, Zizi wrote it at a good time, in her own time and in her own way. And it smells and it reads Zizi lah, you know. It sounds like Zizi, it had perfect casting and everything. Yeah, so HDTCGSF. To me, classic lah because at that point of time, I think Malay theatre didn’t have this kind of play. It was very serious, melodramatic. And here comes HDTCGSF and it fucks up everything, man. It opens up Malay theatre to non-Malay theatre audiences. Now, it might seem ya, you know, we have non-Malay speakers watching Malay theatre and we watch each other’s vernacular theatre pieces lah, but back then, HDTCGSF made Ekamatra a lot of - I wouldn’t say money - but it made Ekamatra visible in the eyes of the larger theatre audience. 

SD: That seems like kind of a pivotal play, right, for more than one reason. I kind of feel we all wish we could have written something like that. It’s very flash-in-the-pan, difficult. So, now we're talking about all these plays that we wish we could have written. Some of us have already spoken a bit about things that we liked about it and stuff like that. So moving forward, what's one play that you want to write about? Bonus points if it’s a play that you kind of think would never get staged (laughs). Because, I don’t know, recently, I've also been thinking a lot about censorship, right, what are the kind of plays that I can only write somewhere else that is not here.

JJ: For me, I want to write a play that has a deaf person in it, a deaf character. And I think it'd be interesting for me because I like to play with my words, right, with my writing. But those mean nothing to the deaf community. Because a lot of their words are more literal, right? So I think there's a challenge that I would love to take on. Like how do I bring insight into their community while preserving my style of writing? Yeah, that's something that I'm hoping to take on in the coming years or so.

SD: That's cool, man. I mean, we definitely need more disability representation on the stages like currently as it is, it is so…

ZR: You should use the word ‘hearing-impaired’, okay? We all thought you were going to write about death, and then we were all like, that’s cliche man… 

JJ: I’m not going to write one about death.

HN: No, you said, like, the ‘death’ community speaks directly and literally… and then like… huh? There’s a ‘death’ community? What’s that now?

SD: Like goth.


JJ: To be honest, that’s not the first time somebody has corrected me. I don’t think it’s wrong to say ‘deaf’ community.

ZR: No, it’s not.

AK: I think they prefer ‘deaf’ over ‘hearing-impaired’. 

ZR: My mistake. I straightaway thought about dead people. When you say ‘death’ community, I think of a community of dead people walking around. I’m not making a joke, it’s just the way it’s pronounced.

JJ: It’s because we are Muslims, right. Death is always by our jugular. 


ZR: Yes, true, we are always reminded of death. 

SD: Thank you for that, Jon Jon. Big, you got a play you want to write about?

ZR: I want to write about the conservative versus liberals ah, or conservative versus… I don't know, I don't know what we call ourselves nowadays. I don’t know ah. I find it increasingly difficult to navigate between people's opinions of others and people's opinions of themselves. You know, at the end of the day, everybody's head is stuck in their own ass. And we find it hard to communicate. So ah… I don't know, man, I think it's a play that needs to be written. But it needs to be written in a way that it's not taking sides, because we all just want a peaceful way to get what we think is important, right? Everybody has their own wants and needs. And it's just hard these days.

JJ: It sounds like a play that would be commissioned by the Forward SG committee. Because it’s all about the social compact.

ZR: Ya, the social compact. So it’s like… Hari Raya is a very good reminder to that right? You have your pakciks so the ultra-conservatives, conspiracy theories, spinners. And then you have your younger ones, you know, who are like, in their own world and everything. And then you have soon-to-be boomers like myself, just sitting down talking about HDB loans, the price of carparks. Yeah. And how Sheng Siong is better than NTUC.

NA: Sheng Siong is better than NTUC. 

ZR: Sheng Siong is better than NTUC lah. That's controversial as well.

SD: It’s not. It’s fact. Sheng Siong is better than NTUC.

ZR: Ya, so we need to have this conversation lah. 

SD: Honestly, Big, you should write it. Because I think if anyone, like, younger than you tried to do it, they wouldn’t do it well. Because if I tried to write it, it would just be very angry, left-wing. 

NA: You need experience.

HN: Actually, I feel the Sheng Siong versus NTUC thing is a good cover or wrapper for this conservative versus liberal commentary.

AK: But that’s also a social commentary rather than a liberal-conservative commentary. 

HN: That’s true.

AK: Ya, but maybe that could be the opening, the gateway to this conversation. 

JJ: This feels like a MTG session.

NA: Absolutely.

SD: This is exactly what happens in MTG sessions. 

AK: And more often than not, it’s through something Big has opened up to the floor.

NA: He’s always the catalyst.

SD: OK, so you let us know ah, Big. Nessa?

NA: A play that I want to write, maybe it seems very frivolous. I think it’s also because of the Covid pandemic, and the fact that I found out that a lot of young people don’t go clubbing anymore. And I was a very big clubber. Now, I can’t, obviously there’s a lot of reasons why I can’t.

SD: I mean, you can. You just don’t want to. 

NA: No, I go to sleep at 10PM now. It’s out of the question. I think I want to write a play that’s staged in a club. Or at least, bring back that feeling. Because I remember that feeling of freedom and carefreeness. Basically, there’s no tomorrow. That’s a play I want to write about. That youth. How do we capture that youth for ourselves, how do we remember. And now, I’m forgetting. And it’s only been around 6+ years. I’m already forgetting how it was like to be that young person. I feel very sad. Because if I can forget just like that, how can I understand my daughter when she grows up?

SD: I think there’s something interesting there. Because Projector holds parties every week. The crowds that come, they really don’t behave the way you would expect a clubbing crowd to behave. It’s just very fascinating to watch.

NA: What do you mean?

SD: It’s weird lah. Maybe the crowd is a bit more indie or whatever. Even when we do pop nights, the more mainstream kind of nights, I'm comparing obviously to the UK pop scene. Completely, vastly different. People here, the way they drink also, is very different. I think Singaporeans drink to get wasted. But like, I think everywhere else, people just drink to have fun. And there's a very substantial difference to how they behave in order to get to that goal. So it's just really, really interesting. So you should write it, Nessa.

NA: I also think that partying now is a bit different, because everyone is always recording for Instagram stories or TikTok and everything. Back then, we didn't bring our phones into clubs. 

JJ: That’s because we didn't have phones. Or phones didn’t mean anything.

NA: Ya. It’s like, this constant, we need to document this night. It’s not like, let's see where it goes.

SD: There’s a lot more self-consciousness to have fun, or to behave a certain way. It’s sad. OK. Let’s move on. Adib is next to Nessa on my screen.

AK: I don't know. I think I always write to respond to whatever is happening in my life, whatever is happening around, and I guess right now, my children are a big stimulus for a lot of things. So I would like to write a play from my son's perspective, especially because of just the person he is. Like, he's the middle child, the only boy. He's very funny, but also very inappropriate. But at the same time, I think he struggles a lot with emotions, because of who he is. And for me, like, I want to write a play that he can understand and he can respond to. Which in a way, I am. I'm writing something for Playtime in August, so yeah, I feel like for me, that's what my writing is, essentially. I will have something that I want to write, but based on things that are happening. My plays are like time capsules of whatever I’m feeling or going through at that point of time. And if you ask me right now, that's it. But there isn't, at this moment, something really, I feel essential that I need to write other than this, I guess. Which is also I think, when I was hearing all of you talking about it, I'm just thinking like, I've never really seen myself as a playwright. But at the same time, I think of all the things that I do in theatre, that is a big part of what I do. So for me, it's a contradiction. Sometimes I also questioned when I was in MTG, why am I really here? I'm not really a playwright. I always felt that. So for me, it's a question I also always ask myself, and a lot of times I write functionally, like, people want something to be written and they ask me to write this exact thing. So okay, I'll write that. Which is a conversation I always have with Big, about commissioned plays and plays you want to write yourself. Ya, when was the last time I wanted to write something? Maybe the Karims (Keluarga Besar En. Karim).

SD: By the way, Karims was good. Just putting it out there on the record for archival purposes. No, but yeah, I think that's also another thing that we talk about a lot, right, the imposter syndrome of, am I a playwright even if I only do it part-time? Solid answer is yes lah. Maybe it's not all that you are, but you write plays, therefore you are a playwright lah. This comes up a lot in MTG sessions also in the early days, right? You were talking about it. So yeah, a bit of a throwback moment for everybody. But thank you, Adib. When you write your play, you let me know lah. The middle child syndrome, because I got thoughts. Hazwan, your turn?

HN: I don't know. I've been thinking of two plays. I haven't really even written a title or even opened a document or done a mind-map or anything. I just have premises. So, one of the plays that I was thinking about writing is essentially a married Malay straight couple, husband and wife, preferably middle-aged and above, who, in the starting of the play… basically, the guy is in a cock cage. And it's stuck. So they are not sure what to do about it now because the key broke in the lock. They don’t know how to unlock it.

SD: (laughs) And it’s not exactly something you can call a locksmith for. 

HN: Exactly. And if you want to cut it, it’s scary because it’s on your thingie…

SD: Circumcision part two.

HN: Yeah, but also, I think it made me think about modesty as a Muslim person. And it made me think about, like, choosing modesty and not choosing modesty. And what is modesty in Islam, as well. And then parallels of that. Why is it okay when it's done in certain aspects, but why is it being policed a bit when it’s done for other purposes?

SD: Yeah, that's a really interesting idea. Also, it’s something we don't really discuss in general, even if we branch out from plays, even in literature, or like fiction in Singapore, no one really talks about like, kinks and stuff like that. It's like, do we just expect people to get married and then not have fun having sex? 

HN: Yeah, and also, I think it made me think about people who choose to say, like, wear tudung after a while, right? And then suddenly, the choice of being more modest, is like, being policed by people. Oh, why you want to wear tudung now? Is it like, you want to become a good Muslim woman already? Or you're different from who you were previously before you started to don the hijab or want to start praying. I was like, then the person’s choice lah! Let that person be lah! 

SD: Ya, it’s also like this weird amnesia for some people who are like, ashamed of their background before they put on the tudung. Like, why does that matter? It shouldn’t matter.  Why should that matter? Fun, fun. You said that was your first play, you got your second premise?

HN: I don't know what it is about actually, but I was watching something that Rizman was performing in, I can't remember whether it was by Esplanade with a few other musicians. I think that show was really, really moving for me. And I was thinking about grief, and also the state of the planet, and dying. And I guess, like, conservation and the futility of actually we cannot do anything. But I also want to do something, but then how? The futility of, I guess, planetary conservation.

SD: Yeah. I mean, I don't know if you guys know, but like, in the past couple years, there's been a rise in climate fiction. So it's fiction that deals specifically with the end of times, extinction, things like that. So it's definitely something that I feel like Singaporeans should talk about. But we don’t. Because it also ties into sort of, not really nihilism, but also just the general apathy that I think a lot of people my age and younger, where we're just like, what is the point of it all? What is the point of getting married and having children? Why should we even care because like, there's no real future that we can see for ourselves. And that lack of imagination into what potentially could our futures look like. So, fun things to think about. And yeah, if you're writing let me know. All these plays are damn shiok sia, I also want to see you guys finish them, hopefully in the next five years. 

NA: Adib needs to go off very soon, right. So don’t mind if I just take over quickly. Because of time, the last question I wanted to ask is, do you want to share any bittersweet moments? Doesn’t have to be something fun or nice, or something you want to get off your chest when it comes to Malay theatre or the act of playwriting. Do you have anything to share that might benefit someone else?

AK: I think for me, it's don't give a shit about what people think, in general. Because I think there are some people, when it comes to creating work, if they are created, they're always going to have an issue with how things are being done. And unfortunately, some of these people are in prominent positions, especially for the older generations. And it might make you feel like nothing you do is worth validating. But with MTG, despite our different histories of who we work with, I think, as individuals, we are all genuine in wanting to help each other develop. And that's all you can hope for. And sometimes I think that's what I miss the most about MTG, because you go out in the world, you’re reminded sometimes of people who, no matter what you do, they will make you feel like your work isn't worth being presented. And it's not the case lah. And even if it isn’t, in their eyes, you are the one presenting the work, you are the one creating the work, you are the one opening up that Google document, starting that mindmap, putting the words on the text and you are the one getting it performed. And I guess for everyone here, in whatever aspect, I will always give you guys the respect when it happens. Because not everybody can do it. Too many armchair critics, there are too many people who think they know what is the best work but they don't do the work themselves.

NA: I have a similar thing. I think for me, it's don't meet your heroes sometimes. Because I think I've had a few run-ins with people I respected in the industry that I didn't realise afterwards that I was being gaslit and manipulated. And because of the fact that you're working with this person, you have blinkers. And then afterwards, when you discuss your dissatisfaction within a safe space, you realise that actually a lot of things that were done and said to you were not appropriate. And I had to go through that twice with the same person before I understood that hey actually it's not worth it anymore, mentally and emotionally. And I've outgrown my mentors and that's fine.

SD: I think for me, it's really just the importance of community. I’m really grateful that you guys were there when I made the transition going in and out of school. Yeah, just having your guidance and just a big safety net. I feel very lucky to have that, not a lot of people have that. It’ll be great in the future, and this is for Centre 42, if you can keep fostering these kinds of communities amongst people, just bring them together and them finding out that writing doesn't have to be a solitary thing. I think that’s really important.

ZR: I like that MTG paved the way for many things in Singapore theatre. First. with MTG, there were also, I wouldn't say copycats, but other writing groups that wanted to emulate what we’ve started lah. Before this, I think those writing groups were not as visible or not as open, or probably exclusive, we don't know. But I saw some, like Writer’s Circle, quite a few lah, more vernacular-centric groups like Brown Voices. We should be proud of what a few Malay kids wanted to do. What Sab said, it's a community and writers have always written in silos. And it's very important that we did this, you know, MTG is pretty much something that we go back to for comfort purposes, for support, for critique, but it has its place in Singapore's performing arts history. Definitely. Because I think what we've, what you guys are doing, I keep on saying things in present tense, I'm no longer in MTG. What MTG has done is something unprecedented, and it comes from the community itself. You know, it's not by Forward SG, it’s not funded by NAC (National Arts Council), man. So, kudos to Nabilah, kudos to Nessa, who saw the need for this, and invited the right people in. It could have gone very wrong with the wrong people in, you know (laughs.) So I'm very happy lah. Jon Jon, over to you.

JJ: Bittersweet ah. I'm quite a transient character, in a sense. I don’t stay around or hang around long enough. I'm around for productions and then that’s it, I’m gone, I'm gonna go back to my hole, write my stuff and then come back out whenever somebody commissions me. I only do it for the money. But I have to say that MTG kind of made me more present in a sense, it made me more connected, and all that. And I think that's why like, for me, it's bittersweet that eventually like that decision to leave also was quite heavy for me as well, because I knew that leaving also meant that I will return to that transient lifestyle. On some days, I do kind of regret it because like, it does make my work less powerful, I feel. It does come back to the whole dramaturgy that we do and so on. I think that's one strong bittersweet thing that I have with regards to MTG. But another regret I have is that, like, we couldn't sort of formalise things in a sense, and I think that this might be against the spirit of MTG as well. But I've always felt that we kind of needed to look out for each other as practitioners and playwrights and so on. But I felt that we didn't manage to do that. Yes, we created a bigger platform for all of us. But we weren't able to secure some formality in a sense. Yeah, like when we negotiate for our pay packets and so on. It's still down to like, the individual performance, so to speak, right. Or individual track record and so on. And so I think that was something that I wish we could have done.

HN: Is it just me? OK, I’m gonna do this very quickly because it’s quite late. I think for me, the bittersweet moment was also, I guess, Pandan, actually. Because it was my first full length play. And I think that almost everybody in this group have read it at one point in their life. Either one scene or something like that. And I think it was really bittersweet for me because the process was so painful because of the nature of the play. We didn't get any funding, right? But then I never felt like I didn't get any support from the community because people were pulling all-nighters, were helping me, people giving me words of encouragement, pulling me aside to ask me how it was going, people telling me what things they liked, people telling me what I could work on more. I feel like it was priceless support, even though we made a deficit lah.

NA: Thank you so much. It has been very special. Especially to take stock of like, where we are, what we have done, the journey that we have been on together and I guess, stalking each other from afar because I think we have all grown to be fans of each other. And that has been something that I hold on to and I'm sure a lot of people in MTG currently hold on to as well. And I think we will all continue to be fans and to be friends as well. I really hope that that will persevere.