Racism, ignorance and the cost of living: Glen Goei goes On the Record about what ails the arts in Singapore

Racism, ignorance and the cost of living: Glen Goei goes On the Record about what ails the arts in Singapore

Glen Goei_1
Glen Goei started off as an actor and is now Co-Artistic Director of one of Singapore’s leading professional theatre companies, Wild Rice. (Photo: Wild Rice)

SINGAPORE: Glen Goei’s dedication to the arts is indisputable. Since graduating from university in the UK, the 56-year-old director’s repertoire has grown to include theatre, musicals, large-scale performances and even films such as Forever Fever which he both wrote and directed, and The Blue Mansion.  

As we begin our interview, the breadth of his artistic versatility comes to the fore as he tells me he will be playing a serial-killer in a film called Demons by “young, wonderful and talented” filmmaker, Daniel Hui.

He says this with a laugh.

It’s clear the role is incongruous with his affable disposition.

“I think that’s what the director was interested in - the fact that I don’t look like a serial killer. Most of them don’t look like it.”

The film is due to do its rounds at film festivals in Europe this summer.

However he says acting is “the least of my priorities” partly because he likes “to be in control of the full product” as a director. 

To listen to the full interview, click here.

This is apparent as there was an almost 30-year hiatus between his very first acting role and his second which was in Wild Rice's production, Mama White Snake last year.  

It was his acting chops in M. Butterfly as Song Liling, a beguiling Chinese opera singer opposite Anthony Hopkins in London’s West End that started his career as a professional artist in 1989.

For that role, he was nominated for the Laurence Olivier Award for Best Newcomer.

Today, he is Co-Artistic Director of one of Singapore’s leading professional theatre companies, Wild Rice.

Their Singapore Theatre Festival which will run from Jul 5 to 22 will have eight brand new plays that examine hot button local issues such as fake news, racism and the loss of heritage.

Mr Goei is directing one of the plays called Supervision, the story of a wheelchair-bound retiree and an Indonesian domestic worker who is employed to take care of him. The elderly gentleman’s daughter installs cameras in the home to surveil the domestic worker.

It’s a commentary on surveillance culture in society, both in public and private spaces.

Glen Goei Supervision Singapore Theatre Festival
Supervision is written by playwright, Thomas Lim and directed by Glen Goei. (Photo: Singapore Theatre Festival)

“One of the aims of the Theatre Festival is also to introduce new work and new writers. The encouragement is necessary,” he says.

Getting people to choose a career in the arts is still tough.

Many years ago, he himself had to contend with opposition from his parents who had sent him to London to study Economics.

“But a month after going to university, I decided to switch to History and my father was very upset. He flew from Singapore to London, sat me down and said, 'No you’re not doing this.' Asian people are very practical and pragmatic.”

But he stuck to his guns and went on to earn a Postgraduate Diploma in Drama.

“Even after school and all my successes, I think he was hoping that it was just a phase I was going through. He wanted me to join the family’s real estate business. Eventually, he surrendered. But he was clear that I shouldn’t expect a lot of financial support and I was on my own.

“If this is your choice, then you have to live with it and it’s great. I’m glad that’s the way he brought me up.”

Even though he admits there’s not much money in the arts he continued because he “realised that art, theatre is my life”.

It came from a desire to tell stories and to present various “points of view” that he feels are less represented in mainstream media.

NO MONEY, NO FUTURE

“When I became a professional actor, I think the only other professional actor at that time was Lim Kay Tong. But now, there are a lot of professional actors. About 40 or 50. But still, not even the hundreds.

“Now that Singapore is the most expensive country in the world, it’s even harder to choose the arts.”

There’s no money in it and therefore, people think there’s no future.”

Does he really blame people for thinking that way though?

“Not really, because it’s expensive to live here, and it’s getting increasingly difficult, but what do you mean by money? How much money do you need to survive? If you want to earn five figures then of course it’s very, very difficult. If you’re comparing yourself with your friends who are bankers, lawyers and engineers or doctors, you’ll never earn the same money as they do. But if your priorities are different, so is that definition of money and how much money you need to survive as a human being.”

He says he admires those who are “courageous and brave enough to take that leap of faith”.

“But artists are very creative people. They are survivors. They will find ways of eking out a living. A lot of my friends teach drama in schools or they will direct youth festival plays. They find interesting ways which still keep them creative and manage to earn a decent wage.”

He himself is able to survive on his decent wage from Wild Rice, but in the early years he admits that he was in a better position than many others.

“I was lucky because parents are our best sponsors, our best patrons. They may not have given me cash, but at least I did not have to work to support them, and I always had a place to stay if I needed it.”

I point out that so many who might be talented or inclined towards an arts career may not enjoy the same privilege.

“The National Arts Council gives grants. There are foundations in Singapore which also give grants to students who want to study the arts. Of course, more can be done.

“From our own perspective, we try to incubate writers and we try to identify artists who are budding and who have the talent. We give them opportunities whether as interns or associate artists. So, we do whatever we can in the theatre company when we identify people whom we feel have the talent and who need to be nurtured and given that extra push and support.”

Glen Goei Anthony Hopkins
Glen Goei with Anthony Hopkins in M. Butterfly in 1989 in London's West End. (Photo: Wild Rice)

FIGHTING RACIAL STEREOTYPES

One could say when he was starting out himself, it seemed as if he was destined for greatness. 

His role in M. Butterfly was his first acting job straight out of school.

“I was just 26. Anthony Hopkins was a famous stage actor but he wasn’t the star he is today. At that time, he hadn’t done all these Hollywood films or won Oscars. I knew him only because I was involved in theatre. I was starstruck, but I think I was more terrified of the role. I just had to focus on getting my lines right and just doing the role. There was so much pressure.

“I had no time to think about him,” he says with a dismissive wave.

You would think starring in M. Butterfly would make him a much sought-after stage actor for many years thereafter, but what he tells me next transports us from a world where he had his name in lights next to Anthony Hopkins, to a world where harsh realities ruthlessly doused the dreams of Asian actors.

“Immediately after M. Butterfly, if I’d wanted to continue being an actor, I would have had to start from scratch. If I was lucky, I would have been able to get a part as a spear carrier at the Royal Shakespeare Company.

“If I was lucky,” he adds for emphasis.

“I was the toast of the town in London at that time. But my fellow actors who were much older than me had told me the realities. They were not used to casting minorities. They were not used to colour blind casting.”

He claims the only reason he was considered for M. Butterfly was because the role required an Asian actor.

“In drama school, I don’t think the teachers thought very much of my talent or maybe they thought I’m just a yellow-skinned actor and I’m not going to get any work anyway. I’m probably only going to be playing gangsters and pimps and drug addicts.”

But it was during his graduation shows that he was spotted by an agent who asked him to audition for M. Butterfly.

“I did three graduation shows and I had very, very small roles, but I guess my yellow skin helped me stand out for this role.”

Soon after M. Butterfly, he set up his own theatre company, Mu-Lan Arts.

“Thankfully, I was already a director. I had been directing since the age of 11 in school, so directing came naturally to me.”

But another reason for setting it up was to create roles for Asian actors including himself.

“I was sick and tired of being stereotyped, so I did a practical thing by setting up my own theatre company. Do plays that reflect your own world view - whether it’s cosmopolitan, whether it’s a multiracial cast.”

However, soon Mu-Lan Arts ran into difficulties. The audience numbers were not increasing and the company's finances were dwindling.

“You need to have the support of the community. I was doing plays but my own community wasn’t coming to see the plays.”

The apathy had its roots in history he says.

“Historically, a lot of Chinese came to Britain only in the 60s and 70s. A lot of them came from the working class and they all went into the stereotypical industries which were Chinese takeaways and laundry shops. The children of that generation would take over their family businesses or go into traditional subjects in university like economics, law, engineering or medicine. They were practical people. The arts were a very low priority for them.”

All this has changed over the years in the UK he says, but it also meant that fewer Asian talents have emerged and minority actors still have it tough. 

“Black actors have been fighting for it for so many generations and it’s beginning to bear fruit. If you just go to the theatre in London, you see black actors all the time now. Now you see a lot of Asian actors, Pakistani, Indian actors. There’s also a Singaporean actress, Anjana, who’s constantly on stage in London now. But they’ve been fighting for it. They have been very vocal about it for generations. The struggle has to continue.”

I remark that even in Singapore, minority actors have brought up a lack of colour blind casting as an issue.

In fact, this year’s Singapore Theatre Festival addresses the issue in two separate one-woman shows.

Ruth Tang’s Building A Character features young Indian actor Rebekah Sangeetha Dorai and the challenges she faces, from casting preferences to comments like: “You’re pretty for an Indian.”

The other one-woman show, An Actress Prepares is written by playwright, Alfian Saat and looks at the life of popular theatre actor Siti Khalijah Zainal and her own challenges, including being told she was “too Malay” to land roles.

He agrees it’s a problem.

“It’s complex. It’s ignorance, the lack of writing and experience. Non-minorities can write for minorities but they don’t have the lived experience or any knowledge or understanding of those races. It’s complex.

"I think it begins with you creating your own work. Start showing by example, continue to hone your craft and prove to them that you’re as good, if not better.”

Glen Goei with Ivan Heng
Glen Goei with Founding Artistic Director of Wild Rice, Ivan Heng. (Photo: Wild Rice)

CHINESE PEOPLE CAN SPEAK ENGLISH?

He encourages writers to do this today and says his own first feature film, Forever Fever released in 1998, came out of his personal desire to prove this.

“I said there aren’t movies which reflect my world view, but I decided to stop complaining and wrote my own.”

He came back to Singapore to make the musical comedy and had to mortgage his apartment in London to finance it. It was picked up by Harvey Weinstein of Miramax and was the first local film to enjoy an international release.

“I’d never had any sexual encounters with him,” he says alluding to the numerous sexual abuse allegations that have arisen against Weinstein since last year.

Getting Forever Fever noticed was “sheer luck”.

“I had done my post-production in Sydney. The owner of the post-production house had seen it and he had a friend who was working for a sales agent, a distribution company who had sold Strictly Ballroom to Harvey Weinstein.”

One thing led to another and soon the success of Forever Fever was indisputable.

However, in its North American release, Forever Fever was dubbed by American actors because of concerns that the audience would not understand the Singaporean actors.

Since we’re on the subject of film, we discuss the recent furore over the upcoming film Crazy Rich Asians which has been criticised by many who saw the movie trailer as being unrepresentative of Singapore.

“I tend to agree with it. It may be representing 0.01% of Singapore but 0.01% of Singapore is not Singapore. But it’s so hard to start this debate because it is a fictionalised comedy and it’s entertainment. I don’t think it’s trying to be anything else. It’s just a romp. Maybe we shouldn’t expect so much from it in terms of representing us.

“I’m fine with Henry Golding playing the lead even though he’s not a Singaporean. He looks more Asian than he does Caucasian, so I’m fine with it. In fact, I hate talking about racial things. It’s so complicated. In Singapore now we are seeing more and more people of mixed heritage so we really should embrace it.”

As we go back to discussing his own film-making experience, I point out that while Forever Fever was a success, the same can’t be said about his next feature film, The Blue Mansion released in 2009.

It is a quirky murder mystery about an Asian tycoon who dies suddenly under mysterious circumstances.

I ask him why he thinks it didn’t do as well as Forever Fever.

“It’s so many factors. The market in Singapore is really small, so I’ve always felt that if you want to make it, your film has to have legs.”

But the international market was not ready for it.

“Initially, they were all excited about it but then they asked me what language it was in. I said English and their interest disappeared in an instant because they are not used to Chinese people speaking English. Chinese people, to them, don’t speak English. It’s a stereotype which has been perpetuated over the years.”

He approached sales agents from Europe and the US.

“They’re so ignorant basically. They couldn’t imagine Singaporeans speaking good English.”

I ask him if he would have considered making the film in Mandarin.

“I wasn’t going to make the film in Mandarin because that’s not the world I grew up in. That’s not the world I live in.”

In fact, Mr Goei took Malay in school.

His next film which is currently in production, “Pontianak” is in Malay and is a homage to the golden age of film-making in Singapore. He is hoping it will gain traction in Malaysia too. 

“I grew up with Pontianak films produced by Cathay-Keris and Shaw in the 1950s.”

When he first started sourcing for funding for it, he was rejected by a local production company. It had reservations because the film would be in Malay and wouldn’t feature any Chinese actors.

But he didn’t cave as he is intent on being true to original spirit of the films and that period in Singapore’s history.

He feels film should be seen “as a cultural product” and not merely an “economic commodity”.

The Info-communications Media Development Authority (IMDA) came in to give him a grant for Pontianak.

However, he maintains what he has said in previous interviews – that the authorities prefer to fund films with commercial merit to films that are untried.

“If you gave them an arthouse film with no beginning, middle and end, it’s very hard for them to assess it. Pontianak is a genre film, a horror film, so perhaps it’s easier.”

Getting private investors, he says, is just as challenging, if not more.

“It’s a whole ecosystem. There aren’t enough people watching films and even less so now with Netflix, streaming and all that. There isn’t a big enough market in Singapore. But we need to be more experimental. Even Anthony Chen who made Ilo Ilo had problems raising money and a lot of it was borrowed from his school. He had to take a risk and he’s made a huge success of himself.

“We need more people like him who have got that gumption, that single-mindedness.”

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Glen Goei in Wild Rice's production, Mama White Snake in 2017. (Photo: Wild Rice)

TAXPAYERS SHOULD BE ABLE TO SEE DIFFERENT TYPES OF THEATRE

He points out that funding is starting to become more of a problem in the theatre scene too. 

We talk about state funding first.

“Wild Rice in particular has had its funding cut more times than other theatre companies and for more particular reasons. According to what I read in the press or what they say, it’s because we’ve been critical of the Government.”

I ask him which of their works he thinks have led to this.

“Perhaps Cook a Pot of Curry which was about the Population White Paper. Maybe they took offense to that or Cooling-off Day which was about politics and the general election. But all this was verbatim theatre based on interviews we did with the man-on-the-street.”

He, like many other artists, feels that the Government should not withhold funding merely because the work is perceived to be undermining its agenda.

“The National Arts Council is funded by taxpayers’ money. We, as a taxpaying audience should be able to see different types of theatre. Why are you limiting what I see?”

I point out that even private funding may come with strings attached.

He claims they don’t demand anything.

But wouldn’t they pull their funding if the work said something disparaging about their organisation?

“Yes, but that’s different. Corporations are corporations. They are capitalist organisations. They are there to make money for their shareholders. That’s all. The shareholders in the country are every single taxpaying Singaporean and so our choices shouldn’t be restricted.”

Lately, funding from the private sector has become an issue too. Wild Rice has been fortunate to have many “enlightened and supportive organisations and individuals” contribute to it, but he claims the numbers are dwindling.

CORPORATIONS ARE TOO FOCUSSED ON ROI

“In other countries like America and in Europe, there are such things as philanthropists, sponsors, patrons. This has been a tradition throughout the centuries in those countries. Unfortunately in Singapore we are not there yet. Corporations always talk about KPIs and Return on Investments. They are always looking at things from a monetary or value point or a digit.”

I remark that one can’t blame them for thinking that way.

“No, you can,” he says decisively.

I remind him that he said "they are capitalist organisations" that "are there to make money for their shareholders". Why then should they look beyond money?

“I think there are limits. We don't expect them support work that might sully their reputation, but corporations should also be in some measure, responsible for the societies and the communities that they are making money out of. In an ideal capitalist society, everyone still has a responsibility to the community.”

I point out that regardless, considering the situation perhaps those in the arts need to work harder to make a case for organisations to contribute.

“It’s intangible. When you are supporting a writer and commissioning him, that work, that piece that he’s going to write is going to remain forever, way after the organisations come and go, or way after we come and go right?  It’s in perpetuity.”

But is that good enough? He has often said that art can be an agent of change. Has it been so in the Singapore context?

“I see it in how we have become more socially-conscious. You're seeing more social enterprises, more NGOs, more millennials leading these efforts, people being interested in heritage, in animal welfare, in ecology. I can’t really tell you but there’s some magic going on there. I can’t tell you in scientific terms.

“I’d like to see more emerging voices, more people with differing opinions, more divergent views and more spaces for that to happen. Let a hundred flowers bloom. In a mature, democratic country like Singapore, I wish there were a greater variety of voices to make us richer and there needs to be encouragement not just in the media but in the arts as well.”

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"The censors are doing their job but very often, they are not exposed to theatre or to the arts," says Glen Goei. (Photo: Wild Rice)
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WE ARE NOT CATTLE ANYMORE

This naturally takes us to a discussion on censorship.

“Every play we do, the IMDA has to read our scripts. They may suggest that you cut out certain words or certain phrases or certain scenes.”

His view is that dialogue helps resolve such issues.

“We don’t believe in fighting. Everyone is doing their job. The censors are doing their job but very often, they are not exposed to theatre or to the arts. So, when they read a script, they may just read it at face value and not see the nuances to a word. I think as long as we engage in a dialogue with them and we explain to them why certain words need to be like this or certain phrases need to be like this, then I think they are very understanding.”

He claims that Wild Rice has never had to make any cuts although what rating a performance is given is sometimes an issue.

“Censorship is a problem insofar as it can be time consuming. It can also be restrictive to the artist because a lot of them might self-censor to avoid having to deal with the authorities.”

He feels censorship whether in the arts or in the media is not warranted.

“Singapore has reached a level of sophistication where people generally know what they want to receive and what they don’t want to receive. We are a First World country. We like to boast that we are first in this and first in that. So why aren’t we proud of our level of sophistication and why don’t we trust that our fellow Singaporeans can discern for themselves? We are not cattle anymore, you know.”

He claims the audience for the arts is not just becoming more sophisticated, but growing.

Initiatives such as Wild Rice’s youth access programme are helping. For instance, those between 16 and 25 can get free tickets to all shows in the upcoming Theatre Festival line-up. There are 500 up for grabs.

“It’s about widening the impact.”

He admits more needs to be done in this regard and the impact his work has today takes precedence over any legacy he might leave.  

“I don't really want to be remembered for anything. In theatre, the work I do is so fleeting and so intangible. We spend months creating a piece of work and in three weeks it’s over. So as far as I’m concerned, whatever I do, I hope it resonates and connects with my audience, that it remains in the minds and the subconscious of the people who came to see the play. That’s all that matters to me.” 

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