Working across the Causeway

Malaysian talent drives a Singapore International Festival of Arts show called Displaced Persons’ Welcome Dinner.

Fact Box

Displaced Persons’ Welcome Dinner

When: May 24-26, 8pm with 3pm matinee on Sunday

Where: Victoria Theatre, Singapore

Tickets: Standard: S$60, S$40


TWO brilliant Malaysian artistes — Claire Wong and Huzir Sulaiman – has been making headlines for original contemporary Asian theatrical and multi-disciplinary work in Singapore since 2002.

The duo behind Checkpoint Theatre is offering a new play about humanitarian workers in a refugee camp who caught in the crosshairs of a crisis for the annual Singapore International Festival of Arts (SIFA). Written by Huzir and directed by Wong, Displaced Persons’ Welcome Dinner explores the reality of the aid industry, delving beneath media portrayals to discover a world where good people struggle with treacherous politics and flawed institutions.

Many theatre lovers in Malaysia will recall Huzir’s plays from his 1997’s Lazy Hazy Crazy, a multiple role one-man sho, and The Smell of Language (1998), set in Melaka about a politician, rape and a wrong use of a word.

Wong is herself no stranger to the limelight with turns in Huzir’s Atomic Jaya that garnered her Boh Cameronian Arts award nominations as well as across the Causeway.

In the Displaced Persons’ Welcome Dinner ensemble are Malaysians playwright-actress Dawn Cheong and actress-jazz singer Cheryl Tan.

But well before getting its cast together, the company ran an audition call on Facebook. Says Huzir: “The response was incredible. We had an overwhelming number of actors applying for audition slots.

“After several rounds of auditions, we were able to put together a terrific ensemble cast of eight experienced actors from the UK, Norway, Malaysia and Singapore.

“They are multi-talented and have embraced Claire’s process of script development workshops and boundary-pushing experimentation in physical and vocal choreography.

“They have already participated in four weeks of script development workshops, and soon they will begin the nine-week main rehearsal process. Together with our composers and musical directors, the electronica duo .gif (Chew Wei Shan and Nurudin Sadali), they make a phenomenal set of performers who have been exciting to work with.”

The cross-pollination of talent between the Causeway is not new. But it is boosted across the Tebrau Straits by funding from Singapore’s National Arts Council as well as a Cultural Matching Fund.

Says Wong: “Singapore’s NAC funding is generous but is capped at less than half of our total expenses, as is required by funding guidelines. The remainder comes from ticket sales and private donors, who we call Checkpoint Champions.

“Singapore has a great scheme called the Cultural Matching Fund, where the government will match donations dollar for dollar. As a registered Charity with Institution of a Public Character (IPC) status, we are also able to offer our donors 250 per cent tax exemption for their donations. All of this helps encourage private philanthropy.”

Cheong won the 27th Malaysian Film Festival’s Most Promising Actress award in 2015, for Cuak – the adventurous rom-com indie film – and was nominated that same year for In Between Floors – an indie offering about Ah Bengs and Bananas in layman’s parlance.

On stage, she caught the eye with Masakini Theatre’s Metamorphosis (2010), The Actors Studio’s Macbett (2013), and George Town Festival’s site-specific 2 Houses (2014).

In Displaced Persons’ Welcome Dinner, the Kuala Lumpur-born plays the role of Sara Chiu who works for a humanitarian aid organisation called the OEA as a gender programme officer.

Cheong is taken up by the level of professionalism being upheld in Singapore. “Things are more organised, sharper, cleaner and people see the arts as a profession.

“I think in Malaysia, people tend to see the arts as either a hobby or as celebrity culture. There are pros and cons to performing in both countries of course. Having to dip my toes in both helps me to find a good balance as a performer – to take the work as serious work and to be seen as a professional, but not too much where you only see its form.”

Also KL-born is Tan, who has been making name as jazz singer and in the island republic’s theatre scene with her recent roles in Singapore Repertory Theatre’s  Romeo & Juliet and Forbidden City: Portrait Of An Empress,.

Her role in the Huzir play is of an hygiene programme officer at OEA and the newbie in the group.

“I’m inspired by the world of the play – it is about how we try to do good work but get derailed by our own humanity, in all its best and worst forms.”

The biggest pull to work in theatre in Singapore for her is “money, infrastructure, the gung-ho-ness of Singaporeans and federal arts funding.”

“Singapore imports a lot of people too, so being here has given me opportunities to work with West End and Broadway actors and directors and learn from the experience.”

Huzir hopes Displaced Persons’ Welcome Dinner will encourage audiences to look beyond the headlines of humanitarian disasters. “To look at the people and organisations that make enormous efforts in difficult circumstances. It will let us ask how institutions might do better in helping both aid workers and aid recipients.”

Other shows in SIFA 2019 include The Mysterious Lai Teck, created by Singaporean media artist Ho Tzu Nyen. Blending fact, fiction, puppetry and visual projections, Ho explores the life of Lai Teck, who led the Malayan Communist Party during World War II, but also betrayed the party multiple times during the Occupation of Singapore. SIFA 2019 runs May 16 to June 2. For details, visit

** Pic courtesy of SIFA 2019/Checkpoint Theatre. Photo credit_ Joel Lim @ Calibre Pictures

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