TL;DR – It’s the poor execution that’s the real problem.
The National Youth Council (NYC) was trying to engage youths in an interesting and “novel” way. They came up with a forum theatre play that took place at the Red Dot Museum on 4th September 2017.
This was from NYC’s writeup:
“As part of the social experiment, the youth participants would be put into a future scenario 2030 where collectively they are part of a particular estate and have chosen to reallocate to another precinct because of the perceived benefits. This choice of reallocation comes with a tradeoff that not all families within the community now has a place to stay because of the reconfiguration of space. The 4 families that are kind of ‘left out’ are:
1. Farah- Single parent with 2 kids
2. Grace- Single but married with same sex partner overseas, returned to SG with the hope of adopting a child and starting a family here
3. Ah Biao- Single Elderly
4. Janice- Just married without kids; just graduated and started working
In this scenario, the community decides that it no longer wants to leave it to the current HDB balloting system to decide the fate of the families. The families also entrusts the decision to the community, with each of them knowing they will have a 75% chance of getting the flat.
The role of the community is to come to a consensus to choose one out of the four families who would be voted out as there are only 3 out of 4 spaces left in this new precinct.”
Participants played the role of the community. They had three rounds to discuss and decide on which three of the four families would get a space in the new precinct.
Drama Box had done something similar two years ago, and they had just re-staged it back in July this year. Their work, The Lesson, had audiences playing the role of residents of a township who want a new MRT station. To get it, they must vote on which of seven landmarks, including a marsh and a columbarium, must be destroyed to make way for the station.
Drama Box called NYC out for appropriating their work without without consent.
David Chua, the CEO of NYC, had taken to Facebook to apologise on behalf of the team.
Artistic Director of Drama Box and Nominated MP, Kok Heng Leun, had replied to Chua’s Facebook post with a long comment, one that’s worth your time. Drama Box also shared Heng’s comment in a Facebook post.
We don’t think that’s the biggest problem with what NYC did. Rather, we think that there are two bigger issues:
Problem 1: Scenario sharpened prejudices and discriminations
As Kok Heng Leun, the artistic director of Drama Box, pointed out, right from the outset, the scenario already focussed on prejudices and discriminations. Of all the many families in the fictional estate, why were these the only four households that didn’t automatically get a flat?
Were participants to assume that all the others who automatically got a flat are households that are conventional family structures, of a married couple with children? Were participants to assume that the above four households were already less welcomed by the community? And that the three to be allowed to remain in the community would thus always be deemed as lesser members of the community?
In other words, in reducing the four households into flat caricatures of only a single dimension, the scenario ignores the fact that every individual, every household can have many facets. Ah Biao could have helped greatly to setting up a community garden. Janice could have actively contributed to starting a reading programme for the children in the community. Grace could have been instrumental in setting up a community arts programme. Farah might be someone who volunteers with a food programme for lower income families.
So why were these four households chosen to be left out? Just because of something about them that made them not fit the “norm”? Isn’t that saying that Singaporeans are very… prejudicial and discriminatory?
Does NYC really think Singaporeans are that shallow?
Problem 2: Facilitators didn’t guide the discussion properly
Some of the participants said certain things that resulted in a less than ideal discussion. Some people said things that were deliberately provocative and sarcastic. For example, someone said:
“Don’t be sad for them. They are used to being marginalised.”
That person then alluded to how unfair government policies have been and tried to whip up resentment of the government. However, at this stage, the facilitators didn’t explain that government policies often have to balance various tradeoffs. The facilitators also didn’t encourage participants to provide balanced views, and not be deliberately provocative and sarcastic.
Also, the facilitators didn’t step in when things got heated for some participants. Apparently some participants felt unsafe because of how other participants responded to what they said. It made some people feel that they were censored by the other participants. When that happened, the facilitators didn’t step in to mediate. No ground rules were set, let alone enforced.
Poor execution ruined a great idea
Forum theatre can be a good way to engage people in discussion. However, it needs to be thoroughly thought through, skilfully facilitated, and carefully managed. Otherwise, this great platform can quickly turn into a terribly divisive tool. If NYC had reached out to Drama Box to learn how to carry this out properly, they might have avoided all of this unpleasantness.